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Opinion The conflict between India and Pakistan is about to get uglier

People in New Delhi attended a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to those killed during a terrorist attack on Feb. 14 in south Kashmir. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center.

The sound you are about to hear is India administering a black eye to Pakistan after a string of attacks in Kashmir. You can then expect the Pakistan military to give its “befitting response.” And then what? There are many good reasons for leaders in both countries to try to avoid serious escalation, but we are entering into new territory in the tit-for-tat choreography of settling grievances between neighbors that just can’t get along.

Pakistan has a matching set of black eyes. The first resulted when Jaish-e-Muhammad, a terrorist outfit active in Kashmir, carried out a suicide bombing on Feb. 14. The government of Pakistan, now as always, denies involvement, but there is ample evidence that Jaish-e-Muhammad is linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. The Kashmir insurgency is now largely homegrown, thanks to terrible Indian decisions in Kashmir. But local militants still need external support. As long as the Jaish leadership remains ensconced in Pakistan, denials of complicity won’t be convincing.

Jaish’s titular head is Masood Azhar, who was sprung from an Indian jail in 1999 in return for the release of a hijacked Indian Airlines plane, passengers and crew. This was a time of brazen operations by ISI, then flush with success after helping expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan and backstopped by Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998. With support from the ISI, the newly created Jaish-e-Muhammad carried out a stunning attack on the state assembly building in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, and then an even-more-stunning attack on the Indian Parliament building in 2001. About a million troops mobilized for war afterward, which was narrowly averted.

Ever since, a succession of Pakistani governments has professed an arm’s-length relationship to Jaish-e-Muhammad. After each flash-point, it has rounded up the usual suspects for polite detention, including Azhar, but no Pakistani court has dared to convict him. He lives in a compound in Bahawalpur, a city in Punjab 270 miles from the Indian border. The Indian Air Force must know his address.

The last spectacular attack by a terrorist group based in Pakistan against a high-profile Indian target was in 2008, when locations including luxury hotels, the central train station and a Jewish center were struck in Mumbai. Again, Azhar was rounded up and released (though Pakistan has denied it), but evidence of collusion between the perpetrators and ISI, including intercepted telephone conversations during the siege, was incontrovertible — but not admissible in Pakistani courts, according to experts.

Ever since, terrorist attacks against India have centered on Kashmir with much lower casualty counts. There was a feeling-out period to clarify when the body counts would prompt Indian retaliation. That threshold was crossed in 2016 at Uri, when an Indian post along the Kashmir divide was attacked, killing 19. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi then publicized “surgical strikes,” claiming to have inflicted roughly double the number of Pakistani casualties. Pakistani officials denied Indian claims, and everyone moved on. Cross-border attacks are not an uncommon occurrence; publicizing them is.

The Feb. 14 massacre, which killed 40 members of India’s security forces, goes well beyond the killings at Uri, so Modi, now in the run-up to national elections, has announced his intention to strike back more forcefully than before. One big question is where: Will Indian forces confine their retaliation to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir or take more dramatic action by striking Pakistan’s Punjab province, where Jaish and another major anti-Indian jihadi group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, led by Hafiz Saeed, have their headquarters? Strikes into Punjab would be a whole new ballgame, likely to prompt counter-strikes by missiles, aircraft, or both.

Why would the ISI and Jaish up the ante now, when Pakistan is in dire economic straits? Strikes against Indian targets usually occur under two sets of circumstances — when relations with India are improving, to throw sand in diplomatic gears, or when New Delhi gives Pakistan the cold shoulder. The most recent attack conveys a message of local defiance, as well as the message that Pakistan won’t be ignored. Modi has rejected Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s sincere overtures to improve ties. Many hoped that progress might occur after the Indian elections later this year. These hopes now appear dashed.

And why would Pakistan’s military and intelligence services keep backing groups that ruin its international standing and prospects for economic recovery? Because these outfits reinforce an insurgency that costs India dearly. Plus, to shut them down could be quite difficult and costly. No civilian government has changed the Pakistan military’s calculus or diminished its bloated share of the budget pie, which is based on enduring enmity with India. Besides, Beijing will continue to have Pakistan’s back.

So stay tuned. This could get ugly.

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