For over seven decades, Kashmir has been the major flash point in the conflict between Pakistan and India. Since August 2019, the region has been in crisis after India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, scrapped the special designation the region once held, which recognized its unusual status as a Muslim-majority area. New Delhi put the region under military lockdown, arrested Kashmiri local representatives, and blocked virtually all communication lines between the region and the outside world. There are reports of the abuse of civilians and shortages of food and medicines. Amid worldwide criticism, no voice has been louder than that of Pakistan, where Prime Minister Imran Khan has raised concerns of ethnic cleansing. Given the Hindu supremacist administration in New Delhi, these are not unjustified.
Yet Pakistan is not without blame in what is going on in Kashmir at the moment. And while Khan of Pakistan himself has acted in good faith, the military-intelligence state, the real power in Pakistan, has many questions to answer as to how it managed to be completely outmaneuvered on Kashmir—especially as it justifies its bloated budgets by emphasizing the need to keep Indian ambitions in Kashmir in check.
One of Pakistan’s greatest foreign-policy successes was its cooperation with the United States and the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989). In this exercise, Pakistan proved itself indispensable to the United States’ Cold War grand strategy, but it also achieved its own strategic objectives to escape encirclement from Soviet-aligned Afghanistan and Soviet-aligned India.
Once that war was comprehensively won, Pakistan found itself with a great deal of spare military and intelligence capacity, as well as potentially useful relationships with militant groups and leaders that it could now redirect toward its traditional foe, India. Pakistan never stood a chance in a direct military conflict with India—and an all-out war between two nuclear powers was a terrifying possibility for everyone. But Pakistan thought that it could now leverage those same tactics that succeeded in Afghanistan against the militarily superior Soviet Union to put pressure on India. In the game-theoretical mindset of military and intelligence leaders, this seemed like a perfectly rational use of the available resources, especially since the key theater of conflict with India, Kashmir, shared remarkable similarities with Afghanistan: a remote, mountainous region, with a Muslim and friendly population, where it was easy to fight an insurgency against a larger foreign force, with relatively much lower use of resources.
But India was no Soviet Union. India was not entirely foreign to Kashmir linguistically and culturally, and the state was not being stretched to a breaking point economically and politically by maintaining its presence in the region. Nor did Pakistan’s adventures in Kashmir have the backing of the United States and the free world. In Afghanistan, Pakistan was a key lieutenant in a cover war sponsored by the world’s foremost superpower. In Kashmir, Pakistan was waging its own war, alone. And by sponsoring extreme militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, Pakistan crowded out genuine Kashmiri movements of self-determination. It also did little to endear itself to local Muslim sentiments: Mainstream Kashmiri Islam is much more deeply steeped in Sufi mysticism and is ideologically opposed to the kind of reactionary fundamentalism that drives the majority of jihadi terrorist groups that Pakistan was sponsoring.
To be sure, India did itself no favors in how it governed its half of Kashmir. Ham-handed attempts at installing puppet governments in the state’s capital and constantly manipulating elections engendered genuine hostility toward New Delhi among Kashmiri locals. This policy eventually gave an opening to pro-Pakistan militants in 1989 to create a reign of terror that drove out almost all Hindus from the valley, forcing India to militarize the whole region.
But then the broader geopolitical realities also changed from underneath the Pakistani military establishment, when their old friend and ally from the Afghanistan campaign, Osama bin Laden, started waging a global campaign of terrorism against U.S. assets, culminating in the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil in 2001. At this point, the Pakistani military establishment faced a choice: Would they retain their loyalty to the United States that had underwritten the independence of Pakistan throughout the Cold War, or would they retain the alliances with the Islamist militants that were key to their strategic depth against India?
Successive governments in Islamabad, and especially the autonomous military-intelligence complex, refused to make that choice. Nominally, they wished to retain their prized alliance with the United States, of course, but they were unwilling to forfeit the resources provided by the militants, which could be used against India—most notably in Kashmir. Instead of making that unavoidable choice, they tried to play both sides and sidelined any civilian administration that spoke of dialogue or rapprochement with India. This was the wrong strategy—and played directly into the hands of Indian hard-liners.
There is something remarkably stupid about the calculation those military leaders made that they could deceive the United States and keep both Washington and the Islamists on board. The United States had the foremost intelligence apparatus in the world. And it had the ability to act near-unilaterally even in Pakistan itself, as was demonstrated when the United States finally located Osama bin Laden in hiding near Pakistan’s military headquarters in Abbottabad and executed the operation to kill him without bothering to consult Islamabad.
With that raid, the charade was over. Pakistan had lost all credibility with the United States, as well as the close security ties it enjoyed throughout the Cold War. But the militants no longer had much reason left to believe that Pakistan could shelter them when push comes to shove. After playing both sides, Pakistan lost the trust of both and the ability to influence either. The United States continued its drone and ground campaigns against Islamists throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan as it saw fit. And the Islamists started conducting terrorist attacks all over the world according to their own calculations, without taking instruction from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Yes, they would on occasion help Pakistani geopolitical designs, but they were just as ready to carry out attacks within Pakistan, with little regard for the interests of the Pakistani state.
Pakistan thus lost a great deal of control over former proxies in the region. In Kashmir, this played directly into Modi’s hands. As Islamabad could no longer be relied upon to keep the Islamists in Kashmir on a tight leash, Modi had sufficient pretext to abandon all restraint in the territory of Kashmir while rejecting any dialogue with Pakistan’s civilian government as pointless.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has moved to make peace with the Taliban in Kabul. If this comes to pass, that will once again release resources from Afghanistan for the regional Islamist networks. And the so-called liberation of Kashmir is almost certainly the next focus of those networks. Indian military chiefs would argue that Modi has been astute to move in on Kashmir before any such redeployment of resources could happen.
None of this is to defend the way in which New Delhi went about its crackdown in Kashmir. One year on, the humanitarian situation in Kashmir has only gotten worse. Nor should we lose track of the significance of Kashmir to the ongoing war New Delhi is waging against its Muslim citizens. A Hindu-supremacist Indian prime minister rolling out a military occupation into the only Muslim-majority state in India is cause for acute concern.
But looked at from the point of view of the history of India-Pakistan relations, Pakistan’s historical approach to Kashmir is just as responsible for enabling and facilitating this crisis as those Indians who vote for Modi in India’s general elections. Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex has only ever used Kashmir as pretext to increase its own power and to constantly attack India. And the suffering brought by that foolishness is falling on the civilians, especially Muslims, trapped on the Indian side of the border.