Home / News / India /  Pulwama a very careful testing of Modi's will ahead of polls: C. Christine Fair

Pulwama a very careful testing of Modi's will ahead of polls: C. Christine Fair

C. Christine Fair is author and associate professor in the Security Studies Programme at Georgetown University. (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)Premium
C. Christine Fair is author and associate professor in the Security Studies Programme at Georgetown University. (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

  • The Pulwama terror attack signals that the JeM is back in business in Kashmir, says author C. Christine Fair
  • If Narendra Modi responds with a Uri-like response, or something else, Pakistan has the next move, she says

The Pulwama attack signals that the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) is back in business in Kashmir. The Pakistan Army has been using the group to ensure the rehabilitation of its Pakistan Taliban, reorienting them towards killing Indians and Afghans, says C. Christine Fair, associate professor in the Security Studies Programme at the Washington-based Georgetown University. In India to speak about her new book, In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Fair says that the Pulwama attack is a very careful testing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s will to respond to terrorism in advance of the 2019 polls. Given the number of dead, Pakistan has put Modi in a situation where he has to respond with the initiative in the hands of the Pakistan Army to escalate if India does go in for publicly declared surgical strikes, she says. Edited excerpts from an interview:

We have had a suicide attack in Pulwama, with the Pakistan-based JeM claiming responsibility for it. In recent times, JeM has emerged as the main group mounting attacks in Kashmir. Why is that?

This has roots in the domestic politics of Pakistan, going back to 2009 when the Pakistani Taliban began to become quite serious, the Pakistani state started rehabilitating the JeM in a very big way. The Pakistani Taliban come from the Deobandi school of Islam. So the Pakistani Army was basically giving these Pakistani Taliban two choices—either you can do this “ghar wapsi" and rejoin the Afghan Taliban or you can join JeM, if you don’t do either, we (Pakistan Army) will kill you. In other words you can become “good terrorists" again by joining the fight against Afghanistan or India. The JeM and the Afghan Taliban are the only real organizations that can draw the Pakistani Taliban back because they have a common ideology. At the same time, you can see the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) which operates under the name of Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) has been much more involved in domestic issues. What it means is that ideologically LeT is opposed to the Islamic State (IS), to the Pakistani Taliban, to the Deobandi groups committing violence within Pakistan itself. They are clear that as long as you are a Muslim and you respect the paramountcy of Allah, you should not be killed. This takes on the Deobandi groups. I make this argument in my book, the LeT is going to be much more important to the Pakistani state trying to calm down all these violent forces that are largely killing Pakistanis. The JeM is pivotal for sieving off some of the Deobandis who are killing Pakistanis and reorienting them towards killing Indians and Afghans. For the near future, I expect JeM to be the sword arm, if you will, of the ISI not the LeT because the LeT is very much engrossed in what is happening domestically. That doesn’t mean LeT is being mainstreamed and driven out of violence. That’s not true. The ISI always pits these different organizations against each other and use these organizations for different effects. LeT does not do suicide bombings like the Pulwama attack. Their fidayeen attacks are like conventional special operations attacks.

View Full Image
(Photo: PTI)

The Pulwama attack is a defining one in many ways isn’t it? The use of a car bomb, the location, etc?

The Pulwama attack was distinctive in several ways. The signalling is that JeM is back in the business of suicide bombing in Kashmir. This is a huge victory for JeM because usually their cadres are Punjabi. This attacker was a Kashmiri. Second, unlike Pathankot, it (the attack) stays within Kashmir. So they (ISI) are calibrating. This is how the ISI probes Indian intentions. Within Kashmir itself, scale up or scale down the audacity of the attacks. They can also scale up the antagonism by conducting attacks outside of Kashmir. This attack is interesting in a couple of ways—it is by a Kashmiri not a Pakistani, secondly, it is in southern Kashmir. It is a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) which has not been used to my knowledge since 2001-2002, which JeM also did. So this is after a hiatus of 18 years that they are reintroducing this kind of violence. But they did not do this outside Kashmir. So this is a very careful testing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s will and they are doing this in advance of the (2019 national) elections. And they are doing this against all of this optimism among some Indians about (Pakistan prime minister) Imran Khan’s “Naya Pakistan." This should explode that optimism because he is irrelevant.

