If it sounds like we have been here before, it is because we have. Indeed, one of the more disquieting aspects of the latest episode of militant violence in Kashmir, and the ensuing tensions and war scares between India and Pakistan, is its Groundhog Day nature. The military and political patterns of Indo-Pak relations have observed a remarkable consistency since the turn of the century. To understand these patterns, we can begin from Uri’s aftermath, and work backwards.
After a high-level security meeting the morning after Sunday’s attack, the Indian government adopted a seemingly sober tone, cautioning against “knee-jerk” and “hasty action,” arguing instead that “action has to be taken without getting influenced by emotions, anger. It has to be taken coolly and with proper planning.” While the impulse towards prudence is to be applauded, it is also curious. Were members of the same ruling party, just 24 hours earlier, not claiming that “Pakistan is a terrorist state” and that “for one tooth, the complete jaw”?
The drastic rhetorical climb-down was a result of cold reality setting in. After all the bluster, it is evident that India has no serious military options that can satisfy its political objectives – both with respect to Pakistan as well as a baying public – while also keeping the risk of nuclear war acceptably low. Cross-border raids, air strikes, and covert operations promise insufficient benefits given the attendant challenges and costs. The most likely of the various options being considered is the use of heavy artillery fire across the Line of Control aimed at Pakistani posts. However, such firing will not be a dramatic departure from the status-quo at the Line of Control, where skirmishes have taken place regularly since 2013.
This sense of being strait-jacketed into a non-response to Pakistan-based terror should be depressingly familiar to Indian decision-makers. After all, India finds itself in much the same situation as it did after Pathankot, Mumbai in 2008, and the 2001-’02 crisis following the attack on the Indian Parliament: anger at Pakistan, but little recourse beyond “isolating Pakistan”. The flexible array of coercive options that were supposed to accrue to India after it embarked on “Cold Start” doctrinal changes a decade-and-a-half ago have failed to materialise, mainly because of factors internal to Indian politics and bureaucracy as well as significant changes in Pakistan’s doctrines and defences in the last decade.
Opportunities for Pakistan army
Similar to its aftermath, the attack itself observes a predictable pattern. On the one hand, unrest in Kashmir since 2010, and especially since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s death, has created raw material for intervention that is hard to resist for Pakistan’s security establishment. Whether in 1947-’48 or 1965, or more recently in the insurgency in the 1990s or the Kargil War, the Pakistan Army’s modus operandi in Kashmir has been to employ irregular war, in the hopes that combining Pakistani muscle with Kashmiri mobilisation would shake the state from India’s grasp. Only naïve observers would consider the strident nature of Kashmiri nationalists’ recent dissatisfaction with the Indian state as something other than an excellent opportunity for the Pakistan military.
Meanwhile, developments within Pakistan have ensured that the Army is less encumbered than it was previously. As an institution, the military under General Raheel Sharif has regained its standing in Pakistani society after suffering unprecedented criticism in the wake of President Pervez Musharraf’s departure in 2008 and the United States’ raid to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011. This “return to normal” has been accompanied by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leadership’s corruption scandals. All this has taken place in the backdrop of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s general reluctance to pursue civilian supremacy over the armed forces, especially on foreign and defence policy, despite an outright majority in Parliament since 2013 and personal history with the Army.
The upshot of Kashmiris rising in India and Sharif laying supine in Islamabad is that the Pakistan Army has both incentives and political space to pursue its traditional objectives in Kashmir. Unless we see significant changes in Kashmiris’ satisfaction with the Indian state or in Pakistan’s civil-military balance, two admittedly unlikely prospects, the incentives and opportunities for cross-border militant violence in Kashmir will remain.
The Kashmir question
Finally, there is the larger historical and geopolitical context within which such militant violence is situated. This is the most unchanging aspect of all. Since 1947, Pakistan’s revisionism over Kashmir has been undergirded by a nagging sense that Partition was incomplete. How can a state created on the basis of so-called two-nation theory, which implies a civilisational difference between South Asian Hindus and Muslims, reconcile itself to not controlling the entirety of Muslim-majority Kashmir?
It is easy to overstate the inevitability of Pakistan’s desire for Kashmir. It is eminently possible, perhaps even probable, that a Pakistan whose foreign policies were not controlled by the Army would have a different conception of its national interests. The military, after all, has instrumental reasons to keep the Kashmir issue alive; it would be harder to justify the fat defence budgets and the many plots of valuable land retiring generals and brigadiers receive without the promise of territorial aggrandisement.
By contrast, few of Pakistan’s mainstream parties emphasise Kashmir in their manifestos or campaign promises. However, in the world in which we live – rather than in the world we would like to – Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially relating to India, is controlled by the Army. At least in the immediate term, it is irrelevant what Pakistan’s civilians would do about Kashmir were they given a chance, because they’re not going to get it.
India’s intransigence on territorial concessions is similarly supported by its foundational nationalism. As Jawaharlal Nehru put it, “Kashmir has become the living symbol of that non-communal and secular state which will have no truck with the two-nation theory on which Pakistan has based itself.” While the “secular” nature of the Indian state is increasingly at risk by a majoritarian Hindu nationalism, ironically by the same forces that express the most uncompromising stance on Kashmir’s place within the Indian polity, its symbolic attachment to Kashmir shows no signs of abating.
Alongside being intimately tied to each state’s nationalistic narratives, Kashmir is also strategically valuable, occupying prime real estate between India, Pakistan, and China, and hosting important resources, such as fresh water. Under these circumstances, it would be foolish to expect either state to yield. For reasons of both symbolism and strategy, Pakistan will continue to press for Kashmir. For exactly the same reasons, India will continue to resist. India’s longstanding inability to address Kashmiris’ grievances, and Pakistani civilians’ longstanding inability to make its military subservient, will ensure that both the incentives and the opportunities for intervention will continue. And when militant violence invariably occurs, the strategic balance, both at the conventional and nuclear levels, will discourage India from significant retaliatory action, all the while testing the limits of nuclear deterrence theory.
We are left, then, with an unhealthy equilibrium: low-level violence continues under the shadow of nuclear annihilation of hundreds of millions of South Asians. The party that continues to pay the highest price for this grim pattern is, of course, the Kashmiri people. However, given that 70 years of evidence have shown fairly conclusively that neither the Indian nor the Pakistani state are deeply invested in Kashmiris’ well-being, it is unlikely that this fact is especially disturbing to either country’s leadership.
Ahsan Butt is an Assistant Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.