Mosharraf Zaidi is a senior fellow at the policy think tank Tabadlab.
A lot has changed in the past few weeks between Pakistan and India, all of it incredibly worrying. Even more worrying? What may not have changed.
First, the changes. By sending Indian Air Force fighter jets to drop bombs in Balakot, Pakistan, in the early hours of Feb. 26, India trashed a two-decade policy of what some call strategic restraint. By responding the next day with Pakistan Air Force fighter jets dropping bombs at Indian locations, Pakistan surprised many, in India and around the world, with a demonstration of what I have previously referred to as a new doctrine of defensive retaliation. In an ensuing dogfight, Pakistan downed at least one IAF plane and captured a pilot. Two days later, in an unprecedented and swift gesture of peace, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced his release.
This is all very new. A brazen Indian fighter-jet attack of Pakistani territory has not happened since 1971. Pakistan’s swift retaliation was certainly unexpected. Pakistan has not taken down an Indian plane in two decades. And Pakistan’s return of a captured pilot within three days of capture has never, ever happened.
At the site of India’s original airstrike, there are a lot of felled trees, but no signs of the hundreds of casualties that the Indian secretary for external affairs had claimed a few hours after the strike. Indian rage at the Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir, that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers has been replaced by confusion on both sides about the purpose of India’s Balakot strike, and Indian bewilderment at Khan’s statesmanlike conduct.
Confusion isn’t a good thing for two sides with nuclear weapons. Less than a month ago, the relationship and its dynamics were much more predictable. The well-established routine between the two countries involved India’s continued refusal to engage in a serious discussion about the Kashmir dispute, which fed into Kashmiri resentment and recruitment fodder for terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad. This resulted in attacks such as the Feb. 14 suicide bombing by a young Kashmiri man, which led to India’s complaints to the entire world about Pakistan’s harboring of terrorist groups.
But now, that cycle seems disrupted — at least in Pakistan. After returning the Indian pilot whose MiG-21 plane was taken down, Pakistanis, buoyed by gaining the moral upper hand, began the week after Balakot on a bit of a high. Then, two more developments lifted spirits: A provincial minister with a long record of bigotry was fired after an especially vile anti-Hindu diatribe, and the very same day, 44 members of banned terrorist groups, including some who are known to be from Jaish-e-Muhammad, were arrested.
This brings us to the things that may not quite have changed.
In the two decades since both countries became nuclear powers, India has buried any discussion about Kashmir beneath unending rhetoric about Pakistani obduracy and inaction about groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad.
India has long believed that its convergence with Western nations, and especially with the United States, on the issue of Pakistan’s enduring tolerance for terrorist groups would eventually help pressure the Pakistani state to get tough on them. But a few arrests or administrative measures to demonstrate intent is different from a robust prosecutorial process and deradicalization process for such groups. There is little evidence that, even if Pakistan had the will, it has the capacity to enact such a program quickly. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take time for Pakistan to tackle these groups adequately.
This is time that neither Pakistan nor India may necessarily have. Even if India and its allies in the United States can prevail upon Pakistan to take steps to completely eliminate Jaish-e-Muhammad or Lashkar-e-Taiba, there is nothing to prevent the emergence of the next Adil Ahmed Dar. Dar was the 22-year-old suicide bomber at the heart of this latest round of tensions between Pakistan and India.
Dar was a born and bred Kashmiri who was first picked up for questioning by Indian security forces at the age of 17. Before he drove a carload of explosives into a convoy of Indian soldiers, he had reportedly been arrested and released six times.
The Jaish-e-Muhammad or Lashkar-e-Taiba are often framed as problems for India. But today, they represent unsustainable liabilities for Pakistan. India’s real problem is not the two-decade-old group that conducts the occasional act of terrorism, but rather the young Kashmiris whose fury and resentment will not die.
And this is the one thing that has not changed at all in South Asia. Just as when Pakistan and India were first founded in 1947, Kashmir is at the heart of the fight. Though both countries are now closer to war than they have been in many years, they are further away from a resolution of Kashmir than ever before.