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Pakistani, Indian leaders ‘have different incentives' - Asfandyar Mir

Political scientist Asfandyar Mir has studied security affairs in South Asia for years. Now a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, Mir explains the latest developments, old conflicts, and potential conflagrations in the ongoing crisis between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan.

RFE/RL: Where do you see the military situation moving after India and Pakistan engaged in what appears to be retaliatory air strikes and cross-border shelling?

Asfandyar Mir: The current stand-off between India and Pakistan hasn't fully de-escalated, but it isn't as tense as it was some days ago. After Pakistan retaliated with air strikes against India on February 27, the crisis intensified -- it appeared the Indian government was considering a follow-on retaliation. In that backdrop, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's gesture of returning the Indian Air Force pilot, captured by Pakistan after his plane was shot down, lowered the political temperature, eased the situation somewhat. That said, military forces on both sides remain mobilized in large numbers, and the Indian government still hasn’t given a clear-cut signal of wanting to de-escalate.

RFE/RL: Do you see the current leadership in India and Pakistan as capable of deescalating given the domestic pressures they currently face?

Mir: The leadership of the two countries has different political incentives. On the Indian side, Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi still has incentives to re-escalate. He is going into a national election. His government’s economic performance has been weak, so he appears to be relying more on foreign policy issues like confronting Pakistan -- an issue the Indian electorate cares about. Pakistan’s shooting down of the Indian aircraft and capturing of the air force pilot also deeply embarrassed him and his political party, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

On the Pakistan side, two leaders matter: Prime Minister Imran Khan and chief of the country's powerful army, General Qamar Bajwa. After the first Indian military raid, both were left embarrassed before their key domestic audiences: Khan in front of his voter base and Bajwa in front of his officer corps.

 

However, Pakistan's retaliatory strikes not only reversed that damage but enhanced their domestic political standing. Now both the leaders want a deescalation. Khan has made his first move to deescalate. He is also insisting with a dialogue offer to India on terrorism on India's terms. What he hasn’t done and could do to defuse the situation is a crackdown against the group behind the February 14 terror attack, Jaish-e-Muhammed.

Khan, however, would need Bajwa’s support for such a crackdown. It remains unclear whether Bajwa would agree. The Pakistani military hasn’t acted against Pakistan-based jihadis operating in Kashmir. Instead, it has seen them as valuable allies in confronting India in Kashmir.

RFE/RL: What happens to the Kashmir issue now?

Mir: We remain very far from any meaningful progress on the dispute over Kashmir. In recent years, India has intensified its crackdown in Kashmir against violent and non-violent separatist groups. India also employs a heavy-handed counterinsurgency strategy, which frequently targets the civilian population. As a result, resentment in the Kashmiri population toward the Indian state remains very high. The Indian government continues to see a coercive approach instead of a political approach involving concessions as the way forward in the disputed region.

Pakistan also remains firm in its territorial claim over Kashmir. Given India’s unwillingness to make concessions and the deep alienation in the region toward the Indian state, Pakistan is likely to continue political and military support for the insurgency in Kashmir.

RFE/RL: What dangers do jihadi groups present to Pakistan?

Mir: It is commonly assumed that jihadi groups operating against India in Kashmir pose a direct threat to Pakistan. This was true a decade ago, when factions of Kashmir-focused jihadi groups defected toward transnational jihadis like Al-Qaeda. It appears that the process has stopped. Major Kashmir-focused jihadi groups based in Pakistan do not challenge the Pakistani government. These groups have also consolidated control over their cadres, preventing fragmentation toward Al-Qaeda and [the ultra-radical] Islamic State (IS).

This is not to say there are no indirect bad effects of such groups on Pakistan. These groups spawn a large jihadi infrastructure, which is a source of radicalization in the country. Pakistan continually faces international opprobrium, even from its allies like China privately, for allowing such groups to operate from its territory.

RFE/RL: What has the international community's role been in the current crisis?

Mir: [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump made an important statement in Hanoi on February 28, suggesting that the U.S. government has been involved in mediating an end to the India-Pakistan crisis. Besides the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China, and Russia have sought to deescalate the tensions.

Overall, Pakistan is under pressure from the international community for not doing enough to curb anti-India jihadi groups. Still, it is striking that beyond condemnation, the U.S. and other major powers have not pledged any material support to the Indian government like sanctions against Pakistani leadership or military support for Indian operations.

RFE/RL: Did nuclear weapons play a role in the current crisis?

Mir: Nuclear weapons have played a role. Following the first Indian air strike on February 26, the Pakistani military spokesman stated that the government was activating the body which decides the deployment and use of nuclear weapons. This was a clear-cut signal by Pakistan that it would use nuclear weapons if the crisis exacerbated. I believe that deterred a sizable Indian response after Pakistan conducted its retaliatory strikes on February 27.