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Kashmir attack a deadly blow to India–Pakistan ties

Posted By on February 18, 2019 @ 13:04

Last week’s terrorist attack about 20 kilometres from Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, was the deadliest attack since 1989, when a militant insurgency against Indian rule began.

Almost 50 paramilitary troops travelling on a bus as part of a convoy of 70 vehicles were killed when a car carrying at least 200 kilograms of explosives rammed their bus. The blast was enormous, with debris strewn over a wide area. This happened on what is meant to be a highly secure section of the highway. The suicide bomber was a local 20-year-old man who had been trained in Pakistan.

Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which translates as ‘Army of Mohammad’, has claimed responsibility for the attack. JeM was formed in 2000 with the help of Pakistani military intelligence, but was banned in 2002.  It has links with al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban and has been responsible for terrorist acts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir.

The terrorist attack was reportedly ordered by JeM leader Maulana Masood Azhar to avenge the killing of his two nephews by security forces in Kashmir in 2017 and 2018. Azhar was imprisoned in India on terrorism charges in 1994 but released in December 1999 in exchange for hostages on a hijacked Indian Airlines flight in Kandahar, then under Taliban rule. Azhar is allowed to roam freely in Pakistan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacted swiftly, stating that the attack was ‘despicable’ and ‘dastardly’ and that India would give a ‘strong response’. He stressed that the ‘blood of the people is boiling’ and that the culprits would ‘pay a heavy price’. He indirectly accused Pakistan of being involved by saying that the attack was an ‘outcome of the neighbouring country’s desperation’. Pakistani forces are on their highest level of alert in anticipation of an Indian strike.

The Pakistan Foreign Office condemned the attack in a statement, but also rejected Indian accusations of being involved in it. There’s been no statement from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

India has not yet taken any military action. It withdrew Pakistan’s most favoured nation trade privilege almost immediately. But when Modi does take military action—which he will—he’ll have to calibrate it in such a way that it’s tough enough to satisfy his political base but not so damaging (and humiliating) as to force Pakistan to have to retaliate with a counter-raid.

Critical in Modi’s calculation is that his term in office is coming to an end and he has to call a general election within the next two months. And, as he has built his political credibility on being tough on terrorists, we can expect the military response to be tough as well.

The good news is that there is a tacit understanding between India and Pakistan going back decades not to attack across the international border and to restrict military activity to the Kashmir region. And while there is increasing domestic pressure on Modi to break from that understanding and to hit Pakistan proper, he’d be very wary of doing so given that it’s not clear how low Pakistan’s threshold for the use of nuclear weapons is. So we can expect India’s retaliatory strike to be limited to Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Many countries, including Australia, were quick to condemn the horrific terrorist attack, though only two countries named Pakistan. The US called on Pakistan to ‘end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil’. And Iran, which had been the victim of a terrorist attack itself earlier in the week in which 27 revolutionary guards were killed, accused Pakistani security forces of supporting Jaish al-Adl, a Pakistan-based terrorist group with a focus on attacking Iranian assets. Interestingly, China, which is Pakistan’s closest ally, also condemned the attack and stated that it was ‘deeply shocked’. However, there was no suggestion that China was about to lift its opposition to the listing of Azhar as a global terrorist by the UN.

In addition to the option of military retaliation, India intends to work on the diplomatic front, with the objective of isolating Pakistan. One of the priorities will be to have Pakistan blacklisted with the Financial Action Task Force for not doing enough in the global fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. Pakistan is already on the grey list. Being on the blacklist makes it difficult to get loans with the IMF, the World Bank and other international institutions. India may well be successful in this endeavour.

However, New Delhi may find it more challenging to muster further support in isolating Islamabad. Pakistan is playing a crucial role in ‘delivering’ the Taliban to the negotiating table in the lead-up to negotiations between the US and the Taliban in an effort to find a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict. Accordingly, it’s unlikely that Washington would want to jeopardise this thaw in US–Pakistan relations. Similarly, the Muslim world, led by Saudi Arabia, is not about to turn against Pakistan. A former Pakistani chief of army staff heads the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition. And, importantly, Islamabad has been conveniently silent over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has just visited Pakistan to sign some US$20 billion worth of contracts which include the development of the world’s third largest oil refinery at Gwadar.

While the international community is utterly repelled by the Kashmir attack, it’s also fully aware that this didn’t happen in a political vacuum. It’s been willing to turn a blind eye to the heavy-handed suppression of political dissent in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir since 1989, but the 2018 report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was a damning indictment of the extent of human rights abuses in Kashmir. Needless to say, India completely rejected the report’s findings. But the report seriously cracked New Delhi’s carefully cultivated international image, a big win for Pakistan.

The terrorist attack will have dramatically set back any prospects of improved relations between India and Pakistan. But bilateral talks about Kashmir between the two nations will have to take place eventually. However, this will require some serious concessions from both parties, and the two protagonists are not ready for that yet. So in the meantime, we can expect more deaths, more repression and more blood to flow in Indian-administered Kashmir.

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[1] the deadliest attack since 1989: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47240660

[2] suicide bomber: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/pulwama-terrorist-adil-ahmad-dar-was-indoctrinated-by-jem-in-pakistan-1457647-2019-02-16

[3] Jaish-e-Mohammad: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/indian-security-forces-killed-kashmir-blast-reports-190214110644498.html

[4] It has links: https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/pakistan/pakistan-militant-jihadi-challenge

[5] ordered by JeM leader Maulana Masood Azhar: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/azhar-gave-nod-for-pulwama-attack-from-army-base-hospital-in-pakistan/articleshow/68029942.cms

[6] released in December 1999: https://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/01/world/hostages-land-in-india-after-deal-is-made-with-hijackers.html

[7] pay a heavy price: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/you-ve-committed-big-mistake-pm-narendra-modi-to-pakistan-after-kashmir-attack/story-CHE9FsL0kz1Vz2lvpdRVHI.html

[8] statement: https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/432512-pulwama-suicide-attack-india-withdraws-pak-mfn-status

[9] withdrew Pakistan’s most favoured nation: https://www.dawn.com/news/1464024/pakistan-summons-indian-envoy-to-protest-baseless-allegations-about-occupied-kashmir-attack

[10] increasing domestic pressure: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/crpf-personnel-suicide-attack-in-pulwama-live-updates/article26278287.ece

[11] including Australia: https://twitter.com/MarisePayne/status/1096206559833579520

[12] called on Pakistan: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-press-secretary-terrorist-attack-india/

[13] accused: https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/58-nations-condemn-pulwama-terror-attack-us-names-pakistan-1457970-2019-02-17

[14] One of the priorities: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/terror-financing-watchdog-fatf-to-be-given-dossier-to-blacklist-pakistan-for-terror-links/articleshow/68026015.cms

[15] the lead-up to negotiations: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/26/afghanistan-war-us-taliban-talks-verge-breakthrough

[16] sign: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/mbs-arrives-pakistan-seals-saudi-ties-20bn-deals-190217175841295.html

[17] world’s third largest oil refinery: https://www.samaa.tv/news/2018/10/worlds-third-biggest-oil-refinery-will-be-installed-in-gwadar/

[18] 2018 report: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/IN/DevelopmentsInKashmirJune2016ToApril2018.pdf

[19] India completely rejected: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/totally-untrue-unhcr-dismisses-criticism-of-its-kashmir-report/articleshow/65029693.cms