Jammu and Kashmir: Decoding the Poonch Terrorist Attack
Col Nilesh Kunwar (Retd.)

The February 2021 ceasefire agreement between the Indian and Pakistan armies was a win-win situation for both sides as it ended senseless exchanges of fire and artillery duels that resulted in loss of life and damage to property. However, though the Pakistan army hasn’t stopped sponsoring terrorist groups fighting its proxy war in J&K, after the 2019 Pulwama attack, it’s been ensuring that there isn’t any major escalation in violence levels that could invite punitive action by the Indian army on or across the Line of Control [LoC].

While relative calm along the LoC is a great relief to both sides, it is definitely Rawalpindi that benefited more from this agreement, and this inference isn’t mere speculation, but a fact.

Readers would recall that in 2017, while responding to a ‘calling attention notice’, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Power Abid Sher Ali, while speaking on behalf of Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, informed the Senate that “We have written to the GHQ for the details of our soldiers who have lost their lives serving along the LoC. However, the military authorities refused to share the details citing security concerns.”M [Emphasis added]

It’s apparent that the “security concerns” fig-leaf used by Rawalpindi to conceal fatalities suffered by its rank and file on the LoC is just a thin disguise. The real reason is that the Pakistan army had been suffering prohibitive casualties during fire exchanges along the LoC due to which it has been compelled to opt for a ceasefire. This was the very reason why the then Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf had called for a ceasefire in 2003 that lasted for almost a decade.

Lastly, with the ceasefire enduring despite former Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s post-Article 370 abrogation pledge that "Pakistan Army firmly stands by the Kashmiris in their just struggle to the very end. We are prepared and shall go to any extent to fulfil our obligations...,”[Emphasis added], it’s abundantly clear that Rawalpindi is wary of upsetting the apple cart!

Madness or a Method?

Thursday’s dastardly terrorist attack on an Indian army vehicle in the Poonch district of J&K in which five soldiers lost their lives is indeed a very grave provocation that could definitely upset the existing ‘normal’ along the LoC. Since Rawalpindi would be well aware of the possible repercussions of this attack, one would naturally wonder why did Rawalpindi instruct its proxies to carry out an attack that could well elicit a military response from the Indian army and make the LoC ‘hot’?

The answer may not be very hard to find. Pakistan is [to say the least] in a spot. With an economy in free-fall, burgeoning terrorism, a host of separatist movements, rising unemployment capped by political uncertainty, Rawalpindi [which runs Pakistan] is definitely caught between a rock and a hard place. To make matters worse, PTI chief Imran Khan enjoys mass support that could well see him return as prime minister- something that Pakistan army chief Gen Asim Munir obviously doesn’t want since Khan was instrumental in his removal from the coveted post of Director general [DG] Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] in just eight months.

By insisting that the army should keep away from politics, abdicate its extra-constitutional powers, stop meddling in the functioning of other government institutions and subordinate itself to the legislature, Khan is seen as the proverbial powder keg by Rawalpindi. Khan is adamant on early elections, and knowing that he’ll win for sure, Rawalpindi is trying to orchestrate happenings to create conditions that aren’t conducive for elections. And so, Thursday’s Poonch attack could well be one such attempt.

Reality Check

On Tuesday [April 18], Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence filed a report in the Supreme Court to seek the withdrawal of its Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly election date order. Its contents [as revealed by Pakistani media] unambiguously suggests that the “establishment” has moved heaven and earth in an effort to delay these elections.

Pakistan’s newspaper Dawn, has aptly observed that this report “feared all kinds of threats in the way of holding elections at present.” In it, there is mention of “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.” Using the medieval age adage that “since the internal chaos invites external aggression,” the report mentions that India would not lose “any opportunity at operational and tactic levels for limited military action to all-out war.”

What is of special significance is Dawn’s revelation is the defence ministry report mentioning that “despite a ceasefire understanding in place, India continued to challenge Pakistan’s response capacity through frequent violations along the Line of Control [LOC] and international borders.” [Emphasis added]. That there have indeed been frequent violations along the LoC will most certainly come as big surprise-not only to the people, but also to the soldiers physically deployed there!

But the situation along the LoC can easily change- all what’s needed is the right provocation that crosses the red-line and the Poonch terrorist attack is a typical example. By stating that there is an increase in the frequency of ceasefire violations along the LoC, Pakistan’s Defence Ministry [read-Rawalpindi] has said in advance today, what it wants to happen tomorrow, thereby clearly revealing its intentions of ‘re-activating’ the LoC.

Indian Response

The Pakistan army will go to any extent for protecting its turf and as such, escalating tension along its border with India in order to stay relevant and continue enjoying its extra-constitutional powers is a distinct possibility. While its rank and file may end up paying dearly in terms of lives and limbs due to this reckless decision, it will ensure that Rawalpindi remains in Pakistan’s driving seat.

So since, Rawalpindi will not abandon its proxy war in J&K, there’s a need for New Delhi to rethink on its proposal to downsize force levels in J&K. While induction of state-of-the-art weaponry and surveillance facilities will certainly help in anti-terrorist operations, but considering the terrain imperatives as obtaining along the LoC, the need to have sufficient boots on the ground cannot be completely disregarded.

Most importantly, New Delhi needs to realise that while the international community may express solidarity with India and rebuke Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism, but when it comes to taking decisive diplomatic and military actions against Pakistan’s belligerence, India will have to stand up on its own. So, there is a need to formulate a well -considered and appropriate response strategy that can act as a credible deterrent.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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