Can A Repeat of The Pulwama Terror Attack Occur in Kashmir?

The risk propensity displayed by India was progressively projected much higher by responses from 2016 to 2019.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Pulwama was highest number of security men lost in any single incident in the 30 year old proxy hybrid conflict sponsored by Pakistan.
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The Kargil sneak action by Pakistan at the lofty heights caught India by surprise in 1999 with much talk around the alleged intelligence failure. It took almost ten weeks to evict the intruders with many casualties, but what is rarely known is the extent to which the ‘surprise factor’ started to play on the minds of Indian commanders.

In August 1999 itself, we were reassessing every nook and corner of Kashmir for the potentiality of Kargil-2, the proverbial repeat which most senior commanders thought would inevitably occur. In October 2013 some large-scale terrorist activity at the Kupwara LoC was also initially assessed by some as Kargil-2.

Cut to 14 Febryary 2019, exactly a year ago, and we had the most horrendous event in the form of a 350 kilogram improvised explosive device (IED) blasted as a car bomb by a 20-year-old Kashmiri suicide bomber against a CRPF bus running as part of a convoy.

The attack claimed the lives of 40 personnel – the highest number of security men lost in any single incident in the 30-year-old proxy hybrid conflict sponsored by Pakistan.

Pulwama Caught India by ‘Surprise’

The ‘surprise factor’ was again very high; it happened against the run of events. First there was hardly a history of car bomb attacks in Kashmir; just three, with the last one in 2004. On the potential employment of a suicide bomber, the radicalisation of South Kashmir had given some forewarning but not enough.

Second, with infiltration under control and intra Valley movement under strict vigil, concentrating 350 kilograms of high explosive at one location appeared almost impossible. Yet it happened, springing a surprise on us.

On the first anniversary of the incident, it is irrelevant to even consider whether Pulwama was an intelligence failure.

Those who know the dynamics of hybrid conflict would always realise that hundred percent fool-proofing against surprise events of high intensity violence is just not possible.

After all, 9/11 occurred with 19 terrorists involved against the most high profile intelligence agencies of the world; and Brussels, London and Paris appeared cakewalks for the ISIS. Each day without a negative incident is an achievement of sorts for even high profile intelligence agencies. Thus surprise will always remain a major factor for consideration in any threat analysis.

Pakistan’s Intent & Resources Available

So, can a Pulwama-2 occur anytime in the near future?

A professional military intelligence assessment would approach the issue by examining three aspects – Pakistani intent, resources available and the likely impact on the overall scenario.

On one thing, none in India will disagree, that the trust deficit with Pakistan is intense and Pakistan will apply little rationality to its decisions and actions when it comes to dealing with India, especially on J&K.

The history of its conflict initiation against India includes the 1965 Indo Pak War, the continuation of genocide in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) the impact of which challenged India in 1971, the Kashmir situation in 1989, Kargil conflict of 1999, the Parliament attack 2001, Mumbai terror attack 2008, Uri terror attack 2016 and Pulwama 2019. Interspersed in between these events are several more.

India’s Tolerance Has Shrunk

In yesteryears of the proxy hybrid conflict situation, Pakistan’s assessed perception was that India’s level of tolerance for surprise and high intensity incidents was extremely high. Somewhere a misperceived notion appeared to have been created that India was completely deterred by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and its first use of the nuclear doctrine, such that for India to think of war, a much higher red-line had to be crossed by Pakistan.

Although trans-LoC actions by the Indian Army in response to LoC-related incidents were common 20 years ago and became a little less frequent 10 years later, there is no doubt that strategic response through tactical level actions with total government ownership as a policy, came into effect only with the coming of the Modi Government at the Centre.

The surgical strikes of 2016, subsequent shallow strikes in Poonch sector in 2017 and the Balakot airstrike should have adequately conveyed to Pakistan that the level of tolerance in terms of red-lines had shrunk to a much lower level.

Also the fact that for India there is enough space for a calibrated response below full scale war.

The risk propensity displayed by India was progressively projected much higher by responses from 2016 to 2019.

Repeat Of Pulwama Would Be ‘Irrational’

Applying rational assessment to the prevailing situation, in which Pakistan finds itself with a dangerously failing economy, the likelihood of it risking crossing of assessed lower Indian red-lines should be extremely low. However, we come a full circle on the issue of rationality – something historically ignored by the Pakistan Army.

That makes an irrational act always possible especially when it wishes to display its muscular survivability even in the worst of times for the Pakistani nation.

Does Pakistan or its proxies, possess the resources to repeat a Pulwama-type event? There is no doubt that the domination of Kashmir by the Indian Army and the police forces is much more profound today with intelligence agencies still in the process of dismantling the ecosystem, the system which has helped regenerate terrorism from time to time.

Yet it must be remembered that within a month of Pulwama a potential repeat was prevented purely through providence; a similarly prepared car bomb malfunctioned and the potential bomber was captured two days later.

With limited mobile internet facility in J&K both the ecosystem and the intelligence agencies are hamstrung; the former by limitation of coordination and the latter by the insufficiency of communication to intercept.

There is an uneasy balance which seems to exist. If the lower intensity and frequency of operations since August 2019 is something to go by, it is either intelligence which has weakened with sources less active under enhanced threat to them, or the overall strength of terrorists and their leaders has drastically reduced. In such a scenario a major spectacular act will be difficult but not impossible. It is the desired impact which must be clear.

Pakistan would wish to have total deniability with some concocted solid evidence of an Indian ‘false flag’; mention of this is already being found in Pakistan media in relation to visit of President Trump to India.

That would be a preposterous eventuality, akin to the Chittisinghpura carnage of 19 March 2000 during the visit of former US President Bill Clinton, but not beyond the irrationality of Pakistan’s planners. That reminder should also make clear that thinking of only IED threats as a potential and proverbial Pulwama may be an inaccurate assessment.

What Pakistan’s deep state wishes is to kick-start the flagging militancy, force commitment of additional Indian forces, create conditions to realistically make allegations of human rights violations and prevent strengthening of the counter infiltration grid to allow scope of infiltration.

All this may not be achieved by one spectacular act but much depends on the nature and intensity of the event and where it fits into the graph of India’s red-lines.

Lastly, blinkers must not be on only for Kashmir, the Jammu region lies within the crosshairs too, and our focus must continue to remain balanced extending the scope of enhanced vigilance as far deep south as Kathua and Pathankot. Yes, a Pulwama-2 is certainly possible but the consequences of it for Pakistan will be far more unpredictable than ever before.

(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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