With its snow-capped mountains and its emerald valleys, teeming with apple orchards and fields of saffron, India’s northernmost province of Jammu and Kashmir can sometimes resemble an enchanted kingdom. But for decades, this patch of ground has instead felt cursed, as the center of a bloody and seemingly never-ending conflict between India and Pakistan. Although 70 years have passed since the area became a part of India, it remains a flash point between the two nations.
This August, India moved to cement Jammu and Kashmir’s place in the Indian union by revoking the autonomy it was granted at the time of its accession. While the change was largely welcomed in Jammu, which is predominantly Hindu, it sparked anger in the overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir valley, where a separatist movement has simmered since the late 1980s. To pre-empt large-scale protests and anticipated violence, the Indian government enforced a security clampdown across the valley, shutting down mobile-phone and Internet services and placing dozens of political leaders and activists under house arrest. Seven months on, Kashmir remains tense. Only in the last month have restrictions on internet use been lifted and mobile internet speeds restored to full capacity.
Indian officials say these tough measures were necessary not only to prevent civic unrest but also to guard against the threat of terrorism from across the border. They point to a long history of attacks inflicted upon Kashmir and other targets in India by groups based in Pakistan. Just a year ago, the Jaish-e-Muhammad — a terrorist organization led by a 51-year-old Pakistani cleric named Masood Azhar — directed a deadly car bombing against a convoy of troops in Pulwama, near Srinagar, killing at least 40 members of the Central Reserve Police Force. The attack was carried out by a 22-year-old Indian man who left his village in Kashmir a year earlier to join the ranks of the Jaish. Within an hour of the bombing, the group claimed responsibility for it on social media and circulated a video of the young attacker, dressed in fatigues and holding an assault rifle, declaring that the Jaish had thousands of soldiers like him who were ready to undertake suicide missions to free Kashmir from India.
Pakistan’s current prime minister, Imran Khan, has publicly stated that Pakistan’s Army organized and trained militant groups years ago to wage jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Some of these groups continue to operate in Pakistan, four decades after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war. The country’s former president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has acknowledged that Pakistani intelligence enabled Jaish and similar groups to carry out attacks within India. Such admissions confirm what Indian officials say they’ve always known: that organizations like Jaish have become part of a Pakistani strategy for wresting Kashmir from Indian control.
For that and other reasons, Azhar has become India’s most-wanted terrorist. Just as the pursuit of Osama bin Laden drew the United States into a long and continuing military engagement in Afghanistan, Azhar’s success in orchestrating a series of attacks on Indian soil in recent years has angered India to the point that eliminating Azhar and his organization has become a key strategic objective for India’s security establishment. Twelve days after Jaish’s attack in February 2019, Indian fighter jets flew 50 miles or so across the Line of Control, the disputed border, into the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, in order to bomb a hilltop near Balakot that Indian officials said was the site of a Jaish terrorist-training camp. It was the first time since the war between the two nations in 1971 that India has conducted airstrikes inside Pakistani airspace. Embarrassed by the incursion, Pakistan retaliated the next day by deploying its jets to attack Indian military installations. The retaliation was countered by the Indian Air Force, leading to a brief dogfight and the downing of an Indian fighter plane.
Despite the deadly attack in Pulwama, and the other attacks for which Jaish claims responsibility, Pakistan has refused to prosecute Azhar or bring the organization to justice. Indian officials find this galling but unsurprising, because, they contend, Inter-Services Intelligence — Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service — provides Jaish with funding, training and logistical support to fight a proxy war against India.
The impunity with which Azhar has operated for so long is a source of anger among Indian security officials. It keeps raw an old wound; it reminds them that two decades ago, they had the cleric in their grasp, languishing in one of their prisons. But after the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight by Azhar’s associates, which Indian investigators say bore the marks of a Pakistani intelligence operation, they were forced to let him go in exchange for the passengers’ freedom. He founded Jaish shortly afterward. Though it hasn’t carried out any notable attacks in Kashmir in the past six months, the group continues to be a threat, Indian officials say, and will most likely attempt to exploit Kashmiri anger over the government’s restrictions to engineer strikes at the earliest opportunity. Because India has in effect declared a policy of crossing the border into Pakistan to fight terrorists when necessary, the next attack on Indian soil that can be attributed to Jaish or any other Pakistan-based organization has the potential to ignite a full-blown conflict between two nuclear-armed neighbors.
