Responding to Pulwama

The Pulwama attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy, in which over 40 died, has raised several questions that need to be answered. The first is how and why such attacks on security forces keep happening. There have been too many such successes in recent years — from Pathankot to Gurdaspur to Uri to Nagrota to Pulwama. Military and paramilitary bases and movements are not being properly protected. Are the standard operating procedures (SOPs) being followed? Are there enough resources being allocated? It has been reported that the CRPF convoy was larger than normal due to heavy snowfall, and the paramilitaries had requested air transfer but not received a reply. The intelligence failure in this attack is also quite evident. It is not a low-tech, low-organisation effort. At the very least, it required arranging for several hundred kilogrammes of explosives to create the car bomb. This means that it was far more than a “lone wolf” operation. How did the militants fly under the radar for long enough to carry out the attack?

India’s response to the attack must be determined but cautious. Only a rational calculation of the benefits of any response — defined in terms of changing the Pakistani military’s support for terrorist groups or making it more costly — should be considered. The prime minister has said the military has been given the “free hand” to choose the manner and timing of a retaliation. However, this is not entirely reassuring. Political, intelligence and diplomatic guidance is also needed to ensure that whatever response is decided maximises the impact on Pakistan’s military calculations, while minimising the chance of all-out war. The danger of escalation is great, and the government should be extremely cautious of the possibility that India may be dragged into a full-scale military conflict. The fact that an all-party meeting was called to ensure that a unified front was presented is good news. However, it is important also to ensure that senior members of the Opposition are briefed and consulted on a possible response — especially as India is so close to the Lok Sabha elections and any actions by this government may conceivably have to be carried forward by another.

India does not have a wide choice among possible responses. “Surgical strikes” such as those carried out in September 2016 clearly do not have a long deterring effect, given that there was an attack in Nagrota just two months after the strikes. The government’s existing policy of working on isolating Pakistan is among the most useful; however, it is only as effective as India’s influence over the Pakistan establishment’s patrons, the most powerful of which are Beijing and Riyadh. India will need to step up outreach to both if it wishes to see genuine pressure applied on Islamabad. But New Delhi also needs to realise that no response to Pakistan will be effective enough unless the bubbling discontent in the Valley is also addressed. Systematic, concrete and long-term steps are needed to address youth radicalisation in Kashmir. The only encounter of the young Kashmiris with India and the Indian state should not be through security forces. This will require risk-taking and large-heartedness and the restoration of politics-as-usual in Jammu and Kashmir.

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