Security forces scour the site of the car bomb attack south of Srinagar that killed over 40 police and sparked the crisis. Photo: AFP / Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto

The car bomb attack in Indian-administered Kashmir last Thursday has caused the biggest loss of lives in the Kashmir Valley so far. The vehicle packed with 25 kilograms of explosives blew up next to a convoy of 72 vehicles carrying some 2,500 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, killing 42, with scores injured. After the blast 30 kilometers outside Srinagar, terrorists opened fire.

An intelligence advisory marked “extremely urgent” on February 8 had warned all concerned including the CRPF, Before occupying your place of deployment, please sanitize the area properly as there are inputs of use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Matter most urgent.”

The Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), believed to be a covert arm of the Pakistan Army, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has claimed responsibility for the attack. A video released by JeM indicates the extreme degree of radicalization of the bomber.

India has done little to stem radicalization in Kashmir beyond doling out money. For instance, 10% of central government grants go to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which has only 1% of India’s population.

The Hurriyat, a conglomeration of separatists who want to secede from India, continue to follow Pakistan’s diktats. Stone throwers continue to target security forces but no one has been able to pin down their financiers  or organizers effectively. Radical sermons from Wahhabi clerics, who have systematically replaced Kashmir’s historical Sufi beliefs, continue unabated. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi continues to be in touch with Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, which is due to the democratic space that India accords to dissent. Unlike in Kashmir, most Pakistani political leaders seeking to break away from Pakistan live abroad. In China, dissent immediately leads to imprisonment.

An abject surrender

In 1999, Masood Azhar, the founder of the JeM, was released by India in an abject act of surrender to terrorism in the wake of the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC184. The JeM attacked India’s Parliament in 2001 and continued to follow that up with more assaults. The LeT executed the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008. According to Indian law enforcement, Azhar is responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in India including major incidents like the one on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot (January 2016), the Uri army brigade base (September 2016), the Sunjwan army camp (January 2018), and now the car-bombing in Pulwama on February 14, 2019.

China has repeatedly used its veto to prevent Masood Azhar from being designated a terrorist by the United Nations on “technical grounds.” India needlessly went slow on the issue after the Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping last April. After the Pulwama attack, India has again asked the UN to designate Azhar a terrorist, but this effort was again vetoed by China.

India has not been able to shed its “soft state” image despite excessive politicization of the otherwise clinical operation of targeting terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in September 2016, which have been termed “surgical strikes.” The brief standoff at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China at Doklam resulted in the People’s Liberation Army consolidating its position.

Sub-conventional warfare strategy

The “surgical strikes” were a “reaction” to the Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack at Uri in the same month that resulted in the loss of 19 soldiers and injured more than two score. Political statements suggesting they would end terrorism were absurd. Similarly, the raid inside Myanmar to hit terrorist camps in 2015 was a “reaction” to the worst ambush suffered by the Indian Army in Chandel district, Manipur state, in 33 years. As far as militancy in Kashmir goes, the army has many times brought the level of violence down, but the state and its politicians have done little else. So where is the political will to bring normalcy?

Indian politicians and policymakers view sub-conventional warfare in isolation, whereas it must be viewed within the ambit of the larger concepts of hybrid warfare. Pakistani military leaders have been propagating low-intensity conflict, guerrilla warfare, indirect intervention, unconventional means, psychological warfare, use of terror, economic warfare, subversion and sabotage.

That is why China’s doctrine of  “unrestricted warfare” emphasizes that the most modern military force cannot control public clamor or deal with an opponent who uses unconventional means of warfare. Hybrid wars are against a nation, not the military alone. A response to it must be at the national level. It is wrong to compartmentalize sub-conventional war, to be dealt by the military alone.

The Indian Army is doing what it must across the Line of Control, and will do what it is told to do. But beyond that the government must come out with a holistic plan to deal with militancy and Pakistan. The belief that China will never attack India should not be taken for granted, since it has been a traditional ally of Pakistan and is deeply invested in the country. As for territorial gains, China’s strategy of “salami slicing” can be exercised given the pathetic state of India’s border infrastructure, especially in Arunachal Pradesh.

After the Pulwama car-bombing, the rhetoric and drama in India is being replayed, as it was after the earlier terror attacks. Some TV news channels are discussing military options and some politicians claim they will put an end terrorism totally. Naturally, India will shape an appropriate response soon.

But whatever the decision, the policy should be “act first, talk later and don’t brag.” There is no need to brag about abrogating the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must examine why the situation in Kashmir has worsened, with high casualty figures and heightening radicalization. It is not the case that the Congress party fared any better. After the beheading of a soldier, the foreign minister dashed off to Rajasthan to welcome and host the Pakistani prime minister on an unofficial visit, and the latter returned to Pakistan to pass an anti-India resolution promptly.

With Indian elections close, the US planning to exit Afghanistan, coupled with financing from the International Monetary Fund and Saudi Arabia, will serve as an accelerators for Pakistan’s terror strategies. Deterrence that India must build against a proxy war must go beyond short-distance direct attacks. At present, India has an diverse asymmetry in the sub-conventional domain vis-a-vis Pakistan-China, which controlling India’s fault lines. India’s response must be to control theirs and shape the environment in India’s favor.

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