Thirteen years after India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire that was meant to prepare the ground for peace in Jammu and Kashmir, both countries are locked in savage skirmishes that threaten to unleash a fresh storm over the Himalayas. The tragic killing of 11 bus passengers in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on Wednesday, preceded by savage attacks on Indian troops and counter-attacks across the Line of Control (LoC), could set the stage for a resumption of the great duels which raged from 1989 to 2003. Hundreds of civilian and military lives were lost for no military end during that period. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will soon be confronted with two difficult choices. He could, first, tamp down the crisis by seeking to raise the costs for Pakistan army to levels which would threaten its standing among Pakistan’s population as the state’s praetorian guard — potentially by seizing small bits of territory along the LoC, as some Indian generals advocated after Kargil, or hitting terror positions deep inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Such actions, however, pose the risk of escalating into war, and undoing the prime minister’s economic objectives. The second option is to give diplomacy another chance to resolve the crisis. But if it fails, the prime minister could find India more vulnerable than before to terrorist attacks, and his own core constituency alienated.
For an understanding of the choices, one most turn to New Delhi’s decision-making — one of reflex, more than reflection — after the Uri attack in September. Following his election, Prime Minister Modi had reached out to his counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in a bid to normalise India-Pakistan relations. That effort, however, was challenged by Pakistan’s generals, using their time-trusted allies, jihadist terrorists. The generals thought the Indian prime minister would not order a retaliatory strike for fear of sparking off a war. India’s cross-LoC strikes in September were intended to challenge that assumption.
The experience of the years between 1989 to 2003 shows both the armies can indefinitely sustain this low-grade violence. The skirmishes, Pakistan’s generals know, hurt India more than Pakistan: Under fire, it is that much harder for India’s counter-infiltration troops to guard against jihadists crossing the LoC. This summer, jihadist groups will be that much better positioned to capitalise on the growing influence of anti-India political forces in Kashmir’s countryside. The cross-border attacks in September were hailed as a new direction for India’s Pakistan policy — but bar some careful thinking, it could easily lead to a bloody cul-de-sac.