Major bomb attack in Kashmir, intended to maintain insurgency’s momentum, does not reflect increased likelihood of attacks in India proper
Prime Minister will face pressure to retaliate against Pakistan, especially given proximity of general elections, but will look to avoid major military confrontation
Similarly large-scale attack unlikely in short term, but smaller attacks in Kashmir will continue as Afghan peace negotiations progress
At least 44 members of India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed and 35 more injured in a suicide car bombing in Kashmir on 14 February. The Pakistan-based jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the incident, in which a lone attacker, believed to have been a local Kashmiri militant, targeted a convoy of CPRF buses on a highway in Pulwama district. The Government immediately claimed to have evidence of Pakistani involvement and took diplomatic steps against its neighbour, such as revoking Pakistanâ€™s ‘most favoured nation’ trading status. Prime Minister Modi subsequently promised a strong response and said the military had a ‘free hand’ to tackle militants.
The bombing was the most deadly single attack in Kashmir since the beginning of the insurgency in 1989 and the first car bombing in the region since 2004. The last attack on a similar scale occurred in September 2016, when militants attacked an army base in Uri, Kashmir, killing nineteen soldiers. The Government responded to that incident with so-called ‘surgical strikes’ in Pakistani territory, which are believed to have involved limited cross-border military incursions targeting militant bases near the border.
The high-profile operation comes amid increased Pakistani engagement with the US over peace negotiations in Afghanistan, including mounting pressure on Afghan Taliban leaders based in Pakistan to engage in the talks . Since elements of Pakistan’s security and intelligence forces are widely perceived to have links to JeM, the attack will likely have been intended to appease jihadists who have been angered by Islamabad’s growing willingness to pressure Taliban leaders at Washington’s request. JeM will also have sought to give momentum to the Kashmiri insurgency at a time when Pakistan-based militant groups fear they could lose relevance and influence in the event of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The attack has triggered intensified counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir, with the army claiming on 19 February that JeM’s leadership in the valley had been ‘eliminated’. It has also resulted in a significant spike in tensions with Pakistan, as Modi has sought to provide a robust response ahead of the general elections due by May. While this has so far manifested in diplomatic measures intended to isolate Pakistan internationally, Modi will also be under significant pressure from his base to oversee a stronger, military response. Limited military operations are therefore possible in the coming weeks, such as tactical air strikes or cross-border strikes using precision guided weapons. However, Delhi will seek to calibrate its response to avoid a serious escalation between the nuclear-armed states, particularly since it will also face pressure from the US to avoid taking action that could disrupt progress in the Afghan peace talks.
The incident is a major propaganda victory for militant groups and may fuel recruitment. Nonetheless, a repeat attack of similar size and complexity in India is unlikely in the next 3-6 months, particularly amid intensified security and counter-intelligence operations. Local militants could carry out sporadic smaller attacks around the upcoming elections and Ramadan in May, but these are likely to remain limited to Kashmir as groups focus on maintaining the insurgency’s momentum. In the shorter term, intensified clashes are likely along the Line of Control and counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir will also continue, with larger troop deployments and tighter security measures along highways and in the vicinity of military convoys.