Pulwama: Where does the needle point?
From the din surrounding India’s stamping down on terrorism and Pakistan in the Pulwama-Balakot-Naushera episode, one could be excused in believing that India scored a grand victory. The ruling party’s usurpation of the credit seemingly only confirms this. Instead, the ongoing information war only serves to obfuscate the abject provision of national security that brought on the episode in first place.
The din is itself proof that the episode needs not only papering over but the supposed success over-hyped.
This would offset call for heads to roll, beginning with the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, and ending with a democratic showing-of-the-door to his boss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
To begin with the Pulwama car bomb attack.
There are three possibilities, none of which are edifying for India.
One is - as the Indian side has it - that it was Pakistan-sponsored. This begs the question why the situation got to such a pass as to have Pakistan up the ante in such manner.
The second is - as the Pakistan side has it - that it was an indigenous expression of alienation and part of the ongoing struggle in Kashmir. This begs the question how the situation has worsened at the fag-end of the government’s five year tenure to this extent.
The third – that it was an Indian black-flag operation – unsurprisingly surfaced in Pakistan in immediate wake of Pulwama. It was ditched in favour of the second possibility since the second served Pakistani strategic purposes better, suggesting as it does that a full blown indigenous insurgency is on in Kashmir, enabling Pakistan to counter the Indian accusation inherent in the first possibility.
The evidence touted – which has not been sufficiently dispelled as yet – has it that the Pulwama terrorist, Adil Ahmad Dar, was whisked away from the site of a firefight in which two of his terror accomplices had been killed on September 10, 2017.
If the person picked up was the self-same Pulwama terrorist, how was he back in circulation? If different, in any case how did the Pulwama terrorist reportedly in and out of detention centers some six times, give his surveillance the slip? This has shades of the Afzal Guru case in which Guru, a former militant, was also frequently tapped by the police and intelligence in Kashmir.
Since this has intelligence fingerprints all over it, there is more than merely an intelligence lapse in these queries to be resolved.
Moving on to the Balakot segment, the information war obscures the effectiveness or otherwise of the aerial strike. The posturing by the ruling party on the numbers of budding terrorists killed has been queried by political rivals. The prime minister pronounced that they are guilty of calling in question the word of the armed forces. The air chief for his part rightly put the ball back in the government’s court that it is its remit to answer.
There being no evidence of the strike’s success being put out by the government and if the air chief is to be believed that air warriors got the target, then the coordinates – presumably supplied by intelligence agencies and fed into the bombs - were imprecise.
This amounts to yet another intelligence failure either way, imprecise information and inability to assist with damage assessment. Given the questions, there is little reason to hide damage assessment information, which was reportedly pegged by Doval at a meeting of the cabinet’s security committee at 25 hardcore terrorists dead.
In so far as the credit for ordering the strikes, any credit for boldness is diluted by the parameters that accompanied the order: that the planes were not to intrude into Pakistani air space. This is plausible since in the preceding surgical strikes, PM Modi had similarly constrained the operations, requiring these to finish by day break irrespective of success.
Apparently, to get a better fix on the target, the planes crossed over the Line of Control (LC) a few kilometers over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) before releasing the ordnance. So, the credit is not with their political masters as was unsurprisingly wrested by Modi at his rally in Churu the very next day, but with air warriors.
Modi’s luxuriating the very next day at three public events (at the time lapdog television anchors had it that 300 terrorists were killed) is only explicable if the analysis of Pakistan’s retaliatory options predicted Pakistan would be too cowed down to retaliate. If this was not so, Modi would likely have been more circumspect, apprehending he might have to eat his words.
In the event, Modi spent the following day out of sight after the Pakistan evened scores in the Naushera sector of the LC through pugnaciously conducting a daylight aerial strike. As to whether their strike was at the price of an F-16, is yet an open question.
What is consequential is that the national security analysis incentivized the decision on Indian strikes under a mistaken conclusion of Pakistan being deterred by a ‘new India’ drawing a new line in the sand. This shows the ideological blinkers strategists have on in Modi’s national security system run by Ajit Doval.
Finally, to the Pakistani air strikes in Naushera sector. The Pakistanis, lacking an equivalent target on the Indian side, settled for vertical escalation restricted to military targets on the LC. The new level of mutual deterrence is thus at a higher less-stable level, begging the question how has Indian national security been the gainer.
Operations in Kashmir continue and at a heightened pace. PM Modi has said that the army ‘resolved’ to wipe out terrorism, yet again putting the onus on the military when its operations are on the direction of his government. It requires no clairvoyance to see the outcome.
The Jaish has already called for recruits, claiming for good measure to have been hit by the aerial strike so as to ensure that more turn up and more impassioned at that. While by most accounts Pakistan has been relatively restrained in its support for terrorism in Kashmir over the recent past, it would be less so this summer, if only because Indian ‘success’ in Kashmir requires a fresh infusion of terrorists into Kashmir soon.
The jihadists it controls would be at its neck if it does not facilitate their infiltration. It would prefer they turn their guns on Indians instead.
Therefore, the analytical conclusion in the analysis preceding the strikes that Pakistan would be deterred is liable to be proven false. The analysis probably had it that with Pakistan pushed on the back-foot by the punitive operation, Operation All Out ongoing in Kashmir would prove just that for Kashmiri terrorists is liable to be called out soon enough.
Instead, the situation over the summer – when India is poised to hold elections twice over (for the assembly and parliament) – may deteriorate. This would not be unwelcome to India since it could use the violence as excuse to postpone elections to the assembly, thereby precluding showing up India’s democratic exercise as vacuous since only few will likely turn up to vote.
It would give the army more time under president’s rule and, absent a state government, with less democratic oversight, to contend with the insurgency.
This would increase the opportunity for more mega-terror incidents. With supposedly a new redline in place, the punitive response options could move up to the cold start spectrum: cold start-lite (a few integrated battle groups (IBGs) taking to limited offensives in the plains) and cold start itself (a largish offensive on a broad front with multiple thrusts by IBGs).
In light of Pakistan’s demonstration of resolve to hit back, it would not take much to move from cold start to cold start-plus (strike corps marauding in the rear), pushing both sides into uncertain nuclear terrain (the introduction of tactical nukes on the battlefield, followed up speedily by counterforce and/or ‘massive’ exchange(s)).
This begs the question how national security is better served by the new red line and continuing of the disturbed conditions in Kashmir that are liable to trigger it. Since it would not do to let a bunch of terrorists determine the time of moving to the new red line, the disturbed conditions provide space for black-flag operations enabling invoking of the new red line at a time and place of own choosing.
Given the showing of the national security apparatus in this episode, it is unclear how they could be bailed out once again in the next episode by a professional showing of the military.
The military has been starved of resources over the past two years. This dilution of the conventional deterrent, and the army’s reversion to a twenty-first century version of operations in Kashmir that obtained in the nineties, perhaps prompted Pakistani provocation.
What all this spells is that heads must roll. None has either resigned or been sacked so far – not even those responsible for the move of the central reserve police convoy targeted at Pulwama. As for the conditions that led to Pulwama, it is reportedly part of the Doval doctrine.
The failure in the Balakot segment can easily be laid at the door of the intelligence community, the czar of which is Doval.
The Naushera segment bespeaks of an analytical failure in the secretariat that reports to Doval.
While a democratic change of government would be useful in cleaning up the stables, particularly at its top, continuing by the government on reelection with its national security charioteer can only be at the price of national security. With elections behind it, it could consider a change of horses and select one without blinkers on.