At least 40 Indian soldiers and local officials were killed in a suicide attack on Feb. 14 that targeted a large military convoy traversing Indian-controlled Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), claimed responsibility for the attack, but there are reasons to doubt its credibility. The more likely culprit is Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), which executed the deadly 2008 attack in Mumbai. Both LeT and the Pakistani government have their reasons to deflect attention from LeT, but as India prepares its response to the attack, the risk of escalation is real. In 2008, U.S. diplomacy was decisive in lowering tensions between the two nuclear rivals, and there are clear steps the United States can take today to try to replicate that success—but the Trump administration will have to act quickly.
Who Really Attacked the Indian Military Convoy?
JeM’s claim to have carried out the attack earlier this month should not be taken at face value. First, it hasn’t conducted a significant destructive act of terrorism since the group’s 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. Second, the group is unlikely to have the intelligence and reconnaissance capability to carry out such a well-timed suicide attack unilaterally. Even in the 2001 parliament attack, LeT possibly played a significant role in assisting JeM, and JeM exaggerating claims of its prowess is not new. If JeM really did carry out the recent attack in Kashmir, it probably received significant assistance to do so.
There is good reason to believe that LeT, a savvier and more technically proficient organization than JeM, may be behind the attack or at least facilitated the JeM operation. LeT is a much more tightly controlled proxy of the Pakistani government, which provides it with funding and sanctuary. But it is lying low and has not carried out an attack—at least not one for which it has taken responsibility—in a long time. Meanwhile, other, more obscure Kashmir-based terrorist outfits, such as Hizb Mujahideen (HM) and now JeM, have become more prolific in claiming that they are behind recent cross-border attacks.
Why would LeT want to stay out of the news? Or, better yet, why does Pakistan want LeT out of the news cycle? Ever since LeT’s 2008 Mumbai attack, Pakistan has tried to give the appearance of restricting the group’s activities. For example, Pakistan has placed senior LeT leadership figures such as Hafiz Saeed under house arrest. This provides Pakistan with a useful talking point when Western powers ask Pakistan to be a better ally in the fight against terrorist groups, but it is more of a smokescreen than a serious counterterrorism initiative. In addition to appeasing Western partners, Pakistan is trying to dodge financial scrutiny. The multilateral Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is reviewing Pakistan for not complying with U.N. sanctions obligations. Most of the task force’s concerns relate to Pakistan’s uneven application of travel bans and asset freezes that the U.N. 1267 Sanctions Committee has imposed on LeT members for terrorist activity.
Reining in LeT’s overt operations and claims of credit insulates Pakistan from some criticism but does not satisfy the geostrategic interests that drove Pakistan to support the group in the first place. Pakistan’s interests in using terrorist groups as proxies to needle India in Kashmir outweigh the incentives offered by Western governments to counter LeT, HM, and JeM. The government of Pakistan has likely reached a tenuous strategic agreement with LeT to dial back its own claims of credit in exchange for the government’s acquiescing to LeT support for HM and JeM operations—leading to a phenomenon of HM and JeM serving as proxies of a proxy. That logic stands to reason since the Pakistani government has, post-Mumbai, embraced and pushed the narrative of LeT as both a humanitarian organization and a political entity.
Pakistan likely understands that it will still face censure for attacks claimed by JeM, but it appears to have made the calculation that cross-border attacks in disputed areas against military targets are less likely to generate international condemnation than multipronged attacks against civilian targets such as LeT’s Mumbai attack. The government has made the bet that opprobrium will be limited and unlikely to affect its broader geostrategic interests.
What Comes Next?
India has not yet responded with force. It is probably still investigating the attack and assessing whether JeM’s claim is credible. The investigation will almost certainly involve reviewing intelligence to determine whether LeT played a role and whether there is any tangible evidence that the Pakistani government provided any sort of authorization for the attack. India’s military, in conjunction with its intelligence agencies, is likely developing plans for retaliatory strikes targeting militant camps on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control that divides Indian and Pakistani territory in Kashmir.
The greatest risk related to the terrorist attack is miscalculation by India or Pakistan. India will feel the need to respond, but that response must be proportionate—otherwise there is a good chance of escalation. India could conduct semisurgical strikes, as it did in 2016 following JeM’s smaller scale attack against an Indian airbase in Kashmir. India’s responses to incursions across the Line of Control by HM have also been muted. But with Indian elections approaching, the temptation will be for the Indian government to respond with greater force. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to retaliate, but now is the time for restraint. Is that possible?
After the Mumbai attack, India was on the cusp of launching a severe response, but U.S. efforts helped temporarily salve India-Pakistan relations. On a critical trip to the region in December 2008, Condoleezza Rice, then the secretary of state, struck the right chord when she said, “[T]his is the time for everybody to cooperate and do so transparently, and this is especially a time for Pakistan to do so .... I have said that Pakistan needs to act with resolve and urgency and cooperate fully and transparently. That message has been delivered ... to Pakistan.” The U.S. response demonstrated that Washington heard India’s concerns and forcefully communicated them to Pakistan without a direct military conflict.
The Trump administration’s response to the recent attack has been mundane. The Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Delhi issued press releases. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his concern via a tweet, not unlike what the Trump administration does after any attack. Tweets are insufficient for this crisis and are unlikely to dissuade either India or Pakistan from a disproportionate response.
Simple condemnations and thoughts and prayers are common, feckless reactions. What Trump’s team needs to do is dispatch his secretary of state to visit Pakistan and India, as President George W. Bush did after the Mumbai attack. A visit to the region by Pompeo should be followed by more diplomacy, but any U.S. response will be hindered by the administration’s understaffing of critical diplomatic roles. The Department of State currently does not have an assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs. Ambassador Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state, is a phenomenal diplomat, but she is a career foreign service officer who was not hand-picked by the president. Because of this, Indian and Pakistani diplomats might not see her as an empowered interlocutor for the administration’s follow-up on high-level U.S. trips, demands or missives.
Even without a U.S. diplomatic delegation, the United States has a mix of carrots and sticks that can be used to condition Pakistan’s actions. First, as I’ve argued previously, the United States should continue to push Pakistan to do more to combat LeT. Even without Pakistan’s support, the United States can unilaterally offer Rewards for Justice for the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack, which it did not pursue in 2008. Second, the United States should nominate, yet again, Masood Azhar, the leader of JeM, to be listed as a terrorist by the U.N. 1267 ISIL (Daesh) & Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. Third, the United States should continue to use its influence at FATF to ensure Pakistan does more to counter the financial support LeT, JEM, and HM may be receiving from domestic and foreign donors. If Pakistan takes these actions, perhaps there is a window for the United States to reconsider foreign assistance to Pakistan.
Additionally, the United States should provide as much intelligence to India about the Feb. 14 attack as it can share, if it isn’t doing so already.
These policies would put pressure on terrorist actors in Pakistan and pressure the Pakistani government to take a tougher line to prevent further attacks. Other policy options available to the United States, such as adding Pakistan to the Not Fully Cooperating Country list or the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, are not in U.S. strategic interests at this time. Adding Pakistan to these lists would not modify Pakistan’s behavior and could stymie U.S. efforts to find a political solution with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
If the United States pushes these initiatives and engages in serious, high-level diplomacy, tensions could de-escalate. That won’t lead to a long-term reconciliation between India and Pakistan, but in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 attack, the priority needs to be restoring some stability and preventing further violence.