The Pulwama episode is the endpoint of a certain basis for hope in repairing India-Pakistan relations. It was of course a terrorist attack which has all hallmarks of a standard tactic. Simple explosive devices detonated in crowded places inflict the maximum damage. This was the principle behind the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, in attacks on Brussels airport and in Paris during a music concert.
That said, what are the options for India? Pakistan is not a normal State. It has a civilian government which off and on during its history has been ostensibly elected on democratic principles. There is an army establishment which has been the backbone of stability in Pakistan for longer than it has been a democracy. Ever since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan created, with American financial and military help, the Islamist terrorist movement, Pakistan has had a third pillar of authority, the Islamist terrorist armies.
Terrorism is something very difficult to counter and to eliminate. This is not just India’s problem. Across the world, developed and emerging countries have failed to eliminate it forever. The US has been engaged in a futile war for 15 years in Afghanistan and is now withdrawing defeated though not openly admitting it. Muslim-majority countries as much as non-Muslim ones have been subjected to Islamist terrorism. Algeria, Bangladesh, Malaysia have been hit. Boko Haram has terrorised Nigeria for decades now and is spreading to Sudan. No other ideological movement, neither Bolshevism nor Anarchism, has had the global reach which Islamist terrorism has, but like the older ideological movements, it is a global movement and powered by cybernetics and modern weaponry extremely deadly.
India has been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism but its own interests are not well served by the world at large. The UN system is crippled by the veto enjoyed by the five permanent members. China is not interested in fighting terrorism except at home. Russia is also aiding terrorism in Syria so is hopelessly compromised. Words of support from these two are worthless. India has to treat the partners in the fight against terrorism as fair-weather friends who will be no help at all.
So what is to be done? It is not a case of repeating the Uri surgical strike. That was a skirmish between two armies. Terrorist movements exist outside that domain. For India to cross the border and attack guerrilla groups will be a violation of international law. That may not seem so bad to most Indians. But if such an attack across the border is carried out, India will have to be ready for a war of some duration with Pakistan.
India has won three out of four wars against Pakistan. The 1948 war can be called unfinished. But the major difference now is that both are nuclear powers. Thus any military engagement has to have a strictly limited aim which can be realised and then India can unilaterally end the war. This is tricky and cannot be done in a hurry and certainly not while Indian blood is boiling. This time the strike has not only to be surgical but it has to be key-hole surgery, precise, subtle and effective.
There should be no haste. Success is vital.
This article first appeared in print under the headline: Another chapter in a perennial war