BY SHASHI MALLA
Resurgence of Indo-Pakistan Conflict?
There is grave danger that there may be a resurgence of conflict in our immediate neighbourhood. This has been precipitated by a deadly suicidal bomb attack on a convoy of Indian paramilitaries in the Kashmir Valley – the part of the state administered by India. The huge blast ripped through the convoy, killing 40 soldiers and injuring five more. This is the worst attack on Indian forces since the beginning of the insurgency in the disputed state in the 1980s.
This disaster has shaken India, which claims arch-antagonist Pakistan had a “direct hand” in the incident. The renewal of geopolitical tensions in South Asia [not the Indian Subcontinent as many commentators and news agencies are wont to say] comes at a very critical moment – just months before national parliamentary elections in India – the world’s largest functioning democracy. Not to be left behind, all political parties in the fray are bound to take a ‘nationalistic ‘standpoint. The incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) had been politically attacked from all sides before the incident.
Kashmir is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan and has been a constant source of conflict between the two nuclear armed neighbours since their independence from British colonial rule back in 1947 – more than seven decades! They have fought three regional wars since then. In between the ‘Line of Control’ has watched over an uneasy peace between the Indian and Pakistani administered parts of Kashmir. A substantial part – the Aksai Chin plateau in the north-west was claimed and taken over by China in the 1950s.
Past attacks in Kashmir and beyond, including the terrorist raids in New Delhi and Mumbai in 2008 that India blamed on Pakistan-based terrorists, have brought the two neighbours again and again to the brink of armed conflict. The Indian government has blamed last Thursday’s attack on Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant organization based in Pakistan. This is a group listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
India’s PM Narendra Modi characterized the attack on the para-military personnel in Pulwama as “despicable” and condemned the “dastardly attack”. He warned Pakistan that India would not be divided: “If they think that the kinds of things they are doing, the conspiracies that they are concocting – that they will be successful in creating instability in India, then they should abandon that dream.”
Modi has taken a stronger stand towards militancy in Kashmir since he came to power almost five years back. Responding to calls for retribution from Indians on social media, as well as hardline groups, Modi said he had given a free hand to the military to respond to acts of violence.
India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said last Friday that India would initiate “all possible diplomatic steps” to “ensure the complete isolation from the international community of Pakistan, of which incontrovertible evidence is available of having a direct hand in this gruesome terrorist incident.” He added that India would downgrade its diplomatic relations by withdrawing its “most favoured nation status’ to Pakistan – a largely symbolic measure.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement hours after the attack, describing it as “a matter of grave concern.” It added: “We have always condemned acts of violence anywhere in the world” and “We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan.
Pakistan has repeatedly maintained that it does not support terrorists. It only offers political and diplomatic support to the Kashmiri people in the struggle for self-determination.
Perpetrator of the Attack
Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which translates to the “Army of the Prophet Mohammed”, is a Pakistan-based militant group that operates on both sides of the de facto border [‘Line of Control’] of Kashmir and seeks inter alia to unite the Indian-controlled area of the state with Pakistan. Although listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization in 2001, the attempt to include its leader, Masood Azhar, as an “internationally designated terrorist” at the United Nations sanctions committee was on “technical hold” by China in 2017.
According to the UN, Azhar founded Jaish-e-Mohammed with support from Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and several other extremist Islamist organizations. The group has been implicated in multiple attacks in India, including the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi that killed 9 people, and on the Kashmir legislative assembly building that killed at least 31 people. According to Indian intelligence, JeM chief Azhar’s own nephew Mohammed Umair is in southern Kashmir and was instrumental in ‘radicalizing and motivating’ the school dropout who carried out the brazen attack.
The United States has told India it supports its right to defend itself against cross-border attacks.
US National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton has spoken to his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval last Friday, promising to help bring those behind the attack to justice, according to the Indian external affairs ministry. Furthermore, “the two NSAs vowed to work together to ensure that Pakistan ceases to be safe haven for JeM and terrorist groups that target India, the US and others in the region,” the ministry added.