The hostilities between India and Pakistan date back to their birth as sovereign nations, in August 1947, when the subcontinent gained independence from the British. Even though the partition that created the two countries was based on religious lines, their political identities were shaped by two contrasting visions of religion’s proper role in matters of state. Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation, went on to become an Islamic republic. India, predominantly Hindu, chose to become a secular democracy.
Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority province ruled by a Hindu maharajah named Hari Singh, initially opted not to join either country. But weeks after the two nations were formed, several thousand armed tribesmen from Pakistan rode into Kashmir in dozens of trucks, in what would be the first of many attempts by the Pakistani military to seize control of the territory. As the intruders advanced, Singh asked the Indian government for help in repelling the invasion, which India was willing to provide — on the condition that the ruler sign an agreement merging Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian union. Singh consented, and on Oct. 26, the Indian military began airlifting troops and equipment into Srinagar. The province became a part of India, though Pakistan had taken control of roughly a third of the state by the time fighting ended in 1948. Under the deal Singh made with the Indian government, the remaining territory of Jammu and Kashmir was granted autonomy over its internal administration and allowed to have its own constitution.
Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India, even as a quasi-independent state, was a blow to the very idea upon which Pakistan had been founded: that Muslims on the subcontinent belonged together in their own homeland. According to that principle, a Muslim-majority state — one geographically contiguous with Pakistan, no less — couldn’t possibly belong on India’s map. But for India, the inclusion of Jammu and Kashmir validated one of its defining principles: that religion was inconsequential to the nation-state. And so, the conflict between the two countries over Kashmir was about more than territory. It was, at its core, a clash of identity.
Pakistan did not accept the new arrangement. In 1965, Pakistani soldiers and guerrillas disguised as local residents infiltrated Kashmir and attempted to spark an uprising against India; this triggered another war, which ended inconclusively after the United Nations mandated a cease-fire. Six years later, in 1971, Pakistan suffered a territorial loss of its own when it failed to quell an uprising by its Bengali-speaking population in what was then East Pakistan. The movement, backed by Indian forces, culminated in the creation of Bangladesh as a new country.
The conflict between the two countries over Kashmir was about more than territory. It was, at its core, a clash of identity.
The dismemberment — with its imagery of Pakistani troops surrendering to the Indian Army in Dhaka, the East Pakistani city that became the capital of Bangladesh — left a deep wound in Pakistan’s psyche, one that time has not easily healed. The national idea, of Islam as a holy glue binding its people together, had once again come undone: the Bengalis who carved a new country out of Pakistan were predominantly Muslim. Accepting such a defeat to India was unimaginable for Pakistan’s military leadership, which vowed revenge. On Dec. 17, 1971, the day after the surrender in Dhaka, the front page of the newspaper Dawn made no mention of it, instead running a banner headline that said: “War Till Victory.”
Pakistan remained as determined as ever to cleave Kashmir from India. The defeat in 1971, however, drove home the realization that India, with its larger military and greater resources, could not be defeated in a conventional war. Husain Haqqani, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011 and is now a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, told me this is what led Pakistan to adopt jihad — or the use of proxy warriors fighting in the name of Islam — as a strategy against India. “It is a paradigm of unconventional warfare,” he said.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence oversaw the recruitment and training of jihadists from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Islamic countries to fight against Soviet troops. The Soviet Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, at the end of a decade-long war, was seen as a major victory for jihadi fighters and for the I.S.I., which came to view it as proof that jihad was viable as a military strategy. At the I.S.I.’s direction, according to Indian officials as well as Pakistani scholars, jihadi groups in Pakistan shifted their attention to a new, supposedly Islamic cause: liberating Kashmir from Indian rule. Their goal was to embolden Muslim separatists in Kashmir by carrying out terrorist attacks against India. A prominent group assigned to the task was the Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen, and one of its new members in 1989 was a bright 20-year-old son of a government schoolteacher who had graduated from a seminary in Karachi. His name was Masood Azhar.
The Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen sent Azhar to train at a camp in Afghanistan. The instructors discovered that his physical capabilities didn’t quite match his ideological fervor. Despite being in his early 20s, he was soft around the middle, not quite cut out for the rigors of jihadi boot camp. And so, after he was there for a week and learned the basics of firing a Kalashnikov, the trainers exempted him from the remainder of the 40-day course. Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen’s leader decided that Azhar’s talents would be better exploited in producing a monthly magazine on behalf of the organization called Sadai-e-Mujahid (Voice of the Mujahid).
With a print run of about 1,000, nearly all of which were distributed free at mosques, the magazine detailed the heroic accomplishments of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, inspiring a reverence among mosque-goers that translated into a steady stream of new recruits for the group. And the publication of the group’s bank account number in each issue helped bring in substantial donations every year. The magazine’s success quickly propelled Azhar into Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen’s leadership ranks. He was also proving himself to be a gifted orator. On trips to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Zambia and Britain, he delivered passionate speeches exhorting audiences at mosques and seminaries to do their part for jihad, which brought funds pouring into the group’s coffers. An account of his British tour in the September 1993 issue of Sadai-e-Mujahid describes a series of sermons at mosques across Britain, with titles like “Virgins Yearn Badly for Martyrs.”
By this time, Azhar had begun working directly on the cause in Kashmir, where India’s efforts to crush a popular uprising through brute force were backfiring. Indian soldiers, seen by many in the Kashmir Valley as an occupying force, had been accused of large-scale abuses — rape, torture and, in some cases, disappearing men suspected of having links to militant groups. The brutalities left many seething. Azhar visited towns in Pakistan-administered Kashmir (also referred to as Azad Kashmir) to deliver public lectures urging young men to join the fight against Indian security forces across the Line of Control.
In 1994, Azhar, using a Portuguese passport, traveled to Srinagar and met with a militant commander in Kashmir named Sajjad Afghani, a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war. On Feb. 11, Azhar and Afghani were driving back from a meeting when their car ran out of gas. They hailed an auto-rickshaw to get to a gas station, but the vehicle was intercepted at an army checkpoint. Azhar and Afghani were sent to a prison in Jammu whose inmates included several Pakistani and Kashmiri militants.
In prison, Azhar’s preaching quickly gained him a following. A visitor who came to see him regularly was Avinash Mohananey, at the time a senior official in India’s Intelligence Bureau. Last year in New Delhi, I met with Mohananey, who is now retired. He described Azhar as a pleasant conversationalist who was always cooperative. Once, after being slapped by an army official who had come to question him in prison, Azhar complained to Mohananey in language that, at least in Mohananey’s view, suggested a desire for self-preservation at odds with Azhar’s promotion of violent jihad. “Even my father has never slapped me,” Mohananey recounted Azhar saying. When I heard that, I wondered if it wasn’t more a reflection of wounded pride than an indication of cowardice.
Over the course of these conversations, Mohananey said, Azhar shared details that enabled Mohananey and his colleagues to learn how terrorist outfits in Pakistan were operating. The groups ran charity organizations that raised money from businesses as well as individuals — going door to door to ask people to donate hides from animals sacrificed for the religious festival of Eid, for instance, which were then auctioned. Only a small fraction of the funds raised was used for charity, he explained; a considerable part was spent on recruiting jihadists. Whenever a militant was killed by Indian security forces, Azhar told Mohananey, the organization’s leaders would visit the family of the deceased and honor his memory in a public gathering.
One day, according to Mohananey, Azhar showed up later than usual for an interview at the prison. When Mohananey asked him about the delay, Azhar said he’d been distributing amulets to his followers in prison, who believed he had endowed them with supernatural powers. “Do you have those powers?” Mohananey asked, half in jest. Azhar laughed.
