Pulwama: Pre-emptive strike, counter-strike and after

Tension between India and Pakistan, following the Pulwama terror attack on February 14 and its aftermath, seems to be subsiding.

Pakistan has begun some sort of crackdown on terrorist organisations; banning some and arresting a few elements related to the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) leader Masood Azhar.

Time will tell whether what is being done is cosmetic and tactical, as on earlier occasions, or is it because of international pressure and Pakistan’s precarious economic situation has led to more lasting action.

Some basic questions surrounding the turn of events that triggered the face-off between the two neighbours have however got lost in the political squabble over electoral gain.

To recap, Adil Ahmad Dar, an unemployed indoctrinated Kashmiri youth, posted a video of communal rant and deadly intent. On February 14 he carried out his threat by ramming his explosive-laden vehicle into a convoy of the CRPF Jawans near Pulwama- killing over 40.

The JeM, a proscribed terrorist organisation that operates with impunity, if not also immunity from Pakistan, claims responsibility for the carnage. Given the well-known ties between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and JeM, the understandable assumption is that Rawalpindi has been complicit in the dastardly attack and Islamabad answerable for what has been conceived, planned and executed by Pakistan-based handlers of Dar.

That India would retaliate to this grave provocation, so close to the Lok Sabha polls, was inevitable. Having suffered Mumbai in 2008 without anything more than appeals to the international community no government now could merely beat its chest and wring its hands in helplessness- certainly not the one led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and advised by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

In a muscular message on February 26, Indian Air Force went deep into Pakistan, successfully bombed a JeM training camp in Balakot and returned safely.

Pakistan Army and Prime Minister Imran Khan too could not take the Indian action lying down. They simply could not afford a repeat of the Operation Geronimo, which took out Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad in Pakistan.

Islamabad responded, albeit feebly, on February 27 when its Air Force crept into Indian airspace and when challenged by air defence and interceptors, hurriedly dropped bombs in stray isolated areas before trying to return to safety.

In the ensuing dog fight, though a Pakistan aircraft was downed, dynamics of unfolding events changed as India lost a MIG 27 and its pilot was captured by Pakistan.

Imperatives for New Delhi altered to bring the pilot back as the narrative of a successful muscular message to Pakistan would not have washed with images of the brave young Wing Commander in enemy hands.

This provided the international community with an opportunity to put pressure on Pakistan and defuse the rising tensions. Realising his limited options, Imran Khan quickly made the best of a difficult situation. Appearing magnanimous and conciliatory, he ordered unconditional release of the pilot, returning him on March 1 in civilian clothes quickly stitched by some Pindi tailor.

Pakistan has pleaded, with some support from China, that it has been implicated in the suicide bombing prematurely. Its apologists point to the country’s impoverished state which has led Khan to go around with a begging bowl to potential benefactors.

They argue such a provocation risking war would be most untimely and so Indian accusations are implausible. This has found no takers. The entire operation of spotting a disgruntled Kashmiri, targeting, cultivating, motivating, training him and arranging the explosives and vehicle is beyond the capability of indigenous militants.

It has the imprint of Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence. Pressured by Indian security forces, especially in south Kashmir, sagging morale of the militants needed boosting. Confident of China’s support and smug over Washington’s desperation for Pakistan’s help to exit Afghanistan with its face intact, Rawalpindi thought it could get away with cheekiness once again. So when frequent convoys presented opportunity, the green signal would have been given.

Fall out of this episode has not been to Pakistan’s advantage. Its nuclear bluff has been called. It did not receive the kind of support it expected from China which asked it to cool things down.

The US accepted India’s right to defence implying Pakistan was the aggressor. It realised prolonging the standoff was not to its advantage. Yet, by retaliating to the Indian strike on Balakot, downing and taking an Indian pilot prisoner, Pakistan has been able to claim it stood up to India. It has once again brought the world’s focus on Kashmir.

How much it will succumb to international pressure to crack down on Islamic terror groups that target India remains to be seen.

For India too it has been a mixed bag. Measures announced to punish Pakistan such as cancellation of the MFN status and withholding water in excess of the Indus Treaty are meaningless. Export of a mere $400 million is not about to cripple the security apparatus in Pakistan. It will only hurt businessmen who have a vested interest in trade with India. Nor does India have the infrastructure to store excess water or divert it to its arid areas.

All claims of isolating Pakistan too should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. While there was no condemnation of India’s foray into Pakistan and bombing the JEM camp, also some acknowledgement of its right to self-defence and pressure on Islamabad to cool down, no country is about to disturb normal relations with Pakistan- certainly not China, US or Saudi Arabia, who all have a vested interest in stable Pakistan. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation may have overruled Pakistan’s objections in inviting Sushma Swaraj but that did not prevent it from crediting Imran for diffusing the faceoff and condemning “Indian terrorism” in Kashmir!

The important point is India has discarded its policy hitherto of appealing to the world and seeking the high moral ground whenever provoked by Pakistan. It has announced that it will take care of its own security and deal with its recalcitrant neighbour in the manner it chooses.

This will make some tanzeems fear reprisal the next time they indulge in trans-border terror. Yet, one strike across the border may placate domestic public opinion but it is unlikely to deter Pakistan and Islamic terror outfits operating from there. Brokers of the world order will have to be convinced India will not hesitate to raise the ante. Only that will impel them to pressure Pakistan into rolling the terror network down.

Lastly, there needs to be an acknowledgement that Pakistan is only taking advantage of our own cleavages in the Valley and such incidents will recur. Adil Dar, the perpetrator of the dastardly suicide bombing, was a Kashmiri youth who was indoctrinated by radical Islam.

The Youtube video he posted is disturbingly communal and reference to Ghazwa-e-Hind is particularly frightening. As noted by the keen observer Arshad Alam, with rampant unemployment in the valley, the alienated youth is caught between a coercive security apparatus on one hand and a very conservative interpretation of Islam on the other.

This leaves him very little space to indulge in any creative pursuit of his choice. There is disaster looming if he is not engaged. Hopefully, Pakistan, chastened if only temporarily, will provide the opportunity to do so which policymakers will not miss.

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