A terror attack, no matter how dastardly or horrific, is nothing more than an event in which people are killed and terrorists try to make a statement.
The strategic significance of a terror attack, even one like 9/11, 26/11 or Pulwama, is not so much in terms of how many people it kills or how much damage it causes, but more in terms of the impact and consequences it leaves in its wake.
Intolerance to terror
One year after the Pulwama suicide bombing by a local Kashmiri terrorist working for the Pakistani jihadist terror organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed, it is clear that it was a watershed moment, not so much because over 40 CRPF personnel were killed, but because of the way India drew a line in the sand. Indian signalled a complete break with the decades-old pusillanimity that had guided its response to the unrelenting export of terrorism by Pakistan.
In a strategic sense, Pulwama has been something of a disaster for Pakistan and its irredentist 'Kashmir cause'. The momentary pleasure and gratification felt by Pakistan at the sight of bodies of Indian security personnel blown to smithereens was probably far outweighed by the sheer impotent rage and the helpless flailing like headless chickens that Pakistan has been reduced to owing to the chain of events that Pulwama set in motion.
It includes the so-called annexation of Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 and carving the erstwhile state to form two new entities Union Territories. By breaching the threshold of Indian state and society's tolerance, Pulwama became the metaphor for the new dynamic that has come into play, not just in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir but also on India's policy towards Pakistan. After Pulwama, India's cup of patience has run over, and this fact was emphatically declared to Pakistan and rest of the world with the Balakot airstrike. Even before Pulwama, India's patience was being stretched to the limit of tolerance, only Pakistan didn't read the signs correctly. After Pulwama, Pakistan is no longer sure of how India will react, where it will hit back, what will be the scale of retaliation.
Status quo broken
The uncertainty and ambiguity that has been injected into the India-Pakistan escalation cycle is now keeping the Pakistanis on tenterhooks, constantly guessing India's response to any adventurism by them. Pakistan has always known the dangers of pushing things too far. They tried something like this in 1965 and then had to fight a desperate rear-guard action to save Lahore. Ever since jihadist terrorism was foisted on J&K, Pakistan has carefully calibrated the violence and followed the dictum of keeping the pot simmering, but to ensure it doesn't boil over. Occasionally someone lifts his eye off the pot, or tries to push the envelope to test India's response and resolve. This happened many times, including during the Mumbai serial blasts in 1993, the Mumbai train bombings in 2006, and the 26/11 attacks. On each of these occasions, India's response and resolve was found lacking. The first time this changed was in 2016 when the Narendra Modi government ordered 'surgical strikes' in retaliation to the Uri attack. But that was a shallow thrust. After Pulwama, the Balakot retaliation signalled a clear shift in paradigm of both policy and strategy. Sure, Pakistan was quick to come back a day after Balakot, but it did this hoping that India wouldn't climb the escalation spiral.
India didn't last time, it most likely will be less restrained next time. This spooks Pakistan because it will mean getting into a fight it can't afford and doesn't want. PM Narendra Modi's detractors always ascribe baser motives to his reaction to Pulwama. They insinuate that the Balakot attacks were carried out with an eye on the general elections.
The fact, however, is that something like Balakot would have happened even if there were no elections, because anyone who had even a modicum of insight into the thinking of the Modi government would know they were not going to turn the other cheek like their predecessors. Pakistan knows this and this ties it in a bind. Unless it wants to risk a wider conflict by carrying out another spectacular attack, all it can do is launch minor hit-and-run operations which really don't add up to anything, even less so because of the tight security grid that is in place in India. Therefore, in many ways, Pulwama is Pakistan's biggest blunder. It has lifted the restraints from India, called Pakistan's bluff, limited its terror play and put it on the edge of uncertainty. In short, the supreme sacrifice of the CRPF personnel hasn't gone in vain.