Easy to talk war on TV, but knee-jerk is not the answer

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Not since Mumbai’s 26/11 has the nation been so united in its horror and anger at a terrorist attack as by the brutality at Pulwama. The sheer scale of the loss and the macabre images of destruction at the Pampore-Letapore section of the Srinagar-Jammu highway have so seared India’s collective consciousness that it simply cannot be business as usual with Pakistan anymore.
From the attack on the Kaluchak military camp in 2002 to the outrage at Pathankot air base and the Uri brigade in 2016, we have seen direct attacks by Pakistan’s proxies on Indian security forces before. But as with the attack on Parliament in 2001 and the mayhem at Mumbai in 2008, the public anger shows that something seems to have fundamentally shifted with Pulwama.
First, apart from this being the biggest casualty count in a Kashmir terror attack, the timing and tactic are both significant. Terrorists in Kashmir had not resorted to big car bombs in over a decade. The first suicide car bombing targeted Srinagar’s Badami Bagh cantonment in 2000, the second was outside its old legislative complex in 2001, the third near the private residence of then CM Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in 2005. Thereafter, as former 15 Corps commander Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain has pointed out, it was “almost like a switch was turned off” after 2009.
The fact that terror handlers in Pakistan have shifted tactics in Kashmir just ahead of the national elections is no coincidence. Pulwama was not a random crime of opportunity: it took planning, resources and expertise.
The Pakistani deep state is testing India’s resolve as the nation heads into a divisive poll battle. The bombing is nothing short of a hostile act of war. In our response, we must suspend politics as usual.
Second, it must mean the end of all hopes peaceniks had invested in Imran Khan as PM. With the balance of power shifting in Afghanistan as the Americans withdraw, the Pakistan army is again raising the temperature in Kashmir. The promise of the Kartarpur corridor and the idea of a detente based on goodwill measures was only a distracting gambit. The fundamental calculus of the Pakistan army remains unchanged.
Third, the real issue is China. India is reportedly planning another round of talks with the US for the UN Security Council to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Yet, Beijing has consistently blocked such moves since March 2016 in the UN Security Council’s 1267 sanctions committee. China’s all-weather friendship with Pakistan means that Pakistan continues to have diplomatic cover. India’s approach to Beijing must shift.
Fourth, what can India do realistically? Given the feeling of helpless anger that such senseless terror engenders, a desire for retribution is natural. Yet, it is easier to declare war in TV studios than to create policy tools that have real deterrence value.
The post-Uri surgical strikes were a great tactical victory but have not changed the basic Pakistani template of terror as an instrument of state policy. India’s armed forces on the ground will respond tactically at a time and place of their own choosing but the strategic challenge from Pakistan remains. As several generals have pointed out we need a military response that is part of a calibrated escalation matrix, not a knee-jerk one.
A deeper concern is that while more terrorists (276) were killed in Kashmir in 2018 than in any other year since 2014 (when 114 were killed), police figures show that for the first time in this decade the number of local terrorists killed is significantly higher than foreign ones.
Fifth, while it is good to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, does anyone really believe that revoking most-favoured-nation status or the usual tools of diplomacy will change Islamabad’s behaviour? It may be time to consider harder options like revoking the Indus Water Treaty. Action, not talks, is needed. India must itself declare Pakistan a terrorist state, as a now-withdrawn private member’s bill sought to do in 2016. We should begin by doing what we are asking the world to do.
Like with Uri, questions will of course be asked about how such an attack could happen. Yet, the time for public recriminations is later. Politically, for now, it is important to present a united face. Prime Minister Modi has rightly signalled political intent for a strong response and it is significant that Rahul Gandhi, for the second time in five years, has chosen to support the Modi government by suspending divisive discussion on Pulwama.
Pulwama needs a coherent national response, cutting across party lines. With public anger so high, it has also added yet another X-factor into the electoral mix as we head to the polls.

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