One year since the Pulwama attack
Today marks one year since the Pulwama attack in Kashmir in which over forty Indian soldiers were killed. At the time of the attack, Pakistan and India had spent roughly a year engaged in a reasonably deep series of secret backdoor talks to restart negotiations to address a host of issues between the two countries, including the seventy-year old Kashmir dispute. The Pulwama attack was like a car bombing of the entire framework of South Asian stability. If the primary goal of a terrorist is to hijack mainstream politics and shape the decisions of the adults in the room, Pulwama may represent the near perfect execution of a terrorist act—but the terrorist enabler and abettor in this case is the very same party that claims victimhood: it is India.
India’s response to the Pulwama attack was to first launch a diplomatic offensive against Pakistan that shut the door on otherwise well-structured back door negotiations (deliberations that were in part enabled by senior members of the Arab world’s leadership community), and then to attack Pakistan. Using its considerable diplomatic power, India prepared the grounds for a brazen military attack on Pakistan. That attack came on February 26 when India sent air force jets into Pakistani airspace to drop bombs on a small Pakistani town known as Balakot. The Balakot attack was ostensibly conducted to take out terrorist camps. It did nothing of the sort—India only managed to mangle a few shrubs and damage a few trees. But what happened next was even more shocking.
Instead of restraining India and condemning its blatant violation of Pakistani territory, Western powers like Germany, France, Australia, the UK and the US all lined up behind India seeking to ensure they receive a share of India’s massive defense budget. The short-termism of these otherwise responsible Western powers has had profound consequences for the South Asia region. Instead of being sanctioned for instigating a potential Armageddon in the world’s most potent nuclear hotspot, India’s religious extremist leaders feel they have a carte blanche to fulfill their dangerous fantasies of a Hindu supremacist Indian nationalism—at the cost of the freedom and dignity of twelve million Kashmiris, and over 250 million Indian minorities, including Muslims—and even more worryingly at the cost of the South Asia region’s stability.
Pakistan’s leaders, from Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa, to Prime Minister Imran Khan, to opposition leaders including Shahbaz Sharif, and the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari aligned as one the day the Balakot invasion took place.
The most dangerous of all the various elements of this dangerous cocktail that India’s extremist bartenders are serving to India, the region, and the world is the impact of its escalatory character.
Pakistan’s leaders, from Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa, to Prime Minister Imran Khan, to opposition leaders including Shahbaz Sharif, and the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari aligned as one the day the Balakot invasion took place. The Pakistan Air Force pilots that engaged Indian Air Force jets that had violated airspace for the second consecutive day on February 27 last year emerged victorious, downing at least one Indian jet, and capturing the pilot that was flying it. Shockingly, rather than holding onto him, Pakistani leaders agreed that a de-escalatory step was the responsible and mature thing to do—and Wing Commander Abhinandan Verthaman was returned to his country with great dignity and grace. The question is, can Pakistan’s leaders be counted on to repeat the resolute demonstration of restraint and responsibility again?
The answer to this question must be pondered carefully by countries like Germany, France, the UK and the United States. India’s conduct since the Pulwama attack has been like that of a wild boar, in a China shop. But the China shop isn’t as fragile or docile as India’s extremist leadership believes it is. Pakistan’s resolute demonstration of conventional capability in response to the Balakot attack, and its restraint after the August 5 annexation of Kashmir should have demonstrated that both Pakistan’s capability and its intent are better than India as its Western allies believe them to be.
India has painted itself into a very tight corner in Occupied Kashmir. The people of Kashmir have never identified as Indian. Even if a miracle was to occur, and Pakistan chose to opt for the morally bankrupt option of accepting India’s occupation, and its regional hegemony, the people of Kashmir will not.
Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders are often too distracted with domestic imperatives to make their case to the world effectively, but the benefit of this over-occupation with domestic issues is that they know, in Rawalpindi and in Islamabad, what the outer limits of the people’s tolerance is for compromise.
With its intemperate response to Pulwama, its brazen attack at Balakot, its illegal annexation of Kashmir on August 5th, and the legal changes instituted by the Citizenship Amendment Act in December, India has demonstrated it has almost no interest in a more stable region.
February 14 is a day for amorous indulgence between lovers—but it is now marked in Pakistan by the realization that India’s present and likely future is defined by hatred. How Pakistan will continue to resist India’s provocations and continue to try to establish a lasting peace in the region, including Afghanistan, will be one of the most fascinating dynamics for Washington DC, Berlin, Paris and London. Alas, if they had paid adequate attention a year ago, perhaps the South Asia region would be closer to peace than it is to war.
– Mosharraf Zaidi is a columnist and policy analyst. He works for the policy think tank, Tabadlab.