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Expect more suicide attacks in Kashmir

Last updated on: February 15, 2019 11:50 IST

'The future does not look very promising for peace in Kashmir,' warns Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

The scene of the blast which killed 44 CRPF troopers. Photograph: PTI

IMAGE: The scene of the blast which killed 44 CRPF troopers, February 14, 2019. Photograph: PTI

First and foremost, all Indians must understand that suicide attacks are very difficult to prevent except at the planning stage.

The Pulwama suicide attack on a CRPF vehicle on February 14, 2019 falls in that category. It was the biggest terror attack in the three decade-old insurgency in the Kashmir valley.

Going back in history, on October 23, 1983, two truck bombs struck buildings in Beirut, housing American and French service members of the multinational force in Lebanon, a peacekeeping operation during the Lebanese civil war. The attack killed 307 people: 241 US and 58 French peacekeepers, 6 civilians and the 2 attackers.

It was the largest single day toll for the American Marines after World War II. Close to 9 tons of explosives were used in that attack.

The initial reports about the Pulwama attack speak of at least 200 kg of explosives used in this attack.

 

Large military convoy movement on the Jammu-Srinagar highway is a routine affair. On a visit to the Kashmir valley in October 2018, I saw that roads are extensively patrolled and areas sanitised during all such movements.

In the old days when the highway was just a two lane affair, strict convoy discipline used to be imposed in terms of a 'gate' system with civil vehicles not permitted while military movement was on.

Ironically, with the four-lane and divided highway built, this has given way to permission to civil vehicles to ply alongside the military convoys.

It is precisely this weakness that the suicide car bomber exploited to carry out his attack.

In Kashmir, all roads have check posts that routinely check all vehicles. Therefore, the movement of the vehicle filled with explosives is impossible unless there has been a lapse at some check point or the explosives were loaded into a vehicle close to the vicinity of the attack. In which case, the complicity of the local population is indicated.

This still leaves the question unanswered as to the source of the explosives. Was the deadly cargo smuggled from across the border or diverted from some construction site within the valley?

The NIA, which has begun its investigation, will be able to find answers to these questions. Once evidence is gathered, the culprits, including over ground supporters and helpers, must be dealt with severely.

The timing of the attack and its owning up by the Pakistan-based Jaish e Mohammad is curious. After a long period of tension, a Pakistani negotiating team is scheduled to visit India for talks on the Kartarpur corridor. Many in India and Pakistan see this as an opportunity to start a peace dialogue.

It is very likely that organisations like Jaish do not relish this prospect. Given the fact that India faces a general election in a few months, the Narendra Damodardas Modi government that prides itself on a strong defence policy is unlikely to take it lying down.

A retaliatory strike, either on the ground or by the air, is a very likely response from India. This would naturally raise tensions between the two countries with a real possibility of escalation unless Pakistan cracks down on Jaish. Given the support the Kashmir cause evokes in Pakistan, that seems unlikely.

Jaish is known to play with fire. The December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament was also its handiwork. India and Pakistan nearly went to war as a result, an outcome Jaish wanted.

Saner elements in Pakistan see the danger in this brinkmanship, but obviously Jaish is no longer in its control.

In its long term political interest, Pakistan would not want to muddy the waters before elections in India as that would boomerang on it with a strong government returning to power in India.

Pakistan's interest is in seeing a weak coalition government take charge in India after the 2019 election.

The future does not look very promising for peace in Kashmir. As I wrote in these columns this week, the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan will embolden radical elements in the Kashmir valley and one must expect more -- not less -- suicide attacks in the years to come.

India ought to take a comprehensive approach in reacting to the Pulwama attack. The action must include putting the United Nations on notice regarding the ban of Jaish, withdrawal of our case from the UN since the UN and its observers have failed to stop cross border attacks and strengthening our domestic response to would-be suicide bombers.

Three years ago, in the same Kashmir valley, soldiers who fired on a Maruti car that refused to stop at a check point, were punished. This sent a very wrong message to the men at ground zero.

If we had robust protocols to deal with defiant vehicles, maybe the sentries who saw a civil SUV intrude into a military convoy could have been stopped even at the cost of firing on it.

While the government will surely retaliate appropriately to the Pulwama outrage, we must also give the necessary leeway to the men on the spot to take decisions to stop suicide attacks.

A multi-pronged approach is the necessity for the future as we have to learn to live with greater threats to internal peace as a blowback of Afghan peace.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd), a military historian, specialises in counter insurgency.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
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