China has been caught in the India-Pakistan crossfire. Last Friday it did join in the global condemnation of the attack, but again made clear that it was not about to change its stand on Azhar, citing UN “procedure”. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “We are deeply shocked. We express deep condolences and sympathy to the injured and bereaved families.”
However, India’s former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha was unreservedly unforgiving: “China surely has blood on its hands. In blind pursuit of its policy of friendship with Pakistan at any cost, China has become a partner in all its crimes.” Sinha is an outspoken critic of PM Modi, whose ruling Bharatiya Janta Party he recently left. Beijing’s continuing role in helping Islamabad shield Azhar from global sanctions has raised questions in India and elsewhere about China’s intentions and dealt a blow to Modi who had claimed a new-found rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the form of the “Wuhan spirit”, named after their summit in the eponymous central Chinese city last year.
This had come on the heels of a two-month stand-off between Chinese and Indian forces in the Doklam plateau in the Bhutan-Tibet-Sikkim “tri-junction” area, and the meeting was said to have “normalized” relations between the two countries, which share disputed borders in the north-east and north-west of India. China, on the other hand, has been watching with alarm India’s closer embrace of the US and what it views as India’s hostile stance on the South China Sea and Tibet.
In fact, Sinha pleads for a complete reset of India-China relations. “Today the Wuhan spirit lies in tatters. China has taught us repeatedly that nothing matters to it more than its own interests. We should adopt the same attitude in dealing with China,” Sinha told the South China Morning Post. Modi will have to deal with the rising tide of hostile China sentiment in the run-up to the elections. There is a growing consensus in India that the Chinese are to blame for giving Pakistan a free pass on terrorism. Modi thus has no choice but to complicate his foreign policy options, and thereby ‘square the circle’.
Opposition Congress leader Shashi Tharoor [a former UN undersecretary- general], who chairs the Indian parliament’s Standing Committee on External Affairs was equally forthright: “It is sobering that the Pulwama murders have been claimed by Jaish, a group that enjoys China’s protection at the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee. What about the ‘Wuhan spirit’ China and Modi have been touting? . . . In that spirit, can they rein in Pakistan by sanctioning Jaish? Or does that spirit not extend beyond photo ops?” Tharoor’s committee recently critiqued the Modi government for being “overtly cautious” about China’s sensitivities on Taiwan and Tibet and concluded that India cannot continue with its “coventional deferential foreign policy towards China.”
The Iranian Angle
In a strange twist of events, Iran has also warned neighbouring Pakistan last Saturday, it would “pay a heavy price” for allegedly harboring militants who killed 27 of its elite Revolutionary Guards in a suicide bombing near the common border.
The Sunni group Jaish al Adl (Army of Justice), which says it seeks greater rights and better living conditions for the ethnic minority Baluchis, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Revolutionary Guards chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari also accused Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of supporting militant Sunni groups that attack Iranian forces, saying they face “reprisal operations” to “avenge the blood of our martyrs”.
Further complicating matters, and adding a further dimension to the regional rivalries was the state visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Pakistan at just this moment of time. Pakistan is committed to protect the royal family and the order as it exists in Saudi Arabia. Major bilateral investment agreements to a total of US $ Dollar 20 billion, including a US $ Dollar 10 billion refinery and petrochemicals complex in the coastal city of Gwadar, where China is building a port. Where does this multilateral economic cooperation leave India’s vow to isolate Pakistan internationally?
Experts Weigh In
“This attack will pose a major test for Modi,” said Michael Kugelman, senior South Asia associate at the Washington, D.C.—based Woodrow Wilson Center. “Given the fast-approaching election and his increasing political vulnerability, he will be under tremendous pressure to resort to some type of muscular response.”
Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia between 2010 and 2013 had a similar viewpoint: The attack undoubtedly increases pressure on the Modi government to respond militarily, not only due to the upcoming elections, but as a question of national pride.”
The worst case scenario – an outbreak of hostilities – could emerge since the US is no longer involved in crisis management [it has taken the side of India], and also because the “bilateral escalation control mechanisms” are missing (Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace in Foreign Policy). Not for nothing did US President Bill Clinton term this part of the world “the most dangerous place” on Earth at the turn of the century!
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org