In November 1994, Afghani and other inmates at the Jammu prison attempted to win freedom for themselves and for Azhar by digging an escape tunnel. At one point, Azhar lowered himself into the hole in the cell floor to check out the progress. He promptly got stuck, he later admitted to prison officials. Before the tunnel could be completed, the plot was discovered.
Azhar’s importance to the jihadists was made clear to Indian authorities in July 1995, when six Western tourists were kidnapped in Kashmir by a terrorist group named Al Faran. In exchange for the hostages, the group demanded the release of Azhar and 21 other jailed militants. The government refused. One hostage escaped; the beheaded body of another was found weeks later. The others were never found.
In June 1999, Afghani and his fellow inmates tried again to tunnel their way out; this bid, too, was foiled by prison authorities. Afghani died in the attempt, but Azhar’s freedom lay just a few months ahead.
Devi Sharan possesses an air of almost impenetrable calm, an asset when it comes to a career as an airline pilot. On the afternoon of Dec. 24, 1999, however, while captaining an Indian Airlines flight (IC-814), from Kathmandu to Delhi, Sharan was gripped by panic when a man wearing a red ski mask barged into the cockpit. In one hand, the man held a grenade; in the other, a revolver. “Don’t make any moves,” the armed man said, in Urdu, “or this aircraft gets blown up.”
Sharan looked at the weapons, trying to discern if they were real or fake. As a student cadet in high school, he had seen guns and grenades up close. He was convinced that these were genuine.
“Fly west,” the man instructed.
The plane was then cruising at 26,000 feet over Lucknow, in northern India. A second person, also wearing a ski mask, entered the cockpit. He saluted the first intruder, calling him “Chief.”
“How much fuel do you have?” Chief asked.
“Let me read it on the instrument panel,” Sharan replied.
“You can read it on the flight-engineer panel, too,” the other man said. His use of the term “flight-engineer panel” suggested that the hijackers knew some aviation basics, Sharan realized, which meant it would be difficult to trick them.
“We have enough fuel to reach Delhi,” Sharan said.
“What’s your alternate?” the second hijacker asked.
“Bombay,” Sharan said. Surely, then, the plane could fly to Lahore, Pakistan, the chief hijacker argued — after all, it was closer.
Sharan insisted that it couldn’t. “The first thing on my mind was to not leave Indian territory, using any means possible,” he told me recently.
By now, Sharan had learned that there were five hijackers in all, brandishing five grenades and four revolvers among them. Sharan and his flight engineer began pleading with the hijackers to let them land at the nearest airport, Amritsar, in the secret hope that Indian security forces would storm the plane once it was on the ground. The hijackers relented, and the aircraft touched down in Amritsar. Sharan made a request for refueling, asking the airport staff to station the fuel tanker right in front of the aircraft, which he hoped would block the plane from taking off. But the minutes ticked by with no sign of a fuel truck. Enraged by the delay, one hijacker stabbed Rupin Katyal, a young businessman who was returning home with his wife after honeymooning in Kathmandu.
They forced Sharan to take off without refueling and fly toward Lahore. After refueling there, the hijackers had Sharan fly to Dubai, where they offloaded the body of Katyal, who had bled to death, and 27 other passengers. They ordered Sharan to take off again, this time for Kabul, but Kabul’s air traffic control directed the plane to Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan. The country was under Taliban rule.
Early on Christmas morning, the aircraft landed at Kandahar. As the plane came to a stop, Sharan saw an open jeep driving toward it, carrying half a dozen guards armed with rocket launchers and guns. The men waved at the cockpit, and the chief hijacker and his deputy waved back. Sharan concluded that the terrorists on the plane had the support of the Taliban regime. Following the air traffic controller’s instructions, he taxied behind the jeep and parked the aircraft in front of the international terminal.
