Last week, 40 paramilitary police officers were killed in a terrorist attack in Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan territory that both India and Pakistan claim in its entirety. The attack, the worst in the territory in decades, quickly spiraled into a major standoff between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to avenge the fallen. “We will give a befitting reply, our neighbor will not be allowed to destabilize us,” Modi said. Jaish-e-Muhammad, a militant group based in Pakistan, asserted responsibility for the attack, but Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan nevertheless warned India against any retaliation. All this is playing out just months before India’s general election, and there have been reports of attacks on Kashmiris.
The fraught situation in South Asia, however, does not seem to have generated much concern in one place: Washington.
“India’s way off the radar screen to begin with,” Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told WorldViews, particularly when compared with China, Europe and the Middle East. “People are just not aware. They’re just not focused” on India, Ayres said.
The attack occurred at the same time as the Munich Security Conference was being held, she noted, but garnered little attention. “I don’t think I saw any sign that there was any comment about this potential escalation in South Asia, which is directly related to stability in Afghanistan,” Ayres said.
Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, said, “India tends to fall below the radar.” The muted response by foreign policy analysts and the pundit class in Washington could also be partly attributed, according to Madan, to India’s customary restraint in response to such attacks in the past.
“There was a lot going on,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on nuclear nonproliferation and South Asia.
The attack also occurred one day before President Trump declared a national emergency to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and while two factions, one of which is strongly supported by the United States, claim control of Venezuela.
The Kashmir attack, while striking in magnitude, also targeted security forces, not civilians. “An attack on security forces is not an irregular thing,” Narang said.
The Trump administration, however, has not been entirely silent. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his condemnation of the attack and said Pakistan cannot “provide safe haven for terrorists.” National security adviser John Bolton spoke with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, by phone and tweeted his condolences (though the account he tagged in his tweet was not Doval’s but a fan account).
“The response — calling on Pakistan to crack down on military organizations, the Bolton call released by both sides, the joint statement calling to crack down on terrorism — that’s all good, but we’ve done that before,” Narang said. “It’s the standard response, but, to me, it’s boilerplate.”
“I suspect there’s probably pretty close coordination or at least communication with the U.S. to try to see what can be done,” Madan said.
The lack of greater public involvement from foreign policy officials in the Trump administration and from foreign policy experts in Washington more broadly could signal a worrying lack of attention.
“One of the things that does concern me about having a kind of opaque process in the U.S. — a lot of what’s important about diplomacy is public signaling,” Ayres said. “The pundit community can be helpful in pointing out failures that our own government should take on. If [the government is] already active, then great, but if they’re not, and you don’t have an active foreign policy community paying any attention at all, that’s the real problem.”
“I just don’t know if a tweet from Pompeo is sufficient diplomacy,” she said.
On the other hand, having fewer people who don’t closely follow the region weigh in on a complex and volatile situation might not be such a bad thing.
“Not all attention is necessarily good or stabilizing,” said Madan, adding that she wouldn’t want pundit-class discussion that breezes by the complexities of the situation.
“At some point, the U.S. can only do damage by getting involved when it comes to South Asia,” Narang said. “At least so far Trump hasn’t tweeted about it.”