Pulwama attack ominous sign for Valley as US withdrawal from Afghanistan may mean advantage Pakistan

  • The Pulwama attack gives the first ominous sign of what awaits the restive Kashmir Valley.

  • With Russia trying to take advantage of the American vulnerability in Afghanistan, it is clearly advantage Pakistan.

  • Both Pakistan’s security establishment and terrorist groups it supports are presently at increased strength.

  • India’s options remain as limited as they were after the Uri attack.

The catastrophic terrorist attack on the CRPF’s ill-fated convoy in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama gives the first ominous sign of what awaits the restive Kashmir Valley following the complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The security scenario in Afghanistan is already grim as terror attacks by the emboldened Taliban against Afghan security forces have become frequent. Geopolitical faultlines are also more acute. With Russia trying to take advantage of the American vulnerability in Afghanistan, it is clearly advantage Pakistan. This has huge security implications on India, particularly in Kashmir.

After nearly three decades of a mix of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns waged by Indian security forces, terrorism continues to dominate all discourses on Kashmir. Despite the government’s bombastic claims that terrorism has been contained, the lethality of the suicide terror attack suggests that terrorism is alive, even if it is currently more fractured.

No counter-terrorism campaign can hope to succeed when the terrorists enjoy cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. This explains why terrorists remain active in Kashmir. The terrorism-driven insurgency in Kashmir is a fatal phenomenon which is comprised of groups, networks and individuals who collectively produce the destructive energy, luring many disgruntled youths from the Kashmir Valley. The terrorist groups usually flourish in regions which are characterised by violent conflicts, lack of good governance and inability to establish rule of law. Are these factors not present in Kashmir in some measure?

 Pulwama attack ominous sign for Valley as US withdrawal from Afghanistan may mean advantage Pakistan

A damaged vehicle of CRPF being taken away during the terror attack in Pulwama being taken away. PTI

This is one of the deadliest car bombings in Kashmir, which has experienced many in the past, inflicting high casualties on Indian counter insurgency troops. In recent years, Kashmir has witnessed a renewed spell of terrorism along with public protests against Indian security forces by a new breed of stone-hurling Kashmiri people, particularly in south Kashmir. The suicide bomber targeting the CRPF convoy belonged to south Kashmir’s Awantipora area.

Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) has claimed responsibility for the terror attack. Both JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) are known to have maintained a presence in the Kashmir Valley, where Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has helped them establish a vast infrastructure for terrorism, radicalisation and other anti-India activities. The so-called caliphate of Islamic State is on the verge of imminent collapse in Iraq and Syria. But the caliphate of terror in Pakistan still thrives.

Both JeM and LeT have their roots in Afghanistan. Hence, JeM and LeT in Kashmir do not represent Kashmiri people as most in their ranks are Pakistanis recruited and trained by the ISI. To facilitate the infiltration of terrorists into Kashmir, Pakistan’s military regularly initiates artillery clashes with its Indian counterparts in order to cover their movement across the Line of Control.

While terrorism cannot be justified in ethical terms, no strategy that attempts to deal with terrorism can be fully successful that not recognise the nature of its causes. Though addressing these problems is not the responsibility of counter-terrorism professionals, they cannot be expected to deliver outcomes with half a strategy. We are yet to frame and implement a truly unified civil-military counter-terrorism strategy in Kashmir.

Security forces constitute one part of the strategy; they cannot be forced to compensate for the missing half. The ultimate purpose of any counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism campaign is never to simply win military victories, but to shape a peace that serves the lasting strategic objectives of the nation. The continuing political uncertainty in Kashmir only diminishes confidence in the government’s ability to handle the crisis after the Pulwama attack.

The governor of Jammu and Kashmir is absolutely right that the Pulwama attack is the result of “frustration” being felt by Kashmiri terrorists from elements in Pakistan. But that is true of almost all major terrorist attacks. And the governor has also admitted of an intelligence failure about any local militant being trained as a suicide bomber. He has clarified “that we did not know that there was a fidayeen among them is also part of the intelligence failure,” while adding that since the suicide bomber was under pressure from all sides, “he must have escaped to the jungles or the hills and got lost. We knew about him but could not trace him. This was just a chance thing and he was the rare one who got away.” But this candid reply still does not answer the question as to how the bomber managed to secure 350 kilograms of explosives used for the deadly attack. This clearly points to more local involvement than the government is willing to concede at the moment.

In the present scenario, both Pakistan’s security establishment as well as various terrorist groups it supports are at increased strength. As explained earlier, this results from many real-world developments, including a retrenched American posture in Afghanistan. A diminished American presence could result in a change of priorities for all kinds of terrorist outfits in South Asia, who are most likely to feel emboldened to target India. This scenario will certainly breathe new life into the jihadist terrorism. The local branches of al-Qaeda and Islamic State may also choose highly symbolic targets in Kashmir. Most important, Pakistan’s security establishment is waiting to redirect jihadists from Afghanistan to Kashmir – this was done in the wake of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 – seeing it as an extremely low-cost strategy to keep India off balance.

It remains to be seen how the government responds. This attack is worse than what we had suffered in Uri in September 2016. The government’s response to the Uri attack was surgical strikes across the Line of Control, and the open announcement about them. We do not know whether the response will be similar this time. As general elections are not far away, the government is likely to be tempted to respond muscularly. But India’s options remain as limited as they were on the fateful day in 2016.
The Pulwama attack has ironically happened against the backdrop of the cinematic success of the Bollywood movie Uri. But nobody in the government has a convincing answer as to what was achieved by surgical strikes after the Uri attack. Did it improve security in Kashmir? Were ground realities in the Kashmir Valley changed?

Therefore, surgical strikes of whatever scale are unlikely to have a deterrence effect which the core constituency of the ruling party has been looking for desperately for almost five years. The right-wing political establishment has vainly advocated and attempted a radical restructuring of the relationship between Kashmir and the rest of India.

Military escalation against Pakistan has its own dynamics. India’s security planners are not oblivious to what is happening just across the border. Pakistan is being rewarded by the Donald Trump administration for sponsoring cross-border terrorism. The deal with the Afghan Taliban is not possible without Rawalpindi’s support.

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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2019 16:03:30 IST