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India’s Choices Post Poonch Attack Stand Limited Due to an Unstable Pakistan

India must demand recompense for the cowardly attack but not at cost of disinviting Bilawal Bhutto at the G20 meet.

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The roller coaster is back. Just as it seemed that Indians were quite simply ignoring Pakistan and its many ills to their complete satisfaction, two events have come up. One is the terror attack on an Army truck in Poonch, claimed by the so-called People’s Anti-Fascists Front (PAFF), banned by India as a front of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The other is the acceptance of an invitation extended by India by Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto to attend the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Goa next month. One step forward, several steps back. That’s been the story for the last few decades. Some things may not change, while others may have shifted to nearly unrecognisable extents.

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The Pak Link in the Poonch Attack

First, the attack in Poonch that involved the use of some incendiary devices, perhaps, grenades, and involved at least four terrorists who then fired into the burning vehicle. That means a seasoned terror group who was possibly in the heavily forested area probably weeks before the attack.

Intelligence would have certainly picked up traces, but unlike what the public thinks, it is impossible to prevent every attack particularly when the group retains radio silence and uses this particular topography to emerge anywhere along the road. The PAFF which has claimed it, had earlier claimed an attack on an Army patrol in October 2021, killing five personnel, including a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) in the Surankote forest.

The group released a propaganda video thereafter, that speaks of organisation and a certain capability similar to the Lashkar e Tayyba(LeT). It is now the thing for terrorists to adopt names like 'Terrorist Resistance Front‘—another group active in the Valley.

Clearly, their patrons in Pakistan, are anxious to move away from the jehadi discourse—so clearly linked to Pakistan and its decades-old wars - and bring back the 1990s 'indigenous’ narrative. Be it those or simply wannabe, it's all armed, financed, and backed by Pakistan. That’s not a declaratory point.
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Quite simply, there are no grenades and guns of this calibre freely available in India. Go try and buy one. Neither is it now possible to raise money interminably to sustain terrorism. Aadhaar saw to that, and Income Tax and Direct transfer and various other laws, not to mention the energetic efforts of the National Investigation Agency.

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Theory One – The Coincidence Is Deliberate

The lives lost of five jawans are precious not just to their families, but also to the country as a whole, and a government that has made it clear that it's not in any kind of a pacifist ‘restraint’ mode. And here is Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto arriving to attend the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a fact announced just about a couple of hours before the Poonch attack.

At one level, that seems to point to cross purposes—one intention by the Pakistani state, and another by the terrorists. Let’s however test theory one, which is that it's actually a deliberate move meant to send a message. That seems to be borne from not just Bhutto’s own combative stance, but also that of the Pakistani visitors to the SCO meetings have shown the slightest intention to draw back from a fight.

Consider for instance, the attitude of the Pakistan delegation of military medicine experts who arrived for an SCO meeting last month, and apparently decided to show a nonsensical map put out earlier in 2020 by the then administration of Imran Khan that lays claims to various parts of India which effectively ensured that they could not participate in the deliberations. That this was clearly done with due thought is obvious.

Then there was Bilawal’s undiplomatic attack on the Indian Prime Minister at the United Nations last year which was either his own personal attack or more likely aimed at pleasing an establishment that a shaky coalition government has—separately and together— tried to appease. Ergo, Islamabad has no intention of lowering tensions as of now.

In which case, the attack in Poonch is not illogical at all. It's just terrorists doing their thing and following orders. What Pakistan gains from it could be a space to negotiate. After all, a comfortably situated India would hardly bother to talk to Pakistan. It's all a bit bizarre, but then this is Pakistan.

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Theory Two – The Terrorists Are at Cross Purposes With the Civilian Government

To support this theory, it is well to remember two facts. One was Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s interview with Al Arbiya television, where he said “Pakistan has learnt its lessons," and that war had wasted Pakistan’s resources. He also mentioned Kashmir and Article 370, and ‘flagrant human rights violations’, all of which seemed mildly hopeful. But that was reversed the next day, with the Prime Minister’s Office stating that “…the [Pakistani] Prime Minister has repeatedly stated on record that talks can only take place after India had reversed its illegal action of 5 August 2019; without which negotiations are not possible.

