It is ironical that a day after the National Security Guard (NSG) conducted its national seminar focused on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the day the Indian Army was discussing sub-conventional operations in an Army level seminar, both in the National Capital Region, a major car bomb attack killed as many as 40 paramilitary personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) traveling in a bus on the Srinagar–Jammu National Highway.
Proportion wise, this was the biggest terror related event after the Uri attack of 18 Sep 2016 and one of the worst losses in the 30-year 'proxy war' in Jammu and Kashmir. It came in the wake of a festering situation described by some as ‘security stable’ and many others as ‘dynamic – awaiting the next event’. It also signalled the arrival of suicide bombers - who have been rife in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - for the past many years. This was one domain of sub conventional violence that had largely eluded Kashmir and other low-intensity conflict theatres in the rest of India.
The geographical location of the incident was the notorious Pampore-Letapur section of the Srinagar–Jammu highway. The weapon was a vehicle laden with 350 kg of explosives detonated after ramming the CRPF bus transporting men in large numbers as part of a convoy from Jammu. The name of the suicide bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, was revealed very early and responsibility was owned by the Pakistan-based Masood Azhar’s Jaish e Mohammad (JeM).
Security forces have the major challenge of predicting terrorist actions through intelligence-based assessment. Sometimes they are right and many times inaccurate. However, while a planted IED (improvised explosive device) can still be discovered by alert security personnel on road opening duties, the threat posed by a car bomb or simply a wired-up single suicide bomber is vastly different. Check of every car on the road is never possible nor of all individuals; there are thousands of cars on Kashmir’s roads every day and particularly on this stretch of the National Highway as it close to Srinagar, the state's summer capital.
Almost 16 years devoid of any car bombs had diverted attention to other types of threats. Where the blame for high number of casualties must be genuinely apportioned is to the non-availability of hardened vehicles for movement of security personnel, despite a massive effort undertaken in 2004-07 to harden such buses to minimize damage to personnel in the event of such an attack.
Fortunately the proxy war in Kashmir has experienced most of the above in the past and seen the back of them many years ago. The nineties and the early millennium did see many IED attacks, which imposed caution on movement of convoys and small vehicle detachments, including VIP movement.
However, after 20 July 2008, IEDs suddenly dried up; it was almost a switch off.
On that date, Pakistan-sponsored terrorist organizations in the Valley targeted a forces' bus of the Kupwara convoy inflicting heavy losses. IEDs thereafter have been far and few, reflecting the dearth of talent for fabricating them. IED fabricators are often referred as IED doctors and are specialists in their own right within terrorist ranks. The Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) had several such doctors and the IED threat in South Kashmir, particularly in the Pulwama and Anantnag districts, was rampant.
The story of car bombs is different. The first such bomb was detonated at the gate of the Chinar Corps HQ in 2001, followed by a similar action against the J&K Assembly in Srinagar that year. Thereafter, in 2004, an officer bus of the Baramulla division of the Army was targeted by a Maruti 800 based car bomb. Mercifully, casualties were superficial but the bus driver was killed. His cabin was the only part not reinforced by extra steel to harden it like the rest of the bus. Interestingly, armoured steel skirt plates of derelict tanks had been transported to Srinagar and welded to the sides of the bus and industrial rubber waste was bought as scrap, melted and pasted to the floor to reinforce it. That improvisation saved many lives but, more importantly, it led to the concept of hardened passenger vehicles for troops traveling in convoys. The Army has hardened buses for its personnel but only for the long Srinagar-Jammu route; other forces do not have any.
What the likely effect of the dastardly Pulwama terror attack will be is an immediate change in the nature of threats. Obviously one or more ‘IED doctors’ are at work in the terrorist ranks and explosives are not under any form of government control, though military grade explosives need to be smuggled in, just like they probably have in this case.
Movement of VIPs, security convoys and even entry points of important institutions will immediately come under threat entailing much higher density of deployment for physical security. This will take away personnel from area domination duties and intelligence related deployment, thus opening up more space for terrorist movement, deployment and capability. There will be an immediate necessity for greater population control measures and curbs on freedom of movement, with many more checkpoints leading to more antipathy among the people.
The cause is due to the terrorists but the blame will come on the security forces and the vicious cycle will continue exactly as intended by sponsors of the proxy war in Pakistan. These are the typical travails of a sub-conventional conflict and the sponsors know exactly how a failing situation can be retracted for effect by a big ticket event such as Pulwama. Their aim was to recover from the trauma of Operation All Out which had effectively neutralized a large number of terrorists in two years.
