By Ajai Shukla
15th February 19
Link to webpage on BBC Online: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47250994
A suicide attack killed more than 40 members of the Indian security forces in restive Indian-administered Kashmir on 14 February. Threats from Indian leaders, who face a tricky general election before May, raise the spectre of Indian military retaliation against Pakistan for “state-sponsored terrorism”, writes Indian defence analyst, Ajai Shukla.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to give security forces free rein to respond to the militant attack – the deadliest in the region in three decades. Home Minister Rajnath Singh blamed Pakistan for the attack and threatened a “strong reply”. Influential Indian television networks are baying for revenge.
The car bombing has been claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which numerous countries, as well as the United Nations, have designated a terrorist group. Its leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, was captured and imprisoned in the 1990s by Indian forces. He was later released as part of a hostage exchange after an Indian airliner was hijacked to Kabul in 1999. New Delhi has always held Pakistan responsible for that hijacking.
For several years now, India has been pressuring the UN to designate Azhar a “global terrorist”, but China – a close ally of Pakistan – has repeatedly blocked that move.
The involvement of the Jaish to the car bombing directly links Pakistan to the attack. In 2001, a Jaish suicide squad had attacked the Indian parliament, killing nine security men and triggering an Indian military mobilisation against Pakistan that kept the two countries on the brink of war for months. In 2016, Jaish attacks on Indian military facilities in Pathankot and Uri resulted in the Indian army launching “surgical strikes” on Pakistani military targets and terrorist camps across the Line of Control (LoC), the de factoborder that divides the state of J&K.
This time, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government could feel pressured to do more. The 2016 strikes were deliberately limited in time and choice of targets, allowing Pakistan to deny that they took place at all. The Indian military has acknowledged contingency plans exist for punishing Pakistan more severely in the event of a damaging terrorist attack. But all such plans carry the danger of retaliation and uncontrolled escalation. This fear is exacerbated by the fact that both countries possess nuclear weapons. Pakistan has repeatedly signalled it would not hesitate to use them.
For now, Pakistan’s foreign office has tweeted its “grave concern” and rejected “any insinuation by elements in Indian government and media circles that seek to link the attack to State of Pakistan without investigations.” However, given that the Jaish has claimed credit for the car bombing and Masood Azhar roams free in Pakistan, Indian public opinion is unlikely to demand much more by way of proof.
Pakistan’s central intelligence agency, the army-controlled Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), faces a conundrum with regard to the Jaish. Unlike the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which unquestioningly follows the politically dominant Pakistan Army’s diktat, the Jaish has not shrunk from attacking Pakistani military targets, including two deadly bomb attacks on General Pervez Musharraf in 2003. Given the Jaish’s utility in keeping the Kashmir pot bubbling, the Pakistan Army has turned a blind eye towards it so far. It remains to be seen whether serious pressure from India – and possibly from China, which might believe it has gone far enough in sheltering Azhar – could result in a shutdown of the Jaish.
Away from the geo-politics, there is also an important local dynamic to the car bombing. Over the last year, Indian security forces have killed almost 300 Kashmiri militants in the Valley, with most of them from the South Kashmir pocket where the car bombing took place. The under-pressure militant groups, therefore, faced a pressing need to reassert their presence with a high-visibility attack. The predominant group in the area, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, regards suicide attacks as anti-Islamic. That left the onus on the Jaish and the LeT.
For India’s security establishment in J&K, this was an unalloyed intelligence disaster. The police and intelligence agencies face questions over how the Jaish managed to stage such an attack, which involved rigging up a car with a large amount of explosive, carrying out reconnaissance, rehearsals and penetrating several layers of security to reach their target.
For now, the Indian establishment is weighing its options. A union cabinet meeting the morning after the attack has decided to withdraw the economic Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status that New Delhi granted Pakistan, without reciprocity. But, in the absence of any Pakistani action against the Jaish, there would be more to come.