"The settlement of the Kashmir dispute must be in accordance with the UN resolutions and aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir,” the statement said. So much for that. But here’s another thought. According to Hamid Mir's revelations, there was a thriving back channel operating that directly contributed to a (still holding) ceasefire. Then came confirmation by a senior UAE official that there had indeed been back-channelled talks between the two, encouraging at least some functional engagement.

That was in 2021, the point being that despite high-voltage public statements, there was in fact, a quiet and fruitful dialogue. After all, it had a definite result. The fact that General (retd) Bajwa told a group of reporters that Pakistan had no ability to fight India—not even enough oil—only makes this more credible.

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In March 2023, observations from Suresh Kumar, India’s Deputy High Commissioner to Pakistan while speaking at the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) were that “India always wants better relations with Pakistan because we cannot change our geography.” In short, there was and still is an effort to mend fences.

In that case, while the Pakistan Foreign Minister can be expected to take a publicly hostile stance, the fact that Pakistani delegations have been visiting, including in a rather limited way in SCO counter-terrorism exercises—could indicate a tentative reaching out.
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As Nawaz Sharif had said during his last tenure, every time there was even a tentative outreach, a terrorist attack was certain. That means the ‘establishment’ prevents that for its own purposes. At present, no one has any idea at all of what the present COAS General Syed Asim Munir thinks of his relationship with India. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s economy hardly allows for adventurous operations. That is a fact to deal with. Taking precedent and all the ruinous machinations of politics, this seems a more likely scenario.

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Who’s To Account for Pakistan’s Actions?

There is a third theory. That no one at all is in charge, and which is given some credence by the political mess within the country, with the judiciary compelling the government to hold elections as constitutionally mandated—in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The desperate attempt by at least a part of the establishment to keep Imran Khan out was apparent in the three-hour briefing given to the Chief Justice on the security situation which threatened cross-border terrorism, instability in the country, threats from the TTP, IS fighters returning to Pakistan from several countries, the ill-designs of the Indian spy agency RAW and even an all-out war with the neighbouring country, as reasons for not holding elections, according to Dawn; all of which is presumably will miraculously disappear if elections are held at a time of the government's choosing.

With such charges, which even the man on the street can see through, it seems possible that the establishment is far too busy dealing with its own chaos than push India towards a counter strike, with a terrorist attack. That would mean that a group of undoubtedly Pakistan-trained terrorists found a chance and struck. That happens more often than one thinks. It’s the terrorists' job to attack—after all, that’s what he's paid for—and he will when an opportunity presents itself.
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How Should India Respond?

For India, at some level, none of these options mean anything at all. Pakistan is the culprit in all three scenarios, and whether or not one politician gets along with another is hardly of consideration as far as lives lost are concerned. Our jawans were killed in a cowardly attack, and India must and can demand recompense of some sort. Could that mean ‘disinviting’ the Pakistan Foreign Minister? Probably not.

This is a multilateral setup and India is the chair. The SCO does not allow bilateral disputes to be discussed—though Pakistan has used its map adventurism just the same. But the SCO does discuss terrorism, and if India has enough evidence, it could present it at the appropriate forum. Then there are somewhat milder reactions. For instance, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi walking out of a gala dinner during an ASEAN meeting to express displeasure at the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. That’s snub, and though it doesn’t do much good in practical terms, might satisfy a public that expects this government to react strongly, which in itself is somewhat of a goad to action.

So far, the Ministry of External Affairs has simply said that, “It would not be appropriate to focus on the participation of any one country’ with reference to Bilawal’s visit. Neither has there been any specific accusation against Pakistan, though the finding that it was a Lashkar attack means virtually the same thing. India could ask, as it has before, for Pakistan to investigate specific intelligence, and come back to the SCO with the data."

That places the onus on Islamabad to respond to a multilateral body. Pakistan did investigate the Mumbai attack but stopped short of arresting the masterminds. Islamabad has a chance to respond with alacrity this time around. In every disaster lies opportunity. But don’t hold your breath.
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This is after all Pakistan we’re talking about. The fact that such different theories need to be considered at all is an indication of how unstable Pakistan has become, and the very many divisions within, along with a radicalization that puts it in a class by itself in the Islamic world. A terror attack was once a matter of simple understanding of ISI machinations. Now its strategy of a ‘thousand cuts’ has become muddied or perhaps, even multiplied, as the country strains under the weight of its own contradictions struggling to survive.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  J&K   India-Pakistan   Bilawal Bhutto 

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