February 19, 2019

India’s Options after the Pulwama Attack

Note: A version of this article appeared on BBC World on February 19, 2019. Due to unapproved changes by the editors, the original draft has been reproduced below. The final published version can be read here.

On February 14, India experienced its worst Islamist terrorist attack in a decade when the car bombing of a paramilitary convoy in Jammu and Kashmir resulted in over 40 fatalities. While the suicide bomber was a local Kashmiri, the group that recruited, trained, and equipped him was Jaish-e-Mohammed, a United Nations-designated terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the attack and operates openly in Pakistan.

The incident at Pulwama adds to a long history of terror attacks in India by groups protected and supported by Pakistan’s security agencies, including the 1993 Mumbai bombings, the 2001 assault on the Indian parliament, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the 2016 targeting of military bases at Pathankot and Uri. With Indian general elections around the corner, the government is under pressure to respond to the latest provocation, or at least demonstrate that such actions are not without consequences. What are some of India’s options?

Diplomatic Efforts
At the political level, India-Pakistan relations have been frozen for almost three years. In his first two years in office after 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart to his inauguration, resumed talks between National Security Advisers, made an unscheduled visit to Lahore, and approved a much-criticised effort at collaborative counter-terrorism investigations. Pakistan responded to these efforts with firing across the Line of Control separating the two sides, insisting on meeting with Kashmiri separatists in India, approving the attack on Pathankot, and arresting and sentencing to death an alleged Indian spy. By July 2016, as Pakistan sought to take advantage of renewed agitations in the Kashmir Valley, New Delhi’s patience dried up and its position on a number of issues hardened. Despite a new civilian government in Pakistan under Prime Minister Imran Khan, a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers at last year’s United Nations General Assembly was cancelled. Normal diplomatic channels have, however, continued.

After the Pulwama attack, India has undertaken a renewed diplomatic effort to make the case against Pakistan’s state support for terrorism. This outreach builds upon many years of India insisting on condemnation of Pakistan in its diplomatic pronouncements with other friendly countries, including the naming of individual groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-Taiba, and D Company. It has also linked Pakistan to the primary security challenges of its partners: for example, Japan’s concerns about North Korea. Such moves have sensitised others to India’s concerns about Pakistan, facilitated intelligence cooperation on Pakistan-based terrorist groups, and encouraged crackdowns on their financing by government authorities in many countries. New Delhi’s continued efforts in these respects also helps to create greater acceptability for economic or military costs that India might impose at a later date.

The challenge facing India is that other countries, however sympathetic, will continue to see value in retaining their ties with Pakistan. Although the United States has become increasingly frustrated with Pakistan’s duplicity on terrorism, China remains Pakistan’s closest ally, as it has for decades. It has provided Pakistan with nuclear and missile technology and equipment, conventional arms, and – under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – billions of dollars of investment in strategic projects. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have continuing economic and security ties with Pakistan, although both have also been warming their relations with India over the past few years. 

Even the United States and Europe differ in the priorities. The United States and European Union continue to offer Pakistan preferential trading benefits, in some cases resulting in lower tariffs on imports compared to India. Some EU officials have privately blamed the United Kingdom for Brussels’ accommodative approach towards Pakistan, and have intimated that they may take sterner measures after Brexit.

Economic Costs
The day after the Pulwama attack, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security announced that India was withdrawing Most Favoured Nation trading status with Pakistan. This had been in place since 1996, even though Pakistan had not reciprocated. The absence of MFN will significantly raise customs duties on Pakistani exports to India, effectively resulting in unilateral Indian sanctions. Given that direct trade between the two countries is negligible, this move is primarily symbolic.

The absence of trade is indicative of a general lack of direct economic leverage that India enjoys with Pakistan. This is because, in some ways, it has been implementing punitive measures against Pakistan for years. To give but one example, India has not played Pakistan in a bilateral Test cricket series since late 2007, in part because such a series would result in a financial windfall for the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Other, more severe, measures such as abrogating the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty have been suggested. Such a step would have significant costs, including eroding India’s relations with other countries with which it has water-sharing arrangements (such as China, Nepal, and Bangladesh). That said, India is already inclined to making fuller use of the waters of Indus and its tributaries, within the ambit of the existing treaty.

Beyond bilateral issues, India will likely continue to employ diplomatic pressure to raise the costs of economic and business ties with Pakistan. One expected effort will involve advocating for Pakistan to join Iran and North Korea on the black list of the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental body that coordinates policies to combat financial crimes. This would raise scrutiny on financial transactions involving Pakistan, with second-order effects for its currency inflows, credit rating, stock market, and banking sector. However, such a move will likely be resisted by China, which only dropped its opposition to Pakistan’s ‘grey listing’ last year in exchange for India’s support for Beijing’s vice presidency of the organisation. Other multilateral efforts may extend to leveraging India’s position at various export control groups in which it recently acquired membership.

Military Options
The primary challenges of military responses are that Pakistan possesses a nuclear deterrent – including possibly one of the fastest growing nuclear arsenals – as well as a potent conventionally-armed military. For all the sabre-rattling in the Indian press and public, these are realities that the Indian leadership must keep in mind.

However, both Pakistan and India have explored options below the nuclear threshold. In 1999, Pakistani forces made an incursion onto India’s side of the Line of Control resulting in the limited Kargil War. On a number of subsequent occasions, India retaliated to Pakistani provocations with coordinated small-scale raids across the Line of Control. The 2016 attacks, in response to the Uri attack, became widely known as ‘surgical strikes.’

Beyond limited ground forces operations under the nuclear threshold, countries such as the United States and Israel have made use of other kinetic options in similar situations. These have included air or missile strikes against terrorist sanctuaries and military facilities, military blockades, and various covert operations.

Other military options would be long-term in nature. The challenge of countering cross-border infiltration from Pakistan into India has already benefited from the use of various new security technologies as well as intelligence partnerships with other countries. Improvements in these areas, including through the acquisition of unmanned aircraft and enhanced technical intelligence cooperation, would represent major investments in countering the strategic challenge of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan.

Of course, these represent only some of the many ways in which India might choose to respond. If recent history is any guide, we may witness something entirely unprecedented and unexpected.