Pulwama terror attack and its aftermath
The Indo-Pak relationship that has remained in free fall over the last few years reached a crisis point when in one of the worst terror attacks on February 14, at least 40 CRPF personnel were killed and many injured in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir. A vehicle laden with explosives rammed into one of the buses in a CRPF convoy that was carrying troops from Jammu to Srinagar. Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack and released the picture of Adil Ahmad Dar, a resident of the Pulwama district as the suicide bomber. Dar was reported to have joined JeM in 2018.
The incident caused widespread outrage in the country. Prime Minister Modi assured the nation that sacrifices of the brave security personnel would not go in vain and a “strong reply” would be given. He added that security forces had been given full freedom to choose the time and place for the future course of action. In a statement, the Ministry of External Affairs said, “The Government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to take all necessary measures to safeguard national security. We are equally resolved to fight against the menace of terrorism. We demand that Pakistan stop supporting terrorists and terror groups operating from their territory and dismantle the infrastructure operated by terrorist outfits to launch attacks in other countries.”
The Cabinet Committee on Security met on February 15 and decided that India would take all diplomatic steps to isolate Pakistan in the international community. It also decided to withdraw MFN status accorded to Pakistan unilaterally in 1996, without Pakistan reciprocating the gesture. Tariff on imports from Pakistan was hiked by 200%. Ministry of External Affairs mounted a diplomatic campaign to apprise the international community of the role played by Pakistan based and supported Jaish-e-Mohammed and India’s demand that Pakistan cease forthwith all support and financing to terror groups operating from areas under its control. A large number of countries issued statements condemning the Pulwama attack, with some of them calling upon Pakistan to take action against the terror groups operating from its territory. A spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed their shock at the incident and expressed deep condolences and sympathy to the bereaved families. He also expressed China’s firm opposition to and strong condemnation of all forms of terrorism. Asked about the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the 1267 sanctions committee of the UN Security Council, he parried a direct answer and said that the 1267 Committee had a clear stipulation on the listing procedure of terrorist organizations, JeM had been included in the sanctions list and China would “continue to handle the relevant sanctions issue in a constructive and responsible manner.” Giving a read-out of a subsequent phone conversation between the Foreign Ministers of Pakistan and China, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the Chinese Minister stressed that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected. He added that China opposes any practices that violate the UN Charter and the norms of international law.
France announced its intention to move a resolution at the UNSC for listing Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist.” Subsequently, the US, UK and France moved a proposal to this effect towards the end of February. On February 21, UNSC condemned in the strongest terms “the heinous and cowardly suicide bombing in Jammu and Kashmir….. for which Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility.” The members of the Security Council reaffirmed the need to hold perpetrators, organisers, financers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism accountable and bring them to justice and urged all states, in accordance with their obligations under international law and relevant Security Council resolutions, “to cooperate actively with the Government of India and all other relevant authorities in this regard.”
In his first response to the Indian outrage at the Pulwama attack, Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a video message released on February 19 that Islamabad would take action if India shared any actionable evidence linking the attack to Pakistan. He expressed Pakistan’s readiness to talk to India about terrorism and added that in the event of an Indian military strike, Pakistan would retaliate. The Pakistan Government also moved to take control of the Jaish-e-Mohammed headquarters at Bahawalpur, calling it a mosque and a madrassa.
The Indian Air Force struck the biggest training camp of JeM at Balakot in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan in the early hours of February 26. In a statement issued later in the day, the Indian Foreign Secretary spoke of the terror attacks mounted by JeM, which is proscribed by the UN, in India, including on Indian Parliament in December 2001. He added that Pakistan had failed to act on information concerning terror training camps in its territory and in POK provided to it. It had also not taken concrete action to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil. Credible intelligence had been received that JeM was attempting another suicide attack in various parts of the country. Therefore, in an intelligence led operation, India struck the JeM training camp at Balakot and in this operation “ a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated.” The Foreign Secretary said that the above “non-military pre-emptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp” located in a thick forest on a hilltop, far away from any civilian presence. India expected Pakistan to live up to the commitment made by it in January 2004 not to allow its soil and territory under its control to be used for terror against India. Responding to subsequent reports questioning the efficacy of the strike and the controversy regarding the number of those killed in it, the Indian Air Chief said that the IAF had hit the target and added that the Air Force was not in a position to count the casualties.
The National Security Committee of Pakistan met on February 26 under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Imran Khan and “strongly rejected Indian claim of targeting an alleged terrorist camp near Balakot and the claim of heavy casualties.” The Committee accused India of committing uncalled for aggression and vowed to respond at the time and place of its choosing. In a sign of nuclear brinkmanship, it was also decided to convene a meeting of the National Command Authority, which overseas Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and it took place the following day.
Pakistan used its air force to target military installations on the Indian side on February 27. After claims by Pakistan that it had shot down two Indian aircraft and captured an Indian pilot, who had bailed out of his aircraft on its territory, the spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs said that due to high state of readiness of the Indian side, the Pakistani attempt to target the military installations had been foiled successfully. In the aerial engagement, one Pakistani air force aircraft was shot down by a MiG 21 Bison of the Indian Air Force and was seen by the ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistani side. India lost one MiG 21. The pilot was missing in action and Pakistan had claimed that he was in their custody. India was ascertaining the facts. Later that evening, India lodged a protest at the unprovoked act of aggression by Pakistan and reserved its right to take firm action to protect its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity. India also strongly objected to the vulgar display of the injured Indian pilot in violation of International Humanitarian Law and Geneva Convention, called upon Pakistan to ensure that no harm came to him and expressed the expectation of his immediate and safe return. A dossier was handed over to Pakistan with specific details of JeM complicity in the Pulwama terror attack and the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan.
