The detestable Pulwama blast is not about intelligence failure or the inability of security forces to act upon it, as the government would want us to believe. It is about India lacking capability, capacity and political will for war escalation. And Pakistan being aware of it.
Things were made worse by the 2016 so-called surgical strikes, where India (a) clandestinely hit terrorists’ temporary launch pads rather than Pakistan army posts, and (b) immediately informed Pakistan that it would not escalate matters — an acknowledgment of defunct political will. Instead of furtively building war-withal for strengthening border management, Indian Generals, notwithstanding incessant terror attacks and loss of lives, continue with counter-terror operations and hollow bravado.
Moreover, the Modi government’s iron-fist Kashmir policy, with no political balm, helped Pakistan declare its innocence. It was a local Jaish militant and not a Pakistani operative who orchestrated the mayhem. What would be lost in this big picture that Pakistan would tom-tom are the following: the 300-kg explosives came from Pakistan, though their fabrication into an IED would have been done in the Valley (the expert may still be ensconced somewhere enjoying local shelter and hospitality); and the Jaish-released video clip shows the lone perpetrator with M-4 carbine, which is not in the inventory of the Indian Army and paramilitary forces. It came from Pakistan.
Given all this, when government spokespersons talk about revenge, they do not make sense. What exactly are Delhi’s options? Another surgical strike is ruled out since (a) Pakistan would be on better watch, (b) India is still unprepared for an escalation whose dynamics are unpredictable, and (c) with the General Election looming, an escalation would spell political suicide. Yet, expect the Generals to inform the nation that they would strike at a time and place of own choosing, whatever that means.
With military options closed, the Modi government could plug the border’s porosity — the closure of Poonch-Rawalkote and Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus routes and the foot crossings at Chakothi-Uri, Rawalkot-Poonch, Chihana-Tithwal and Tattapani-Mendhar could be on the cards. Even reduction of Pakistan High Commission staff, if not outright closure of the mission, might happen. Perhaps, the Kartarpur corridor project could be a casualty of the events. Within the Valley, the security forces led by the Army would intensify further hammering by its iron fist.
Such optics, however, would not hide the truth behind the Pulwama attack, which can be summed up in eight crisp points. One, the Indian Army cannot win this war which is fully supported by the Pakistan army. Two, it is time that our Generals realise that military objectives cannot, and should not, be similar to political objectives. Three, the Army should go back to building conventional war-withal — starting with strengthening border management — which is the only way to browbeat Pakistan. Four, internal security should progressively be handed over to the paramilitary and police forces. Five, there is little point in blaming China for its support to Pakistan; Beijing would do exactly what is in its national interest. Five, since the locals’ support has grown overwhelmingly, the ground situation within the Valley is far worse than is admitted. Six, given the increased interoperability between China and Pakistan and the aggressiveness of their foreign policy, external military threats on India’s unsettled borders are rising rapidly. This does not mean that China will start a war with India; what it means is that it would support Pakistan to the hilt politically, with war material and its own non-contact war capabilities. Seven, Delhi should start talks with all Kashmiri stakeholders, including Hurriyat and Shah Faisal, who is trying to harness youth power. And eight, India should talk with Pakistan, not on confidence-building measures, but on conflict resolution.
Consideration of these issues matters because while the Indian Army can perhaps hold the land indefinitely, the same cannot be said about the people. And this is where India has reached the tipping point: the people are no longer afraid of dying. Hence, they appear to be reaching out to Pakistan, instead of the other way around, to fight the Indian state.
Much of the blame for this should go to the Army leadership which misled the political leadership into believing that fencing of borders was good enough protection against a determined adversary. For example, when I asked the then Army Chief, Gen Dalbir Singh, in his customary media interaction in January 2015, how long the Army would continue with internal stability operations, his response was shocking: ‘You should ask the Home Ministry.’ The Chief had aligned his objectives with that of the political leadership. No wonder, he led the 2016 surgical strikes, which sought political rather than military gains; and he handed over the baton to his successor, who, given his vast experience in counter-terror operations, has lifted local tactical operations to the level of operational art. Pulwama is a consequence of all this.
The problem, to be sure, is not the undiminishing number of terrorists or militants in the Valley. The problem is the Pakistan army, which does not think much about Indian Army’s war-fighting capabilities. This needs to be reversed if another Pulwama is to be avoided. This will not be easy since the Generals, unwillingly to give up their risen status, would desist from going back to the barracks. Surely, the Army Chief would not advise the Prime Minister that his force should go back to its primary task.