On February 14, 2019, a suicide car bomb attack on a CRPF convoy on the newly-rolled out highway from Srinagar to Qazigund led to a catastrophic loss of 40 Indian paramilitary personnel returning from leave. It was the largest loss by a single act in the 30-year sponsored proxy hybrid conflict in Kashmir. Following its well-established policy of strategic denial, Pakistan was quick to label the attack a “false flag operation” by India.
The Indian response had to meet a couple of parameters. First, it had to begin with an action in the military domain to meet public sentiments and political necessity. This was mandatory since a lack of response would run hollow to the strategy the Indian government had adopted following the Uri terror attack, which led to the surface-based surgical strikes of September 28, 2016. Second, a diplomatic initiative was necessary to neutralise the mounting Pakistani falsehood which could run away with the cultivation of its narrative among the international community. Third, the escalation had to be tightly under Indian control. In such a situation, the politico-strategic aim of the Indian government appeared to focus upon conveying that India could see through the nuclear bluff, would employ a calibrated kinetic response at a time and place of its own choosing, and display the will to escalate if necessary.
Detailed deliberations on the choice of response led to the selection of a surgical airstrike against the Balakot training facility of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), known to house a large number of terrorists under training, along with a seminary. The strike, 13 days later, was professionally executed by the Indian Air Force. What many observers failed to notice about the strategy underlying the Indian choice of target, just as in the case of the surface-based surgical strikes in September 2016, was the major dilemma it caused to the Pakistani leadership. The targets were purely terror-related and despite intense links between the Pakistan Army and the West Punjab-based terror groups, the Indian response did not target any military facility. In the case of the 2016 surgical strikes, Pakistan responded with a denial of any such strike having taken place. In the case of the Balakot strike, it assiduously launched a disinformation campaign that there was no impact of the airstrike.
However, with the confirmed entry of the IAF into Pakistani airspace, the Pakistani establishment was forced to respond. The dilemma for Pakistan was the choice of targets. Since no sponsored terror facilities exist in India, the choice was limited to the military domain. A message to the Pakistan public was necessary that an adequate response to the Indian action had been executed. In the bargain, Pakistan chose to do a sham entry by the Pakistan Air Force across the LoC in the Rajouri sector to drop some munitions. The strategy for the sham entry was well conceived and led to a mismatched air battle, leading to the shooting down of an Indian MiG-21 Bison, with unconfirmed reports of downing of a PAF F-16 too. The escalation ended swiftly with the hasty repatriation of the Indian pilot.
The events of February 14-27, 2019 led to a spiral of continuing activity that has placed Pakistan completely on the defensive. This should be seen through the prism of the political, diplomatic, military and psychological domains. Politically it hugely benefited the NDA government in winning a second term, while diplomatically the measured Indian response only against terror infrastructure and drawdown from escalation helped in maintaining moral ascendancy. The Indian narrative about being one of the oldest victims of trans-national terror through the Pakistan-sponsored proxy hybrid war in J&K was received much more positively in important capitals around the world. Militarily, the Indian Army’s robust response in South Kashmir helped clean up several modules. All this gave the Indian government the political will and the confidence to take the next steps in J&K, for which there had been a clamour for long. Early in its tenure NDA 2.0 decided to act upon its long-prepared strategy for a political initiative.
On August 5, with unprecedented security arrangements in J&K, the special constitutional provisions for J&K were legislatively annulled and the administrative setup of the state restructured to carve out two Union territories — Ladakh, and Jammu & Kashmir. A second round of diplomacy by India ensured that the extraordinary initiative was seen internationally as India’s internal affair. The management of the security domain was ensured through tough measures. With preparatory work having gone into this, the Pakistani capability to calibrate its response to the initiatives was effectively neutralised through effective targeting of multiple networks, leadership and communication facilities. In the bargain, Pakistan was placed on the backfoot. For a change, the Indian communications strategy for the external domain appeared sound. The mention of PoK and its re-integration as the remaining agenda, and the possible review of India’s “no first use” nuclear doctrine, succeeded in sending out a message of far bolder intent.
The continuum into 2020 is seeing Pakistan psychologically on the backfoot with limited options to re-energise J&K. Two other factors are adding to the cascading effect of the events of 2019; first the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) scrutiny, and second, the rapidly deteriorating economy that was bailed out in 2019 through a $6 billion IMF package. The FATF process is leading to Pakistan attempting to showcase how much it has done in dismantling terror financing and sponsorship. with actions like pursuit of the case against Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed. What is working for Pakistan as a silver lining, however, is the developing situation in Afghanistan, with a potential agreement between the United States and the Taliban, brokered by Pakistan. If that happens, and whatever be the final long-term outcome, Pakistan will for some time return to favour with the US. The perilous economic situation will necessarily again be bailed out but the risk factor of attempting a transformational revival of turbulence in J&K would play on both Pakistan and its chief financial supporters. With Afghanistan also in a state of transition, it may be beyond Pakistan’s capability to simultaneously handle two borders and two turbulent regions. We can expect a cooler summer in J&K, and it is thus the moment for India to go all out with better governance, a better communications strategy and outreach and, most of all, much better political handling.