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. 


March 8, 2019

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About the Author

Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal

Former Indian Ambassador to Pakistan and Uzbekistan and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Mr Sharat Sabharwal joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1975. After serving in various positions in the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in Geneva and the Indian Missions in Madagascar, France and Mauritius, he was Director/Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi from 1990 to 1995. The positions held by him subsequently have been Deputy High Commissioner of India in Pakistan (1995-99), Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN in Geneva (1999-2002), Ambassador of India to Uzbekistan (2002-2005) and Additional Secretary/Special Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (September 2005-March 2009).

Mr. Sabharwal was High Commissioner of India to Pakistan from April 2009 to June 2013.

He was appointed Central Information Commissioner in November, 2013 and served in this position till September, 2017.
Mr. Sabharwal has been Deputy leader/member of the Indian delegations to the UN General Assembly, the erstwhile UN Commission on Human Rights, International Labour Conference and World Health Assembly. He was also the Deputy Leader of the Indian delegation to the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held in Geneva in October 1999 and member of the Indian delegation to the World Conference against Racism, held in Durban in September 2001.

Mr. Sabharwal holds a post graduate degree in Political Science. He speaks English and French besides Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi.

Mr. Sabharwal has been an author at the Indian Express, The Hindu, India Today, The Tribune and The Wire.