After each major attack on Indian soil, there is the invariable claim that advance intelligence was available and had been provided to concerned authorities, and Nagrota has not been an exception. It is unlikely, however, that the intelligence available to forces on the ground would have had the operational specificity that could have ensured effective prevention – though, as the Pathankot debacle in January this year clearly demonstrated, even where such intelligence is available, things can still go very, very wrong.
Much of what is happening in Jammu and Kashmir (J &K) over the past months is a consequence of New Delhi’s failure to think things through, when it chose to transform the ‘surgical strikes’ in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir into a massive domestic and international publicity blitz, virtually guaranteeing the cycle of escalating retaliations on both sides that has followed. While tactically brilliant, the surgical strikes, and more the political games that followed, were not reconciled within any clear strategic framework, and the mounting death toll on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in J&K is serving no strategic end on either side. It has, however, become politically impossible for either Islamabad or New Delhi to back down. And so, politicians strike brave and militant postures, while soldiers and ordinary civilians pay with their lives.
There have been suggestions that the Nagrota attack is somehow linked to General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s takeover as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) from General Raheel Sharif, but these are attempts to impose a proximate causal logic on an incident that is essentially part of a trend. For one thing, the attack commenced in the early hours of November 29, well before Sharif handed over command, and would reflect the inertial momentum of what had been ongoing for some time now. It is useful to recall that this is the seventh targeted attack on the security forces in J&K since the surgical strike of September 29. The surgical strike, moreover, was itself the Indian response to the terrorist attack on the Army camp at Uri on September 18, which killed 19 Indian soldiers. Significantly, 84 security force fatalities have been recorded in J&K in 2016, the highest since 2008, when the number stood at 90.
While the Nagrota attack is unlikely to have been initiated by General Bajwa, there is little reason to believe that his ascension as COAS will result in any sea-change in Pakistani operations along and across the LoC and IB. Indeed, Bajwa’s Command of the 10th Corps, under whose jurisdiction the entire LoC is located, saw the largest number of ceasefire violations in 2013–14 (347 and 538, respectively). Bajwa is seen as a Kashmir specialist, with intimate ‘knowledge of the border’, and is likely to attempt to exploit this to Rawalpindi’s advantage. Crucially, the core establishment in Rawalpindi has, for some time, come to see the 2003 Ceasefire Agreement with India as working against Pakistani interests, and has eagerly embraced India’s surgical strikes as an excuse to trash the Agreement. A further escalation along the LoC and border, and in terrorism in J&K, would, consequently, be unsurprising.
Crucially, as with Uri and Pathankot – among a rash of lesser attacks – Nagrota has, once again, exposed India’s vulnerabilities, including the degree to which many of our critical defence establishments and installations are exposed. It is significant that the government had promised a comprehensive review of security at all military establishments in the wake of the terrorist attack at the Pathankot Air Force Base. It is not clear whether this exercise has been completed and, crucially, if so, it has evidently not resulted in material transformations to address the vulnerabilities of India’s military infrastructure. Much of this infrastructure has locational infirmities – having been established years or decades ago, often in peacetime – and these have been substantially been compounded by a chronic paucity of finance, even where vulnerabilities have repeatedly been pointed out by the military establishment. The gradual intrusion of civilian infrastructure, commerce and traffic on the peripheries of, and into, cantonment and military areas, have also made these areas more and more difficult to protect. As with much else in India, these deficits and deficiencies have been compounded over the years, with little effort to secure a planned and effective response. While the military leadership may share part of the blame for these developments, it is the finance departments and the absence of clear Government policy and oversight, which have created a situation where the security forces are exposed to repeated and lethal attacks.
There can be little realistic expectation that any of this can changed dramatically in the immediate future. Security forces can be asked to be more vigilant – but maintaining unrelenting vigilance over 26 years of terrorism in J&K, with little of the wherewithal – material, technical and technological – to support such vigilance, is difficult, if not impossible. The promised exercise of reviewing the security arrangements around all security forces (not just military) establishments and installations must be completed on a war-footing and be followed by equally urgent action to address documented deficits. Crucially, however, terrorism can never entirely be contained by ‘hardening’ countless potential targets by improving protection and defences. Someone will inevitably find a way through, even if many others fail. Counter-terrorism, to be effective, must be overwhelmingly proactive, and this requires massive improvements in intelligence, both domestic and external – areas which have been allowed to wither away under chronic neglect. And finally, unless the problem of Pakistan is squarely addressed within the framework of a comprehensive and long-term strategy – and not in terms of the fitful and silly ‘lessons’ we keep trying to ‘teach’ adversary forces – no lasting peace can be secured in J&K and, indeed, across India, where Islamabad’s mischief has sought to harvest every national faultline.
(The writer is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal and an expert on counter-terrorism.)The views expressed are personal