India tests Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts to gain international support with Article 370 repeal that changes the status of Jammu and Kashmir.
By Michael Kugelman*
On August 5, India stripped the contested territory of Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood and special autonomous status. The move paves the way for New Delhi to initiate new development and investment projects for what is now an Indian union territory – but also exercise more power over a volatile region where Indian and Pakistani security forces exchange periodic volleys and accuse each other of infiltration.
India-Pakistan relations, already tense since a Pakistan-based terror group killed more than 40 Indian soldiers in a February attack in Kashmir, are in deep crisis. New Delhi views the move as a purely internal matter: a simple revocation of a temporary constitutional provision, known as Article 370, which gave India-administered Kashmir its autonomous status. However, for Islamabad, which has long claimed the India-administered region, the action represents a unilateral act to irrevocably change the status of a disputed territory.
Article 370 repeal has ratcheted up bilateral tensions in a big way, ensuring that India-Pakistan relations will be on tenterhooks for the foreseeable future. The question is how deep the relationship will plunge. Three factors will help determine what may be next for India-Pakistan relations.
The first factor is New Delhi’s ongoing lockdown in Kashmir, imposed several days before the Article 370 announcement. When this lockdown is lifted, affording Kashmiris the opportunity to move around more freely, prospects for unrest will intensify – particularly in the Kashmir Valley. Home to about 7 million people, mostly Muslims, this is where anti-India and separatist sentiment is the strongest. Many Kashmiris, incensed about becoming a formal part of a country that they despise, will want to revolt.
New Delhi has long accused Islamabad of fomenting unrest and insurgency in Kashmir, even though over the last few years it is largely the repressive actions of Indian security forces, rather than any activities orchestrated from Pakistan, that have motivated the violence inflicted by Kashmiris. Once the lockdown ends, inevitable protests will likely provoke harsh Indian crackdowns – and perhaps provoke a new phase of insurgency. Islamabad, spurred by the Article 370 repeal, may covertly funnel arms and cash to Kashmiri protestors. Regardless of Pakistan’s role in any post-lockdown unrest, India will surely blame its rival for violent acts on Indian security forces. A mass-casualty attack on Indian security forces may result in an Indian military retaliation against Pakistan. In sum, prospects for deeper India-Pakistan tensions will intensify once New Delhi ends its lockdown.
A second key factor influencing the trajectory of India-Pakistan relations is Islamabad’s newly launched global diplomatic campaign to attract international support for Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. So far, this effort has consisted of appealing to friendly countries as well as the United Nations and warning the world of the dangers of the Modi government. The stakes are high for Islamabad with this campaign, given that other than downgrading diplomatic ties with New Delhi, a step taken soon after the Article 370 repeal, Pakistan has few immediate options to respond.
And yet, Islamabad’s campaign is unlikely to be successful. Pakistan suffers from a global image problem and struggles to earn trust and support from the international community, while India enjoys more favorability on the world stage. A rising power with a growing economy and a mammoth population, India offers attractive partnership and marketing opportunities. Unsurprisingly, most foreign governments side with India, viewing Kashmir as an internal matter – or at most an India-Pakistan bilateral dispute – that doesn’t warrant involvement from third parties. One notable exception is China, which issued a strong statement against India’s Article 370 repeal. This is because the move not only incorporates Jammu and Kashmir into an Indian union territory, but also does the same with Ladakh – another region of Kashmir, one administered by India but claimed by China.
If Islamabad concludes its campaign isn’t getting traction, it may turn to other, more escalatory measures – including intensifying cross-border fire along the Line of Control that divides India- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, deploying troops to its eastern border as a show of force, or encouraging Pakistan-based terrorists to stage attacks in Kashmir. To be sure, Islamabad may resort to these measures even while it carries out its global diplomatic campaign. However, because of a desire to project itself as a responsible player in the India-Pakistan dispute, it’s likely to hold off overt shows of force while it mounts its diplomatic offensive.
The deployment of Pakistan-based terrorists to Kashmir and elsewhere in India is worth flagging – it is a frequent Pakistani tactic and has high escalatory potential. Indeed, because Pakistan’s conventional military forces are inferior to India’s, Islamabad has long used terror groups as asymmetric assets against India. And let’s be clear: If a Pakistan-based militant group stages an attack in Kashmir, New Delhi will not simply sit on its hands – as evidenced by the retaliatory strikes it launched on Pakistan earlier this year and in 2016, following deadly assaults on Indian security forces by the terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed.
However, Pakistan’s willingness to use this tactic will be mitigated by a third key factor impacting the direction of India-Pakistan relations: The Financial Action Task Force, or FATF, a global forum that monitors money laundering and terrorist financing. In 2018, FATF placed Pakistan on a “gray list” for terrorist financing. If FATF concludes Islamabad hasn’t done enough to combat terrorist financing by the time the group next meets in October, Pakistan runs the risk of being blacklisted – a damaging designation that could deter foreign banks and investors from doing business with Pakistan. This would be a big blow for a Pakistani economy already reeling from a serious balance-of-payments crisis.
Therefore, Islamabad has a strong incentive to limit its engagements with militants and hold back on sending jihadists to Kashmir until, and perhaps even after, the FATF ruling in October. If Pakistan is blacklisted, it will want to shed that ignominious status quickly – a desire that militates against colluding with militants. If Pakistan avoids the blacklist, it will have less incentive to distance itself from India-focused terrorists, but will also want to remain in FATF’s good graces, particularly with its economy in bad shape. That said, Islamabad could easily shrug off concerns about FATF and deploy terrorists across the border in the event of particularly provocative Indian acts, such as large-scale crackdowns that kill large numbers of Kashmiris or threats to seize Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a region claimed by New Delhi. Therefore, the FATF factor limits, but does not rule out, the possibility of Pakistani subconventional uses of force in Kashmir.
At the end of the day, neither side – particularly Pakistan, with its crippling economic crisis – is gunning for a conflict. However, because Pakistan regards India’s Article 370 repeal as an escalatory move, a single incident could put India-Pakistan relations on a war footing. Possible triggers include a mass-casualty attack, even one with tenuous or no links to Pakistan, on Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir or a preemptive Indian cross-border strike on a militant target in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Earlier this year India and Pakistan exchanged air strikes on each other’s soil for the first time since officially becoming nuclear states in 1998, thereby telegraphing a mutual willingness to use force under the nuclear threshold. New Delhi’s bold Kashmir move means that India-Pakistan relations have climbed a few rungs of the escalation ladder, heightening the prospects for a limited conflict between the nuclear-armed nemeses.
*Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is on Twitter @michaelkugelman.