National Interest
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Noted American scholar on South Asia, Stephen P. Cohen, has a genius description for Pakistani strategic thought. Pakistan, he says, negotiates with the world by holding the gun to its own head: Give me what I want, or I will blow my brains out. You then handle the mess. Has Pakistan pulled that trigger in Pulwama?

First, get any notion that this was a purely indigenous act of terror out of the way. The suicide terrorist was a radicalised Indian Kashmiri. But count the reasons why this couldn’t be an entirely Indian planned and executed operation:

*Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility. It is purely a Pakistan-based and ISI-controlled organisation.

*While radicalisation and motivation can be local, there is zero evidence that this volume of high explosive (most likely RDX or RDX-mixed) is available with usually amateurish local groups, along with skills to rig the trigger-timer mechanism.

*See that last video the bomber recorded. He is reading pre-written text from a board placed in front, or cards held by someone. The language isn’t so much about Kashmiri grievances or revenge, as to instigate Muslims in the rest of India. Babri Masjid and Gujarat are invoked, and “all our Muslims” exhorted to rise in revolt against “cow-urine drinkers”. This is precisely how Jaish, even more than Lashkar-e-Taiba, thinks. Not local Kashmiris.

This action fits perfectly the pattern set by Jaish in the past. The suicide bombing of the state assembly in Srinagar in 2001, the attack on Parliament later the same year, raids on Pathankot and Gurdaspur, have all had the same objective: To somehow take the terror fallout beyond Kashmir. Lashkar did so in Mumbai (26/11) too, but much of its energy and manpower is still used in fighting in Kashmir. Under global pressure, it is also being mainstreamed by its GHQ patrons into Pakistani politics. Jaish, much smaller but enormously more vicious, resourceful and an ISI favourite, is more selective with “impact” attacks.

How resourceful Jaish is, we know from the IC-814 hijack. It could get an Indian plane hijacked from Kathmandu and taken to safe harbour in Kandahar to trade hostages for its key leaders jailed in India. It’s been established repeatedly in subsequent research that every step in that hijack, from facilitation in Kathmandu to negotiations in Kandahar using the Taliban, and then safe “recovery” of released Jaish chief Masood Azhar and others, was overseen by the ISI.

To the Pakistani establishment and ISI, Azhar and Jaish are much bigger assets than even Lashkar and Hafiz Saeed. Jaish is their main force-multiplier. The Chinese also acknowledge it, which is the reason they are shamelessly complicit in protecting him.

That this terrorist was a local Kashmiri is no surprise. In each of its actions so far, including IC-814, Parliament and other attacks, Jaish has had key participation of Indian Kashmiris. Afzal Guru, remember, was Indian. Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, one of the other two jailed terrorists traded for IC-814 passengers, was Kashmiri. We have enough evidence, therefore, to stop wasting time in local, root-cause theories and giving Pakistan any deniability, however implausible.


Also read: Peshawar to Pulwama, how Pakistan differentiates snakes in its backyard & front yard


Why do we raise that question: Has Pakistan finally pulled that trigger on its own head? Because, all the earlier Jaish and Lashkar attacks passed without a publicised retaliation, although we know about some secret “surgical strikes” in the past. Between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, India was able to ride out the moments of anger with coercive diplomacy, global pressure on Pakistan and a strategic mindset that was fundamentally pacifist, and believed in responding no more than proportionately to any provocation.

The Modi government has no such pretence. It holds both Manmohan and Vajpayee and other governments of the past in contempt for what it sees as their “pusillanimity”. Further, having made such noise and political capital from the post-Uri surgical strikes, there is no way it is going to be able to hold fire or restrain itself for long. Pakistan has it coming. Where, how, when, nobody knows. But it can’t be long.

A retaliatory response could come soon. It will also be visible, high-decibel and wrapped in claims of victorious retribution. India is in the early days of its most vicious election campaign yet. Narendra Modi will not go seeking a second term with the taint of Pulwama.

It will then be for Pakistan to decide whether to leave it there, or respond to its own popular compulsions to begin a retaliatory cycle. It could, besides whatever happens militarily, end this tenure of Imran Khan. History tells us no Pakistani leader can go to war, big or small, with India and survive. Ayub Khan (1965), Yahya Khan (1971) and Nawaz Sharif (Kargil, 1999) tell us that. Three instances, as we say in journalism, is a straight line.

