Pulwama Attack: Pakistan’s Perceptions and Potential Reaction

On February 14, a convoy of vehicles transporting Indian security forces from Jammu to Srinagar was attacked by a suicide bomber driving a vehicle rigged with explosives, killing at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force Reserve (CRPF) personnel. Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), an Islamist terrorist organization based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Indian military alleged that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had control over the perpetrators of the attack but Pakistan has denied these accusations, reiterating that JeM is banned in Pakistan. Responding to mounting tensions between the two nuclear neighbors, Prime Minister Imran Khan said Pakistan is willing to cooperate on “actionable intelligence” with India and to “take action” if India provides proof that a Pakistani is involved. However, the Pakistani establishment is concerned that India may be thinking of responding to the attack with militarily. The Pulwama attack, like past military crises, started with a triggering event of terrorism. However, it is gradually turning into a serious strangulation of Pakistan, which makes it different from previous stand-offs. India seems to be diplomatically isolating Pakistan on the world stage so that no international interference can intervene to cease India’s exercise of military options. This article captures Pakistan’s perceptions of this crisis and its potential response in case the crisis escalates.

Pulwama: The View from Pakistan 

The widely-held perceptions in Pakistan about the Pulwama attack are two-fold. Firstly, the establishment and their supporters seem to believe that the attack was a “false-flag operation” by India that came just before India’s general elections in May this year because the ruling Bharaitya Janata Party, due to its waning popularity in the state elections, needed a reason to stand firm on Kashmir and exploit anti-Pakistan sentiment for electoral gain. Prime Minister Imran Khan seemed to ascribe to this perception when in his speech he questioned why Pakistan would indulge in such a misadventure when it was hosting the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on a state visit followed by an investment conference. Secondly, most Pakistanis view the Pulwama attack as a homegrown backlash against Indian atrocities in Kashmir. The attacker Adil Ahmed Dar was from Indian-administered Kashmir who joined JeM last year after humiliation and harassment meted out to him by Indian security forces. Dar’s association with JeM is being seen as a terrorist act borne of disaffection with the Indian state and not as cross-border terrorism sanctioned by the Pakistani establishment. Many are also pointing to a statement made by Lt Gen D.S. Hooda, formerly the head of India’s Northern Command, in which he acknowledged that “it is not possible to bring such massive amounts of explosives by infiltrating the border.” No matter whether these perceptions are right or wrong, they reflect Pakistan’s denial of harboring groups like JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba and not paying much heed to revisiting its jihad policy.

The Aftermath: How Effective is India’s Response?

So far, India’s response to Pulwama has been multifaceted, largely focusing on putting financial and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan despite considering punitive yet proportionate military options. Soon after the attacks, India withdrew the Most Favored Nation (MFN) status it had granted Pakistan in 1996. The withdrawal of this status means India can appreciate the costs of customs duties on goods from Pakistan. However, the implications of this withdrawal are not that grave, as the volume of India-Pakistan bilateral trade is already meager. According to the World Bank, India-Pakistan bilateral trade is currently a mere $2 billion. In addition, Pakistan’s economy is mostly dependent upon foreign exchange of the expatriates. However, it will certainly affect Pakistan’s credit ratings for loans, which has already been downgraded to B-negative.

Further, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) pledged to take substantive measures to internationally isolate Pakistan, starting with trying to blacklist Pakistan in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in Paris this month. India’s plea was that Pakistan is not taking effective measures to curb terror financing and its efforts were to try to limit the supply of military equipment to Pakistan for counterterrorism. The meeting ended with Pakistan remaining on the grey list for now but a warning that its compliance on curbing terror financing would reviewed again in June. Also, a statement after a United Nations Security Council meeting called on India’s request strongly condemned the Pulwama attack and named JeM as the perpetrator. However, there are certain limits to this isolation strategy because Pakistan is currently an investment opportunity for China and Saudi Arabia. In fact, earlier this week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan confirmed his visit to Pakistan in March to discuss investing more in the country. Moreover, the United States’ exit strategy from Afghanistan and peace plan with the Taliban may still need Pakistan in the short term. Though the United States offered support to India by condemning the Pulwama attack and asking Pakistan to deny safe havens to terrorists, President Trump called on both sides to keep calm.  In this author’s assessment, the United States would not support a military response from India against Pakistan outright with Washington preferring to keep distance from this crisis at the moment.

On the political and diplomatic fronts, Pakistan’s clout is minimal to counter the Indian campaign to declare it a state sponsor of terrorism. However, Pakistani diplomats and officials are vigorously highlighting Indian military action against civilians in Kashmir at different international forums, such as the United Nations. This diplomatic face-off between the two countries could aggravate bilateral tensions even further, creating more roadblocks for political dialogue.

How will Pakistan React?

Pakistan’s response against any Indian military provocation may get escalatory. According to the doctrine put forth by Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Qamar Bajwa: “if provoked, threatened or pressurized, [Pakistan] will show its full muscle power to the enemy to prove its strong commitment to the motherland.”

