From bad to worse

Following a suicide attack against Indian forces in Kashmir, Rahimullah Yusufzai charts the intensifying hostilities between South Asia’s two largest – and nuclear armed – nations

Predictably, India followed up its threat to avenge the recentattack on its security forces in the disputed Kashmir valley by carrying out airstrikes in Pakistan in the early hours of February 26.

As usual, conflicting claims were made by the Indian and Pakistan governments about the incident. India claimed the strike, targetting the biggest training camp of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in Balakot, eliminated very large number of terrorists, trainers, senior commandersand groups of jihadis being trained for ‘fidayeen’ action. It maintained that the non-military pre-emptive action specifically targeted a JeM camp located in a forest on a hilltop to avoid civilian casualties. While Delhi did not provide figures of those killed and wounded, the country’s media reported an unusually high, and unsubstantiated, number of casualties. The airstrikes were widely celebrated across India.

For its part, Pakistan downplayed the Indian attack and rejected New Delhi’s claim that a terrorist training camp was hit. The country’s military spokesman Maj. Gen Asif Ghafoor argued that not a single body or brick was found in the debris after the strike as there was no infrastructure of any training camp at the site. He claimed Pakistan’s jet-fighters forced the Indian planes to release their payload and escape after having violated the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. He also warned of retaliation at a time and place of Pakistan’s choosing.

This is the second time that India is claiming to have carried out airstrikes in Pakistan. Earlier in 2016, it said it had conducted surgical strikes in Pakistan-administered Kashmir to hit terrorist sanctuaries, though Pakistan rejected the claim. As Pakistan has committed to retaliate against any Indian misadventure, speculation is rife as to whether airstrikes will be carried out in Indian territory.

India-Pakistan relations have never been friendly but the February 14 suicide bombing that killed more than 40 soldiers in India-administered Kashmir triggered widespread concern about a further fuelling of tensions and an escalation of hostilities between the two countries.

As this was the deadliest peace-time attack on Indian security forces in Jammu & Kashmir since independence in 1947, the reactions of both the Indian government and the general public were predictably severe. The disputed Himalayan region had once again, overnight, turned into a familiar flashpoint.

The target of the attack was a convoy of the paramilitary Indian Central Reserve Police Force in Pulwama in south Kashmir, where Kashmiri militants are most active. The suicide bomber, 20-year old Adil Dar, recruited and trained in the India-controlled Kashmir valley, rammed an explosives-packed van into the convoy, killing 44 soldiers and injuring dozens more. In a nine-minute pre-recorded video, the bomber, surrounded by guns and grenades, stated his association with JeM, formed in 2000 and outlawed by Pakistan in 2002, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

In a pre-recorded video, the bomber stated his association with the militant group JeM

JeM founder Maulana Masood Azhar is a Pakistani militant from Bahawalpur in Punjab province. He was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in the past but subsequently acquitted by a court. In December 1999, he was released from jail in India along with two other militants, Ahmad Omar Saeed Shaikh and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, on the demand of hijackers of an Indian passenger plane that was flown to Taliban-ruled Kandahar, Afghanistan. India has repeatedly asked Pakistan to take verifiable action against Azhar.

The Indian government accused Pakistan of involvement in the Pulwama attack and threatened ‘jaw-breaking’ retribution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the perpetrators had made a big mistake and would have to pay a heavy price. In subsequent comments, he remarked that fire was burning in his heart and the Indian military had been given full freedom to take action against Pakistan at a time and place of its choosing.

In a measured counter-response, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan offered to investigate the attack and act if India provided actionable intelligence, not because Pakistan is under pressure but as part of its policy. He also announced that Islamabad was ready to discuss terrorism with New Delhi and hold talks to resolve all outstanding issues, but added categorically that Pakistan would retaliate if attacked by India.

Both prime ministers, in their tit-for-tat responses, also tried to highlight their vision for their respective countries. Modi maintained that India now had ‘a new convention and policy’, while Imran Khan mentioned his oft-repeated pledge to build a ‘Naya Pakistan’ (new Pakistan). Ministers in the two countries joined the chorus as condemnation statements were issued.

While India claimed the Pakistan government was in a state of panic in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, Pakistani officials insisted their country was calm, despite the war-mongering now evident across the border. However, it seemed both sides were making preparations so as not to be taken unawares in case of an armed confrontation.

Pro-India Kashmiri politicians Dr Farooq Abdullah (l) & Mahbooba Mufti
Pro-India Kashmiri politicians Dr Farooq Abdullah (l) & Mahbooba Mufti

Since the attack, India has taken steps to cause pain to Pakistan in terms of trade and by isolating it diplomatically. Delhi withdrew the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status that it had granted to Pakistan, imposed high customs duty on Pakistani exports and called back its ambassador from Islamabad for consultation. It also said it had prepared a dossier about Pakistan’s culpability in the Pulwama strike for the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental organisation that works to stop terror-financing, money-laundering and other financial crimes. The timing was significant as the FATF was meeting in Paris to decide whether Pakistan had done enough since June 2018 to curb such crimes in order to be taken off the so-called ‘grey list’. While acknowledging Pakistan had taken certain measures, as recommended by the FATF, the meeting decided to keep it on the ‘grey-list’.

