India: We Should Have Seen This India-Pakistan Crisis Coming

The crisis was predictable. How both sides get out of it isn’t.


Indian civilians light candles in Kolkata on Feb. 15 as they pay tribute to the Central Reserve Police Force personnel killed on Feb. 14 during an attack on a CRPF convoy in Kashmir.  (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

It has been more than a week since a young militant in the district of Pulwama in the India-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir drove a car packed with 750 pounds of explosives into a convoy of Indian paramilitary forces, killing at least 49 of them.

Indian and Pakistani reactions to the tragedy have been predictable. New Delhi blames Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of assisting the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which claimed responsibility for the attack. Islamabad denies any complicity, noting that the attacker and his explosives were local products and excoriating heavy-handed Indian security forces for stoking the repressive environment that radicalizes young Kashmiris.Trending Articles

The perpetrator, scale, and timing of the Pulwama attack strengthen the likelihood of a punitive Indian response. A Pakistani terrorist group with ties to Pakistani intelligence carried out one of the deadliest attacks in Kashmir in years—and shortly before an increasingly vulnerable ruling party contests national elections in a country where tough-on-Pakistan talk plays well on the campaign trail. It beggars belief that New Delhi will simply sit on its hands. “If our neighbor … thinks it can destabilize India through its tactics and conspiracies,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned in a speech the day after the tragedy, “then it is making a huge mistake.”

This new crisis—and the attack that provoked it—should come as no surprise, given two notable trends over the last few years.

First, JeM has been resurging after a period of relative inactivity, along with the public re-emergence of its leader, Masood Azhar. New Delhi accuses him of masterminding an attack on India’s Parliament building in 2001 and helping to plan an assassination attempt on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2003. But then he largely disappeared from public view until January 2014, when an anti-India rally in Pakistan-administered Kashmir broadcast a recorded lecture by him. In the next few months, Azhar started issuing public threats—including one to kill Modi if he became India’s next prime minister. (He would take office in May 2014.)

Azhar’s reappearance has coincided with a rise in JeM attacks. These included deadly assaults on an Indian Air Force base and Army troops in 2016, along with several attacks on Indian security personnel this year (one of them in Pulwama). And then came last week’s Valentine’s Day massacre.

The war in Afghanistan may help explain the public re-emergence of Azhar and his organization. Back in 2014, foreign combat troops were heading for the exits, giving traditionally India-focused militant groups operating in Afghanistan against NATO forces at the time—including JeM—a strong incentive to redirect their attention to India-administered Kashmir and India more broadly. With a post-America Afghanistan looking even more likely today, amid expedited U.S. efforts to ink a deal with the Taliban, JeM and its Pakistani state patrons have an even greater motivation to refocus attention on Kashmir.

Another explanation for JeM’s resurgence could be a desire to reassert its jihadi street cred in Kashmir amid challenges from al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In recent years, both groups have claimed attacks in Kashmir. Even back in 2013, Asim Umar, an al Qaeda propagandist who became the head of the jihadi group’s South Asia chapter when it was established the next year, explicitly called on Indian Muslims to mobilize for jihad. Umar is himself from India.

The other trend that makes the current India-Pakistan crisis unsurprising is the changing dynamics of instability in Jammu and Kashmir—a region administered by India but claimed by Pakistan. There is a deep legacy of Pakistan fomenting insurgency in Kashmir, through militant proxies, as part of its long-standing goal of wresting the region away from India.

The nature of the insurgency has shifted and become more locally driven in recent years, however, particularly after Indian security personnel killed Burhan Wani, a young and charismatic Kashmiri militant, in 2016. Wani’s death provoked angry protests in Kashmir that led to violent crackdowns, exacerbating long-standing local grievances against Indian security forces that galvanize many Kashmiris today and make them ripe for radicalization—and attractive recruitment targets for the likes of JeM.

The article appeared in the Foreign Policy magazine on 22 February 2019

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