Pulwama and after: Back from the brink and the way forward

New Delhi | Published: March 5, 2019 4:45:34 PM

The events of 14 February evoked an angry reaction from the political establishment which was echoed throughout the country.

pulwama attack,pulwama terror attackIndia ‘s immediate reaction to the terror attack was the withdrawal of ‘Most favored Nation’ Status to Pakistan which led to 200 % duty being levied on Pakistani goods.

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh

As the euphoria and the hype surrounding the events of the last few days commencing with the dastardly suicide attack on a CRPF convoy in Kashmir on 14 February 2019 abates, it is perhaps time to take an objective look at the outcomes from a multi-dimensional perspective. Of prime concern should be the abject failure of the multitude of intelligence agencies which could not detect either the preparation for this operation wherein upto 100-odd kg of RDX, a military grade explosive was procured and transported and then loaded into a car by a local lad or the failure to intercept any communication that would definitely have ensued if such a major attack was being planned. This regrettably is the situation even after 30 years of battling terrorism in Kashmir. Since little has been heard of this in the in the hyperbole of nationalist jingoism on television channels, it can only be hoped that responsibility for this failure is being duly attributed and remedial measures are being instituted. The nature of the threat is multi-dimensional and also multi-layered and should be examined as such.

Military Dimension

The events of 14 Feb evoked an angry reaction from the political establishment which was echoed throughout the country. This was not the first time that that the country had been subjected to a major terrorist action with responsibility being taken by terrorist outfits across the border with the deep state of our western neighbour deeply involved.

However, it was the sheer audacity of the attack and the choice of target which left more than 40 CRPF personnel dead and many injured with no chance of defending themselves that struck a chord in the nation. The oft repeated cliched line of “their sacrifice will not go in vain” was duly repeated and over the next few days the lack of visible action led to a sense of déjà vu. However, this time the signals were different. The attendance at the solemn ceremony at Delhi airport to pay homage to the departed personnel cut across party lines. The Prime Minister with folded hands taking a ‘parikrama’ of the coffins and his assurance to the families that there will be a suitable response rang true. As the days passed, it appeared to be business as usual with campaign politics at its best (worst!) hogging the primetime. Little did anybody know that there was a lot happening behind the scenes.

Even as late as 25 February when the Prime Minister inaugurated the National War Memorial in New Delhi there was no indication that something was afoot. On the morning of 26 February, the nation woke to the news of the Indian Air Force having successfully struck the very heart of the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s deep inside Pakistani territory and returned unscathed. This daring strike at a target located deep inside Pakistan itself sent a strong message of India’s resolve and intent.

As the Indian media went to town and began its jingoistic nationalistic tirade, it was evident that there would be a retaliation from across the border. The Prime Minister of Pakistan was smarting (he was reportedly heckled in his own parliament), the Army whose very raison d’etre in Pakistan is to protect that country from the infidels across the border had received a slap in the face and the people of the country felt humiliated. Retaliation of some kind was inevitable.

It came a day later. The Pakistan Air Force invaded Indian airspace and delivered ordnance aimed at military installations in India. The aircraft were chased back by Indian fighter jets and in the ensuing dog fight, one Pakistani F-16 was shot down and an Indian MIG-21 was also hit. The pilot bailed successfully but landed on the other side of the Line of Control and despite putting up brave resistance, he was taken into Pakistani military custody. This gave Pakistan a reprieve as India waited with baited breath for Pakistan’s next move. The very next day in his Parliament, Prime Minister Imran Khan, acting very statesmanlike, made a ‘magnanimous’ decision to return the captured pilot, Wg Cdr Abhinandan to India. Pakistan also released publicity videos of their wonderful treatment of the Wg Cdr and seemed to be scoring all the brownie points on that day. India re- emphasised the fact that Pakistan had no other option but to do so and was not doing India any favour.

The grandstanding notwithstanding this gesture served as an effective catalyst to diffuse a potentially dangerous situation and reduced the possibility of further escalation, intended or otherwise.

