Heightened Tensions in South Asia

On February 14, a terrorist killed 40 Indian military personnel in Kashmir. The Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility, though Pakistan’s civilian government attempted to downplay this link. India responded with an air strike against a terrorist camp in Pakistan on February 26. Details over the Indian counterattack are still fuzzy, but tensions between these two major countries—representing 20 percent of the world’s population—is at its highest point in over a decade.

Q1: How were relations between India and Pakistan prior to this spike in tensions?

A1: When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014, he chose to regularly engage his Pakistan counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Prime Minister Sharif even accepted an invitation to attend Mr. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. However, despite cordial discussions on improving ties, Pakistan-based terrorist organizations continued to launch high-profile attacks against targets in India—notably two separate attacks against Indian military bases in Uri and Pathankot in 2016. While some level of back-channel communications continued, senior political meetings have been rare. Recognizing that Pakistan’s military maintains real control over the nation’s security apparatus, India has chosen not to engage new Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan following his assumption of power in August 2018.

Q2: What was the U.S. response after the terror attack against Indian military personnel in Kashmir earlier this month?

A2: Following the terrorist attack in Kashmir earlier this month, India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval spoke to U.S. national security adviser John Bolton. In India’s formal account of this conversation, Ambassador Bolton “supported India’s right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism.” While the United States certainly does not want conflict between India and Pakistan, the United States recognizes the threats India faces from terrorist groups based in Pakistan—and increasingly points to overt and covert support from Pakistan’s military. The United States’ own experiences with Pakistan—the inability to get Pakistan to crack down on terror groups destabilizing Afghanistan and find Osama bin Laden “hiding” in a major compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan—certainly reinforces support for India’s side.

Q3: How is this different than previous terrorist attacks against India? And how is this different than recent Indian responses?

A3: India has shown restraint following recent terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan. India has focused on building international support to pressure Pakistan to crack down on terrorism. In September 2016, Indian special forces attacked a terrorist camp in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir following the terror attack against the Indian military base in Uri; while this “surgical strike” received a great deal of attention, similar attacks against terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir had reportedly taken place before, though more quietly.

India’s air strike against targets in Pakistan on February 26 marks an escalated response in a couple of ways. First, this is the first time India has used air power against Pakistan since the two fought a war in 1971. This is obviously significant since air power can move much faster than ground troops—meaning, once Pakistan recognizes a plane crosses into its air space, military leaders will have to quickly decide if India is launching an attack against a terrorist camp near the border or is instead headed towards military targets in Pakistan.

Second, this air attack hit targets in Pakistani territory. In contrast, India’s 2016 “surgical strike” hit terrorist targets in the disputed territory of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Kashmir’s contested status provides a small fig leaf to Pakistan when planning a response claiming it is not the nation’s own integral territory.

Q4: What are U.S. stakes in this game?

A4: India has the tools to manage this crisis in a manner it sees fit. There is no need for the United States to attempt to intervene in cross-border tensions unless an unjustifiable escalation occurs. However, India is looking at ways to further isolate Pakistan internationally beyond military action; the United States should certainly consider additional steps against Pakistan. There are, however, risks to U.S. interests if Pakistan feels the United States is working too closely with India on anti-Pakistan moves.

First and foremost, the United States continues to move critical materiel into Afghanistan through Pakistan. While the Trump administration has reduced military funding to Pakistan and publicly linked the Pakistan military to terrorist groups, Pakistan has not closed off these corridors for resupplying U.S. forces. Pakistan did cut off resupply for NATO forces in 2011, forcing the United States to move supplies through air cargo and a longer over-land route via Russia and Central Asia. Such corridors are more expensive than moving goods through Pakistan. And the routes may be more difficult to revisit today; tensions between the United States and Russia have escalated, and the United States has given up its air base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.

Second, Pakistan plays a crucial determining factor in Afghanistan’s future. As the United States continues to review options for withdrawing from Afghanistan, multiple Pakistan-based terrorist organizations such as the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba continue to pursue destabilization tactics in Afghanistan. The United States seeks Pakistani pressure on the Taliban to agree to peace on favorable terms and specifically through talks with the Afghan government.

Third, increased tensions in the Indian subcontinent can harm India’s ability to lure in new investments and trade links with the world. After a terrorist attack against India’s parliament building in 2001, India and Pakistan amassed approximately 1 million troops at the border. Coming just two years since the prior military confrontation in Kargil, war seemed imminent and realistic. In 2002, the U.S. government urged Americans to leave both nations , leading to a notable chill in India’s business environment. Ultimately the two sides de-escalated, and any effects to the Indian economy were short-lived.

Despite these concerns, there is very little support for Pakistan evident in U.S. policymaking circles all the way to the president, while India’s importance as a strategic partner continues to grow. The potential pain points outlined above seem like a smaller price to pay for the United States today, as compared to just a few years before. Engagement with Pakistan has done little to benefit U.S. interests, even in the best of times.

Q5: Is there a chance of further escalation?

A5: Yes, this is an important relationship to watch in the coming weeks. The old “playbook” during periods of tension is no longer valid. Normal responses from just 20 years back—tools like expelling diplomats and cutting off people-to-people links—are considered insufficient. We are in uncertain territory. Ahead of a crucial election in India this spring, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to show he was not afraid to respond to terrorism—and delivered a measured response that does not necessarily trigger escalation. In contrast, Pakistan’s security apparatus is not controlled by elected leaders. Pakistan’s military has more liberty to choose a moment to de-escalate before either side makes a dangerous miscalculation.

Q6: What can the rest of the world do?

A6: The United States and other countries could quietly urge restraint on Pakistan; our leverage might not be great, but our voices will be heard. Most effective would be quiet words from Chinese leaders to the Pakistani military. China shares one important interest with us in South Asia—a desire to avoid armed conflict and the consequent destabilization of the region.

And at the UN, the United States and India have worked for years to put Jaish-e-Mohamed leader Masood Azhar on the UN’s terrorist list. Action in the UN Security Council has always been blocked by China, at Pakistan’s behest. That needs to change.

Richard M. Rossow is a senior adviser and holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C.

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