About 48 hours later, a team of negotiators flew in from New Delhi. The hijackers wanted the Indian government to release 36 terrorists who were in Indian custody; Azhar was first on the list. In addition, they wanted the remains of Sajjad Afghani — Azhar’s fellow inmate, who died in the attempted jailbreak in Jammu — and $200 million in cash.
The Indian negotiators were led by Ajit Doval, from the Intelligence Bureau, an ex-spy who previously worked undercover in Pakistan, and C.D. Sahay, a senior officer from the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s equivalent of the C.I.A. From a room in the airport lounge, they radioed with air traffic control, which relayed messages between them and the hijackers. For obvious reasons, the talks were heavily tilted in favor of the hijackers: “They were ready to die,” A.R. Ghanashyam, a diplomat who was part of the team, told me. “We were not ready to die. We wanted to save the passengers.”
Over the course of the negotiations, Sahay told me recently, he and the rest of his team became convinced that the hijackers weren’t acting alone, but rather were taking direction from Pakistani intelligence. A courteous man with a baritone voice, Sahay retired as chief of the Research and Analysis Wing in 2005 and is now a senior fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi. He claimed there were officials from the I.S.I. sitting in the control tower, serving as intermediaries. “Everything that was discussed and even marginally agreed to used to be reviewed in the back room on the other side,” he told me. “The negotiation was going on between the I.S.I. and us — simple as that.”
One by one, the team whittled down the list of terrorists whom the hijackers wanted released. As the negotiations dragged on, with news of advances and setbacks filtering back to the cabin, the hostages oscillated between hope and despair. The airport staff had been supplying meager rations of Kandahari naan and other food to the airplane, but after days of captivity, many of the more than 140 passengers had given up eating and drinking because they were afraid of having to use the overflowing toilets. The cabin crew quietly sidled up to those seated by the aircraft doors and whispered instructions to them on how the doors had to be opened in case the hijackers began killing people.
On Dec. 30, six days into the ordeal, the hijackers agreed to free the passengers and crew in exchange for three inmates: Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national in jail for a 1994 kidnapping of Western tourists in Kashmir; Mushtaq Zargar, a Kashmiri militant; and Masood Azhar. “The main objective was to secure Masood Azhar, that was nonnegotiable,” Sahay told me. Indian investigators would eventually learn that one of the hijackers was Azhar’s own brother, Ibrahim.
The next day, India’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, flew in from Delhi with the three prisoners, who were driven across the tarmac to the hijacked airplane. The hijackers lowered a ladder from the cockpit and descended. Then, in full view of camera crews from around the world, the five masked men and the terrorists they had managed to free drove away in a convoy. Doval and Sahay and the rest of India were left with a haunting memory: the image of those vehicles speeding away from the airport against the rugged backdrop of the Kandahar mountains.
The Pakistani media coverage of the hijacking and prisoner exchange transformed Azhar from an obscure radical into a household name. Within weeks of his return, he was making public speeches across Pakistan to drum up support for jihad in Kashmir. Ayesha Siddiqa, who served in the Pakistani military and is now a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told me she was shopping at Liberty Market in Lahore one day when she saw a group of men going around with a megaphone announcing a lecture by Azhar. “The middle class, the shopkeepers — they were excited by it,” she said.
Most Pakistanis had never heard of Azhar before; now many saw him as an inspirational figure who had been freed from illegitimate captivity in India through a daring rescue operation. “Nobody except a few thought it was problematic to give somebody who had been released like this a hero’s welcome,” Siddiqa told me. Azhar would later write that the hijacking had avenged Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war.
Azhar founded Jaish-e-Muhammad in March 2000, announcing its start at a large gathering at a stadium in Bahawalpur, a city in Pakistan’s Punjab Province. Charismatic and somewhat cherubic in appearance, and wearing glasses that conferred a cerebral air, he exhorted the attendees to commit themselves to jihad against India. He set up a headquarters for Jaish at a seminary in the heart of Bahawalpur, in a neighborhood called Kausar Colony, next to an orthopedic hospital and across the street from a row of popular wedding halls.
