We Should Have Seen This India-Pakistan Crisis Coming
The crisis was predictable. How both sides get out of it isn't.
It has been more than a week since a young militant in the district of Pulwama in the India-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir drove a car packed with 750 pounds of explosives into a convoy of Indian paramilitary forces, killing at least 49 of them.
Indian and Pakistani reactions to the tragedy have been predictable. New Delhi blames Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of assisting the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which claimed responsibility for the attack. Islamabad denies any complicity, noting that the attacker and his explosives were local products and excoriating heavy-handed Indian security forces for stoking the repressive environment that radicalizes young Kashmiris.
The perpetrator, scale, and timing of the Pulwama attack strengthen the likelihood of a punitive Indian response. A Pakistani terrorist group with ties to Pakistani intelligence carried out one of the deadliest attacks in Kashmir in years—and shortly before an increasingly vulnerable ruling party contests national elections in a country where tough-on-Pakistan talk plays well on the campaign trail. It beggars belief that New Delhi will simply sit on its hands. “If our neighbor … thinks it can destabilize India through its tactics and conspiracies,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned in a speech the day after the tragedy, “then it is making a huge mistake.”
This new crisis—and the attack that provoked it—should come as no surprise, given two notable trends over the last few years.
First, JeM has been resurging after a period of relative inactivity, along with the public re-emergence of its leader, Masood Azhar. New Delhi accuses him of masterminding an attack on India’s Parliament building in 2001 and helping to plan an assassination attempt on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2003. But then he largely disappeared from public view until January 2014, when an anti-India rally in Pakistan-administered Kashmir broadcast a recorded lecture by him. In the next few months, Azhar started issuing public threats—including one to kill Modi if he became India’s next prime minister. (He would take office in May 2014.)
Azhar’s reappearance has coincided with a rise in JeM attacks. These included deadly assaults on an Indian Air Force base and Army troops in 2016, along with several attacks on Indian security personnel this year (one of them in Pulwama). And then came last week’s Valentine’s Day massacre.
The war in Afghanistan may help explain the public re-emergence of Azhar and his organization. Back in 2014, foreign combat troops were heading for the exits, giving traditionally India-focused militant groups operating in Afghanistan against NATO forces at the time—including JeM—a strong incentive to redirect their attention to India-administered Kashmir and India more broadly. With a post-America Afghanistan looking even more likely today, amid expedited U.S. efforts to ink a deal with the Taliban, JeM and its Pakistani state patrons have an even greater motivation to refocus attention on Kashmir.
Another explanation for JeM’s resurgence could be a desire to reassert its jihadi street cred in Kashmir amid challenges from al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In recent years, both groups have claimed attacks in Kashmir. Even back in 2013, Asim Umar, an al Qaeda propagandist who became the head of the jihadi group’s South Asia chapter when it was established the next year, explicitly called on Indian Muslims to mobilize for jihad. Umar is himself from India.
The other trend that makes the current India-Pakistan crisis unsurprising is the changing dynamics of instability in Jammu and Kashmir—a region administered by India but claimed by Pakistan. There is a deep legacy of Pakistan fomenting insurgency in Kashmir, through militant proxies, as part of its long-standing goal of wresting the region away from India.
The nature of the insurgency has shifted and become more locally driven in recent years, however, particularly after Indian security personnel killed Burhan Wani, a young and charismatic Kashmiri militant, in 2016. Wani’s death provoked angry protests in Kashmir that led to violent crackdowns, exacerbating long-standing local grievances against Indian security forces that galvanize many Kashmiris today and make them ripe for radicalization—and attractive recruitment targets for the likes of JeM.
The heavy-handed security tactics that animate Kashmiris have also led to angry denunciations from Islamabad and calls for the international community to focus more attention on Kashmir—a plea that has not been received well in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the Modi government has made matters worse by embracing a tone-deaf Kashmir policy that alternates between promising more development to communities more concerned about repression than poverty and shows of force that only sharpen local grievances—and make Kashmiris more susceptible to the blandishments of militants.
The upshot is that the reactions of both India and Pakistan to the Pulwama attack are rooted in truth: Pakistan-based terrorism is a very real threat in Kashmir, but local conditions fuel militancy as well.
At the end of the day, however, the reality of Pakistan-based terrorism looms large.
To be sure, improving the plight of Kashmiris could diminish indigenous radicalization risks and reduce the number of terrorist attacks. Soon after the Pulwama attack, a retired Indian Army colonel, Alok Asthana, bravely wrote that “the core issue” emerging from the tragedy is “[w]hy are local Kashmiris, many of them relatively well off and educated, ready to lay down their lives in this manner?” The answer clearly lies in the fraught environment in which many of them live.
Still, so long as Pakistan continues to provide space and other forms of succor to terrorists on its soil, Kashmir will be vulnerable to terrorism. Pakistani state support invariably makes terrorist groups stronger thanks to their access to safe havens, infrastructure, recruitment bases, and so on—a reality that remains in place regardless of conditions in Kashmir.
At any rate, the stage is set for a confrontation. The Modi government is under great pressure to retaliate. Islamabad—which is unlikely to sideline JeM, given its utility as an asymmetric asset that can be deployed against conventional Indian military forces that are stronger than Pakistan’s—will not back down easily.
It’s true that concern about nuclear weapons will limit New Delhi’s options. Pakistan has never declared a no-first-use policy, meaning that hypothetically any Indian conventional use of force—no matter how small—could trigger a Pakistani nuclear response. Still, India, undeterred, has carried out multiple limited cross-border raids since Pakistan became a declared nuclear weapons state in 1998. In 2016, after a JeM attack in the Kashmir town of Uri that killed 19 Indian troops, New Delhi claimed to have launched a limited operation (which it described as a “surgical strike”) on Pakistani terrorist launch pads along the border with Pakistan.
A similar operation this time around is possible. However, the Pulwama attack was more than twice as deadly as the one in Uri—and mixed with election-year exigencies, it seems possible that India could opt for something a bit more muscular this time around—such as strikes that last longer or extend further across the border. Such Indian moves could provoke retaliatory attacks by Pakistani militants, heightening the risks of escalation.
These India-Pakistan churnings have notable implications for the United States.
President Donald Trump’s administration must prepare for two delicate diplomatic dances. First, if tensions start spiraling out of control, it should offer itself up as a mediator—as previous U.S. administrations, including that of Bill Clinton during the 1999 Kargil conflict, did fairly successfully. But whether an often maladroit Trump administration has anyone who can manage that kind of diplomatic footwork is a tough question.
Second, Washington will need to balance its desire to support an Indian response—telegraphed by National Security Advisor John Bolton in a phone call assuring his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, that Washington supports India’s right to self-defense—with the need to ensure continued cooperation from Islamabad in current talks with the Taliban.
This latter balancing act has grown more complicated in light of a vague threat made on Feb. 19 by Islamabad’s ambassador to Afghanistan that an Indian retaliatory strike on Pakistan would affect U.S.-Taliban talks. Clearly, Islamabad hopes to use its key role in Afghan peace talks, rooted in the influence it enjoys over the Taliban, as a tool of leverage to pressure the United States into discouraging India from retaliating against Pakistan.
Washington has two chief interests in South Asia: achieving peace in Afghanistan and maintaining stability on the subcontinent. Thanks to the predictable yet perilous crisis that has broken out between South Asia’s nuclear-armed rivals, careful U.S. diplomacy will be required to ensure these interests aren’t imperiled.