It is not something really unexpected. Whenever a serious initiative is taken by the establishment in India towards normalisation of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir or a fillip is given to a process which is otherwise languishing, there invariably comes a dampener in the form of an unexpected high-profile event. Such events become trendsetters or an element of transformation in the conflict situation, both in the military and political fields. Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s famous Lahore Yatra ended with the Kargil intrusion in 1999. Narendra Modi’s effort to give India-Pakistan relations a touch of informality with his surprise visit to Nawaz Sharif’s family home outside Lahore in December 2015 was met a week later by the Pathankot attack on the first day of 2016. The successful campaign “Operation All Out” launched by the Indian security forces through 2017-18 triggered the Pulwama attack in early 2019; the aim was to send home a message on the relevance of the proxies. Given this backdrop, as soon as the top Indian leadership invited 14 leaders of J&K’s mainstream political parties for talks and consultations to break the ice after the two-year disquiet, an initiative dampener designed to take away attention from the positives was expected. In the context of our current times, such an expectation should also have been because of the relative frustration among those who are opposed to the Indian narratives over J&K. In the two years since the constitutional decisions, the Indian government broke the stranglehold that separatists, terrorists and Pakistan’s Deep State had established in J&K. By its relentless actions against inimical elements and a successful programme of cultivation of international opinion, the government made all these supposed stakeholders irrelevant to the people of J&K.
Was the drone attack serious enough to be classified as a spectacular event which could prospectively have an effect on the J&K situation? We have had mass casualty events earlier which acted as trendsetters and had the potential of being gamechangers. The 2016 Uri attack and 2019’s Pulwama were two such events. Both acted as sparks with the message of extant proxy capability and to convey that the battle was still on. So, unlike conventional operations, this is a typical characteristic of hybrid conflict; it rises and falls in intensity and manifestation. After the successful run of counter-terror operations through the 1990s, the proxies adopted the so called “fidayeen” tactics of suicide attacks on Indian forces’ camps and government installations. This forced the deployment of an out-of-proportion ratio of troops to secure billets, camps and facilities. For some time, it did create fair consternation in the forces’ ranks. The run of such attacks lasted for about five years, by when the forces found solutions to reduce their impact. But making suicide attacks impossible could never be achieved.
There is another interesting analogy which deserves recall. We were hit hard by the improvised explosive devices used by the LTTE in Sri Lanka. That threat came back to hit us in Kashmir too in the 1990s. It was supposed to be crude technology which should have been countered by sophisticated neutralisation through the electronic spectrum, especially when the trigger system moved on to the remote mobile type. For a long time, the Army tried a plethora of neutralisers, but the IED has continued to remain a threat till as late as Pulwama. The United States was hit by car bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq; no credible counter to that has yet been developed. What I am alluding to is the fact that counters to an emerging technology or even a crude antiquated one may not always be found. One has just to learn to minimise the impact if the device gets past all security and manages to strike. This is exactly what the threat from drones may end up as. We are just witnessing the advent of drone tactics in the field, in the terrorist domain in our environment and there is unnecessary finger pointing alleging tardiness by the military. In the armed forces, a lot of effort has been going on in the past decade to study the threat from drones, but more in the domain of conventional warfare employing armed fixed-wing drones. The use of the quad and hexa helicopters of a smaller variety have also been under the scanner ever since logistics drops from across the border were seen in Punjab and parts of Jammu division. The feasibility of the use of these to drop lethal payloads or be employed as rammers from the sky was anticipated. Now that the nature of threat becomes more focused, the specific measures to counter them will be refined progressively. Besides technology, which is the obvious answer, there will have to be awareness training and specific reporting procedures developed for the civilian population too as the threat is of a nature that can proliferate rapidly. It will not be restricted to military targets alone, but also to a wider variety which will have an effect on society at large; recalling the basics of the terrorist mantra.
Did the Jammu incident and the subsequent sightings of drones have a specific purpose? I call these “relevance operations”, desperate efforts at the revival of relevance. The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba is under pressure with Hafiz Saeed serving a jail sentence due to his involvement in terror financing. Recently, blasts have occurred outside his house in Pakistan with reported casualties. The LeT’s capability to be of significance in Kashmir has taken a beating and it is desperate to get back to business, especially since the Deep State in Pakistan will want it to keep the resistance alive even as they worry about Afghanistan. That task may manifest itself in different ways; perhaps a drone threat is one way, the innovative one.
Lastly, a question that is being frequently asked in several quarters if whether a drone attack on an Air Force base is an act of war? It is best to parry that question for now, more due to the regional geopolitical environment and the developing internal dynamics in J&K. Specific answers to this question will not be available as the issue remains rooted in the grey zone. It’s not as if we are giving Pakistan any leeway. It’s just that we are recognising the world has moved far beyond the either/or labelling of events which might require specific responses. Our response too may be in the realm of pragmatic realism, which is awaiting the right opportunity.