Last month’s suicide bomb attack in the disputed province of Kashmir, which killed 40 members of India’s security forces, suddenly brought two old rivals to the brink of war. India and Pakistan had fought three of them between the Partition and 1971. They have been at peace since, uneasy at times, which provides evidence for Martin van Creveld’s old thesis that nuclear proliferation may have stabilizing effect at regional level.
The British hastily left India in 1947, and the two main successor states’ borders were drawn in blood. The Partition was a messy business, with the border established along the supposedly temporary “line of control.” Pakistan’s claim is based on the fact that the majority of 7 million people inhabiting India’s state of Jammu and Kashmir are Muslim, to which India responds that all Kashmiris are lucky to live in a secular state and not in a jihadist-infested hellhole. The Chinese, for good measure, claim a chunk of the former Kindom of Kashmir, on both sides of the Siachen Glacier, which provides them with a short but vital piece of land border with Pakistan.
There was no war this time, although the potential was considerable. The attack was carried out by Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). It is based in Pakistan, like most other Jihadist groups which have killed hundreds of Indian security forces and civilians in recent years. In fact this was the most serious incident of its kind since the November 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks.
India responded on February 26 by sending 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft to bomb the JeM camp in the city of Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Province. Both countries placed their forces on alert and exchanged artillery fire along the Line of Control that divides them in the far north. The following day Pakistani aircraft shot down an Indian Mig-21 and took the pilot prisoner, but released him on March 1. In another conciliatory gesture, on March 5 Pakistan arrested 44 members of various extremist groups, most of whom had been named by India in a dossier it gave to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. They included JeM leader Masood Azhar’s son and brother. In a symbolic move, the Samjhauta (Concord) Express has resumed its bi-weekly runs between Lahore and Old Delhi Station.
The main reason for Pakistan’s apparent willingness to deescalate the conflict is that it can no longer count on more or less automatic support from the United States. While the U.S. refused to take a position on India’s complaint that Pakistan used an American-made F-16 in shooting India’s MiG fighter, which if true would have been in violation of their bilateral sales agreement, Washington is insistently equidistant. “We continue to urge both sides to continue to take steps to de-escalate the situation,” a State Department spokesperson said, “and that includes through direct communication.” He noted that in the critical days two weeks ago Secretary of State Michael Pompeo played a direct and “essential role in de-escalating the tensions” when he spoke with leaders in both countries.
The United States has a new, strategically important relationship with India, which it sees as an essential partner in the Indo-Pacific region in containing China’s turbulent rise. It is also frustrated with Pakistan’s continuing support for jihadist proxies. Nothing has worked to alter this “long-standing attribute of Pakistan’s foreign policy,” as Joshua T. White has warned:
Perhaps Pakistani leaders have made quiet efforts to ein in India-focused terrorists but the outcomes speak for themselves, and damningly: Attacks on Indian territory have continued unabated . . . Washington can deliver a clearer public message to Islamabad. It should assert that Pakistan bears responsibility for these attacks—not because of any incontrovertible public evidence that shows directive control by the state over terrorist organizations, but because the flagrant openness with which supposedly “banned” groups operate within Pakistan suggests, at minimum, a policy of intentional state negligence.
America’s developing partnership with India is too important to be jeopardized by continuing tolerance of Pakistan’s jihad-supporting officials, especially in the military intelligence apparat—the notoriously duplicitous ISI. It had sheltered Osama Bin Laden for years. Its at best ambivalent relation with the Taliban is an open secret. Pakistan is an irredeemably flawed entity, unable to turn itself into a stable polity or a benign global presence. As in Afghanistan before 2001, militants are dangerously close to the institutions of power and reside in the heart of the country rather than just on its wild mountainous fringes. It remains the epicenter of global jihad, a breeding ground for the new echelons of “martyrs.”
At the same time, India should carefully determine the strategic band with which she can punish Pakistan and yet avoid escalation to the nuclear level. In other words, from now on Pakistan needs to be punished quickly and painfully for any future transgressions by its jihadist protégés, but that punishment nevertheless needs to remain below any conceivable level of escalation which could be used to justify deployment of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal. It is a matter of fine and risky tuning but it can be done.
The Pacific and the Indian oceans are poised to acquire greater strategic salience for the major powers of the 21st century. China is actively trying to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean by building a rail link to a deep sea port in Burma (“Myanmar”) in the Bay of Bengal, and to the port of Gwadar in Pakistan on the symmetrically opposite side of India. This threat may be extremely useful to Beijing if the Indo-Pacific project develops into an instrument for containing China. Pakistan in particular may cherish a key role in China’s counter-containment strategy.
Now that the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a “single strategic arena,” with India and the United States as “bookends” within that region, Washington has bigger fish to try in the Subcontinent than to pander to some irresponsible Pakistani brigadiers who think they can play in the big geopolitical league. Indo-Pacific is the big league, and Narendra Modi is a key player. Its objective is to broaden the Asia-Pacific region into a more balanced pan-region which would include India, in order to counterbalance China. Particularly important in this paradigm is the relationship between India and Japan, at two ends of the balancing quadrilateral.