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Will Coronavirus Prevent Pakistan and India Going to War This Summer?

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Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder jets perform an aerial display in Karachi to commemorate the force’s downing of an Indian military plane over Kashmir a year before. Feb 27, 2020
Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder jets perform an aerial display in Karachi to commemorate the force’s downing of an Indian military plane over Kashmir a year before. Feb 27, 2020Credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS
Abhinav Pandya
Abhinav Pandya

Diplomatic and military tensions between India and Pakistan have soared since New Delhi scrapped the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, on August 5, 2019.

From ceasefire violations marked with high-intensity shelling to Pakistan’s battling words in international fora and on social media (with Turkey backing up every syllable), it seemed as if war or, at the minimum, extensive skirmishes leading to ever more tense and fragile stand-offs, was imminent between the two nuclear-powered arch-rivals. 

During the last few months, several Pakistani government ministers, including its prime minister, Imran Khan, openly threatened a "befitting response" to India's moves in Kashmir, and warned of a "nightmare scenario" which could end up in a nuclear war (he warned of a similar dire scenario over India’s new citizenship laws).

India also ramped up the rhetoric, with an unusual declaration by Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar that, the part of Kashmir now under Pakistan’s control was part of India and that "one day" India would regain "physical jurisdiction" over it. 

Then came the global coronavirus crisis. For once, India and Pakistan have been forced to confront a pandemic that is an equally potentially devastating threat to them both, bearing in mind their poor health infrastructures. But is the threat of COVID-19 and its associated disruption and necessary diversion of resources enough to postpone a full-fledged war between India and Pakistan? Will the summer of 2020 be peaceful, or not? 

Thus far, the coronavirus pandemic has far from silenced conflict on the border between India and Pakistan. Since India’s revocation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status last August, there has been an upward spike in cross-border infiltration, and since the virus crisis emerged, that spike has climbed further. According to the latest Indian intelligence assessment, 375-400 terrorists are waiting to infiltrate from Pakistan. And that spike in hostilities isn’t confined to the Line of Control. 

A Kashmiri man crosses a barricade in an area declared as a “red zone” because of coronavirus infections during lockdown in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir. April 14, 2020Credit: Mukhtar Khan,AP

Pakistan-backed militants are making sustained attempts to infiltrate into India via the international border in the Jammu region, the Punjab border, and even the long coastline of Gujarat. Recently, there have been several reported cases of Pakistani army smuggling weapons over those borders by drones.

According to my own sources, at least eight consignments of weapons have arrived in Kashmir, including one – intercepted by Indian police – that comprised guns and hand grenades which, together with a future consignment of AK-47s, were intended for the targeted killings of politicians and police personnel. That cell was part of the newly-formed terrorist group, "The Resistance Front," and communicated with its handler in Pakistan over the encrypted messaging platform Telegram.

The last month of coronavirus lockdown has not even meant a hiatus in gruesome terror attacks. In 2020, so far, 36 terror attacks have been committed in Indian-controlled Kashmir, with 61 terrorists and 17 soldiers killed. 

Since the Indian state’s primary focus now is battling the corona pandemic, its special forces are not pro-actively initiating offensive encounters with terrorists, technically referred to as cordon-and–search-operations. For Pakistan-backed militant groups, that is a valuable opportunity.

An Indian paramilitary soldier stands guard wearing protective gear against coronavirus in a residential area of Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir. April 11, 2020Credit: Mukhtar Khan,AP

Terror masterminds across the border are using India’s preoccupation with relieving coronavirus-related crises as an excellent opportunity to infiltrate a maximum number of terrorists and consolidate them in the Kashmir valley. And they’re making money, too.

India has engaged in a consistent program of choking off terror financing channels, including temporarily banning trade over the Line of Control. That has impelled Pakistan to fall back on drug smuggling, a tried and tested source of raising funds for terror groups. 

More broadly, Pakistan’s attitude towards cultivating and sustaining proxy terrorist groups shows no signs of change – quite the opposite. A senior officer having served in Kashmir for years, and currently attached with India’s external intelligence services, told me on the condition of anonymity that there are confirmed reports of Pakistan’s key intelligence service, Inter-Service Intelligence, or ISI, cultivating relations with regional branches of ISIS

Pakistan’s ISI has reportedly made deep inroads in the branch that covers Afghanistan (the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP) to use it as its strategic asset there. Indeed, according to C.D. Sahay, formerly chief of research and analysis for India's external intelligence agency in South Asia, no transnational terror group in the region can function without the blessing of the ISI.

When a Sikh gurdwara was shot up in Kabul in March, killing 25 pilgrims, the attack’s mastermind was a Pakistani national called Aslam Farooqi, who undertook the attack in the name of ISIS’ Khorasan Province branch. According to the Afghan National Directorate of Security, he confessed to links with "regional intelligence agencies"  – a clear reference to Pakistan.

And Pakistan continues to allow proven terrorists to roam freely. Islamabad refuses to prosecute Masood Azhar, a UN-designated terrorist and India’s most-wanted man, who directed the Pulwama suicide car bombing a year ago in which 40 Indian soldiers were killed, or sanction his group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. The murder conviction against Omar Saeed, who was involved in the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl, was overturned at the beginning of April, and he was set free. 

Pakistani students shout slogans against India during a solidarity rally with pro-independence Indian Kashmiris. Karachi, Pakistan, March 6, 2020Credit: Fareed Khan,AP

Pakistan’s intelligence service is working on a number of different fronts in order to destabilize Kashmir, and one of them involves not Islamist radicals but Sikh separatists too. The ISI is reviving its attempts to manipulate the militant movement for an autonomous Sikh state in Punjab, known as Khalistan, to harness and direct a newly-synergized militancy between both Sikh and Islamist insurgents in India’s north. Pakistan has long believed that encouraging a militant synergy between the two separatists groups against Indian rule (the so-called "Kashmir to Khalistan" policy) would play to its benefit.