There can’t be much argument over the essential reality of Pakistan: That Imran will not have a decisive say in what happens next. He might ultimately pay for the army/ISI bullheadedness as Nawaz did for Kargil, and he will need enormous skill and luck not to become that scapegoat. No elected prime minister has the final word on such issues in Pakistan and Imran, if anything, is among the weakest in some time. The call to engage in an immediate escalatory cycle or not, will be his army’s. Could he even counsel them against it, we can’t be sure. They will decide whether to blow their brains out or not. He’s a loser either way.

Besides the difference between Modi and his predecessors, there are two other important distinctions now. One, that it is a world radically different from what we left behind in 2008 (26/11) or 2001-02 (J&K assembly and Parliament attacks). Then, top American and European leaders would come flying in, heads of states would make phone calls, Russia and China would all weigh in to calm things down, calm and reassure Indian public opinion by expressing solidarity with us and condemning Pakistan.

That world doesn’t exist anymore. It unravelled the day Donald Trump was elected and kept his promise of making America great again by withdrawing and leaving the rest of the world to its own devices. If stuff hits the fan in the subcontinent now, he may not even bother tweeting restraint immediately. The modern world’s oldest antagonists can set their region on fire now, without the comfort of the American/global fire truck waiting at our door.

This has also diminished, if not eliminated the subcontinent’s old leverage with the world: Come and stop us or we will nuke each other. Trump may be the one we blame, but there is generally a wariness about the region holding the world to ransom after claiming to be responsible nuclear weapons powers.

Of course, it applies much more to Pakistan than India. Because, in the subcontinent, the nukes are the preferred weapon of the weaker power, the likely loser. Beginning with V.P. Singh’s spineless year in 1990, Pakistan has used the nuclear deterrent entirely to its own advantage, keeping its provocations within that threshold, ruling out any sizeable retaliation from India. Obsession with tactical nukes tells us that the Pakistanis have probably not reviewed that position. If they haven’t, they will get a disastrous surprise. This Indian establishment no longer sees nukes as only one side’s deterrence. If you take chances with it, and that too in election weeks, you might as well have pulled that trigger.


Also read: After Pulwama, another ‘one off’ surgical strike will be a strategic mistake


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28 COMMENTS

  1. An excellent article. Is Pakistan suicidal? This is the most crucial question to be considered while discussing often repeated nuclear blackmail by Pakistan. In the game theory of nuclear deterrence, players can be classified in many ways: Rational, Irrational, deliberately showing pretence of irrationality, occasionally irrational, mad. Is Pakistani Military junta mad? I don’t think so. All that they want is they should continue to have their dominance on all the affairs in Pakistan. In these respect they are status quoits – meaning they will not like disturb the current political equilibrium and equations , as far as possible. All that they are doing is to sponsor and employ terrorist groups so as to have a pretence of irrationality. Pakistan has a well designed and structured nuclear control system. As such, Pakistani Army will not dare to touch the nuclear button, because they know that in the event of nuclear catastrophe, it means complete demolition of Pakistan, whereas India can somehow be able to survive the calamity. Pakistan’s nuclear bluff needs to be called. How and when is to be decided by our government.

  2. India needs a Putin and Israel. Putin’s Russia has a balls to you and devil may care attitude to the world and protects Russian interests. No other country avenges the way Israel does. Now I’m waiting for Modi’s response.

  3. When India has superiority in conventional warfare, why should it even think of a nuclear button? Common citizens too must be chary of the word “nuclear”. We must remember that leaders on both sides have recourse to safe nuclear attack-proof bunkers; it’s the innocent people on both sides who will suffer for adventurism of one or two people.

    • India’s response to the Pulwama outrage will calibrated, well planned and executed. PM Modi has done well to leave it to the Armed forces to decide on the military response and time and target. If Pakistan does not learn after this episode, it will commit suicide. The Pak army should be pulverized and reduced to smithereens.

  4. What would be China’s reaction, if India chooses to initiate military action against Pakistan? India has lessor fighter jets at this time.