The US and EU asked Pakistan to take action against terrorist groups after France and Australia had done the same. France, UK and US called for “de-escalation”, Russia and China asked for exercising restraint.
After an attempt to use the captured Indian pilot to secure de-escalation (India made it clear that he could not be used as a bargaining chip), Pakistan yielded to international pressure and Prime Minister Imran Khan announced in the Pak Parliament on February 28 that the Indian pilot would be released the following day. The pilot- Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman- returned to India on March 1.
Representatives of the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy made separate statements on February 28, in which they said that they were fully prepared and in a heightened state of readiness to respond to any provocation by Pakistan. In order to counter the Pakistani claim that it had not used F-16 aircraft in the attack against Indian military installations and there was, therefore, no question of losing one to the counter action by the Indian Air Force, the representatives of armed forces displayed parts of an AMRAAM missile, recovered from Rajouri in Kashmir, that could not have been carried by the aircraft, other than F-16, in Pakistan’s inventory.
Pakistan proceeded reluctantly, as in the past in such cases, to take action against terror groups. In an interview to CNN, Foreign Minister Qureshi said that Masood Azhar was in Pakistan, was unwell and incapable of leaving home. He added that Pakistan would be open to any step that would lead to de-escalation and could act against Azhar only if India presented “solid” evidence that could stand in a court of law. In an interview to BBC Urdu a day later, Qureshi said that the leadership of Jaish, when contacted, had denied involvement in the Pulwama attack. On being confronted with the difficult question regarding who had contacted the Jaish leadership, the Minister referred to the “people who are known to them.” This was followed by reports in the Pakistani media that government was planning decisive action against the UN proscribed terror groups in keeping with the National Action Plan against terrorism adopted in 2015, claiming that this had been decided before the Pulwama attack.
The situation has subsequently moved towards de-escalation. Pakistan placed under preventive detention 44 members of proscribed organizations, including the brother and son of Masood Azhar, took over a few premises of proscribed groups and placed Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation, hitherto on the watch list of the authorities, on the list of banned organizations. It was stated that further action would follow. Indian media reports quoted the Indian Government sources as saying that the military action was over for now and the focus would be on working with the international community to make Pakistan act against terror groups and secure listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist by the UNSC sanctions committee. The sources also warned that in the event of another terror attack, “all options will be on the table.” The Pak Foreign Office announced that their High Commissioner, who had been called back for consultations, would be returning to India. Both sides also announced that the pre-scheduled meeting on the Kartarpur corridor would take place on the Indian side of the Attari-Wagah border on March 14.
Assessment of the Pulwama Aftermath
India received widespread support of the international community in the condemnation of the Pulwama attack, with some influential countries calling upon Pakistan to take action against terror groups. Barring the Chinese call to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and a proforma condemnation of the Balakot strike by the OIC Contact Group, Pakistan received no support from any other country against the Indian action. The invitation to the Indian Minister of External Affairs to address the OIC Ministerial meeting in the UAE as a guest of honour on March 1, which compelled the Pakistani Foreign Minister to stay away from it, was a telling commentary on Pakistan’s dwindling clout, even in the OIC. The international support to India also exerted pressure on Pakistan for quick release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
The decision to withdraw the MFN status, given to Pakistan in 1996, can be justified only in terms of reciprocity, because Pakistan has not so far given this status to India. However, since Pakistan’s exports to India have been less than two percent of their annual exports, the decision might hurt individual exporters, but in unlikely to influence the mindset of Pakistan’s security establishment that controls its terror machine. It may also raise the cost of Pakistani items for Indian consumers in view of the sharp tariff hike. Alternatively, they may have to get the same goods from some other sources, losing the freight advantage in the case of imports from Pakistan.
The value of the Balakot strike, described as pre-emptive action, lies in it being an expression of intent by India to use air power to hit terror targets on the Pakistani territory, when necessary. Therefore, notwithstanding the extent of damage caused by the strike, it would result in some disruption of Pakistan’s terror machine by causing uncertainty in the minds of their terror planners and forcing them to adapt by, inter alia, relocating the terror facilities deeper inside Pakistan. However, it is unlikely to put an end to Pakistan sponsored terror against us. The Government was wise in not escalating after Pakistan’s retaliation because both the trajectory and outcome of such escalation would have been completely uncertain. Moreover, the influential countries that had stood by us after Pulwama, counselled restraint on both sides after Pakistan retaliated. The de-escalation that followed bears the imprint of behind the scenes diplomacy by third countries that continue to remain engaged to defuse tensions. As per media reports, the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Kong Xuanyou visited Pakistan on March 6 and the Saudi Foreign Minister is also due to visit Islamabad.
The action taken by Pakistan against terror groups so far is in the nature of reversible steps taken in the past under similar circumstances that did not result in any meaningful change from our point of view. Therefore, we will have to keep an eye on further action, if any, that Pakistan may take. It is also to be seen if China withdraws its objection to the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, although that would be largely a symbolic victory for us because those listed similarly in the past, including Hafiz Saeed, have continued to operate freely from the Pakistani territory. Pakistan’s terror machine has been very active in Kashmir for the last few years. If international pressure makes them at least scale down their interference in Kashmir, it could help us in calming the situation in the valley. The Pakistanis have been calling for dialogue with India. However, in view of the impending elections, it is highly unlikely that the Government of India would resume dialogue. Pakistan is arraigned before the Financial Action Task Force (which condemned the Pulwama terror attack and expressed dissatisfaction with the action taken by Pakistan to check terror funding and money laundering), faces a financial crisis and needs a bailout from the IMF. Therefore, we should continue to work with our international partners to keep up pressure on Pakistan to take meaningful action against the terror groups operating from its soil.