The Trump administration has been bent on a military withdrawal from Afghanistan and leaning on Pakistan to pressure the Taliban in peace talks. Pakistan is hosting a meeting next week in Islamabad between the Taliban and the United States before the next round of negotiations in Qatar at the end of the month.
It is likely Pakistan may use this opportunity to convey a subtle message, as it has done in the past, that it can get away with periodic attacks in Kashmir.
JeM has for years sought to end India’s sovereign hold on Jammu and Kashmir.
Just two months after the September 11 attacks in the United States, the JeM attacked India’s parliament in New Delhi. Experts suggest the US asked India not to retaliate militarily as it would have affected its deployment across several bases in Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan and lead to Islamabad mobilising the army for its own mission instead of helping the US seal the Afghan border.
Now, Pakistan is also likely to reiterate to the US the pet narrative that militancy in Jammu and Kashmir is a “home-grown disaffection” and cite reports that the car packed with bombs that killed Indian troops was driven by a local youth, Adil Ahmad Dar.
Overall, the situation highlights the strategic limitations of the US and other nations in forcing Pakistan to abandon militant groups. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has condemned the attack and strongly rejected insinuations it is linked to the incident.
China’s stance on Kashmir attack will test ties with India
It is also possible that with India-Pakistan relations in deep freeze, and the US in talks with the Taliban for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, the JeM wants to push India and Pakistan to the brink of war. It needs to be noted that the JeM, which has close links with the Taliban, carried out attacks inside Pakistan after former President Pervez Musharraf agreed to help the US military in the aftermath of September 11. Its attacks included two failed assassination bids on Musharaf in 2003. It was only later that the JeM was rehabilitated by Pakistan’s Army so it could be used against India.
The car bombing on February 14 was quite similar to those carried out by the Irish Republican Army or militants in Afghanistan or Iraq and is possibly a hint of things to come. While car bombs have been rare in Kashmir, it is not the first time the JeM has used them. It deployed them twice in 2000 in Srinagar, albeit with limited success.
In October 2001, JeM militants rammed the main gate of the Legislative Assembly building, killing 23.
Thwarting such attacks would not only require excellent intelligence on men and materials, but also mean restricting traffic movement and exhaustive checks of vehicles – disrupting everyday life in Jammu and Kashmir during a crucial election period.
India has already indicated it would stop all civilian traffic during the movement of troop convoys. The ruling BJP, claiming to be more nationalistic and “muscular” than other political parties, is facing tremendous pressure to take a tough line on Pakistan. It could again launch “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control but Pakistan is likely to be prepared.
The other option is an attack using combat aircraft or armed drones on militant training camps. However, the problem is that Masood Azhar is based around Bahawalpur – and any aerial attack across the international border could lead to escalation. An attack across the de facto border known as The Line of Control may abate public sentiment – but will not punish the actual culprits.
India warns of ‘befitting reply’ to Pakistan over Kashmir attack
There are many hawks in India who are recommending full-scale military action against Pakistan. But there are a few things to consider when contemplating full-scale war with Pakistan.
First, India lacks the conventional forces overmatch over Pakistan that would allow it full control over the escalation ladder. If the element of surprise fails, Indian troops could get bogged down and there is the potential for escalation.
Secondly, Pakistan’s fear of being quickly overwhelmed may encourage it to rapidly raise the stakes with nuclear threats.
Thirdly, keeping an Indian attack limited may also not be a priority of Pakistan. It would, on the contrary, be keen to escalate the conflict to a level where the threat of nuclear war becomes imminent and the international community is forced to intervene. This could allow Pakistan to “internationalise” the Kashmir conflict – it administers part of Jammu & Kashmir (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) but insists most residents want either independence or to be under Islamabad and not New Delhi’s control.
Lastly, the Pakistani army does retain the potential to wreak some limited amount of damage on the Indian side of the border and the economic and stability cost to the border states would be debilitating.
If the ruling BJP limits itself to economic and diplomatic measures only, it may suffer in elections. With opposition parties piling on pressure to act, the government may have to undertake some kind of punitive action – the outcome and benefits of which cannot be predicted. Right now, by indicating “the armed forces have been given full liberty to decide the time, place and mode of retribution”, the government seems to have outsourced the problem of a credible response to the armed forces.
Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. He was formerly head of the defence wing in the National Security Council Secretariat of India.