India’s tough response to the Pulwama attack and its threat to punish Pakistan triggered widespread anti-Pakistan protests in India. Protestors demanded that Pakistan should be attacked, and demands were made to revoke article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave special status to Jammu & Kashmir. A petition to this effect is already being heard by the Supreme Court of India.

There were sane voices on both sides of the border

Matters were not helped by the jingoism preached by sections of the Indian media. One heard comments to the effect that TV channels in India and Pakistan need to be checked to stop venomous propaganda and avoid war.

A Pakistani prisoner, Shakirullah, who hailed from Sialkot and was serving a life sentence for espionage, was stoned to death in Jaipur prison in India’s Rajasthan state. Facing attacks and hate crimes in Indian cities, many Kashmiri students and traders moved back to the Kashmir valley despite government assurances of protection. Many well-meaning Indians pointed out that such a frenzied reaction would further alienate the Kashmiri people and push them into the anti-India camp.

Meanwhile, the Indian government launched a crackdown on Kashmiri leaders and activists, arresting 150 known separatists, mostly belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami group, headed by Syed Ali Gillani. Even the pro-India Kashmiri politicians Dr Farooq Abdullah and Mahbooba Mufti were compelled to say that the crackdown was unjustified and provocative. India’s decision to rush about 10,000 additional paramilitary soldiers to the Kashmir valley, which is already classified as the world’s most militarised region, also caused alarm.

In Pakistan, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa warned India against any misadventure. The military spokesman said Pakistan was not preparing for war, but is capable of giving a surprise to aggressors. The assemblies passed resolutions condemning Indian threats and expressing solidarity with the armed forces. Pakistan recalled its ambassador as diplomatic staff reported harassment in New Delhi. Islamabad insisted allegations against it were knee-jerk, pre-conceived and made soon after the Pulwama attack without any proper investigations.

‘Not preparing for war’: Pakistan’s military spokesman Maj. Gen Asif Ghafoor
‘Not preparing for war’: Pakistan’s military spokesman Maj. Gen Asif Ghafoor

In a pre-emptive measure, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, wrote a letter to the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres to draw his attention, ‘with a sense of urgency’, to the deteriorating security situation in the region resulting from the Indian threat to use force against Pakistan. Qureshi proposed that the UN step in to defuse tensions, arguing that India was deliberately ratcheting up its hostile rhetoric for domestic political reasons. Earlier, Pakistan had asked the visiting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, whose next stop on his Asian tour was India, to present Pakistan’s point of view in his meetings with Indian leaders.

Pakistan also moved to ban the militant group Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) headed by Hafiz Saeed and its charity wing, Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) and resolved to tighten the noose around other extremist and militant groups. The Punjab government seized the JeM offices in Bahawalpur.

Amidst the war of words between South Asia’s two biggest countries, there were some sane voices on both sides of the border. Among them were three former Pakistani diplomats, Inamul Haq, Riaz H Khokhar and Riaz Mohammad Khan, who penned a joint article calling for restraint and warning that the prevailing situation could spark a conflict with incalculable consequences for both India and Pakistan. Rational voices were also heard in India, despite the difficulties of speaking out amid the beating of war drums in the country.

Fearful of the consequences should nuclear-armed India and Pakistan go to war, the world has taken notice of the Pulwama attack.

US President Donald Trump termed the standoff ‘very dangerous’, while indicating that the US and others are trying to defuse the tension. The United Nations Security Council described the Pulwama suicide bombing as heinous and cowardly, but it did not mention Pakistan, which brought a sigh of relief in government circles in the federal capital, Islamabad.

It is obvious that the relationship between India and Pakistan has gone from bad to worse, engulfing even the worlds of sports and cinema. In fact, the two are barely on talking terms since the 2008 Mumbai carnage, with India spurning all offers of a peace dialogue by Pakistan until Islamabad ensures that the perpetrators of this attack are punished. Post-Pulwama, New Delhi made it clear that Islamabad needs to take verifiable action against those behind the suicide bombing.

In its aftermath, the feel-good atmosphere created by Islamabad’s decision to open the visa-free Kartarpur corridor so Sikh pilgrims can visit some of their holy places in Pakistan has dissipated. Pakistan has returned to its familiar calls to give the people of Jammu & Kashmir the right to self-determination in keeping with the UN Security Council resolutions. India, on the other hand, is focusing on the issue of terrorism by claiming that India-focused militants have found safe havens in Pakistan. Islamabad is using every opportunity to highlight the case of Indian navy officer Kulbushan Yadav, arguing that he is a spy, caught red-handed in Balochistan perpetrating terrorist violence in Pakistan.

Though there seems to be no appetite for war among the majority of Indians and Pakistanis, a hawkish minority, through its provocative actions, could create conditions that may spiral out of control and cause grief for both the nations.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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