What do you make of the video of the Pulwama suicide attacker on the internet?

The idea of a suicide video is not new. I think the organization making the videos may have had some doubts about whether the attacker will carry out the attack—in this case, in the very fact that he (Adil Ahmad Dar) was a Kashmiri, not typically the (Pakistani) Punjabi. The next thing that is notable is the content. He (Dar) is sending a message to the northern Kashmiri boys—“we are doing this fight for you, you need to step up your game." But he is also speaking to Indian Muslims—a very communal message to India’s Muslims. And in my interpretation of this is that this is the direct effect of the Pakistan Army wanting to reassert control over the Kashmir narrative.

The Pulwama attack used a vehicle laden with explosives. That requires some expertise to put together and handle by all accounts. Why would the Pakistani ISI trust a Kashmiri recruit with this kind of expertise?

Vehicle-borne bombs are hard because they are easy to spot, they are laden down, they are difficult to drive. In the early days of the Taliban using vehicle-borne bombs, most of the IEDs used to get prematurely detonated. It’s a very good device to do massive killing. But it takes a lot of preparation. The Pakistani handlers would impart such expertise to the bomber because he’s going to die. This is why (Ajmal) Kasab (one of the 10 terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008) actually failed in his most important job which was to die. That is why this video is so important. It binds him to dying. This bomb was assembled in India which means that there were people who were collecting the explosive, someone had to build the vehicle-borne IED here. Someone had to hook it up and he probably learned to drive this in Pakistan.

View Full Image
(Photo: Reuters)

The next question is what does India do to take on this challenge from Pakistan?

I have been saying for some time that the only option India has is sub-conventional deterrence which is you engage in covert operations to penalize them. There is probably going to be a demand for some sort of ex post facto public declaration of what was done. India has to be very cautious. The Pakistanis are antagonizing Modi. He has got an election. Had they done this in a city in Punjab or some place else, there would have been no question that Modi would have to respond. By doing this in Kashmir, they are giving him an option. Think about escalation in two ways politically—one way is that you have an attack inside Kashmir, or outside Kashmir—then thinking about escalation you pick the tier of the city. The other way of escalating is the brutality of the attack itself. So what they have done is they have chosen a calculated location, they have been restrained in the location but it’s a very brutal attack. The victim yield is very difficult for Modi to not respond. And they are banking on Modi responding like he did after the Uri attack (with surgical strikes).

So another surgical strike —a publicly acknowledged one — would be a mistake?

When Pakistan does this (an attack), then Pakistan has the initiative. They have first mover advantage. In the case of Uri, Pakistan said there was no such reprisal. Why did they do that? There would have been a demand domestically for a response to India’s move. If Modi responds with a Uri-like response, or something else, Pakistan has the next move. This is how these things escalate. They want to know how risk-receptive will Modi be. And they know that this is in the context of an election. If I were a betting person, I would say the Pakistanis would this time say the attack (by India) happened. I would do a covert operation. This idea that Modi is the first (to do a covert operation) is not true. Modi made it a political issue. By not declaring it, you don’t give them an option of saying “this is an outrage! You have violated our sovereignty!" You hit hard, but do it quietly. Then you take away the second mover advantage.

In your book you say, the LeT has no bench strength, if someone launches a decapitation strike. What about the JeM?

It is the same thing with the JeM. It should be high priority to assassinate the JeM chief. If that happens, the ISI has to scramble to replace him. I think that should always be an option for India to look at. Why would you not look at them as high-value targets? There are groups in Pakistan that can’t stand Hafiz Saeed. Co-opt one of them. This is tradecraft. You use an asset to get an asset to get an asset.

At the diplomatic level, India is looking to isolate Pakistan. But with China supporting Pakistan, how can that happen?

If you are China, JeM and LeT are very effective for you to box India into a corner. But you don’t have to stay in the corner because India has a whole larger landscape that it can play on. India is a global actor by any measure. Pakistan isn’t.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.
Post your comment

Recommended For You

Trending Stocks