From Jaish’s early days, Siddiqa told me, it was clear to residents of Bahawalpur that the group had state support, as acknowledged years later by Musharraf. Siddiqa, a former civil servant who became the first woman to serve as director of naval research in Pakistan before switching to academic research, developed a special interest in Azhar and Jaish because of her own roots near Bahawalpur. “I’ve spoken to people there — they talk about trucks coming in the middle of the night to the Jaish headquarters and weapons being offloaded,” she said. Once, after the Bahawalpur Police arrested some Jaish members for having hijacked a bus, the I.S.I. intervened to have the men freed.
Soon after its founding, Jaish struck with a suicide bombing outside an Indian Army facility in Badami Bagh, Jammu and Kashmir, on April 19, which injured four army personnel and three civilians. On Oct. 1, 2001, while the world’s attention was focused on Al Qaeda, a car loaded with explosives rammed into the gates of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, after which two gunmen entered the Assembly building and began shooting. Jaish claimed responsibility for the strike, which killed 38 people. Then, on Dec. 13, 2001, five assailants executed a similarly audacious attack on India’s Parliament in New Delhi, killing nine people. Indian investigators found that Jaish had orchestrated the attack, in concert with another Pakistani terrorist group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The Parliament attack drew international attention to Jaish, compelling the Pakistani government to ban the organization and place Azhar under house arrest. But no formal charges were brought against him, and the house arrest was lifted after a year. Although it had been declared a terrorist organization by the United Nations and had been banned by Pakistani authorities, Jaish continued to raise funds and recruit young men. In an interview given to the Pakistani broadcast journalist Nadeem Malik last year, Pervez Musharraf — Pakistan’s president from 2001 to 2008 — admitted that Pakistani intelligence used Jaish to orchestrate bombings in India. He said he always considered Jaish a terrorist organization and had even pushed to act against it, but he clarified that he didn’t insist — seeming to support the popular belief that Pakistan’s civilian government lacks meaningful control over Pakistan’s Army. And so, Musharraf went on to say in the interview, Jaish was allowed to operate even after it attempted to assassinate him in 2003, in reaction to his support of the United States in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Siddiqa, who has interviewed a number of Jaish members, told me that Jaish had close links with Al Qaeda from its inception and received early funding from Osama bin Laden, money that it used to take over seminaries and training camps outside Bahawalpur. Inside the city, Jaish expanded its headquarters by buying up adjacent plots of land and adding new buildings to the compound. According to a 2007 dossier prepared by the Bahawalpur Police that Siddiqa has studied, the site includes residential quarters for housing students and fedayeen.
The compound is also where Azhar’s entire clan lives, including the families of his brothers and sisters. Nearly all of his brothers and brothers-in-law are involved in running Jaish, making it a family-owned enterprise, Siddiqa told me. The family has undisputed control over the organization’s finances. As a vehicle for gaining wealth and power, it has been a spectacular success. Siddiqa said, “At one point, their father owned almost nothing, and now they have these properties and much more.”
After an attack in Srinagar in 2006, Jaish dropped out of the headlines, although Azhar was continuing to deliver sermons to inspire jihadis. David Headley, a U.S. citizen who helped plan the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, told Indian investigators that he had been deeply influenced by Azhar’s speeches at a mosque he attended in Pakistan. Azhar disappeared from public view in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, which once again brought Pakistan’s apparent support for terrorism under intense international scrutiny. Yet, by September 2009, Jaish was building a large facility on the outskirts of Bahawalpur surrounded by a high wall, with a tiled swimming pool and a horse stable. Then, in 2014, a prerecorded speech by Azhar was aired at an anti-India march in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, signaling to India that he was back to plotting violence.
