The American statesman Henry Kissinger is widely attributed with saying “India lives in a dangerous neighbourhood”. In fact, he probably never did say it as such; but it remains a truism. And yet the international media and financial markets seem to be more or less inured to the potential impact of Islamist terrorist acts in India and heightened tensions across the country’s disputed borders. They should not be.
Last week’s suicide bomb attack which killed 44 Indian troops returning to duty in Kashmir from home leave is the latest — and deadliest as far as terrorist actions in the disputed state are concerned — case in point.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), an affiliate of al Qaida, which, despite being officially banned in Pakistan, is widely acknowledged to operate out of bases there and to enjoy continuing support from Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Furthermore, its leader, Masood Azhar (pictured), who was reluctantly freed from detention in India in late 1999 during a hostages crisis, not only appears to operate with complete impunity in Pakistan but has also been protected by China from repeated attempts by India over the past three years to have the UN Security Council designate him as a terrorist.
Even if we were not now just weeks away from a general election in India, military retaliation of some sort would, I believe, be more or less inevitable. Indian public opinion demands it; and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under more pressure in the polls even before the suicide bombing than most commentators had expected, is hardly likely to resist. What form this might take remains unclear (and almost certainly will do until after the event). But some believe that a ‘stand-off’ strike by Indian warplanes against suspected terrorist installations on the Pakistan-controlled side of the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir is high on the list currently being considered by the military.
It is not inconceivable that, in the event, we might see a re-run of 2016 when India carried out retaliatory (ground) strikes across the LoC, only for Pakistan to deny that they had ever happened and for relative calm to return. But finding the ‘right’ balance which would help assuage public opinion in India while minimising the risk of Pakistan’s hitting back and possible further escalation is no easier challenge. Hence why some had been hoping that Washington would urge reasonable restraint upon India; however, National Security Adviser John Bolton has made it clear that the US supports India’s right to retaliate against cross-border terrorism and will give its ‘active’ backing (whatever that means in practice) to efforts to prevent Islamist terrorists from using Pakistan as a base.
The potential consequences of military escalation between two nuclear powers are clearly very serious. However, this should not distract us entirely from the — admittedly much less consequential — risks that India also hits out, non-militarily, at China. In an excellent 18 February column for the Financial Times (subscriber access only), Amy Kazmin has highlighted the growing outcry in India for action against Beijing over its continuing obstruction vis à vis Mr Azhar. If this happens — and it is a serious probability unless Beijing changes its stance — it will most likely be in the form of trade measures against imports from China (which is currently running a USD60bn pa trade surplus with India). As Ms Kazmin points out, Beijing, which has been looking to build better economic relations with India as US pressure over trade mounts, would certainly not join many in India who would like to see imports from China reduced anyway, in welcoming this.
26 February Update
We shall probably never know the truth about where the Indian bombs from this morning's airstrike actually fell and how much damage/how many casualties resulted. But the key points here are that (a) Pakistan openly acknowledged the incursion, in contrast to the 2016 surgical strike which it continues to deny ever happened (nb: I have very good reasons to believe it did); and (b) this was the first known air incursion across the LoC since the 1971 war — so, arguably, a significant escalation relative to previous retaliatory actions by India.
But even more worrying potentially is India's threat last week to cut off some water supply to Pakistan. If this is followed through it could be a casus belli all on its own.
1 March Update
Assuming it goes ahead — and I think it will — handing the Indian pilot back is an important step towards calming tensions between India and Pakistan for which the latter's Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is to be commended.
Hopefully, it will lead to an early easing of the ongoing artillery strikes across the LoC (which are so 'routine' that they do not really rate more than a mention in the international media) and a ratcheting back of the troop build-ups (including armour) which have been taking place.
BUT (and it is a big 'but') this alone will not resolve the underlying problem which is Pakistan's continued support for Islamist terrorist bases operating out of its territory against India.
One cannot reasonably hold Imran Khan responsible for this. The ISI, which is in the forefront of such support, including for JeM, has really never been beholden to the civilian political establishment but functions pretty much as a law unto itself. Although it has recently desisted from supporting (at least to the extent it used to) the Taliban and its allies in the tribal lands of northern Pakistan (underlined by the helpful role it is playing in the US's Afghanistan negotiations), it has, to the best of my knowledge, never wavered in its active support for and protection of Islamist groups looking to carry out actions against India in general and in Indian-controlled Kashmir in particular. It is undoubtedly answerable to the Chiefs of Staff; but their overriding concern is to retain a disproportionate share of Pakistan's total budget for the military, which essentially means perpetuating tensions with India as the main justification.
I see little, if any, prospect of this changing in the foreseeable future. And until it is we must expect further terrorist attacks against India emanating from Pakistan — with potentially even more serious consequences in terms of cross-border tensions.
Another important question revolves around whether China will now desist from blocking efforts to have the JeM leadership, notably Masood Azhar, formally designated as terrorists by the UN. Such branding would be more symbolic than substantive; but it is still significant. For obvious reasons, attention to this issue has waned in the past few days; but we can reasonably assume that New Delhi will come back to it once the immediate heightened tensions across the LoC are eased.