A week ago, Indian armed forces killed Burhan Wani, the infamous 21 year-old commander of the Kashmiri militant separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen (HM). Burhan had joined Hizbul Mujahideen at the age of 15, helped resurrect the once dominant insurgent group from life-support, and gained influence through passionate anti-India speeches and Robin Hood-esque antics routinely broadcast to his vast social media following. Because of his popularity, local militants ballooned to outnumber foreign militants for the first time in a decade. News of Wani’s death spread like wildfire, triggering massive protests across the region and mass attendance at his funeral—estimated between 30,000 and 150,000.
The week of unrest in the Kashmir valley triggered by Burhan’s death has consumed Indian attention, but been a blip in the U.S. media. Nevertheless, the unfolding events require the U.S. government to watch closely as a number of potential scenarios can impact U.S. interests and equities including international terrorism, South Asian stability, and US-India relations.
From Bad to Worse
Burhan Wani’s rise to fame was not borne in a vacuum. Violent incidents and fatalities in the Kashmir Valley have grown only slightly from an all-time low in 2012 but other quasi-violent acts of resistance have exhibited substantial growth in qualitative and quantitative terms. These have escalated from stone pelting of state security officials and high public turnouts (in the thousands) for funerals of local and foreign militants, to more recently large-scale public interference with state counter-militancy operations and seizure of weapons from security forces. Most worrisome was that new militant recruits were increasingly drawn from the educated, middle class, and tech-savvy young men. State officials contend the over 200% increase in social media penetration in the Kashmir Valley from 2010 to 2015 has played a key role in increased recruitment and resistance. The dramatic increase in mass curfews in recent years has also generated intense resentment and severely constricted the space for non-violent political activism.
Implications for the U.S.
The issue of Kashmir has been off the radar of most DC policymakers, and the official tone of the U.S. government on Kashmir has been muted, as a closer geopolitical alignment with India over the past decade has emerged. Nevertheless, there are three potential scenarios that could concern or affect US interests.
First, there is potential that the Kashmiri conflict might “internationalize” due to links to groups that have international footprints, agendas, or ties. The newly resurgent Kashmiri militancy has local and nationalist roots but could potentially be coopted by or linked with international jihadist groups.
In recent months, Burhan’s social media accounts (before they were suspended) praised the Pakistan-based internationally recognized terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and interacted with LeT chairman Hafiz Saeed, who publicly mourned Burhan’s death through social media (though his account was suspended as well). Given that HM and LeT were rivals in the 1990s, LeT’s recent local recruitment in Kashmir suggests an unusual degree of coordination and cooperation between the two groups. The LeT’s global linkages raise concern that Kashmir could become a breeding ground for larger jihadist ambitions. Members of the Islamic State have expressed interest in capitalizing off the rising resentment and resistance in Kashmir, though claims of an IS footprint have been dismissed by both security officials and local separatists and militants.
Second, there’s a chance that violence in the Valley could precipitate an inter-state crisis or violence, which has historically drawn in the United States as a crisis manager. Concerned that Pakistan seeks to exploit the valley’s mass unrest, the Indian government has issued warnings to Pakistan to refrain from interference while Indian intelligence has accused Pakistan of funding and directing the violent unrest of the past week. Regardless of the veracity, trading accusations and ultimatums could raise the stakes and escalate the war of words to actions. Should cross-border infiltration and material support be suspected or discovered, this might provoke militarized action by India, and if civilians are harmed on either side in such a tense environment, an international crisis could easily erupt. Additionally, foreign terrorists might seize an opportunity to provoke further crisis with an out- of-theater operation, much like LeT did in Mumbai following the valley’s mass protestsin August 2008.
Finally, the escalation of the Kashmir unrest or spread of communal tensions, as in 2008, could create friction for the burgeoning U.S.-India relationship, due to prominent U.S. policymaker concerns over India’s treatment of religious minorities, rising intolerance, and India’s denial of access to US-based religious freedom monitoring groups. In 2015, while departing India after visiting as chief guest, President Obama issued a warning that India should not stray from its constitutional commitments to freedom of religion. Visuals of a heavy-handed force or civilian victimization in Kashmir can raise questions about the shared “democratic, pluralistic, and secular” values believed to anchor the U.S.-India relationship.
While self-interest tends to outweigh moral concerns in international politics and security and economic partnerships may drive the relationship, stories of communal violence, state repression, and civilian victimization can increase friction points, raise the costs, and make the concrete terms of the alignment much more difficult, especially within the U.S. Congress and during an election year. Evidence of illiberalism, the absence of rule of law, and tacit approval of communal violence could renew fears expressed in 2015 by economic leaders and rating agencies of the threats to investor confidence and Indian economic growth, a core pillar of U.S. interests in the region.
The Kashmir issue has all but disappeared in Washington, but there are good reasons for policymakers and analysts to pay attention to trend lines in the Valley and India’s management of internal crisis. The results could prove impactful to US interests and concerns over terrorism, South Asian inter-state crises, India’s economic growth, and the future of the US-India relationship. Though the U.S. has officially balked at saying anything substantial about the Kashmir unrest, privately raising concerns and conveying its interest in a durable resolution might help to advance its values and strategic interests in the region.
Sameer Lalwani is Deputy Director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program. Richa Bhatia is a researcher at the Stimson Center.
This article originally appeared in The Cipher Brief here.