Jaish struck not long after that. In the early hours of Jan. 1, 2016, four Jaish operatives armed with Kalashnikovs and grenades attacked an air base in Pathankot, a city in Punjab about 15 miles from the Pakistan border. They killed seven Indian Air Force and security personnel before being shot. Among the evidence that Indian investigators gave to Pakistan to prove that the attack had emanated from Pakistani soil were intercepts of phone conversations between the group’s commander, a young man named Nasir, and his mother in Sialkot, Pakistan, in the hours before the gun battle. Thanks to her prayers, he said, Allah had helped him and his men in wondrous ways to get to this point in their mission. “Don’t cry, Mother,” he said. “Your son is embracing death, and you’re weeping?”
The man who has served as India’s national-security adviser under Prime Minister Narendra Modi happens to be Ajit Doval, who led the Indian government’s negotiations with the hijackers of IC-814. Doval hasn’t given interviews in recent years, but in a speech he delivered at a university a few months before ascending to his current position, in February 2014, he laid out a doctrine of “offensive defense” for countering terrorism emanating from Pakistan, which is the opposite of the position India had to take during the crisis in Kandahar. “You know, we engage an enemy in three modes,” he told his audience. One is “defensive offense,” he explained, in which guards and soldiers strike only when their territory is attacked. “The second is offensive defense, where we will go to the place from where the offense is coming. And third is the offensive mode, where you go outright.”
For years, India had battled Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the defensive mode, Doval said, but it wasn’t good enough: “You throw 100 stones at me, I stop 90, still 10 hurt me. And I can never win.” What India needed to do instead, he argued, was switch to “offensive defense,” which meant striking at Pakistan’s vulnerabilities in anticipation of the country’s hostile intentions. Once Pakistan realized that India had shifted its stance, Doval told the audience, the country would be deterred from continuing to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy because of the costs inflicted on it.
The Indian government’s decision to send fighter planes into Pakistan days after the Pulwama attack in February 2019 reflects the new doctrine Doval has pushed. “The choice of target for India was a difficult task, because there are a lot of Jaish-e-Muhammad camps in heavily populated areas like Bahawalpur,” a senior official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs told me. “Then our planners identified this training camp that was located on a hilltop adjoining a forested area where a congregation of trainees and trainers and commanders was taking place.” Within hours of the strike on the site, which Indian officials said was under the charge of Azhar’s brother-in-law, Yusuf Azhar, a statement from the foreign secretary said that “a very large number” of terrorists and others had been “eliminated.” Whether the strike caused casualties remains in doubt, though, absent any supporting evidence from India. The Pakistan government denies that anybody was killed, although it barred foreign journalists from visiting the site for more than a month, eventually taking some on a restricted tour of the site, where they found no proof of damage.
Indian officials say the message that has been delivered to Pakistan is more important than an accounting of how many terrorists were killed. “The purpose of the strike has been served,” Pankaj Saran, India’s deputy national-security adviser told me. Until now, he said, terrorist groups created by Pakistan to fight a proxy war against India believed they had immunity within Pakistan’s boundaries. That would no longer be the case, Saran said. “If there is loss of Indian life that is traced back to Pakistan — I’m not saying we will not hesitate — I’m saying we may not hesitate in striking at the source.”
Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, described the strike on Balakot as an attempt to disrupt the paradigm that Pakistan has operated under all these years. For Pakistan’s military, he said, the use of jihadi groups like Jaish had been a way to wound India without risk, because it believed that India would be unwilling to retaliate militarily, fearing the threat of a nuclear attack. What India has now signaled, Haqqani told me, was: “No, you cannot have the comfort of having a subconventional option without conventional retaliation. We may actually have found a sweet spot where we can hit you without creating circumstances in which you will escalate to the nuclear level.”
‘The first thing on my mind was to not leave Indian territory, using any means possible.’
The increased tensions between India and Pakistan following the airstrike drew fresh attention to a diplomatic effort, begun by India in 2009, to have Azhar sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. China, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council and a close ally of Pakistan’s, blocked the attempt on three occasions in the past, arguing that even though Azhar founded Jaish in 2000, there was no reason to believe he was still active. After the Pulwama attack last year, Syed Akbaruddin, India’s ambassador to the United Nations, submitted to the sanctions committee audio clips of speeches that Azhar had made in the days before and after the attack. In a speech on Feb. 16, two days after the suicide bombing, Azhar warned that if India did not surrender Kashmir, the flames of jihad would spread across the country. “He’s the epitome of a violent extremist, instigating terrorism by words,” Akbaruddin told me.