Pakistan is, though, keenly aware that world attention is more focused than in the past on its cultivation of terror groups. So, despite the open secret of Islamabad’s support for a whole plethora of violent militant groups, it’s trying out another pivot: giving new Kashmir-based terror groups avowedly secular names such as "The Resistance Front" framing them as authentic, indigenous separatist movements. Pakistan cannot afford to be seen as an overt instigator of terrorist violence by active support for groups that have already caught international attention and sanctions, not least by the anti-terror financing watchdog, the FATF. 

Other geopolitical developments in the wider region have emboldened Pakistan, not least the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s victory there. To take just one example of the direct connections between the Taliban and Kashmir militants: they’ve been training together in Afghanistan Now, after the U.S. withdrawal, Taliban fighters – with more than a subtle push by Pakistan – may well support their Jaish-e-Mohammed brothers in Kashmir. That would mean Pakistan overseeing the shift, or export, of Afghan mujahids to the Kashmir conflict zone. 

Another significant boost to Pakistan’s heightened confidence in stirring up trouble in Kashmir is emerging from the strengthening of Islamabad’s relations with China

Ties that were already warm have become even more intimate during the coronavirus crisis, with Beijing offering generous assistance to Pakistan. To safeguard its strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Beijing is becoming a partner-in-crime with Pakistan. With Chinese support, Pakistan feels emboldened to act more aggressively and revive militancy in Kashmir; and post-COVID-19, and the likely American, if not international, opprobrium over China’s role in covering up the extent of infection in Wuhan, Beijing will welcome the unconditional support it will get from Pakistan. 

A supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wearing a mask with an image of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, waves a BJP flag during a rally in New Delhi on December 22, 2019Credit: AFP

These days, Pakistan’s efforts at violent subversion may be falling on the more fertile ground than usual, thanks to the current socio-political environment in India, dominated as it is by the powerful symbolism and rhetoric of Hindu nationalism and by recent legislation perceived as classifying Indian Muslims as less-than-equal citizens. That political climate is fueling genuine fear, alienation, and resentment among India’s minority Muslim community. 

But it is also providing fodder for radicals to exploit authentic anxiety and push it towards an existential battle: the fear of potential genocide. This environment of capitalizing on fear is a godsend for Pakistan’s subversion efforts. According to interviews I conducted for an upcoming book on terror financing in Kashmir, it is evident that Pakistan is using both real and imagined fears of Islamophobia in India to establish and consolidate sleeper cells of terrorist groups in small Indian towns and cities which could be activated to execute high profile assassinations and terrorist attacks.

Pakistan has also upped the ante on these issues in terms of public diplomacy, with an aggressive propaganda and misinformation campaign. 

Imran Khan has been hyperactive on mainstream and social media in branding the Modi government’s relationship with its Muslim minority as a latter-day version of Adolf Hitler and the Jews and its policy in Kashmir as one of ethnic cleansing

No one denies the rising Hindu radicalization in India and the resultant unease amongst Muslims. But equating it with the horrors of Nazi Germany is not only absurd, but willful propaganda. It can’t be forgotten that Pakistan is not coming to this debate about analogies to Jewish suffering with clean hands: the country is infamous for its deep-seated anti-Semitic tropes within its own domestic political discourse, and its fertile "Hindu-Zionist" conspiracy theories – hatreds that it’s also spreading through its proxies in Kashmir and the rest of India. 

The tone and direction of that kind of rhetoric emanating from Pakistan is welcomed by Turkey, whose President Recip Tayyib Erdogan has invested serious resources in radicalizing and indoctrinating Indian Muslims and inculcating hostility towards non-Muslims, particularly Hindus, Jews and moderate Muslims. 

It’s clear to reasonable observers that the Pakistani intelligence forces, one of the key real power centers of the country, see the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to push hard at any Indian vulnerability. In the absence of sustained regular Indian special forces’ activity – and the curfews and human rights violations associated with them – Pakistan-backed militants are being denied a regular source of radicalized recruits.

So Pakistan is consciously scouting around for the ways and means to revive Kashmiri militancy and separatism right now, before Islamabad loses the kudos of being the defender of Muslim Kashmir, and before the issue drops off the international agenda completely.

Women raise their coloured palms, representation of blood, during a rally to mark Kashmir Solidarity Day, in Karachi, Pakistan February 5, 2020Credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS

For Pakistan, it’s all about momentum and opportunism, and the region’s geopolitics and the COVID-19 crisis may be offering Islamabad both. The summer of 2020 is unlikely to be peaceful.

With India engaged with battling the coronavirus, Pakistan-sponsored militant acts have already started gaining pace; if they orchestrate a high-casualty terror strike, or successfully incite civil revolt in Kashmir. India may not be able to retaliate as firmly as it would in normal times. 

However, India’s revamped political and strategic establishment, after years of vacillation and appeasement, now firmly believes that there can be no lasting solution to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism except by recapturing the part of Kashmir occupied by its neighbor, from where terror attacks are invariably launched. The clouds of war loom large in post-coronavirus South Asia. 

Abhinav Pandya, a Public Affairs graduate from Cornell University, is the author of "Radicalization in India: An Exploration," (Pentagon Press, 2019) and a forthcoming book on terror financing in Kashmir. He has advised the former governor of Jammu and Kashmir and has written for The Print, Sunday Guardian, Haaretz, South Asia Democratic Forum (Brussels), Vivekananda International Foundation, First Post, Fair Observer, Huffington Post, The Economic Times, Perspectives on Terrorism and The Express Tribune. Twitter: @abhinavpandya

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