Diplomatic Dimension

The attack on the convoy and the confirmation that it was masterminded from across the border led to India seeking diplomatic isolation for Pakistan from the world. Ambassadors and High Commissioners in Delhi were briefed and the usual messages of regret and sympathy were received from across the globe. India watched keenly to see if this attack would in any way influence the visit of the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan (MBS) to Pakistan. However, there was no visible effect as the visit continued with all the planned pomp and show. A day after that visit, MBS landed in India and in a break from protocol, the Prime Minister Modi received him personally at the airport and enveloped him in his characteristic bear hug which invited considerable comment. At the end of the visit, while terrorism found mention in the Joint statement, no reference to Pakistan or the recent attack was included.

However, the bonhomie and commitment of economic engagement that emerged seemed to adequately offset that. Power diplomacy was soon witnessed when MBS, during his visit to China two days later actually supported the Chinese efforts to suppress Muslims in Xinjiang, couched though those words were in terror-speak. This exposed our inability to shape outcomes through aggressive diplomacy. This was soon followed by the ‘Guest of Honour’ invitation at the Organisation of Islamic countries (OIC) Conference.

For many years India had not been invited to this conference despite being home to the second largest Muslim population in the world. Hence a lot was being read into this invitation particularly in the light of these cross border developments and since India’s engagement with West Asia has been on the upswing. The External Affairs Minister’s measured and responsible address at the Conference stood in stark contrast to the pique displayed by her Pakistani counterpart who boycotted the conference and further highlighted our mature credentials.

However, the subsequent castigation of India in the statement emanating from the conference has got the jury out on the outcome of our presence. Global powers also got into the act as was evident from President Trump’s predictions of likely big news and good news as the crisis unfolded. The spectre of an escalation between two nuclear armed powers gives rise to nightmarish imaginary scenarios in western capitals and they are therefore always eager to play peace broker between the two nations.

The Economic Dimension

India ‘s immediate reaction to the terror attack was the withdrawal of ‘Most favored Nation’ Status to Pakistan which led to 200 % duty being levied on Pakistani goods. However, this was less about the economic impact and more about conveying a message.

Pakistan is tottering on the brink of economic disaster – its balance of payments situation is precarious and its sources for raising funds are shrinking. It is already on the FATF Grey List; the IMF has clarified that any financial support will be conditional and is being seen by some in Pakistan as anti-sovereign.

China of course may be willing to bail out Pakistan on its larger strategic interest of the CPEC but it is unlikely it will do so without strings attached which may ultimately be to the detriment of Pakistan.

Shaping the Outcome

In the immediate aftermath of the February 14 attack and India’s angry reaction, it would have been expected that the terrorist outfits would abstain from future attacks in the immediate future. However, these hopes were belied as the attacks have continued and are now backed by cross border shelling. Over 35 ceasefire violations by Pakistan have been reported and despite stern diplomatic warnings, there is little Pakistan is doing to calm the uneasy pause. The Indian Armed Forces are on high alert to thwart any misadventure by Pakistan. There is a view that since India has control of the escalation dominance scenario, it should exercise this to shape a favourable outcome.

There is also a counter-view on the limited gains of such an escalation. The terrorist outfits in Pakistan are well embedded in the system and are controlled by the deep state. While enjoying the patronage of the Army, they may at times also be operating outside its authority with the tacit support of the ISI. Patronising terror, besides creating trouble in Kashmir is also linked to Pakistan’s larger Afghanistan strategy. India has therefore be very on its borders and keep the initiative with a proactive approach to a developing situation based on ‘actionable’ intelligence even if that includes pre-emptive action in self-defence.

There is considerable conventional military asymmetry between our two countries. The loss of an F-16 to a force the size of the PAF vis-à-vis a Mig 21 to the IAF is widely disproportionate and this asymmetry will always be a factor in the Pak response whether on land, at sea or in the air. However, it is also clear that an escalation through air attacks may not be a productive strategy because there is very little to be gained. However, India’s assertion that it has the right to carry out pre-emptive strikes o terrorist camps is a valid argument which benefit Pakistan does not have.

