When the Next Pakistan Attack on India Comes…

The Council on Foreign Relations has a decent analysis of what might happen if another terrorist strike hits India from Pakistan-based militants (which is an ever-present fear in the Indian media), and what the US can do about it. Since I’ve been complaining about the fact that Indo-Pak relations have been taken out of Afghan strategy, this seems very timely to me.

The paper rightly sees the US as constrained in its options – neither side likes outside interference on this issue. Pakistan is indebted to US for military and financial assistance, but it also knows how crucial a role it plays for the US in its battle against militants on the AfPak border. CFR therefore calls for quiet backchannel diplomacy aimed at opening up new lines of communication between the two sides and ensuring they know the risks of any escalation in diplomatic, financial and existential terms.

Funnily enough (ie worryingly), the bit I found most interesting was the bit with perhaps the most dull-sounding suggestions. Aware that the US should steer clear of anything too provocative or showy, the best steps are things that sound too boring to draw much attention, but which would register with business interests and therefore decision-makers. The report advises:

if Washington were to extend new preferential trade opportunities to Pakistan, particularly for textiles and garments, they would also offer coercive leverage in a time of crisis. Even the relatively mundane decision to revise official U.S. travel advisories can influence the behavior of U.S. investors and multinational corporations, imposing costs on Indian and Pakistani markets and mobilizing regional businessmen as advocates for stability and de-escalation. To take one step further, preparing plans for U.S. noncombatant evacuation operations in South Asia could also enhance Washington’s capacity to level credible economic threats on short notice.

India has been pretty good at not over-reacting to the Mumbai attacks. The report says that Delhi would probably not have the same latitude with the population to do the same in the event of another high-profile attack. I’m not sure that’s right. For a start, Indians seem to take disasters such as this pretty stoicly. But I also think the government’s reaction to Mumbai was coloured by an appreciation that reacting against militants with state-based action is probably not the most effective route to take, and perhaps even plays into the hands of extremists who would revel in the apocalyptic destruction they had wrought.

More subtle means of diplomatic coercion are required, along with some improved counter-terrorism capabilities that can quietly disrupt militant networks. The latter probably requires US assistance which that country is not in a position to give right now. The hope is that the Indian establishment can maintain the patience it has so far exhibited until that situation changes.

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2 responses to “When the Next Pakistan Attack on India Comes…

  1. Eric, thanks for drawing attention to this. My question. You wrote

    “India has been pretty good at not over-reacting to the Mumbai attacks. The report says that Delhi would probably not have the same latitude with the population to do the same in the event of another high-profile attack. I’m not sure that’s right. For a start, Indians seem to take disasters such as this pretty stoicly.”

    OK, but has India reached a tipping point of some kind? It may have taken it on the chin and bounced back last time, but the report seems to be suggesting that that reservoir of patience has run dry – whereas you seem to suggest that it’s something that can be managed. I’m curious where the balance of things lies, and if somewhere in the equation we need a better understanding of the difference between official India and popular response(s) to terrorist spectaculars. Thoughts?

  2. It’s very difficult to gauge, but it’s worth remembering that the Mumbai attacks came at a time when the Congress-led government was not exactly in all that strong a position in parliament and was staring down the barrel of national elections the following April. The fact that it went on to win a landslide win (by Indian standards) despite having done relatively little posturing over the attacks seems to suggest that tough government reactions to Pakistani militants are not a priority for voters. The issue is complicated by the often rabid nature of media coverage in India and it’s hard to gauge how much that really reflects real feelings.

    At the same time, the government and army are losing credibility at the moment – respectively, over their handling of the new Telangana state debacle and a land scandal involving a general – and commentators are saying that thier political capital is runnign low. Would this affect decision-making in a crisis – I’m not sure.

    My general tendency is to think that India is hell-bent on realising its economic and diplomatic potential and this acts as a brake on escalation. Also, despite indications to the contrary in the press, I think the governmetn understands how delicate is the situation in Pakistan and how fraught any state-based response to militancy would be.

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