India’s controversial move to pull the autonomy of the disputed region of Kashmir marks a major moment in the regional politics of South Asia. The decision, as political scientist Ahsan Butt explained here at TMC this week, was motivated by Indian domestic politics — but its implications will reach beyond India. It will force a number of countries, including Pakistan, China, and the United States, to recalibrate their foreign policies — and other key players, such as al-Qaeda, will watch developments closely.
Will this increase conflict in South Asia? Here are four key things to watch.
1. The India-Pakistan rivalry is likely to worsen
Contention over Kashmir broke out soon after the British partitioned India into two countries in 1947. India claimed that Kashmir’s ruler had ceded his princely state to India. Pakistan disagreed, arguing that the Muslim-majority region’s accession was the “product of a long intrigue.” In 1948, the first war between India and Pakistan split control of Kashmir between the two. Following a U.N. intercession mandating a plebiscite, Pakistan consistently sought to get India to hold such a process — and until it took place, India keeping Kashmir semiautonomous while recognizing that its disputed status was an acceptable baseline.
With the current move, Pakistan perceives that the seven-decade-long status quo has been breached symbolically. This feeling flows, in part, from the adverse political reaction in the Kashmir Valley to the change. Pakistan seems to worry that now India may refuse to settle the dispute altogether, but how that is different from past Indian behavior is unclear. It also fears that India may encourage immigration into Muslim-majority regions of Kashmir, whose population leans toward independence or Pakistan — thereby changing the demography of the territory.
In response, Pakistan has downgraded already-tense diplomatic ties, expelling India’s top diplomat, and suspended nominal trade with India. It may ask the United Nations Security Council for a resolution restraining India. Pakistan will also prepare conventional military operations, most likely along Kashmir’s border. But because it is so mountainous, the Kashmir border terrain is easy to defend — which will limit Pakistan’s ability to impose costs on India.
The real question is whether Pakistan will intensify its support of Kashmiri rebel forces, which have killed hundreds of Indian troops in the region each year for decades. Traditionally Pakistan has been a major benefactor of Kashmiri rebels, providing arms, fighters and direction. Today, however, Pakistan is in a tough spot. The United States has used intense pressure, including threatening sanctions, to get Pakistan to curtail the jihadist infrastructure fueling the Kashmiri resistance. Some observers suggest that Pakistan has committed to systematically rolling back the jihadist infrastructure. Evidence suggests that Pakistan has been pulling back some support in recent months.
Yet Pakistan’s powerful army will want to defy the United States. The Pakistani military culture is organized around the rivalry with India, especially over Kashmir. India’s decision will seriously anger senior generals and the rank-and-file. In addition, Pakistan’s major political parties are taking hard-line positions on the Indian move, calling it a choice between “dishonor and war.” While the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan may hope to tread carefully, it will face strong pressure to punish India by supporting Kashmiri resistance.
No matter what Pakistan decides for now, India’s move puts its relations with Pakistan on a turbulent trajectory for the foreseeable future.
2. This will affect regional politics, including Afghanistan
The United States is on the cusp of a settlement with the Afghan Taliban, which has been enabled by Pakistan. If signed, it will allow the United States to end its nearly 18-year war and withdraw troops from the country. In exchange, the Afghan Taliban may pledge to prevent international terrorists from using Afghan territory and to start power-sharing peace talks with the Afghan government.
India’s decision will affect whether this settlement can be sustained. Pakistan is likely to remind the United States that it’s been significant in the Afghan peace process — and of its leverage over the Taliban — in the hope that the United States will chastise India. If it ramps up support to Kashmiri rebels, Pakistan will hope that the United States will look the other way. If the United States doesn’t meet Pakistan’s expectations, Pakistan may retaliate by gradually pulling its support from a future settlement in Afghanistan.
3. Terrorist groups will probably see this as an opportunity
In early July, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri put out a strongly worded message targeting India, titled “Don’t Forget Kashmir.” India’s decision feeds his narrative. Al-Qaeda cadres, who have long sought to take control of the Kashmiri resistance and reduce Pakistan’s influence, will see India’s move as a strategic opportunity to expand their jihadist project in Kashmir.
Other transnational groups, such as the Islamic State, will also seek to benefit from the anger in the Kashmir Valley. Kashmir-focused groups traditionally based in Pakistan may want to target Indian cities.
All this substantially increases the risk of major terrorist violence against civilians in mainland India. Such an incident could create a situation much like the February 2019 standoff, when a suicide bomber killing 44 Indian soldiers led to a tense military clash between India and Pakistan. India would consider taking military action against Pakistan, risking serious escalation.
4. The United States and China will inevitably be involved
India’s decision will be unwelcome news in Washington, and not just for its potentially negative consequences on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. For the past few years, the United States has wanted India as a partner in an emerging coalition against a rising China. It has also wanted India to focus on modernizing its military and consolidating its democratic institutions.
From the U.S. perspective, India has veered off-track. India has been hedging its alliances, including buying missile systems from Russia. Concerned about the health of Indian democracy, Washington has offered veiled criticism of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist politics. In its view, unilaterally changing Kashmir’s status is another step in the wrong direction.
The change will also further complicate India’s relationship with China. China has claimed that it should control parts of Kashmir’s Buddhist-majority subregion Ladakh. India’s move hives Ladakh into a separate and federally controlled territory, flouting China’s long-standing claim. For now, China is likely to back Pakistan’s efforts to rally multilateral institutions against India, in forums such as the U.N. Security Council. China may also strengthen its military alliance with Pakistan and provide cover for provocative actions toward India.
Asfandyar Mir is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.