South Asia has one of the highest regional concentration of jihadist groups in the world, including some of the most-wanted groups by the US such as Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Ahead of the expected US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) claimed attack on India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Kashmir’s Pulwama district has revived the concerns of a more lethal and dangerous militant landscape in South Asia.
The Pulwama attack has once again exposed the vulnerability of the two South Asian nuclear rivals, India and Pakistan, to terrorist blackmail, bringing the two nations to the brink of war. The aftermath of the attack underscores a new phase of militancy in violence-infested Kashmir and renewed hostilities between India and Pakistan. In the absence of joint counter-terrorism and extremism frameworks at the regional level, South Asian militant groups will continue to exploit inter and intra-state rivalries to expand their footprints in the region.
Why is the Pulwama Attack Significant?
The timing of the Pulwama attack is instructive. It came ahead of US withdrawal from Afghanistan indicating a revival and return of groups like JeM, which has 25,000 to 35,000 trained militants, to Kashmir. Since the 2016 Pathankot airbase attack, JeM has steadily increased its presence and activities in Kashmir. After witnessing a dip between 2008 and 2013, violence and militant recruitment has spiked in Kashmir since 2015. The number of militants killed in Kashmir rose from 130 in 2016 to 200 in 2017 and 240 in 2018. In the first two months of 2019, 31 militants have been killed in Kashmir.
Moreover, it was a high-profile and mass casualty attack. By ramming an explosive-laden vehicle in the CRPF vehicle-convoy in a highly militarized zone, JeM has demonstrated its ability to find gaps in the security arrangements and high-level expertise of assembling a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED). JeM also drew large-scale media coverage following the attack giving the group publicity. For the second time, JeM has successfully exploited India and Pakistan’s adversarial ties to trigger a war between them. The suicide bomber Adil Rashid Dar was a local Kashmiri and JeM recruited him by manipulating his anger and quest for revenge against the Indian forces (for repeated arrests and humiliation) to serve its agenda of “liberating” Kashmir.
The attack is also significant given India’s retaliatory airstrikes on alleged JeM camps inside mainland Pakistan, after a hiatus of five decades. These airstrikes have redefined the conflict threshold between the two adversaries. In 1999, even at the height of the Kargil conflict, Indian air force did not cross the Line of Control. Indian airstrikes signal a qualitative shift in the Indian position from the strategy of deterrence by denial to deterrence by punishment. Consequently, this will result in a new unstable equilibrium that could lead to a low-intensity, limited conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The absence of a functional India-Pakistan crisis management mechanism further increases the probability of a limited conflict.
India’s offensive posturing against Pakistan whenever a terrorist attack takes place on its soil remains over-simplistic and only partially responds to a larger and much more complex security challenge that necessitates concerted and continuous joint efforts.
The US and the international community’s response to the Pulwama attack and its aftermath is also pertinent. Instead of urging both India and Pakistan to desist escalations, for the first time, the US and international community acknowledged India’s right of self-defense and emphasized de-escalation only after Indian airstrikes on alleged JeM camps in Balakot. Barring China, no other country condemned India’s violation of Pakistani sovereignty. This will have long-term implications on strategic stability and the balance of power in South Asia.
Lethal and Complex Militant Landscape
Following its intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, the US forged a counter-terrorism alliance with Pakistan to track and hunt Al-Qaeda (AQ) remnants in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In order to ensure smooth and uninterrupted Pakistani cooperation, among other things, the US facilitated a border ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan in 2003. The agreement required Pakistan to curb cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and take action against India-focused militant groups on its soil in return for normalization of relations by India. This dynamic will change after the US exit Afghanistan and would revive the old conflicts with added complexities.
The expected US withdrawal will render South Asia’s already complex and diverse militant landscape more violent and dangerous. Several factors such as porous borders, ungoverned spaces, easy availability of weapons, growing religious polarization, and unemployment will further assist these groups to expand their footprints.
A possible US exit from Afghanistan will also create a new victory narrative for the Afghan Taliban which will embolden South Asian jihadist groups earning them fresh recruits and funding. If this were to happen, it will be a déjà vu of the late 1980s when Afghan Mujahedeen groups defeated the former Soviet Union. After 9/11, several jihadist groups abandoned their primary agendas and sent their fighters to Afghanistan to help the Afghan Taliban fight the US. Some factions of these groups also joined hands with various AQ-linked groups, such as Jandullah and the Punjabi Taliban. These groups will use Afghanistan as a launching pad to regroup and relaunch themselves in different local conflicts in South Asia with a new zeal.
At the policy level, Pakistan’s response against the JeM militants and its elaborate network is critical. Kinetic measures against JeM such as sanctions, arrests and crackdowns will only be helpful in the short-term. Non-kinetic measures like creating a counter ideological narrative and a comprehensive de-radicalization and rehabilitation plan would be equally necessary to create incentives for JeM members to shun militancy. The larger question is how will Pakistan create a counter ideological narrative against JeM without compromising on the state’s identical stance on Kashmir? Moreover, rehabilitating a large number of militants will require a lot of time, resources and a strong political will by the Pakistani military and political leadership. In 2002, when the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf banned JeM and took action against its cadres, the group retaliated with two assassination attempts on him along with carrying several high-profile attacks inside Pakistan. So, in case, another round of crackdowns is initiated against JeM, a serious backlash cannot be ruled out. Moreover, if JeM splinters as a result of heavy-handed crackdowns, some of its members might gravitate towards groups like Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
India’s offensive posturing against Pakistan whenever a terrorist attack takes place on its soil remains over-simplistic and only partially responds to a larger and much more complex security challenge that necessitates concerted and continuous joint efforts. Unfortunately, unlike other regions like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU), South Asia lacks regional mechanisms to counter and prevent terrorism, such as sharing of information and intelligence, joint training programs, patrolling and operations. Without India-Pakistan cooperation, such initiatives will remain elusive.