The Pulwama car bomb attack on the new National Highway was probably a well thought out strategy by Pakistan’s 'deep state' to recapture some of the security space which had been lost due to the successful run of Operation All Out over two years, 2018-19. The physical success of Operation All Out had been partially neutralized by end of 2018, through large-scale recruitment of local youth and some infiltration from across the LoC.
In recent months, experienced hands monitoring J&K and Pakistan were getting distinctly uncomfortable. There were signals emanating from Pakistan professing the turning of a new leaf. Prime Minister Imran Khan was trying to make overtures to India and conveying that his government would be one with a difference; a ‘Naya Pakistan’ had arrived, he claimed.
Whenever Pakistan starts to speak the language of peace Indian hackles rise because it seems evident that something unusual is in the offing and overtures are primarily there to bait India. When it starts speaking so much out of context and in unrealistic times the suspicion becomes greater. This has been proved again at Pulwama.
Pakistan’s self-confidence has been on the rise in the recent months. This has been despite the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) surveillance, the reduced foreign exchange reserves in its coffers and a failing economy. The backing from China and, most importantly, Pakistan’s enhancing strategic significance in the light of the US decision to pull out in full from Afghanistan, has also played its influence.
The moment that decision was taken Pakistan again became the poster boy with the big powers and all stakeholders of peace in Afghanistan. The realization that it held the key to the return of the Taliban, upholding of all its agreements with foreign forces and future stability, gave Pakistan this strategic boost. It is the first sign of Pakistan’s increasing confidence that has manifested in the form of the Pulwama attack executed by the JeM, an organization virtually sponsored and owned by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.
While mortal remains of 40 CRPF personnel were transported for last rites to cities and villages all over India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly promised retribution for the loss and emphasized that he had given freedom of time, mode and place to the Indian Army. A rare political consensus, short-lived no doubt, appeared in New Delhi with the media discussing military options.
In reality, what are the options the Indian government has? The diplomatic one is already under execution although the energy of Indian diplomacy, to paint Pakistan red, must flow longer and focus not only on important world capitals but also significant international think tanks and media.
The impact has been effective thus far. MFN status and measures involving control of water under Indus Water Treaty remain soft options sans much optics; both have been adopted although on the latter, the effect will be long term. It’s the military domain which is demanding Modi’s focus. A risk analysis would already be under way to examine a range of options or combinations. It could start with covert operations, which can be ongoing, to trans-border raids several notches higher than the surgical strikes and targeting Pakistan Army resources as against terrorist infrastructure, and surgical air strikes against terrorist bases inside Pakistan. Ground based operations restricted to J&K and harking back to some of the options of yesteryears could form a part of the overall response.
However, it should be remembered that Pakistan’s national ego will not permit such actions without its military response which too will be robust. Prime Minister Imran Khan on 19 February made a weak attempt at defusing the crisis by promising investigation if concrete evidence was presented to Pakistan. It appeared quite evident that his speech was written at GHQ Rawalpindi by the Pakistan Army as the script carried the same promises made after 26/11, 2008 and Pathankot 2016. The fact that Azhar’s JeM has already claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack appeared to have escaped the attention of GHQ speech writers.
What is clear from the Indian perspective is that some action in response will have to be taken, which they took in the early hours of February 26 with a hastily mounted Pakistani response the following day that resulted in the loss of an aircraft on either side and one Indian pilot being taken prisoner.
What we need to remember from this experience is that we have been struck by asymmetric acts of hybrid war several times. That is exactly what happened to the US in 9/11. In sheer anger and under severe public pressure the US responded in the conventional realm of war fighting and got itself into a quagmire, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, leading to large casualties, long drawn trauma and close to an estimated 5 trillion USD expenditure. The lesson from US experience is that asymmetric wars are best fought asymmetrically and not through conventional means. Does that limit India’s options of response? It does not, because asymmetric response has far more dimensions than the conventional one.
The Indian leadership would do well also not to be guided by immediacy of electoral considerations; national security interests transcend this. Whatever are the selected options the two things that would make for stronger execution would be political consensus and management of internal social cohesion. India cannot achieve its strategic objectives if Kashmiris remain targets of physical abuse and harassment and minorities are vilified on social media
(The author is a highly-decorated former Military Secretary of the Indian Army who has commanded the 15 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir)