Jeff M. Smith
If there’s one conclusion to draw from the recent crisis in India-Pakistan relations it’s this: We’ve been living on borrowed time. The latest episode in their longstanding dispute over Kashmir confirms that we have entered a new, more volatile chapter in bilateral relations, one in which the world can no longer expect India to respond with unquestioned restraint to future provocations from its neighbor. To avoid a disastrous escalation in the future, the world will have to redouble its efforts to end the scourge of state-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan.
On February 14, Indian forces suffered the deadliest-ever single attack in Kashmir, the territory disputed by the nuclear-armed antagonists since Partition in 1947. Delhi’s response was unprecedented. On February 26, for the first time this century, Indian fighter jets struck deep inside Pakistani territory, targeting camps operated by the notorious terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The group, perpetrator of several prior attacks in India, had claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed over 40 Indian soldiers.
The following day, the Pakistani military answered with its own airstrike in Indian-controlled Kashmir, prompting a dogfight between the two air forces that resulted in the downing of one aircraft from each side and threats of nuclear escalation.
It appears cooler heads have prevailed since the pilot of the downed Indian aircraft was returned on March 1st. For now, a larger conflict has likely been averted, though there are reports of more commonplace skirmishes along the Line of Control. Both sides were given just enough space to declare victory and shape their own narratives. However, this should come as little relief to the rest of the world, which must begin preparing for a new, more volatile dynamic between the two countries.
Critical details of the exchange remain obscured in the fog of war. Did the Indian airstrike actually hit the JeM compounds and were there any casualties? What happened to the pilot of the downed Pakistani jet? Was Pakistan’s security establishment involved in the plotting and timing of the attack?
The long-term trends are more discernible. Kashmir has been in a near perpetual state of conflict since a Pakistan-backed insurgency erupted in earnest 30 years ago. Since then, tens of thousands of lives have been lost in clashes and terrorist attacks. In the process, the world has been lulled to complacency by a repetitive but unsustainable cycle.
It has become almost routine: India suffers an attack in Kashmir perpetrated from or backed by Pakistan. The world raises the prospect of nuclear war and implores India to demonstrate restraint. Delhi complies. Islamabad is cosmetically reprimanded by the international community while India is applauded as the more mature and responsible party. Tensions cool until the cycle repeats itself. That cycle came to an end in 2016.
That year, heavily armed, Pakistani-backed militants conducted one of the deadliest attacks in Kashmir in two decades, killing 18 Indian soldiers at army base in Uri. The Indian response was different this time: a “surgical strike” on targets across the Line of Control.
This set a new precedent, one that the Modi government felt it could not walk back from this February — not in response to an even deadlier terror attack and not in an election year.
But this isn’t really about Indian elections. It’s about India’s evolution. The Narendra Modi-led government is more confident and more nationalist in character, but so is the Indian public at large. Perhaps that should be expected from a country of India’s history and proportions now hitting its geopolitical stride, ranking first in military imports, second in population, fifth in military spending, and sixth in Gross Domestic Product (or third when adjusted for purchasing power parity).
Fortunately, unlike China, India’s rise has not been accompanied by a proportional surge in external assertiveness. It has no major historical grievances in desperate need of redress, no major territorial ambitions beyond Kashmir, no authoritarian model to export to aspiring dictators, and no demonstrated animosity toward the rules-based order from which it has benefited tremendously. Critically, its foreign policy priorities aren’t driven by the insecurities of an autocratic elite terrified of losing power. This is at least in part why the U.S. has invested so much time and energy into facilitating India’s rise as a responsible democratic partner and a net provider of security and public goods in the Indian Ocean.
There’s a flipside. The tolerance of the Indian government and the Indian public for absorbing successive waves of state-sponsored terror attacks has declined precipitously. To be sure, America’s tolerance for Pakistan’s “double game” has declined too. Building frustration with Islamabad coalesced in the Trump administration’s decision to suspend the vast majority of military aid to Pakistan in 2017. It has also worked with partners to have Pakistan “grey-listed” at the international terrorist finance watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force. Many on Capitol Hill would like to see an even more aggressive pressure campaign.
Turning its back on the network of terror groups won’t be easy, but Pakistan must confront an existential question: How has support for these fanatical groups actually helped Pakistan or advanced its national interest? It has alienated entire generations of Indians and Afghans, soured Pakistan’s lucrative relationship with the U.S., and turned the international diplomatic and business communities against it. Tragically, arguably the greatest victims of Pakistan’s double game have been its own people. Some 40,000 have been killed by domestic jihadi groups over the past 15 years. Women, homosexuals, and minority religious groups have fared the worst, but no Pakistani has been spared, including the military and ISI.
Many educated Pakistanis, including some in the civilian leadership, understand their country is charting a disastrous course. But they are powerless in the shadow of Pakistan’s all-powerful military, fearful of the wrath of religious zealots, and lack support from a broader public inundated with conspiracy theories and military-backed propaganda that blames India, Israel, and the U.S. for all of Pakistan’s ills.
In theory the solution is simple: Pakistan’s security establishment must be convinced the cost for using terrorism as an instrument of state policy outweighs the benefits. Showing Pakistan the tremendous economic and diplomatic benefits it would accrue from abandoning this misguided adventure is the easy part. Getting the U.S. government and international community to do a much more effective job imposing costs has proved more challenging. They will have to devote more time, energy, and diplomatic capital to the endeavor, including pressuring Pakistan’s remaining patrons, China and Saudi Arabia, to help break the destructive cycle. It’s a painful pill to swallow but one necessary to break an even deadlier fever.