Modi Chooses Strategic Restraint

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like his two predecessors, has opted for restraint in the face of provocations by violent extremist groups that have found safe havens within Pakistan. Modi publicly announced – at a political conclave, no less — that the attack on a military encampment at Uri, resulting in 18 Indian fatalities along with the deaths of four attackers, will not prompt a detour from India’s pursuit of economic growth. Far more spectacular acts of violence – against the Indian Parliament in 2001 and in 2008 against the central train station, luxury hotels and a Jewish center in Mumbai – elicited the same response from Prime Ministers A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.

Those in India calling for military strikes have once again been left frustrated. Modi has bigger fish to fry and besides, Pakistan loses ground when an Indian Prime Minister declines to opt for a military riposte. Pakistan’s diplomatic campaign to focus on serious human rights abuses against Kashmiri Muslims has also suffered. After the Uri attack, the narrative has shifted once more to groups within Pakistan that engage in cross-border violence.

Islamabad’s first line of defense – that New Delhi cannot prove complicity between the attackers and Pakistan’s security apparatus – misses a central point. At issue here is not whether India can prove complicity to Pakistan’s satisfaction, but whether authorities in Pakistan have followed through on pledges to stop cross-border terrorism. Pakistan has lost the presumption of innocence due to a mountain of evidence accumulated in past attacks. This slate will not be wiped clean unless and until Rawalpindi moves publicly against familiar suspects. But moving against anti-India groups while Kashmir is on the boil is unlikely.

The burden of proof shifted from India to Pakistan as a result of Kargil, the Parliament attack and Mumbai. Pakistan’s leaders gave pledges to clamp down on violent extremist groups during past crises, but these pledges were ephemeral. No one can reasonably expect Pakistan to be able to stop every cross-border attack, whether in India or Afghanistan, but it is hard to give Pakistan the benefit of the doubt absent public evidence that Rawalpindi has broadened the scope of its counter-terrorism campaign.

An even weaker line of defense within Pakistan is the contention that shadowy Indian agencies killed their own jawans to shift the focus away from Indian human rights abuses in Kashmir. This dark speculation is based on the twin presumptions that Rawalpindi’s timing would not be so inept and that it can control extremist groups enjoying safe havens. These assumptions have been questionable in the past and are unconvincing now.

The suffering of Kashmiri Muslims is worthy of the world’s attention, but other parts of the globe are in far worse shape – and they, too, receive scant concern or do not generate remedial action even when in the spotlight. Washington and other capitals do not have the means or the inclination to improve governance in South Asia, whether in Kashmir, Baluchistan, or elsewhere. International attention will always focus more on triggering actions for the next crisis on the subcontinent than on the reasons for Kashmiri disaffection. It has been a very long while since the United Nations Security Council voted on a Kashmir resolution, but it will vote with alacrity to help defuse another India-Pakistan crisis. This deck was shuffled long ago and Pakistan holds a weak hand. Its worst cards are the hardest to discard.

This isn’t over – far from it. Every cycle of violence over Kashmir feeds on itself. Indian authorities in Kashmir keep repeating the same mistakes, as do decision-makers in Pakistan. Modi’s declaration of strategic restraint invites violent extremist groups to up the ante in solidarity with their beleaguered brethren. The Line of Control across the Kashmir divide has been reinforced. Soft targets beckon elsewhere. A familiar pattern is emerging that is reminiscent of the run-up to the Parliament attack, which was preceded by a string of increasingly deadly and bold attacks.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on September 26, 2016.

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