On the week of the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist massacre, the bilateral cooperation between India and Pakistan to open a visa-free corridor for Sikh pilgrims to access a sacred place of worship offers a rare moment of inspiration. Ten years ago this week, India awoke to the horrific three-day assault on its financial capital of Mumbai by Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists, much of it broadcast live, in which at least 170 people were killed, hundreds more were wounded, and South Asian rivals raised fears of a major conflict and nuclear crisis. Today, the impromptu corridor of free passage between decades-long adversaries might signal the triumph of back-channel diplomacy and pragmatic confidence-building.
Unfortunately, this thaw in what has been an otherwise tense year in India-Pakistan bilateral relations is unlikely to endure. The risk of another nuclear-tinged crisis remains high, because the conditions precipitating the Mumbai crisis persist or have worsened after a decade. Pakistan continues to strategically support proxies that conduct cross-border terrorism. A revitalized Kashmir insurgency intensifies India-Pakistan tensions. India still lacks sufficient deterrence or defense options, and third parties are less able or inclined to mediate a crisis.
Despite international condemnation and pressure, Pakistan continues to at least tolerate and harbor internationally recognized terrorist organizations like LeT. These groups periodically perpetrate attacks on Indian targets, some of which have triggered major crises between India and Pakistan.
Some scholars have explained this support for militant proxies as a product of the Pakistan Army’s strategic culture of “emboldenment” from a nuclear deterrent that offers a shield behind which to pursue aggressive policies. Part of the logic, however, is undoubtedly strategic. State sponsorship of proxy groups is a common phenomenon, because it confers cost savings, military advantages, and bargaining leverage. Pakistan uses militant proxies as an asymmetric tool to project influence in difficult regions such as Afghanistan and counter India’s conventional military superiority.
Despite Pakistan’s claims that it has ditched previous distinctions between “good” and “bad” militants in its recent counterterrorism campaigns, research suggests Pakistan still engages in selective repression and colludes with some groups depending on their ideological affinity and operational utility.
While Pakistan’s strategic rationale holds steady, the domestic barriers to dismantling militant infrastructure—such as popular support, its utility in electoral politics, and uncertainty about the loss of control—are also quite powerful.
At the same time, the intensification of insurgency within the Kashmir Valley fuels instability between India and Pakistan, creating the conditions for another crisis and a flashpoint for conflict. The Indian and Pakistani militaries have fought four wars over the disputed Kashmir region, and they routinely exchange fire across the border.
After 25 years of counterinsurgency against a separatist insurgency backed by Pakistan, India believed it had achieved “normalcy,” but the past six years have seen a sharp uptick in militant recruitment, violence, and public support for the insurgency.
The re-escalation of the Kashmir insurgency fuels India-Pakistan tensions for several reasons. So long as India fails to consolidate control over the region, Pakistan feels compelled to offer rhetorical, and some material support for the insurgency, even if it is no longer the primary driver, after overselling the Kashmiri separatist cause to its public for decades. The restive environment both motivates Pakistani meddling and provides a genuine indigenous separatist movement that acts as cover.
Organization competition also motivates Pakistan-based militant groups such as LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed to outbid each other with attacks on Indian targets in the Kashmir Valley and elsewhere to vie for legitimacy and dominance over the anti-India movement.
India also finds it convenient to blame Pakistan for the failings of a repressive approach that generates widespread resentment. Preliminary evidence suggests that Kashmiris are now choosing quasi-violent resistance over “normal” democratic politics. Rising Hindu nationalism throughout India also channels the mounting frustrations over the Kashmir Valley into added animus toward Pakistan, inhibiting diplomatic efforts at conflict resolution.