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Jammu drone attack shows the difficulty of separating Kashmir issue from geopolitics

Drone attack on Jammu Air Force station shows the limits of tactical moves such as the LoC ceasefire and relaxation of political tensions in J&K.

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There has been a consistent pattern in terrorist attacks following any positive development in Jammu and Kashmir or in India-Pakistan relations. There are powerful constituencies in Islamabad/Rawalpindi that consider even limited improvements in India-Pakistan relations as threat to their entrenched interests. By the same token, for them any prospect of a return to even limited peace and political normalcy in Kashmir — now a Union Territory — must be nipped in the bud.

The Kargil intrusion followed then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore in February 1999. The launch of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in April 2005 was greeted by setting on fire a government tourist office sheltering bus passengers and there were bomb blasts on the route. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dramatic stopover in Lahore on 25 December 2015 to meet his then Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif was followed within days by the terrorist attack on the Air Force base at Pathankot on 2 January 2016.

So, the drone attack on Jammu Air Force station in the early hours of 27 June should not come as a shock. It happened just a few days after the surprise and well-publicised meeting on 24 June between PM Modi and leaders of the much-derided Gupkar group of mostly mainstream political parties of Jammu and Kashmir. This follows the revival of the ceasefire between India and Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) since 25 February 2021, which has, against expectations, been scrupulously observed by both sides. Back-channel talks have been reportedly held between the National Security Advisors of the two countries and the UAE has claimed that it has played an intermediary role.

The drone attack puts the Indian government in a difficult position. If it undertakes some retaliatory action against Pakistan, then the promising developments in relations would be stalled and India-Pakistan tensions will be heightened. This will inevitably impact the political developments in Jammu and Kashmir. Whatever limited gains may have been anticipated from the 24 June meeting would likely diminish. If India does not retaliate, that too will have consequences because it will encourage more such attacks, perhaps of even greater lethality. Pakistan will deny involvement. But even if the drones were launched from inside Indian territory, there can be little doubt that the attacks have been inspired by elements within Pakistan. We have to proceed on that assumption.

Also read: Why countering ‘low-tech drone terror’ is going to be a big challenge for India

Internal and external, pressures mounting up

The use of drones to attack military or civilian targets introduces a dangerous new dimension to the security threats confronting India. This in any case requires an urgent and comprehensive assessment and a counter-strategy. This will be relevant not only for the India-Pakistan theatre but also the India-China theatre. China has advanced drone technologies and production capacities. Pakistan has access to these as an ally and will see them as adding another asymmetrical capability to threaten India.

A two-front war, in which India has to confront both Chinese and Pakistani forces simultaneously, is no longer just a possibility to guard against. It is becoming an operational reality. China and Pakistan have been conducting joint military exercises for years but recently, they held their first joint air exercises from airfields in Tibet. The message to India could not be more clear and direct.

On the one hand, in a two-front war scenario, it is Jammu and Kashmir that would be front and centre. It constitutes territory in contention with both China and Pakistan. Our security planners need to appreciate this new reality and its ominous implications.

The limited détente with Pakistan and the reaching out to the mainstream political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have been triggered by two broad developments. Internally in Jammu and Kashmir, the sidelining and even demonising of the mainstream parties and leaders and the nurturing of a new political leadership aligned to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has failed. The people in the Valley are disaffected and sullen and the promise of development and jobs has been mostly belied.

On the other hand, the scrutiny of the Modi government’s use of coercive instruments to enforce peace and stability in the troubled region has been under greater and adverse international scrutiny. The Joe Biden administration’s emphasis on upholding democratic values and human rights in its external relations has put the Indian government under mounting political pressure. Both the revival of ceasefire at the LoC and the attempt to bring about a degree of political normalcy in the Valley may be seen as a deflecting response to these external pressures.

Also read: India needs an honest national security document for the next decade, just like Britain made

The Afghan-Taliban conundrum 

Closer home, the very real prospect of Afghanistan falling under unchallenged Taliban rule complicates India’s geopolitical dilemma. We should be under no illusion that reaching out to the Taliban, as we appear to be doing, will diminish the heightened security threat they represent to Indian interests. Over the past two decades and more, Pakistan has been willing to pay the price of relative international isolation, economic hardship and internal security challenges, to keep its eyes fixed on the prize of Afghanistan as its client state under the Taliban.

And Afghanistan has value for Pakistan mainly in the context of its relations with India. Once the Americans leave and the Taliban establish their rule over the whole of Afghanistan, expect India to be sidelined in the country and its immense investment there to be diminished in value. We have already closed our consulates in Jalalabad and Herat. Kandahar may follow. Pakistan will use Afghanistan to recreate jihadi bases to target India with convenient deniability. To think that engagement with the Taliban will prevent Pakistan from using it for its nefarious purposes against India would be naïve.

During the earlier round of Taliban rule in Kabul, India’s policy was to keep that regime destabilised by supporting the Northern Alliance and Ahmad Shah Masood in the Panjshir Valley. The Russians and Iranians worked in coordination with us. This time around, potential partners are not visible.

Our options are limited and the geopolitical environment is becoming more adversarial. Tactical moves such as the LoC ceasefire and relaxation of political tensions in Jammu and Kashmir may be useful. But they do not add up to an effective long-term strategy to address the unprecedented, multiple and serious security challenges India is facing. The drone attack in Jammu is a wake-up call.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow, CPR. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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