Pulwama-Balakot, one year on: many unanswered questions and what-ifs

Finally, what, if any lessons, have been learnt?

Modi Praring tribute
Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying respect to forty paramilitary personnel killed on 14 February 2019 in Pulwama suicide attack.

A year after a suicide car bomb, triggered by a young Kashmiri, Adil Dar, in Pulwama district, south Kashmir, killed at least a recorded forty Indian paramilitary troopers on 14 February 2019, competing narratives still dominate both the attack and the reaction to it. Mirroring more significant encounters in the past, both the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Pakistani government of Prime Minister Imran Khan ended the crisis with a sense that their respective countries had prevailed. Mr. Modi was even able to use the episode as a powerful weapon in the armoury of his election campaign, demonstrating to his supporters the importance of national security against an unpredictable neighbour, securing him and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a second term in office.

But questions still remain: Why was there such a failure of Indian intelligence?

Why did the Indian authorities, whose agents stop and search in Kashmir valley at will, permit a vehicle to pass by a convoy of seventy-eight vehicles without having searched it and questioned the driver? Why did the militant organisation, Jaish-e-Mohammed, based in Pakistan, claim responsibility when doing so would involve its host country in the inevitable and potentially catastrophic retaliation? Why, instead, not make the case that the attack was carried out solely by a disaffected indigenous Kashmiri? Why, having claimed responsibility, did Jaish-e-Mohammed then contradict its own statement?  Was the statement not Jaish’s in the first place?  

And then when it came to India’s retaliation –  the attack by fighter jets on Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) on 26 February – how do the Indian authorities know precisely how many ‘militants’ they had killed? Did they have agents on the ground who did a body count, so emphatic were their reports that they had killed ‘300’? What prior thought was given to the danger of escalating the conflict by mounting an attack which would penetrate into Pakistani territory for the first time since the 1971 war when East Pakistan seceded to become independent Bangladesh? Looking to the future, if (and when) there is another such attack, of greater or lesser magnitude, does this mean that the Indian government has lowered its bar of tolerance so irrevocably that it would again ingress into Pakistani territory regardless of the consequences?

Combined with the questions, there are a number of ‘what ifs’? What if there had been more military casualties on both sides? What if more aircraft had been brought down and their pilots killed? What if the Indian plane, which was shot down, had not come down on the Pakistani side of the line of control and there had been no face saving handover of a pilot to enable the Pakistani government to desist from its own retaliatory actions? What if the Indian planes had not hit what they claimed to be a militant training camp but a bona fide Pakistani military camp?

For a few weeks the international community, governments, think tanks, academics and journalists all sat with baited breathe waiting for the denouement. They too were asking questions wondering what would happen next: would the exchange signify the beginning of a fifth war between the two nuclear neighbours? Would either country resort to using nuclear weapons in a fit of militaristic machismo? And what mechanisms were there at a political level to help to diffuse tensions? Reminding themselves that, even during the dark days of the Cold War, the United States and the former USSR had channels of communication, how much contact was there at the highest level during these critical days? As a retired British diplomat said recently, ‘contact between governments is not an optional extra.’ Messages from third parties may have gone back and forward urging restraint, but, in the heat of the moment, how easy is it to put limitations when passions are running high and domestic public opinion is demanding revenge?

Finally, what, if any lessons, have been learnt? Perhaps, encouragingly, the realisation that, at that moment, in time neither country wanted to fight a war, despite international concerns that that was the direction in which they were heading. The relative ease with which domestic opinion on both sides was assuaged was also reassuring.

But since then, the narrative has changed. In the year since Pulwama-Balakot, the Indian government has drastically altered the established rhetoric in the region by creating two Union Territories from the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which, according to India’s traditional position includes the one-third which they consider to be ‘occupied’ by Pakistan. Most portentous perhaps is the map’s inclusion of Gilgit-Baltistan as part of the Union Territory of Ladakh, complemented by ever more frequent statements that the Indian government’s next objective is to incorporate physically Gilgit-Baltistan as part of India. Not only has this created insecurity in Pakistan – the prospect of a reverse Kargil operation comes to mind in this strategically important area, through which runs the Karakoram highway, which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project – but it  has also meant that the margin for re-opening talks between the two countries has narrowed. And, it is only by re-instating dialogue that a mending of India and Pakistan’s seventy-year fractured relationship can begin. As for the inhabitants of Jammu and Kashmir, they are in for a long haul before normalcy can prevail.

Victoria Schofield is a historian and commentator on international affairs, with specialist knowledge of South Asia. Her books include Kashmir in the Crossfire (1996) and Kashmir in Conflict (1999, 2003, 2010).

The comment appeared in our 17-23 February 2020 print edition.

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