Michael KreponWar Drums on the Subcontinent (Again)

Quote of the week:

“Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our society can remove this sickness from our land.”

– Robert Kennedy, April 5, 1968 in Cleveland, one day after Martin Luther King’s assassination

Imran Khan has been effectively handcuffed. He inherited a hobbled economy, with fifty-four per cent of budget expenditure tied up in funding his military and paying off debt. As long as defense spending is sacrosanct, the “structural reforms” required to address social needs are beyond his ability to enact, as was true for his predecessors. China, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, the Gulf states, are providing much needed investment and offsets, which might help buy time before the need for yet another punishing IMF bailout.

Imran hoped, much like his predecessors, to improve ties with India. Every single economist worth listening to has advocated increased regional trade to boost Pakistan’s economy. A recent World Bank report, “A Glass Half Full: The Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia” estimates that with reasonable neighborly relations, trade could grow from two billion dollars to thirty-seven billion dollars.

This remains a distant dream. While Imran was waiting to host Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, a young Kashmiri wounded in a prior encounter with Indian security forces drove an explosives laden car into a troop convoy, killing forty. Around the same time, another suicide bomber killed twenty-seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards along the Pakistani border. Iranian and Indian officials have placed the blame on Pakistan for these attacks. The timing of these three events may not be coincidental.

Prime Minister Naredra Modi has promised to punish Pakistan, after which the Pakistan military has promised to give India a “befitting response.” And then what? There are many good reasons for leaders in both countries to try to avoid serious escalation, but no-one can be sure: We are entering into new territory — including the possible demise of the Indus Waters Treaty — in the tit-for-tat choreography of settling grievances between neighbors that just can’t get along.

Pakistan has already lost the diplomatic battle with India after Jaish e-Mohammad, a jihadi outfit active in Kashmir, carried out the suicide bombing on Valentine’s Day. The Government of Pakistan, now as always, denies its involvement, but there is ample evidence that Jaish e-Mohammed is a creation and an affiliate of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. The Kashmir insurgency is now largely homegrown, thanks to terrible Indian governance and over-the-top policing. But local militants still need external support. And as long as the Jaish leadership remains ensconced in Pakistan, denials of complicity won’t be convincing.

Jaish’s titular head is Masood Azhar who was sprung from an Indian jail in 1999 in return for the release of a hijacked Indian Airlines plane, passengers and crew. This was a time of brazen operations by ISI, then flushed with success after expelling Soviet troops from Afghanistan and backstopped by Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998. With support from the ISI, the newly created Jaish e-Mohammed carried out a daring attack on the state assembly building in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, and then an even more stunning attack on the Indian Parliament building in 2001. Almost a million troops mobilized for war afterward, which was narrowly averted.

Ever since, a succession of Pakistani governments has professed an arms-length relationship to Jaish e-Mohammad and Lashkar e-Toiba, another anti-India jihadi group based in Punjab. After major flashpoints, it has rounded up the usual suspects for polite detention, including Masood Azhar, but no Pakistani court has dared convict leaders from either group. Masood Azhar’s home base is in Bahawalpur, a city 270 miles from the Indian border. The Indian Air Force presumably knows the address of his compound.

The last spectacular attack by a terror outfit based in Pakistan against a high profile Indian target was in 2008, when luxury hotels, the central train station and a Jewish center were struck in Mumbai. Again, the usual suspects were rounded up. Evidence of collusion between the perpetrators from Jaish e-Mohammad.and ISI, including intercepted telephone conversations during the siege, was incontrovertible — but not admissible in Pakistani courts.

Ever since, terror attacks against India have centered on Kashmir with a feeling out period to clarify when the body counts would prompt Indian retaliation. That threshold was crossed in 2016 at Uri, when an Indian post along the Kashmir divide was attacked, killing seventeen. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi then publicized “surgical strikes” across this divide, claiming double the number of Pakistani casualties. Pakistani officials denied Indian claims and everyone moved on. Cross-border attacks are not an uncommon occurrence; publicizing them is.

The Valentine’s Day massacre goes well beyond the killings at Uri, so Modi, now in the run-up to national elections, has announced his intention to strike back more forcefully than before. One big question is where: Will Indian forces confine their retaliation to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, or take more dramatic action by striking jihadi compounds in Pakistan’s Punjab province? Strikes in Punjab would be a whole new ballgame, likely to prompt counterstrikes by missiles, aircraft, or both.

