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Opinion The Kashmir attack leaves the U.S. and India facing a dilemma about Pakistan

A woman cries over the body of her husband, one of 40 Indian paramilitary police officers were killed in a suicide bombing on Feb. 14 in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
A woman cries over the body of her husband, one of 40 Indian paramilitary police officers were killed in a suicide bombing on Feb. 14 in Indian-controlled Kashmir. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)
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A BLOODY suicide bombing in Kashmir last week has confronted the Indian government with a dilemma that both it and the United States have repeatedly faced: what to do about the sponsorship of Islamist terrorist groups by Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state. Diplomacy, sanctions and targeted military strikes haven’t worked; full-scale war is unthinkable. Yet the failure to impose accountability or establish deterrence only encourages the Pakistani military and its intelligence service to continue a policy of backing extremists in both India and Afghanistan.

The attack on an Indian military convoy, which killed 40, was carried out by a bomber native to Kashmir, reflecting the growth of homegrown militants fighting Indian rule. Responsibility for the attack was quickly claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based organization that, while officially banned, has long had the support of military and intelligence officials. Its leader, Masood Azhar, is reported by Indian media to be in a Pakistani military hospital. Indian authorities said the planner of the bomb attack, who was killed Monday in a shootout, was a Pakistani national and known associate of Mr. Azhar.

While the Indian government is saying it has “incontrovertible evidence” that Pakistan had a “direct hand” in the attack, Islamabad is responding with familiar dodges. Prime Minister Imran Khan denied responsibility without explicitly condemning the bombing, and pledged to take action if India provided proof of Pakistani involvement. If the record of past terrorist attacks in India is any indication, Pakistan will not act even if evidence is provided. The same has been true of its response to terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, such as assaults on the U.S. Embassy and other Western targets by a Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network, which Pakistan is also believed to support.

Pakistan has long sought to use terrorists to gain leverage over India, with which it disputes control of Kashmir, and the United States, which it would like to force to accept rule by the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is making headway on the latter goal with the Trump administration, which has been negotiating with the Taliban about withdrawing U.S. troops. That increases the complications for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a national election in the coming months.

Mr. Modi has vowed “a befitting reply” to the attack, and other officials have used harsher rhetoric; one promised an “unforgettable lesson” for Pakistan. The government has already suspended trade preferences and withdrawn its ambassador. It appears to have at least the rhetorical support of the White House; national security adviser John Bolton told his counterpart that the United States supports India’s right to defend itself, according to an Indian statement.

Short of a military operation with unpredictable consequences, however, India’s options are limited. One is to seek, again, United Nations designation of Mr. Azhar as a global terrorist — but Pakistan’s ally China has blocked that action in the past. Mr. Modi’s best course, however unsatisfactory, may be to avoid overreaction — including against the Muslim population of Kashmir and those in India who speak out on its behalf.

Read more:

Michael Krepon: The conflict between India and Pakistan is about to get uglier

Barkha Dutt: Everything will change after the Kashmir attack

Barkha Dutt: Imran Khan is close to Pakistan’s army. Here’s why that’s good for India.

Mehreen Zahra-Malik: Who’s afraid of Imran Khan’s Pakistan? Almost everyone.

Barkha Dutt: Pakistan’s move to execute alleged Indian ‘spy’ may be a ploy to sabotage the prime minister