Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan went on national television to deliver a stern warning to India five days after the Pulwama terror attack. He neither condemned it nor did he utter a word of sympathy for the families of its victims.
Rather, he launched into Pakistan’s standard diatribe against India and concluded with a stern warning of retaliation if the Narendra Modi government took any kinetic action in response. Swiftly and correctly, India repudiated Khan’s claims, but wisely refrained from falling into the trap of specifically responding to his warnings. Kinetic action, if taken by India, will factor in Pakistan’s reaction and it is best not to focus on it in a Ministry of External Affairs statement.
A week after the attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not given an indication of what he proposes to do to assuage the country’s anger. He has assured the nation that the price of ‘every tear’ will be extracted from the perpetrators and their supporters. As of now, the opposition seemingly stands in support, but the action will have to be politically cleared by him even if the defence forces have been given a free hand.
India has taken diplomatic steps to profile Pakistan’s involvement with the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Pakistan-based terrorist group that has claimed the attack. Prior to the Uri attack of 2016, India had invariably pursued the diplomatic path. This had been the case even after 26/11. However, after Uri, Modi had sanctioned the surgical strikes. He has implicitly taken satisfaction at that decision and the BJP has sought to take political advantage by seeking to profile the difference between Modi and Manmohan Singh-led UPA government.
The real question then is this: will Modi confine the Indian response to active diplomacy and a political approach or sanction kinetic action? There is naturally the feeling that he will find it difficult to avoid the latter course, especially when elections are about to be announced. And, if Modi does allow kinetic action, what will it be? How will he factor in Imran Khan’s warning, which is actually that of the Pakistan army, the real arbiters of that country’s India policy?
The surgical strike allowed Pakistan to publicly deny it, though its armed forces naturally knew what had happened. By doing so, it was also able to preserve its nuclear overhang doctrine as far as its own people are concerned. Under that, it has always cautioned India not to use its conventional armed forces strength on Pakistani territory for its action may escalate into nuclear war.
Whatever Pakistan may have been peddling to its own people, the fact is that by using its forces for the surgical strike, India had blown a hole in it. Thus, it had created a dilemma for Pakistan and it does not want to be in such a situation again.
Pakistan has always sought that India should really be paralysed after a terrorist attack and not take action. The international community does not want armed hostilities between the nuclear neighbours. Hence, it has always sought to staunch India’s anger by shows of sympathy and strong diplomatic statements. The US, on this occasion too, has said that India has the right to self-defence, but will it support India if it takes kinetic action? That remains to be seen.
France has said that it will renew efforts to get Masood Azhar listed as a UN-designated terrorist. The success of this step is unlikely, for China has given no indication that it is willing to lift its hold on the process. However, it is a move of diplomatic solidarity designed in the hope that such action will turn India away from kinetic action. Mohammed bin Salman may have condemned the Pulwama attack and agreed to begin institutional arrangements to combat terror, but he too balanced India and Pakistan, and so did not mention Jaish-e-Mohammed.
What India needs to do is to make it clear to the world’s major powers that continued Pakistani support for terrorist organisations that act against India must end. As there is no sign that Pakistan is willing to do so, all options of an immediate response and a calibrated and sustained policy thereafter will be adopted to see that Pakistan changes course.
The real problem in dealing effectively with Pakistani terror lies within us. Having decided to be totally defensive against Pakistan’s calibrated low-intensity war and not taking it to its territory, India has had no option but to absorb losses.
Indeed, some Indian strategic thinkers argue that the terrorist threat from Pakistan is not of a strategic nature. Hence, India can afford to continue with the current cycle of terrorist incident, national anger, the subsidence of that anger and the return of negative normalcy with Pakistan till another incident and for another cycle to be set in motion.
The timing of this attack — months before elections — does not present the best of times to think beyond Modi’s immediate response. Indian security planners and its political class have to think long-term to end Pakistani terror, nevertheless.
(Vivek Katju is a former Indian diplomat who served as a secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs. Views are personal.)