Understanding Pakistan’s new terror strategy

Rawalpindi’s intent is very clear: attack the “occupying forces” of India in Jammu and Kashmir


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

In a media briefing on Thursday, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup blamed Pakistan for the recent terrorist attack on the Nagrota army base in Jammu and Kashmir. Although the Line of Control has seen continuous ceasefire violations—it started well before the 29 September surgical strikes—the attack at Nagrota was the biggest terrorist strike since the 18 September Uri attack to which India responded with surgical strikes inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Nagrota attack also claimed the lives of seven Indian security personnel, including two officers. The terrorists wanted to enter the family quarters and take hostages. This was fortunately averted.

In this sense, the attack was a reminder of the gruesome killings of soldiers and family members in Kaluchak in May 2002. It was significant that Swarup also mentioned the Kaluchak massacre among the terrorist attacks he compared Nagrota to. Perhaps to indicate the seriousness with which the Indian government sees the Nagrota attack, Swarup also cited the attack on Indian Parliament (2001), the 26/11 Mumbai attack (2008), and the Pathankot and Uri attacks earlier this year in the same breath. This clubbing is a good signal of intent but it misses an important difference between the attacks. While 26/11 was aimed at civilians, Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota were aimed at specific defence installations.

In fact, a clear shift can be discerned in the strategy of terrorist handlers in the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Even though 2016 has seen a high number of terrorist attacks, most of them have been aimed at Indian security forces. An attack of 26/11 proportions on civilians is likely to evoke a strong response from the international community. It is worth recalling that a number of foreign nationals were also killed in 26/11.

Most of the attacks in the last couple of years have also happened in Jammu and Kashmir—the Gurdaspur attack (2015) was a notable exception. So, Rawalpindi’s strategy is very clear: attack the “occupying forces” of India in Jammu and Kashmir. To support this strategy, the Pakistan army has, in parallel, supported the protests against the Indian state in the Kashmir valley and elevated the rhetoric on Kashmir on global forums. The ceasefire violations have also increased to help push a greater number of infiltrators inside Kashmir to take advantage of the disaffection in the state.

This argument is important because terrorist groups that are not supported by a state will not have an incentive to make the shift in strategy that the Pakistan-based groups have made. For example, in the month of July, Islamic State (IS) attacked an upmarket cafe in Dhaka killing several civilians—many of them foreigners. Pakistan cannot afford the consequences if terrorist groups based in the country were to launch a similar attack in India. Therefore, it is important to draw the link between Nagrota and Kaluchak, but also state the difference between Nagrota and 26/11.

That the Pakistani army has a good strategy does not mean it is necessarily working. Over the years, the patience in India—and the world—for suffering terrorist attacks is wearing thin. It is for this reason that the US intervened immediately after both Kaluchak and also 26/11 but not after Uri. India made full use of the latitude available to launch the surgical strikes. While the domestic protests in Kashmir have hurt India, Pakistan’s attempt to internationalize “occupation” of Kashmir has not succeeded. On the contrary, India has gone about raising the problems in Balochistan, including in the United Nations General Assembly.

Pakistan has also weathered a rough time diplomatically. All South Asian nations except Pakistan sided with India in boycotting this year’s SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Summit which was to be held in Islamabad. The surgical strikes were also a big embarrassment for the recently retired Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif. He had spent the last three years building a no-nonsense image. The surgical strikes dented that image significantly. The frustration came through in the form of increased ceasefire violations and terrorist attacks such as the one in Nagrota. Since the Pakistan army never acknowledged the surgical strikes, their response was bound to be shrouded in deniability.

What should be India’s approach? This newspaper continues to believe that the surgical strikes were a step in the right direction. A plethora of other measures on the diplomatic and economic front will be required but there is no solution to the Pakistan problem without the exercise of the hard force option. By responding to Uri—though the surgical strikes were not framed as such officially—India has lowered its threshold for restraint. Pakistan will rejoice if the old strategic restraint is reinstated by India and indeed Nagrota could be an attempt to explore just that. It is equally possible that Sharif wanted to gift his successor, the new Pakistan army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, a conflict he cannot get out of. No matter what Pakistan’s motivations are, India needs to keep up the pressure.

How should India respond to Nagrota attacks? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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