On Sunday [September 18th], four militants attacked an Indian army post in Uri near the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Pakistani and Indian Kashmir, killing 18 Indian soldiers and provoking a crisis between the two nuclear-armed states. The U.S. must pressure Pakistan to take concrete steps to rein in terrorist groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), that operate freely on its soil. (The Indian government is blaming Pakistan-based militants for Sunday’s attack.)
The U.S. should also condition military assistance to Pakistan on its success in cracking down on both groups and call on Indian and Pakistani officials to tone down their rhetoric against each other and refrain from making references to developments in territory under the other’s control. The latter is especially important during the current U.N. General Assembly.
The U.S. has no role to play in mediating a solution to the current civil unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir, but it does have an interest in preventing military escalation between the two nuclear-armed foes.
Sunday’s attack is the culmination of months of heightening tensions between India and Pakistan, and marks the most deadly attack against Indian security forces in over two decades. In 2002, a terrorist attack on an Indian army post in Jammu that killed over 30 (mostly family members of Indian army officials), nearly led to war between Pakistan and India. Just nine months ago, the Pakistan-based JeM attacked an Indian air base at Pathankot. The Pathankot attack occurred six days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise goodwill visit to Pakistan, and appeared to signal the Pakistan military’s opposition to the civilian-led peace talks.
The Uri attack also follows over two months of civil unrest in Kashmir, sparked by the killing of a well-known Kashmiri militant leader, Burhan Wani, by Indian security forces. The unrest has claimed the lives of nearly 85 Kashmiris, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had planned to highlight the regional tension and take India to task for human rights abuses in his upcoming speech to the U.N. General Assembly scheduled for Wednesday.
Indian leaders have been criticized for heavy-handed tactics against the Kashmiri protestors, including the security forces’ reliance on steel-pellet guns that have resulted in widespread and serious injury. A Kashmiri member of parliament, Tariq Karra, resigned his seat last Thursday, citing opposition to “civilian killings in Kashmir” and the government’s “heavy-handed” approach.
Meanwhile, Pakistan, despite its efforts to portray itself as the protector of Kashmiri human rights, has been more intent on stoking violence in the region to bleed India and embarrass it on the international stage. Islamabad also has disrupted several attempts by Kashmiri separatists to forge peace with New Delhi. It is widely believed, for instance, that Pakistani intelligence murdered separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone in 2002 for his attempts to reach an understanding with New Delhi.
Prime Minister Modi Under Pressure to Retaliate for Uri Attack
Prime Minister Modi is under pressure to respond to the Uri attack by retaliating against Pakistan in some way. Modi had already upped the ante with Pakistan for its interference in Kashmir when he raised the issue of human rights abuses in Pakistan’s Balochistan province during his Indian Independence Day speech last month. Ajit Kumar, India’s ambassador and permanent representative to the U.N., repeated concerns about human rights in Balochistan last week, marking the first time New Delhi has raised the Baloch issue at the U.N.
Some within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are calling for a military response. But Prime Minister Modi would have to weigh carefully the pros and cons of escalating military tensions with Pakistan at a time when he is getting high marks for his foreign policy and for putting India on the map as a global power. India has considered targeted military strikes on terrorist training camps inside Pakistani-administered Kashmir in the past, action that would almost certainly put the two sides on war footing. Other Indian strategists are calling instead for a stronger diplomatic campaign to isolate Pakistan internationally for its continued support for terrorists that attack in both India and Afghanistan.
U.S. Policy Recommendations
Given the stakes involved in escalating tensions between two nuclear-armed foes, the U.S. must show that it is willing to go beyond the standard call for Indo–Pakistani dialogue and take an active role in defusing tensions. Washington must:
- Insist that Pakistan take concrete measures to rein in terror groups that operate on its soil. Hawkish elements in India must be given reason to believe that a restrained military response will bring diplomatic benefits, such as increased international pressure on Islamabad to crack down on groups like the LeT and JeM. Pakistan’s failure to prosecute the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks nearly eight years after the fact undermines its current claims of not supporting cross-border terrorism. If the Pakistanis want to establish credibility on this point, they must take action against those terrorists known to be involved in past attacks.
- Condition future military aid to Pakistan on its success in reining in the LeT and JeM, just as the U.S. Congress has conditioned some of its military aid on Pakistan cracking down on groups that attack Afghanistan. Benchmarks for future military aid should include Pakistan re-arresting Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged ringleader of the 2008 Mumbai attacks who was released from a Pakistani jail last year, and preventing LeT leader Hafiz Sayeed from making public appearances.
- Call on both sides to rein in their rhetoric against the other and to stop making references to developments in territory under the other’s control. U.S. officials should strongly discourage Pakistani and Indian officials from talking about either Kashmir or Balochistan at the U.N. General Assembly, as a way to help defuse overall tensions.
As the November 8 U.S. presidential election approaches and Washington prepares to go into lame-duck mode, the U.S. must remain focused on developments in South Asia and alert to the probability for heightened Indo–Pakistani tensions. The 2008 Mumbai attacks occurred just weeks after the U.S. presidential election and required robust behind-the-scenes U.S. engagement to prevent the two sides from climbing the escalation ladder.
Washington must be clear that Sunday’s attack on an Indian army post has put the ball squarely in Pakistan’s court to take immediate steps aimed at de-escalating the current crisis.