This is a guest post by Paul Staniland, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and the author of Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse.
Even before being officially sworn in as India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi is facing his first challenge. The Indian consulate in Herat, in western Afghanistan, was attacked on Friday morning, leading to a protracted gun battle that killed the attackers. This was not the first attack on Indian personnel in Afghanistan – and it will almost certainly not be the last. Indian suspicions have centered on militants backed by Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The Herat attack is a grim welcome message to Modi. It comes at a remarkably delicate time. India has invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend Modi’s oath-taking ceremony on May 26, raising hopes for a renewed India-Pakistan dialogue. The Pakistan Army appears to be finally embarking on a long-rumored, long-delayed military offensive in North Waziristan following the collapse of negotiations with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). While the possibility of a Sharif-Modi dialogue and more concerted Pakistani attacks on radical TTP factions are welcome, the attack on the Herat consulate and deadly clashes along the Line of Control that divides the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled areas of Jammu and Kashmir make clear how unstable the region is.
India’s options are limited, Modi’s aggressive past rhetoric to the contrary, even if attacks on Indian targets continue. Modi can try to reach out to Pakistani civilian leaders in hopes of splitting them from a skeptical military, but this has been India’s strategy in the past with little success. “Spoilers” like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba have repeatedly undermined India-Pakistan rapprochement. Pakistan’s powerful army seems to be in no mood for a deal with New Delhi, viewing India as a rising power now run by a Hindu chauvinist, and regularly alleging that India is supporting militant groups along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Simmering civil-military tensions over media freedom and policy toward the TTP have limited Sharif’s ability to deliver on policy change.
India cannot credibly threaten military retaliation. As Vipin Narang has shown, Pakistan’s mixture of conventional and nuclear forces is intended to rapidly escalate any conflict, making Indian ground or even air strikes extremely risky. Protracted crises, as in 2001-2, would achieve little beyond further undermining a troubled economy. Indian leaders have little faith in America’s ability to influence Pakistan, instead seeing the U.S. as complicit in bolstering Pakistan’s military power and regional ambitions. American policy is shot through with ambivalence: it finds itself supporting the Pakistan Army’s offensives against some militants in North Waziristan even while opposing its support for other militants in Afghanistan.
In the face of these constraints, we are likely to see a two-pronged Indian strategy. First, outreach to Pakistan’s civilians will continue. Modi has a commanding majority and hard-liner credibility that limit his vulnerability to domestic criticism. Sharif is believed to be interested in improving ties with India, and there is always a chance that he and Modi can craft some forward progress.
Second, India is likely to expand its overseas intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The foreign policy advisers linked to Modi are experienced bureaucrats who know from bitter experience that neither dialogue nor aggressive coercive diplomacy has borne fruit. Instead, they are likely to advocate policies that can impose costs on Pakistan without triggering large-scale crises.
Shyam Saran, a former Foreign Secretary and chair of the National Security Advisory Board, recently argued that a Modi government should use Pakistan’s “vulnerabilities” as “pressure points” to make it reduce support for anti-India militants. Ajit Doval is likely to have an important position under Modi. He is the former head of the Intelligence Bureau and an experienced intelligence operative who has consistently been hawkish on Pakistan and called for a revitalized Indian intelligence apparatus. Kanwal Sibal, another former Foreign Secretary, has suggested that under Modi there will be a “less tolerant Indian response” to “deliberate provocations” by Pakistan.
The Modi security team will probably push to expand Indian intelligence activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would be a return to the more expansive (and at times, as in 1980s Sri Lanka, counterproductive) Indian footprint in the region that existed prior to former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s decision in the late 1990s to de-emphasize covert operations. India faces tough decisions about how to proceed in Afghanistan, and the Modi team seems more likely to hold the line, or up the ante, than back down. It will maintain an unyielding position on Kashmir, which it sees as linked to the broader regional competition, even if this exacerbates anti-India sentiment within the Kashmir Valley.
There is a risk that this approach would play into the hands of the Pakistani Army and various militant groups who thrive on India-Pakistan tension, but the emerging Modi government is dissatisfied with the status quo. It will seek a way around the current strategic stalemate that avoids major conflict without having passively absorb punishment like the Herat attack. Rather than a hot war along the India-Pakistan border and Line of Control, we may see an escalating shadow war, uncomfortably paired with continuing diplomatic outreach, that further knits together South Asia’s internal and external conflicts.