What is Driving Pakistan’s New Terror Strategy Against India?

Pakistan appears to have stepped up its support for terrorism in India in the last month after a lull.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
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Following the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, Pakistan had threatened a bloodbath, and counted on over-ground workers and residual terrorists in Kashmir to escalate violence. The influx of additional security forces, confinement of selected local political leaders, and suspension of mobile phone and internet services had, however, allowed India to contain the threat of violence.

Hence, September to December 2019 witnessed the elimination of just 7, 8, 5 and zero terrorists, respectively. January, February and March 2020 saw a slight uptick, with 18, 7 and 7 terrorists being killed.

From 1 April to date, though, things have changed, as about 36 terrorists have been killed even as 20 security personnel (Army, CRPF, and J&K Police) have lost their lives.

Some experts are assigning the usual reasons for the increase in violence, that is, opening of passes because of the melting of snow; Pakistani pressure on militants to keep the Kashmir issue alive; ‘do-or-die situation’ for Pakistan in view of gains made by our own security forces, etc.

However, it does seem that Pakistan, after suffering a series of setbacks, has a new game-plan and is now trying to exploit three issues, viz (i) the US’ pre-occupation with the COVID-19 pandemic, internal politics and China; (ii) the situation in Afghanistan; and (iii) importantly, the implications of the pandemic on India and its armed forces.

A Distracted United States

The US’ response to the 9/11 attacks led to the “forever wars” of this century. With politico-military objectives constantly changing, and most US assessments up to 2016 emphasising irregular and hybrid warfare as prominent features of the future threat environment, operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Levant became mired in indefinite commitments.

With the US’ 2018 National Defence Strategy reverting to a more old school position that "inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security," the Pentagon has been shifting operational strength against Russia and China instead.

In addition, the mismanaged COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting tremendous economic and human pain in the US. It is also leading to efforts to deflect blame to China – which is aggravating military tensions with China.

The pandemic has thus given Washington the opportunity to draw down its commitments in West Asia. The Pentagon has pulled out from a number of bases in the Levant and is eyeing a large-scale military withdrawal from the Greater Middle East.

While the US will not withdraw completely from the broader region, but will rely on standoff strike capabilities as well as economic instruments, the drawdown will impose the onus of maintaining stability and pushback against Iran on the US’ traditional allies in the region, i.e. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The latter two are also allies of Pakistan.

The Precarious Situation in Afghanistan

According to the US Congressional Research Service report R45122 of 1 May, US military engagement in Afghanistan appears closer to an end, in light of the 29 February US-Taliban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” (which has a number of secret annexes).

The US drawdown of troops is continuing even as the Taliban launched 4,500 attacks – a nearly 70% increase – between 1 March and 15 April, as also refused to engage with the Afghan government’s negotiating team.

A full-scale US withdrawal could lead to the collapse of the Afghan government and re-establishment of Taliban control over most areas.

Thus, overall, the US’ pre-occupation with domestic issues and China, its reliance on Saudi Arabia and Turkey for regional stability, and its indifference towards Afghanistan, places Pakistan in a better strategic position vis-à-vis just a few months back.

Economic Fallout of the COVID-19 Pandemic on India

When this year’s budget was announced, India was already in the throes of a significant slowdown. Within the Ministry of Defence, despite the world’s third highest military expenditure, there was already talk about optimising defence spending, reducing the burden of pensions, and also directives speaking of austerity.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, with the nationwide lockdowns inflicting unprecedented economic disruption and human pain. With the services and manufacturing PMIs at historic lows, about 122 million small traders, labourers, self-employed and salaried workers have lost their jobs.

Almost every sector of the economy is in deep distress. Tax collections both at the Central and State levels have fallen.

Thus, overall, the pandemic has made it imperative for the Government to focus on reorganising governance and office structures, as well as economic and business models for a post-COVID-19 world. All of which must be done while currently providing relief to millions out of work, building capacity to handle the impending medical emergency (‘peak coronavirus’ is expected around mid-June/July) and preparing targeted stimulus packages.

The bottomline? Given the state of the economy, the Armed Forces are looking at a period of deep austerity.

Effect of a Pandemic on Armed Forces

Given the close quarters of military rank-and-file, training arrangements, travel, deployment and fighting means, infectious disease has always been a risk. Carol Byerly, military medicine historian and author of Fever of War, sums it up well when she writes that “armies are notorious petri dishes for disease outbreaks.” In WWI, the US lost 53,402 soldiers to combat – and 45,000 to flu/pneumonia.

Although militaries have a long history of success in tackling infectious diseases (e.g. George Washington - smallpox; General William Slim – malaria), with better vaccinations and other health measures, there’s a complacency that infectious diseases stand tamed. Consequently, with pandemics not foremost in the minds of military leaders, we have periodically gutted the services (the “tail”) to add “teeth”.

And now, as COVID-19 sweeps through the country, the medical corps is looking at measures to keep active duty troops healthy – while converting military hospitals configured for treating injuries from training/combat into semi-perfect facilities for handling a pandemic.

Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not going away, the Armed Forces may, in addition to austerity, have to prioritise medicine and health, avoid escalation (as it would impinge on their ability to assist the nation), and consider only imperative operational deployments in view of infection risks.

Conclusion

Although India has significant economic and conventional military advantage over Pakistan, various military forays (including Balakot) have not been able to deter Pakistan from sponsoring terrorism.

And now, with international organisations too calling for a global ceasefire, Pakistan is likely assuming that the pandemic may impose reluctance on the Indian Armed Forces to escalate – on account of which it can intensify violence in Kashmir.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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