Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated after Indian Air Force fighter jets bombed terror group JeM’s training camp near Balakot deep inside Pakistan on February 26 2019. Pakistan retaliated by attempting to target Indian military installations the next day. However, the IAF thwarted their plans.
The Indian strike on the JeM camp came 12 days after the terror outfit claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a CRPF convoy in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama in which 40 soldiers were killed.
Like any other major military event anywhere in the world, Balakot, too, cannot be seen simply in isolation; as just another response to a heinous terror related event. It needs the joining of several dots and these exist in different domains: political, military, diplomatic, social and psychological. Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) remains one of the dynamic conflicts in the world with more than its share of ups and downs. The natural question which arises is whether the Indian airstrike at Balakot in response to the Pulwama incident effectively meant a victory for India. Why did Pakistan think that India Would Not Escalate? Militarily Pakistan made a major mistake with the perpetration of the Pulwama incident. It presented the Indian Government a fait accompli: respond, or perish politically. There had been many incidents in the past which could be classified as spectacular in nature but politically the government was never under such political pressure.
Pakistan’s false sense of Endowment
The point is that Pakistan’s own reading of sub continental history imparts to it the sense of entitlement that all its actions on Kashmir are legitimate and insulated from all other aspects of India-Pakistan relations. This sense of entitlement needed to be checked and the Balakot action in response to the terrorist attack in Pulwama did so. It conveyed the same strategic message – responses to terrorist provocations would not be localised but would affect the entire spectrum of bilateral relations. The cross-Line of Control (LoC) surgical strikes following the Uri terror attack in September 2016 marked a new phase in responses. The Balakot strike after Pulwama was more than an evolutionary response – principally because the target was not along the LoC and not in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The message was that our response to terrorism would not be constrained by past practices or be within the narrative confines of Pakistan’s perceptions of Kashmir.
After Pulwama and Balakot, other events came to the centre of the India-Pakistan radar screen. The most significant were the Abrogation of Article 370 and legislative changes with regard to Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh in August 2019. Quite apart from the domestic debate in India, Pakistan’s reactions are perplexing. What explains this privileging of the erstwhile constitutional provisions now? This can be understood in terms of a sense of entitlement on J&K and Pakistan’s complex internal politics and civil and military issues. That fact that the constitutional changes with regard to J&K were made in the aftermath of Pulwama/Balakot and the high state of tension that existed adds further context.
India shatters all stereotypes
A significant lowering of India’s threshold to terrorist attacks is what the aftermath of Pulwama thus represents in strategic terms. This lowering has not taken place overnight. In the preceding two decades, every government, regardless of its political colour, has sincerely sought to de-securitize a deeply troubled bilateral relationship with Pakistan. Acts of terrorism have been the one factor disrupting each attempt.
A year after Balakot, it is definitely clear that Pakistan’s options have reduced; India has more room for manoeuvre. From 1989 onwards, Pakistan pursued hybrid war as the core of its strategy. Pakistan’s intent was the long-term emasculation of New Delhi’s policy on J&K and attempt to embarrass India by internationalising the issue — the Simla Agreement’s provision of bilateralism was never respected by Islamabad and Rawalpindi. From 1998 onwards, when both nations became overtly nuclear-armed, Pakistan become bolder — Kargil 1999 and the attack on Parliament in 2001 seemed to be based on the assumption that the nuclear overhang had closed the window for an effective conventional Indian response. Perhaps the decision not to cross the LoC in 1999, and the long standoff of 2002 (Operation Parakram) appeared to substantiate India’s reluctance. Seven years later, the Mumbai terror attack, too, made Indian reluctance to execute hot pursuit more evident.
The nature of the proxy, hybrid conflict started to change from 2013 onwards when a generational transition was apparent. In addition, there was a sudden change in the stance of the Indian government in mid-2015. The deep state has never been comfortable with talks and did not support Nawaz Sharif. In 2016, it conducted the Pathankot attack in India’s hinterland and in September that year, the Uri attack close to the LoC. The year ended with the Nagrota terror attack.
The year 2016 turned out to be decisive and saw a change in the nature and dynamics of hybrid conflict in J&K. The Indian government responded in a graduated way — activity at the LoC increased, followed by the surgical strikes in September 2016 post the Uri attack. The strikes were essentially experimental but provided sufficient inputs to strategize beyond just the tactical level. The perception of a lack of Indian response below the nuclear threshold was effectively breached. The new Indian strategy from 2017 surprised Pakistan. It took some time for Pakistan to realise how subtly this change had taken place, even as the Indian Army went on the kinetic offensive re-adopting some of its practices from the Nineties.
By the end of 2018, Pakistan was already on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The Indian National Investigation Agency (NIA) was succeeding in dismantling financial networks and the separatists had become increasingly irrelevant. The Balakot-type response 12 days later was unexpected, but demonstrated political will, military escalation control and a willingness to engage internationally to neutralise Pakistani propaganda. The international support that Balakot garnered, the run of military success against terrorist cadres post Pulwama-Balakot and the added political stability at the Centre gave the Indian government the confidence to execute long-awaited political initiatives.
Pakistan’s attempt to gain greater relevance in Afghanistan through the US and President Donald Trump’s ill-informed offer to mediate on J&K, acted as triggers for the decisions of August 5, 2019 — to rescind the special constitutional provisions for J&K. With a communication lockdown, the political community under strictures and the ecosystem under progressive neutralisation, the time since has seen Pakistan relatively ineffective in the conduct of hybrid war. Now with FATF unrelenting on Pakistan to do more to dismantle the terror infrastructure, an economy which is causing major concerns and the focus shifting to the management of the US interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan finds itself in a dilemma. Internal demands to wind up terror networks are increasing. All this may point towards Pakistan adopting a more rational course in J&K and preventing situations which it will clearly be in no position to handle.
On the first anniversary of the Pulwama terrorist attack, the question is how the road ahead looks with regard to India-Pakistan relations. The current position does look somewhat dire: No high commissioners in place, frequent tactical firefights along the LoC, a charged Pakistani rhetoric with regard to Jammu and Kashmir and a freeze on trade and people-to-people contacts. There is also a changing regional context that induces changes in Pakistan-US relations plus there is a near constancy in the Pakistan-China relationship. Such factors also play a role with regard to other significant external relationships of Pakistan – such as with Turkey or Malaysia.
This is not a new position by any means and in the past too efforts were made to move forward from similar situations. What is however also clear is that older processes that attempted to restore some minimal stability- the Composite Dialogue, the Resumed Dialogue and the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue- have run their course. As far as India is concerned, the onus remains on Pakistan to recognise the danger that terrorism poses to stability. Whether Pakistan’s internal flux will permit such recognition is the real question for the months to come and on that the jury is still out.
At the base of all of Pakistan’s current problems, both domestic and foreign, lies its inability to define its identity. The issue whether it is a Muslim state, an Islamic state, or merely a Muslim offshoot of India remains unresolved to this day. Clearly, Pakistan is in no position to take any action as it cannot risk another misadventure.
28 Feb 20/Friday Written By: Saima Ibrahim