China changed its position: On May 1, the Security Council put Azhar on its sanctions list, obligating the Pakistani government to freeze his assets, prevent him from acquiring arms and ban him from traveling. But as of now, it’s unclear if any of these steps have been taken.
In March 2019, a week after the aerial strikes, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry claimed that it had taken 44 members of Jaish (including two of Azhar’s relatives) and other banned groups into preventive custody. The government has also taken control of mosques, seminaries and hospitals run by Jaish. The compound in the heart of Bahawalpur as well as the more recently built headquarters on the northern outskirts of the city have police and paramilitary troops guarding them. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, recently acknowledged that the Pakistan Army had tolerated and even created terrorist groups in the past but was now determined to disband them. “We have decided, for the future of our country — forget the outside pressure — we will not allow armed militias to operate anymore,” he said in a meeting with foreign journalists in Islamabad last April. The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, a monitoring group, is pressing Pakistan to comply with a plan to curb terrorism financing and money laundering; otherwise, the country risks being put on a blacklist that would further impair its ailing economy. In what optimists might regard as a sign of sincerity, a Pakistani court last month sentenced Hafiz Saeed — head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which masterminded the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks — to five and a half years in prison.
Azhar’s whereabouts is not publicly known, although Pakistan’s foreign minister said in spring last year that Azhar was ill. He is believed to be suffering from a kidney ailment. When I visited the Pakistan Embassy in Washington in March 2019 to discuss my request for a visa to report this story, the press minister, Abid Saeed, told me that Azhar was in the hospital. I remarked that it would then be convenient for me to meet with him when I went to Pakistan. He let out a laugh while escorting me out of the building. “Well, now you are asking for the moon,” he said. I never did receive a visa, and the embassy never responded to my questions about the specific actions Pakistan was planning to take against Azhar and the hijackers of IC-814.
I asked Siddiqa and Haqqani whether to take at face value Imran Khan’s assertion that Pakistan was determined to shut down groups like Jaish. The answer hardly mattered, they told me, because it was Pakistan’s military, and not the civilian government, that was the real decider of foreign policy. C. Christine Fair, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, was just as skeptical. “They have an army that wants to redraw maps — an army that can’t win wars,” she told me. “These jihadi groups are the only tools they have. There’s zero, zero, zero chance that they will give up assets like Masood Azhar.”
India’s revoking of Kashmir’s autonomy is bound to be seen by Pakistan’s military as a strategic defeat, one that I.S.I. will be plotting to avenge. An Indian intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me that Indian security forces were bracing for a terrorist strike in the days following the Kashmir announcement. “The question was not if there will be an attack, the question was when,” he said. According to Indian intelligence reports, Jaish has reopened terrorist training camps along the border in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which India refers to as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. “Masood Azhar’s brother has been mobilized,” the official told me, “to lead the effort on behalf of Jaish for eventual retaliation.”
The partition and its bloody aftermath set the stage for decades of conflict between two newly born sovereign states, and few of the consequences have been as devastating as those inflicted upon Kashmir. It’s tempting to look back and ask what could have been done differently to alter its fate — what the Indian government could have done to forestall the separatist movement in the valley; what the international community could have done to dissuade the Pakistani Army from sponsoring terrorist attacks; and, in the narrower context of the hijacking of IC-814, what Indian security personnel might have done to stop the airplane from taking off from Amritsar, as the pilot hoped for.
A year after the two countries were brought to the edge of war by a terrorist attack, the more consequential questions are about how the actions of today might shape the future. Will India’s new policy of striking terrorist camps in Pakistan truly deter the Pakistani Army’s use of cross-border terrorism? Will India’s tightened grip over Kashmir really improve the lot of Kashmiris, as Narendra Modi claims? Or will these measures only lead to more violence?