One of the world's most dangerous conflicts is also one of the least discussed in Western media. However, the rivalry between India and Pakistan returned to the headlines on Thursday—as usual, for tragic reasons. In the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, specifically the Pulwama district, a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle with explosives into a convoy carrying Indian paramilitary forces. The terrorist attack, the deadliest in the disputed region for decades, killed more than 40 Indian Central Reserve Police Force personnel. Jaish-e-Mohammed, or JeM, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the car bombing.
Indian authorities immediately blamed Pakistan for the attack, promising to retaliate in a forceful way. "Those who did the heinous act will have to pay a heavy price. Those who supported it will definitely be punished," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday. "If our neighbor [Pakistan] thinks it can destabilize India, then it is making a big mistake."
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India's Ministry of External Affairs also commented on the attack, saying in a statement that JeM is "led by the international terrorist Masood Azhar, who has been given full freedom by the government of Pakistan to operate and expand his terror infrastructure in territories under the control of Pakistan and to carry out attacks in India and elsewhere with impunity. … We demand that Pakistan stop supporting terrorists and terror groups operating from their territory."
Islamabad denied any role in the bombing. "We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian government and media circles that seek to link the attack to the state of Pakistan without investigations," the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said in a press release.
The White House also released a statement on the attack, echoing India's position. "The United States calls on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence, and terror in the region," the statement read. "This attack only strengthens our resolve to bolster counterterrorism cooperation and coordination between the United States and India."
So far, no evidence has been made public to prove Pakistan's complicity, but Islamabad has supported JeM for years. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency helped create JeM, which is allied with al Qaeda, and other terror groups to fight India in Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, the Pakistani state has continued to shelter JeM, using support for terrorists as a tool of statecraft against India. Furthermore, as the Long War Journal notes, the U.S. Treasury Department said in its 2010 designation of Azhar that "JeM recruitment posters in Pakistan contained a call from Azhar for volunteers to join the fight in Afghanistan against Western forces." Pakistan has consistently turned a blind eye to such activities on its soil, even when it does not provide active support to terror groups.
Regardless of the Pakistani state's potential involvement, if Pakistan's civilian and military establishments want to improve relations with India, or at least show that Islamabad was not involved in the attack, then they need to target JeM's leadership in some form. If no action is taken, then it is hard to believe that Pakistan is serious about any outreach to India or attempt to stamp out terrorism.
The big question now is how India will respond. No matter what New Delhi does, there is always the danger that Islamabad could retaliate in turn, creating uncontrolled escalation. In a conflict in which two large, powerful countries, each with well over 100 nuclear warheads, are deeply hostile toward one another, escalation must be a serious concern. Indeed, the neighboring countries have gone to war four times since 1947, and have endured several other standoffs, skirmishes, and crises, many of which stemmed from their dispute over Kashmir. Both countries claim control of the border region, and an unofficial demarcation separates their areas of control. Still, a low-level insurgency continues in Kashmir that India blames Pakistan for driving.
Modi will be under intense domestic pressure to respond forcefully to the attack. He and his Bharatiya Janata Party are chiefly concerned about the next general election, which is scheduled to take place in the spring, and do not want to appear soft on Pakistan. Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, during which a terror group based in Pakistan killed more than 160 people in India, the Indian public has demanded firm action against Pakistani terrorism. India will likely take some kind of military action across its territorial borders, but will also likely deem large-scale retaliation too risky, especially this close to an important election.
India may also pursue economic and diplomatic measures to punish Pakistan. Indian officials claimed to have "incontrovertible evidence" that Pakistan had a "direct hand" in the attack, and that India would use "all possible diplomatic steps" to "ensure the complete isolation from the international community of Pakistan." Any efforts at such isolation would need to target China and Saudi Arabia, which invest significant sums of money in Pakistan. With Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman scheduled to visit both India and Pakistan soon, the next few weeks will be important for Indian-Pakistani tensions.
Only time will tell whether the current confrontation escalates to dangerous levels, or whether it simmers down until the next crisis emerges, thus repeating the cycle. Ultimately this cycle is unbearable, for at some point, eventually, the escalation will not come back down, and just continue rising.