  5. This is one of the best articles to come out of Shekhar Gupta’s Left-leaning pen in a long time. I have learnt a lot of interesting things about Jaish and ISI, which, like most Indians I had not cared to learn. Even his left-handed compliments to Modi are muted and sound almost like genuine praise about Modi’s mindset and compulsions. His assessment of the changed cicumstances in the geo-politics of the world and Asia are also masterly. Even while being a confirmed friend of Pakistan, he has sounded the death knell of the Pakistani terror state.

  6. There will be NO response from Modi. He is too much of an ordinary politician worried about winning elections than bringing radical shifts, may it be economy or geopolitical power equations. He is NOT Indira Gandhi.

    • I am glad Modi is not Indira Gandhi. Modi puts the nation ahead of himself or his party. The fact that he empowers his ministry and the army says a lot about him.
      He is a person willing to take things head on, and deal with consequences.

  7. Pak nuclear capability coupled with decision making authority definitely deters India to wage a war or take such an action which will turn into a war. Delhi knows nuclear button in Pak is with the army and Pak army is fully determined to not to face defeat as previous war results hv kept them boiling. Nuclear capabilities developed after these results. Kargil was not a direct war, insurgents were fighting proxy war that too in limited specific geography plus India was restrained to take bare minimum war methods. It seems nuclear threat was in Indian mind.
    Plus Taliban high morale may deter India to not to wage a war. Kashmir solution is pending since 1947. Nobody will blame Modi. Hence RSS, the think tank for Modi, may suggest some sort of eye wash measures to pacify voters. Media positioning us going to be huge, even a fired bullet will be depicted as nuclear warhead impact.
    Elections are fast approaching and with China support the anticipated war will go on and Modi may not be able to claim victory to get votes. Alternatively Modi may be looking for diplomatic measures and pictures those as thumping victory and garner votes. Basically it will be vote bank politics decision.

  8. It would be a good idea for Prime Minister and his distinguished predecessor to have a long meeting, go over this issue minutely. No colleague in the present CCS could offer such a breadth of understanding and sage counsel. The decision is of course of the incumbent, but there is a continuity and a long history of India dealing with a sometimes reckless Pakistan. Previous governments were prudent, not pussilanimous. The fact that a difficult election is looming should not dilute the rigour of the decision making process. There is also now an element of showiness to issues that need to be kept in deep cover. Demonetisation is just one instance of rushing into momentous decisions without careful forethought and planning, A much smaller issue like Dokalam did not go as per plan. We all hope and pray for a peaceful general election, without unthinkable things happening on the subcontinent.

    • Why you say that Doklam didn’t go as per plan. China withdrew and it was a big victory of Modi. And why people like MMS who failed miserably after having so much evidence after 26/11. Besides MMS always had soft-corner for Pakistan and he made a blunder by accepting to discuss Indian involvement in Baluchistan.

    • I agree. Parvez Musharraf often said that he and Vajpeyi or Manmohan Singh, I don’t remember which of the two, had almost reached a solution to the Kashmir issue through some track-2 efforts. What was that solution? Mr Modi or the next PM of India should probe what Gen Musharraf was talking about. Maybe that can be a good starting point to solve this problem.

      • Frankly speaking there was no solution because if there was it would have been taken by Musharraf and MMS. These are just wishful thinking if people who read too much in small progress. I can’t imagine any scenario where India and Pakistan will agree on Kashmir on equal terms. This is the reality.

  9. What a stupid article from Shekhar Gupta, a stark departure from the normal, insightful analyses. Sounds like a pre-war bugle justifying a ‘retaliation’ from this Indian Govt. A retaliation that will exonerate both their pathetic records in Kashmir, and on the Indian economic front. For someone who usually takes a long view, this is a rather short-sighted, rabble-rousing piece!

  10. Fantastic piece!
    India has had enough of putting up with these wimps and the highly corrupts. They are out of fashion now.
    We always needed a decisive leader like Mr. Modi to pest control this region.
    The fumes maybe a little inconvenient to put up with, but hey, we stand to have a better sanitized place when the sanitation is done.
    Political correctness be damned.
    He must return in 2019 with 300+.
    This march has to go on for another decade, till be are free of pests aka subhumans who don’t respect lives of others.