Why would the ISI and Jaish up the ante now, when Pakistan is in dire economic straits? Strikes against Indian targets usually occur under two sets of circumstances — when relations with India are improving, so as to throw sand in diplomatic gears, or when New Delhi gives Pakistan the cold shoulder. Modi sent out feelers that he was ready to prove ties early on, but nothing came of them. Subsequently, be has rejected Prime Minister Imran Khan’s sincere overtures to improve ties. The most recent attack conveys two messages: one of local defiance and another that Pakistan won’t be ignored.  Many hoped that relations could improve after the Indian elections later this year. These hopes have now suffered a serious setback.

And why would Pakistan’s military/intelligence services keep backing groups that ruin its international standing and prospects for economic recovery? Because these outfits reinforce self-defeating policies by New Delhi that cost India dearly. Plus, to shut down anti-India jihadi groups could be quite difficult and costly. Besides, Beijing will continue to have Pakistan’s back. No civilian government has changed the Pakistan military’s calculus or seriously diminished its bloated share of the budget pie that is based on enduring enmity with India.

The explosions in Kashmir and along the Iranian border suggest that ISI is again feeling confident about the future. So stay tuned. This could get ugly.

Note to readers: A shorter version of the essay appeared in the Washington Post on February 19th.


  1. Anonymous (History)

    Dr. Krepon, a minor correction, the attack on the Indian parliament happened in 2001 not 1999.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Of course you are right
      Will fix this error

  2. Kattai bomman (History)

    “why would Pakistan’s military/intelligence services keep backing groups that ruin its international standing and prospects for economic recovery? ”
    Dr Krepon, that’s easy the drawdown from afghanistan is almost complete, now that the northwest front is secure ISI needs to let India know it won’t be business as usual in Kashmir

  3. Tariq (History)

    Nothing along the Line of Control is as it seems. This situation unfortunately likely will escalate badly, before things settle down.The Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor of the Pakistan Army refuted Indian claims of being present inside the Pakistan’s airspace for 21 minutes during their Line of Control breach claimed today. “Let India come and stay in Pakistani airspace for 21 minutes. We will see what will happen next,” Maj General Asif Ghafoor said in a press briefing. “I said three things: You will never be able to surprise us. We have not been surprised. We were ready, we responded, we denied. I said we will retain the escalation ladder. We have that initiative in our hand,” he said. “I said that we will surprise you. Wait for that surprise. I said that our response will be different. See it for yourself. The response will come, and response will come differently”. “The nation is ready. You have seen the response of all the political parties. We are all one. Now it is time for India to wait for our response. The response will come at the point and time of our choosing where our civil military leadership decides, and, as a matter of fact, has decided. It is your turn now to wait and get ready for our surprise.” Bravado or not, surprises in the military domain in P.A.K. and I.O.K. never play out well. In these times of collapsing nuclear arms control between Russia and the US, near hysterical anti-Trump rhetoric in the US media, roll back from multilateralism and pacta sunt servanda, rise of nationalistic fundamentalisms among other moves to a near-Hobbesian world (dis)order, the dogs of war are baying for blood in parts of the Middle East and now in South Asia. To quote Ed Morrow on the eve of the second world war, it seems we’re on an express train thundering through the night which has no driver….

    • M B (History)

      Would everybody please please calm down ?

  4. Adil (History)


    I think this is one issue that we would continue to disagree as we see the region from two different perspectives. Pakistan may have made blunders in the past by fighting for others, but at this time it was genuinely looking towards stability and had no reason to indulge in such acts. I agree with you that the timings of the three events i.e. visit of MBS, the Iranian incident and the Pulwama attack – may not be conincidental, and one can figure out who all would be uncomfortable with the investments coming to the country and Pakistan moving towards stability. Since today’s events have sgnificantly altered the regional environment, I hope your next article would not blame Pakistan for the inevitable escalation that the region is likely to experience in the coming days, and with uncertain future.

  5. Frederick Schilling (History)

    Dr. Krepon, the quotation from Robert Kennedy should be dated 1968, not 1963.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Dates are clearly not my strong point. In my defense, I’ve been writing about the 1963 LTBT for my new book on the rise, demise and revival of nuclear arms control

  6. Michael Krepon (History)