The devastating suicide bombing at Awantipora in Jammu & Kashmir, inflicting the largest fatalities on Security Forces in a single incident across thirty years of insurgency in the State, will raise critical questions and new challenges for India. While it is never advisable to attempt to draw strategic implications from a single incident, whatever its magnitude, there are a number of elements in and around the Awantipora attack that suggest a potentially major strategic shift.

Several prominent political commentators have sought to characterise the attack as an “act of desperation” – this is, of course, part of the standard official response to major incidents, in addition to “dastardly deed” and “cowardly act”, and is nothing more than flatulent rhetoric. It is crucial to note that the Pakistan-based and state-backed Jaish-e-Mohammad almost immediately claimed the attack. This fact, combined with the nature, target and scale of the attack, indicates that the Jaish has received clear directives from its Inter Services Intelligence handlers to ramp up its visible activities in Jammu and Kashmir.

Secondly, while much is being made of the identity of the suicide cadre employed in the Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device attack, it is useful to recognise that the local cadre was no more than a mule used to deliver the device. Local insurgents, over the last over two years of intensive activity and efforts to project terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir as a “domestic insurgency”, have been extraordinarily ineffective in terms of operational scale and impact, despite growing local recruitment (as well as fatalities and arrests).

They have, moreover, demonstrated no technical or resource capacities to engineer the pattern and magnitude of the February 14 attack, and these capacities and capabilities, along with the planning and overall execution, will have been the responsibility of Pakistani cadres of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. In some ways, this will restore the equation between Pakistani and “local” groups to the situation that prevailed through the 1990s and early 2000s, with the foreign groups responsible for key functions, and the local cadres playing a secondary role.

Third, far from an “act of desperation”, the Awantipora attack likely reflects growing confidence in the Pakistani military establishment as a result of the anticipated outcome in Afghanistan, where Rawalpindi feels that its proxies are now on the verge of victory, with the imminent withdrawal of American forces (with other allies likely to quickly follow, if not lead, the flight). Rawalpindi is also likely to believe that it can free up some of its resources, earlier committed to Afghanistan, for an escalation in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in an environment of growing impunity. Believing that they have already defeated one superpower (the Soviet Union), and are on the cusp of defeating the other, the Pakistan Army is likely to reckon that India will be a relatively soft target.

This is particularly the case since it is clear that America and the Western powers have been unable to defend their own declared interests and the lives of their security forces’ personnel in Afghanistan, and are unlikely to put themselves to any extraordinary risk or exertion in the event of an escalation in Jammu and Kashmir.

Belligerent rhetoric

Indian reactions have also been bursting with belligerent rhetoric, threatening vengeance, with the prime minister explicitly stating that the security forces will be given a “free hand” to deal with the terrorists (earlier statements would have led us to believe that the forces had already been given a “free hand” many times over) and that those responsible will pay a “very heavy price”. Much of this is nothing more than face-saving bluster in the wake, not only of the devastating attack, but of the abysmal and abject failure of the regime’s Kashmir and Pakistan policies (if the mischief and floundering of the past nearly five years could even deserve that appellation).

While the security forces and the Army will now be pressured to engineer some theatrical operations to construct the necessary “optics” for the ruling party to approach the looming General Election, it is abundantly clear that little real option exists. No strategic response is possible in the absence of sustained strategic preparation, and there has been abysmal neglect of capacity building in the defence, internal security and intelligence sectors over the past decades; the past nearly five years under the present regime have done little or nothing to address cumulative deficits that have accumulated over the decades, and annual budgets in these sectors have, in real terms, shrunk from year to year, particularly in the “capital expenditure” category which funds capacity building.

In March 2018, a report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had observed that 68% of all equipment with the armed forces was in the “vintage category”, and that the forces did not have the ammunition reserves to sustain a 10 day war with Pakistan. The only visible response to this report was that the Chairman of the Committee, Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Major General (Retired) BC Khanduri, who earlier served as chief minister of Uttarakhand, was relieved of his position.

The explosion at Awantipora is likely to be a prelude to a tremendous escalation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir, to increasing and increasingly visible involvement of Pakistani groups and cadres, and to a progressive transfer of tactics and strategies from Afghanistan to India.

Ajai Sahni is Publisher and Editor, Second Sight of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, where this article was first published.

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