  11. Nice article. Let us all leave politics out of such terrorist acts. Time to retaliate by Indian government, whether it’s BJP or Congress or AAP majority.

  12. really excellent article/analysis i have read in a long time. mentioning older incidents and the government response are quite insightful especially for the 90s generation (current youth to which i belong)… and yeah keeping out the typical emotional/ knee jerk responses is a sight for eyes sored by other medias all around.

  13. Mr. Gupta writes flippantly. Its not just the nuclear arms. Apart from a well trained army, Pakistan has China’s backing. Not sure how that factor would come into play if India plans an attack. on Pakistan.

  14. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist,Barnala (Punjab)

    I am indeed disappointed to go through this article from the pen of Mr.Shekhar Gupta that too
    under the title NATIONAL INTEREST !

    In my view, the write-up does not at all reflect national interests because it tends to indulge in
    wild reactions and over enthusiasm !

    Ironical to find the story based on hypothetical considerations linking this tragic and unfortunate
    Pulwama terror attack with ensuing Lok Sabha Polls when the author asserts with the remarks,
    “Narendra Modi will not go seeking a second term with the taint of Pulwama.” and then
    ” Suicidal Pakistan should know Modi may not be scared of its nuclear button.”

    Both the assertions do not hold any ground, because whatever NaMo does, does not do it bearing in mind
    the national interests but his own self-centred political interests for his insatiable lust for power !

    There is no logic in first take that NaMo will not go seeking a second term with the taint of Pulwama !
    It is not the only taint but there are too many ones – the Demonetisation, GST, Farmers Distress, Mob
    Lynching, Unemployment, Poverty, Undermining of institutions-organs of state, subversion of the
    constitution and what not ?

    Then secondly, it is not NaMo’s question of being scared or not of Pakistan Nuclear Button, it is the
    multi-dollar question of nation’s peace, prosperity and well being ?

    By inciting NaMo openly for a retaliation on part of India we are not infact serving nationsl interests !
    What had he been doing all these almost quarter to five years in NDA regime at the centre to restore
    peace, harmony and normalcy in the Kashmir valley ? Has he not been playing” hide and seek politics”
    going in for experiments sans understanding the crux of the insurgency problem in Jammu and Kashmir ?

    Has he not failed miserably to address this senstive issue issue with prudence,, smartness and audacity ?

    Did he ever go in for expert counsel and consensual approach in the larger national interests over this
    contentious issue ?

    Did he ever at any point admit failures, learning lessons from the past blunders and follies ?

    The national interests cannot at all be overlooked while going in for any extreme decision
    recklessly, thoughtlessly and rashly !

    Prof PK Sharma,Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest,Barnala(Punjab)

  15. What I can’t I can’t understand is why even Modi like earlier PMs dishes out such platitude after every attack instead of being prepared ready with the requisite counter actions for retaliation by return.Why was Masood Azar released in the first place by earlier govt. and still not eliminated by covert operation during last 5 yrs by this govt.led by 56incest chest.

  16. No need of war now. It will be a game changer if Modi will call a Parliament session to withdraw Article 370 from Kashmir. All party will support even if they have no interest. Without hindrance it will be passed in both house. After that Modi will be Hero and Jaish will be zero.

  17. There will be no response from Modi government. Mr Shekhar Gupta’s reading of Modi is faulty. He has not taken any sane decision during his tenure. He personally is like Pakistan collectively. It is true that he will do some showy things for the interest of elections, but it will not be a war needing nuke responses from Pak. Also remember the Saudi angle. Trump in his message has already asked for caution. America is the Godfather of Pakistan, no matter who is the President. Trump needs pakistan more for his Afghan withdrawal.
    All SG’s readings are over reactions being in awe with Modi’s and his regime’s show business

  18. Neither India or Pakistan can press the button as both know the consequence. Our borders are so close that it is poor people who would be the victims neither Imran or his chamchas or Modi and company. These leaders have not born in era world war.

  19. Writing articles is very easy… if you really care than go and fight on the border… this is they very problem with Indian mentality instead of praising for good things we are more interested in criticising. So you mean a Pakistan is not to be blamed for this and it’s our fault???

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