After the Uri attacks, Pakistan denied that the Indian “surgical strikes” ever happened, and this strategy cannot be used again since the Indian army chief asserted that India had “call[ed] [Pakistan]’s nuclear bluff.” The challenge for Pakistan’s policymakers is to strategize a response that is aggressive yet proportionate enough not to trigger all-out escalation. The possible response from Pakistan is more likely to be covert and confined to sub-conventional war options. Pakistan would not up the ante, leading to the outbreak of a conventional war. If India decides to go for aerial strikes, Pakistan’s high-end military response would be tit-for-tat, and may involve aerial strikes targeting Indian posts across the Line of Control followed by limited military infiltration. Another possibility is of covert operations in the Valley by taking advantage of Kashmiri anger on the ground because covert operations cannot be responded to with first-hand military response due to the denial factor.

There is no reason why the Pakistan military would not respond to Indian military action because of two key factors: 1) Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities are aligned on major policy decisions at the moment and Khan’s government would not go the extra mile to resolve tensions with India until the army deems it essential. Khan has already been burnt by the cancellation of the foreign ministers talks between the two countries on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last year. 2) Fading United States-Pakistan relations and losing political leverage of the U.S. administration on the Pakistan military has reduced to be able to de-escalate tensions with India. The suspension of military aid means there is no reason for Pakistan to acquiesce to U.S. demands to exercise restraint.

Official denial by Pakistan of harboring JeM is not enough to de-escalate growing tensions with India. Pakistani authorities are in testing times again to decide if silence on Masood Azhar is harming Pakistan’s national interests or benefiting hybrid warfare. 


Image 1: Guilhem Vellut via Flickr Images (cropped)

Image 2: Muhhamad Reza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Posted in , Deterrence, Escalation Control, Geopolitics, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Militancy, Pakistan, Peace, Politics, Terrorism, Uncategorized

Sannia Abdullah

Dr. Sannia Abdullah is a political scientist and Research Affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Previously, she was a Stanton Nuclear Security Post-doctoral Fellow (2017-2018) at CISAC and has also worked with Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Labs (Albuquerque, NM). Previously, she had been teaching in the department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Pakistan. Since 2016, she presented her research in ISA 2018, Atlantic Council, ISAC-ISSS-Annual Conference, and University of Notre Dame. She was invited to deliver lectures at the USAFA on Pakistan’s deterrence stability and maturing force posture. She expressed her academic views at different forums including Pentagon, Lawrence Livermore National Labs, and Congressional Budget Office and in some Think Tanks in Washington D.C. She had been a Nonproliferation Fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), in Monterey and SWAMOS alumni of Columbia University (2011). Since 2010, Dr. Abdullah has been part of several Track-II dialogues and had an opportunity to learn decision-making trends through her regular participations in Table Top Exercises exploring escalation control and deterrence stability in South Asia. Her research recently published in The Washington Quarterly, Asia Europe Journal, War on the Rocks and South Asian Voices. She is working on her book manuscript focusing on the evolution of Pakistan's nuclear behavior and its deterrence logic. Her research interests include governance, Organizations and Institutions, Military and Nuclear Policy.

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6 thoughts on “Pulwama Attack: Pakistan’s Perceptions and Potential Reaction

  1. A timely and accurate analysis of the situation accross border. Dr. Sania Abdullah has covered all aspects of Pulwama incident.

  2. A political act, an instrument of policy, an extended duel something that grows in the womb of policy — war may be defined as anything but once initiated it takes a momentum of its own. So be careful India, don’t press the red button.

  3. The Burhanuddin Wanis and Adil Dars of today, who by now are in tens of thousands, having witnessed rapes, abductions and custodial killings of their unarmed kith and kin at best pelting stones in protest upon teargassing, pallet gun bullet-spraying Indian troops, had become immune to such threats with death no longer a fear factor for them; far from it now if they have picked up arms, unless the world conscience which had thus far slept on, wakes up to the genocide and forces the usurper to allow Kashmiris their right to self-determination.

  4. In the wake of Pulwama attack despite the load of blame game from Indian side Pakistan responded very maturely. The behavior of Pakistan shows that it does not want to involve in any kind of conflict. But on the other hand India’s immature behavior could bring entire region at the brink of instability. From the statements of Pakistan’s Political and military leaderships it is quite clear that if India will try to go for any adventure then it has to face full spectrum reaction from Pakistan’s side and whole responsibility will come upon India for any kind of instability because is also offering for negotiations and peace talks but Pakistan will never tolerate any kind of misadventure from Indian side.

  5. The third and fourth moves in escalatory dynamics are more telling than the first or second. Modi has lost the first and third move. Pindi won the second by exercising restraint — pounding dirt, the same as India’s first move. Now what?

  6. MK: The covert operations from both sides will aggravate. The valley will face more casualties, and conflict will simmer until the leadership on both sides address this issue face-to-face. It’s high time for peace-builders inside India and Pakistan to step up and take the stage.

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