Pulwama - Whodunnit?

Pulwama - Whodunnit?
When Pulwama hit headlines, the first thoughts that flashed through every Pakistani’s mind were: India will blame Pakistan; the Indian media will inflame passions and demand revenge many notches above the “strategic strikes” that followed an earlier such attack. In fact, it seemed that India had sealed its case when it was further revealed that the suicide bomber had left an incriminating video, the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Kashmir had claimed responsibility and there was no denial from firebrand JeM leader Masood Azhar based in Pakistan. Indeed, second thoughts focused on the probable Indian military reaction – what, when, where – and Pakistan’s response to it.

As if Pakistan didn’t seem to be in the dog house already, the Jaish-e-Adl, an Iranian Baloch separatist group operating in the borderlands of Iran and Pakistan, claimed responsibility for an attack (on the heels of Pulwama) that killed 27 Revolutionary Guards, provoking an angry statement from the Iranian government against the US and its proxies and puppets (no prizes for guessing at whom the finger is pointed).

But as the war of words escalated, serious questions began to crop up.

Both the attacks came on the eve of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s  “historic” visit to Islamabad aimed at cementing a strategic economic and military pact that is being billed as a paradigm change in regional dynamics. The Saudis are acting as proxies for the US, nudging Pakistan to help give the US a face saving exit from Afghanistan (thereby making Pakistan a key player in the end game in Afghanistan, to the chagrin of India). In return, Pakistan is expected to join the US’s anti-Iran camp in the greater Middle East region, in exchange for a financial bailout. Both India and Iran are upset that their grand plan for the Chahbahar Port and road/rail link to Afghanistan will be jeopardized by the new Pak-Saudi nexus aimed at undermining Iran’s attempt to break out of the oil export sanctions imposed by the US and erode India’s attempt to protect its strategic goals and investments in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Both incidents have the potential to destabilize such carefully laid plans in which Pakistan is a key player and ostensible beneficiary.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the Pakistanis could not have contemplated such a situation, let alone actively connived with the JeM and/or encouraged the JiA. Islamabad is already languishing in FATF’s grey zone while fighting to uphold its legal rights in the international case of the Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav who was caught on the Iran-Pakistan border aiding Pakistani Baloch separatists. Pakistan’s cause would be greatly hurt if it is established that it was a sponsor of both incidents. Indeed, if armed conflict were to break out between India and Pakistan, Pakistan’s flagging economy would take a severe hit, regardless of who “wins” the military battles, something that the country can ill afford at this juncture. The PTI government would be gravely weakened and the Miltablishment’s careful engineering of the political system would be threatened.

On the other hand, quite apart from strengthening its drive to isolate and condemn Pakistan internationally as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, Narendra Modi’s government is certainly getting a fillip from Pulwama on the eve of the Indian general elections. The anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim war hysteria that has swamped India plays into Modi’s traditional electoral strategy in certain states while distracting attention from his lack lustre economic performance that has generated some wind in the tails of the opposition parties led by the Congress. Is it conceivable that India’s intel agencies had a hand in Pulwama?

However cynical, the truth is that Intel agencies and non-state actors all over the world are not averse to extracting such ruthless sacrifices from their own people for their cause. The Samjhota Express bombing is a case in point. So too is the train carnage that cast Gujerat in flames, elevating Mr Modi as a communal leader of choice. There is also considerable evidence that Indian security forces have infiltrated indigenous jihadi outfits in Kashmir to inform, provoke and justify counter-terrorism repression – check out the case of Afzal Guru. Equally, the question of how over 700kg of explosive material meant for blasting roads ended up in the hand of the suicide bomber is going a-begging. And so on.

That said, the fact that Pakistan continues to host the JeM and Masood Azhar and allows Hafiz Saeed and the LeT to fuel the uprising in Kashmir in one way or another and uses China to block UN censure of these organisations, weakens its case in the eyes of the international community and puts it on the block.

Whoever carried out Pulwama – and many non-state actors have autonomous politico/military strategies beyond their Masters’ puppeteering – has succeeded in heating up the sub-continent to a point where the governments of both India and Pakistan risk destabilization and political failure if their responses are guided by short term populism rather than long term rationality. There are no winners in armed conflict between nuclear nations.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.