Home / Articles / A Valentine’s Day Massacre in Kashmir: Weighing the Risks of Escalation
Dusk was falling as I finished my tea with a young Indian Army officer at an army camp not far from Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. I knew that I had to take his leave soon because my army escorts wanted to get me back to the regional headquarters of the Fifteenth Corps in the city of Srinagar before dark.
As I got up to leave I asked the officer if he could explain why the barbed wire fence around the camp had a number of liquor bottles strung together. Was it out of sheer boredom that his men had displayed them on the perimeter wire? After a moment’s hesitation, he answered. No, he said, without the slightest hint of irony, they were the camp’s early warning system. You see, he explained, if any terrorists were to try and cut the barbed wire, the empty bottles would create much noise and thereby alert the sentries on patrol.
Driving out of the camp, on the way to Srinagar, I noticed that a number of sandbagged checkpoints were covered with taut, transparent plastic sheets. With my curiosity getting the better of me, I asked my army liaison officer if they were an attempt to retain the heat in these sandbag bunkers. After a brief pause and a smile she let me know that the plastic sheets were improvised shields against grenade attacks: apparently, their tautness led grenades to bounce off.
These two conversations had taken place the summer of 2000 when I was on a field trip to the state in the wake of the Kargil War of 1999 between India and Pakistan. Almost two decades later these anecdotes came to mind after last week’s suicide bombing at Pulwama, not far from where the camp that I had visited was located. A multiple vehicle convoy was on its way to Srinagar carrying units of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a paramilitary organization that has long been deployed in Kashmir. They are relied upon to secure government installations, run checkpoints on arterial roads and also to take part in counterinsurgency operations as needed.
They have been deployed along with regular Indian Army units (including specialized divisions trained for counterinsurgency operations, most notably the Rashtriya Rifles) since the outbreak of an ethno-religious insurgency in 1989. The insurgency had mostly indigenous roots. However, sensing an opportunity to wreak havoc Pakistan’s military establishment and its principal counterespionage organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D), quickly turned it into a religiously inspired extortion racket. Pakistan’s involvement in the insurgency greatly widened its scope, increased its lethality and enhanced the possibility of yet another Indo-Pakistani conflict. According to some estimates, since the onset of the insurgency as many as 100,000 individuals have lost their lives.
Last week , a suicide bomber, a local Kashmir high school dropout, Adil Ahmad Dar, who had joined a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, rammed an Indian-manufactured SUV into one of the buses that was ferrying CRPF personnel. Indian intelligence agencies later estimated that the SUV was laden with as much as 300 kilograms of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) The force of the explosives blew up the entire, unarmored bus killing as many as 40 individuals.
The conversations recounted above came to mind in the wake of this suicide bombing for a single compelling reason. It underscored that despite nearly two decades of insurgency and terrorist violence the Indian security forces still betrayed a curious and inexplicably lax attitude towards perimeter security and force protection. The bus that was blown up was a conventional vehicle with no form of armor plating. Consequently, it was an acutely vulnerable target for any determined assailant.
The laxity about force protection is odd at two different levels and is fraught with significant consequences for the region. At the outset, the feckless attitude toward force protection has proven to be extremely costly for the Indian security forces. In 2018 alone as many as 27 personnel belonging to the army and the Border Security Force (another paramilitary organization primarily responsible for policing the border) were killed. The death toll, especially after this recent suicide bombing, is likely to be considerably greater this year.
This suicide bombing was, of course, not a one-off event. In February 2018, members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) attacked an army camp in Sunjuwan, in the Jammu, the southern part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In this attack at least eleven army personnel lost their lives. Earlier in January 2016, another group of terrorists belonging to the JeM attacked an air force station in Pathankot, killing three air force personnel. In September of the same year, JeM terrorists struck the army’s brigade headquarters in Uri, killing as many as seventeen soldiers. All these attacks underscored a critical vulnerability: the lack of adequate perimeter security and a callous attitude toward force protection.
The loss of the lives of security personnel is, of course, inherently troubling. Most of the men killed were rank and file soldiers and, more often than not, the principal breadwinners for their families. Consequently, the loss of their lives is bound to have significant social repercussions. Entire families who had relied on their income in distant parts of the country from where the men hailed will suffer the consequences of their deaths.
The societal costs of these deaths are, without a doubt, inherently troubling. However, the sheer frequency of these attacks and the seeming inability of the present government to devise a long-term strategy to either ward them off or to inflict significant punishment on the perpetrators could contribute to an escalatory spiral. Such an outcome could stem from the growing frustration within the Indian public, which recognizes the vulnerability of the country and its military personnel to these repeated terrorist attacks.
No doubt in an attempt to assuage growing public discontent about the regime’s seeming inability to end the terrorist strikes, in September 2018, about ten days following the attack on Uri, the government authorized the Indian Army to carry out a series of four “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control (the de facto international border) in Kashmir. According to official Indian accounts, which cannot be independently corroborated, these shallow incursions across the LOC inflicted significant damage on a number of terrorist hideouts and training camps. While these strikes may have given the Pakistani security establishment some pause they clearly did not amount to a panacea for the terrorist menace facing India as the most recent episode highlights.
What has prevented India from forging a viable strategy to end these terrorist attacks? The answer is twofold. First, most Indian strategists fear that a conventional military attack on Pakistan in response to a terrorist attack could very easily escalate into a wider war. These fears of escalation, in turn, have been greatly exacerbated because of Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons and its stated nuclear doctrine that explicitly eschews a “no-first use” option. More to the point, in recent years, Pakistan has both developed and deployed a range of tactical nuclear weapons that are designed to be used against India’s superior conventional capabilities. For about a decade Indian policymakers and strategists have discussed and debated various conventional military options but have not been able to reach a working consensus on a strategy that would inflict sufficient punishment on Pakistan without crossing the nuclear threshold.
Second, India has made only half-hearted attempts to fashion an effective strategy of what strategists refer to as “deterrence by denial.” Such a strategy involves dramatically raising the costs of an attack from an adversary. In effect, the adversary would be deterred from attacking because of the sheer hurdles that it would encounter in launching such an attack. A number of factors have hobbled the attempts to shape such a strategy. First, the LoC in Kashmir passes through some genuinely unforgiving terrain and at times over considerable heights. Though various governments have attempted to fence the LoC both the terrain and climatic conditions have undermined the robustness of such a barrier. Second, while the country has invested in both sensors and drones, it lacks the resources to deploy sufficient numbers of these along the porous border. Third, and perhaps most disturbing, some communities along the border, either because of their disaffection with the Indian state or because of the threat of terrorist coercion, have not always cooperated with Indian authorities. In concert, these three factors have hobbled a successful strategy of “deterrence by denial.”
In the wake of this latest terrorist outrage, it remains unclear if the present jingoistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) facing a national election in April will be tempted to carry out a conventional strike against Pakistan despite the fears of escalation. Such a prospect is hardly chimerical. India’s public has quite understandably grown weary of these terrorist attacks. After an initial expression of solidarity, the principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has started to snipe against the BJP, and elements of the BJP’s constituency are baying for blood. If the regime undertakes any significant military action beyond another set of “surgical strikes,” it is far from certain that it could forestall a plunge into a wider war.