Diplomacy is also a powerful tool to convey intent. However, as is said in international relations , ‘where you stand is where you sit, ie., the leverage a country possesses is directly proportional to the power it wields. India has been fairly successful in pushing its anti-terrorism agenda but its tangible effect has been marginal. In this particular case, riding on the global condemnation of terrorism, it has persuaded 3 of the 5 UN Security Council members to pass a resolution branding Masood Azhar a global terrorist and banning his outfit, the JeM.

However, it is China that needs to be convinced. In any case, as long as these terror outfits enjoy state patronage, they will continue to act with impunity until such time that state itself faces international opprobrium. The use of the F-16 aircraft in the strike against India is in contravention of the end-use agreement the USA and Pakistan share with each other. Since President Trump himself has often expressed his zero-tolerance for terrorism and in view of the burgeoning Indo-US defence strategic partnership, the White house should be persuaded to enforce sanctions on deployment of F-16s by the PAF.

This will make Pakistan extremely vulnerable militarily and hopefully more inclined to cleanse the rot. In the last four years, the prime Minister has established strategic defence partnerships with many countries. It is time to make these count to shape opinion against Pakistan’s terror-centric India strategy.

Another pitfall India should avoid is to allow a hyphenation of Indo-Pak to happen. In the last seven decades, India has surged well ahead of Pakistan on all fronts but both countries are often spoken of in the same breath. This in itself is a victory of sorts for Pakistan in that it manages to swing the narrative in this manner while we are unable to unshackle ourselves from this hyphenation.

The key to good operational planning lies in identifying the enemy’s vulnerability and focussing one’s strengths on exploiting these to maximum effect whether militarily or otherwise. In the current scenario, perhaps Pakistan’s tottering economy and precarious balance of payments is its major vulnerability. Pakistan is very heavily dependent on external sources for it energy requirements. It has a very limited number of merchant navy tankers under its own flag and open source information indicates that the country has barely about 12 days of strategic oil reserves. If this supply from seawards could be squeezed, it will leave Pakistan with very few options and would give India a powerful negotiating hand. The navy, which has been absent from the narrative thus far has a major role to play in this.

As a force, the IN is overwhelmingly superior, both qualitatively and quantitatively to the PN. Its ability to operate from stand-off ranges and strike from the sea with air power, land attack missiles and amphibious forces while exercising air superiority and sea control can choke the seaward supply lifelines of the Pakistan economy. This and other non-kinetic measures may yield more dividends without firing a single shot.

Also read: Balakot air strike: Prakash Javadekar slams Congress for questioning claims of 250 killed

Calling the Bluff

Pakistan has been threatening India with the bogey of its willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons to neutralise India’s conventional superiority. This has probably deterred India in the past from pushing the envelope despite expert opinion suggesting otherwise. Pakistan will think a million times before crossing the nuclear threshold, as would any country against another nuclear power due to the fear of a massive reprisal and therefore it is time to call the Pakistani bluff as we have done in a limited manner this time.

It was painful to see the trivialisation of a grave situation with hysterical jingoism on mainstream television channels ( with a few exceptions), aided and abetted by the political parties themselves. This led to a populace already unfamiliar with security issues being further grossly misinformed which in any democratic construct speaks poorly of those allowing it to happen. The I&B Ministry should have issued an advisory to the television channels to avoid distortion of facts and indulge in healthy well informed debate to better inform its citizenry.

It is regrettable that despite terrorism festering for over three decades in Kashmir itself and India being attacked repeatedly, there is no comprehensive and coherent strategy in place. Adhoc peace mechanisms, political expediency, a misplaced sense of goodwill and impulsive decision making often prove counter-productive in addressing the genuine concerns of the region. As long as this continues, it will provide fodder for inimical elements, both within and outside the country to exploit these vulnerabilities.

In conclusion, while the benefits of a kinetic response may be more immediate, it is a combination of a robust kinetic and non-kinetic approach that will yield the desired results.

The sacrifices of the Indian security forces will indeed not go in vain if the right lessons are learnt and India can develop a multi- dimensional multi-layered strategy to deal with Pakistan’s sub-conventional, conventional and nuclear threats through a comprehensive all- of-government approach.

(The author is Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation. Views are personal)

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