New Delhi: The external dimension of the Kashmir crisis is rapidly changing to the country’s disadvantage, and the regime may not even have connected all the dots remaining fixated on Pakistan. With lakhs of troops (counting army, paramilitary and police together) deployed in Jammu and Kashmir, and the most severe counterterrorism and counterinsurgency measures in place, the regime’s muscular policies in the state cannot get more muscular. Week after week, numbers arrive of Kashmiri youth killed in security operations, and this might induce a sense of complacency that the situation is well under control. Beyond a point, muscularity, like everything else, is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Muscular policies have altered the pattern of Kashmir militancy. As noted earlier by this writer trying to capture a trend in infancy, Kashmir insurgency is less controlled by Pakistan than before. This has little to do with the Balakot airstrike and its alleged gains for the country. With a sick economy and the Afghan transition to Taliban rule heralded in a matter of weeks, Pakistan has tactically shifted from direct support to the militant struggle in Kashmir. The militant movement itself finds greater succour in being part of international jihad which explains the unexpected new traction for the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda. The Al-Qaeda chief has put out a chilling message laying the roadmap for jihad in the country starting from Kashmir, and he has some choice abuses for the Pakistan army. The Kashmir crisis clearly has gone beyond Pakistan and it concerns minority equations in the rest of the country unprecedentedly. Specific to Kashmir, not muscular policies but an immediate dialogue with Kashmiri stakeholders outside the mainstream and within can no longer be avoided. The clock has turned against the country although it may not be readily apparent.

The foreign aspect of the Kashmir issue is no less daunting. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is back with an “update” on J and K and India’s summary rejection of the report, largely compiled from open and official sources, simply won’t end the matter. Having a better understanding of world public opinion, Pakistan has welcomed the report despite its criticism of Pakistani repression in parts of the state occupied by it. And Pakistan has crept back into the good books of the Donald Trump administration which had hard words for Islamabad earlier and followed them with aid cuts for poor counterterrorism assistance to the United States in Afghanistan. Perhaps convinced that the United States needs Pakistan to control the Taliban’s jihadi impulses against America, Imran Khan has been finally given leave to meet Trump in Washington, and his charisma, which quite swooned the UK in his playing and playboy days, may work with the White House as well and its “beautiful people”. Imran Khan will probably sell the line that the Pakistan army will protect US interests in Afghanistan, and the Trump White House is likely to jump at the suggestion despite the poor record of Pakistani promises. Not just Washington: Moscow and Beijing would also be stepping up interactions with Islamabad backed by aid, weapons and much exports of goodwill. Pakistan will be back in favour. And when Islamabad rises in world estimation and importance, its immediate impact is unfailingly felt in Jammu and Kashmir.

The impact will come (apart from Pakistan’s reasserted proxy war in J and K) in the form of nudges to New Delhi to start the peace dialogue with Islamabad, which India will presumably reject with the standard response of “terror and talks cannot go together”. When India was doing economically well or at any rate better than now, it kept the market economies at least nominally on India’s side with tantalizing growth expectations and high consumption. The Indian economy has major problems today and it is further worsened by absent vision or direction. GDP and related data are no longer accepted at face value in Western financial capitals: the most recent data mismatch, for example, between the Economic Survey and the budget, with tax revenues inflated in the second by over Rs 1.67 lakh crore, couldn’t have damaged India’s politico-economic credibility more. (The press has been restricted in the Union finance ministry since the fudge was exposed.) On top of that, Trump is bearing down on India on high tariffs. Even as Pakistan appears reasonable in seeking talks with India, India gives the world an impression of obduracy and inflexibility in refusing them, and it won’t stand for mediation. As long as the United States thought it could win the long war in Afghanistan, it was willing to accommodate India on Kashmir, Afghanistan and indeed Pakistan. Donald Trump has had enough of the Afghan war. He has no interest in waging war anywhere (placing his bets on sanctions, trade wars, etc) and he has a re-election bid coming. If Pakistan can keep the United States mainland safe from Afghan jihad, Trump will have no hesitation in backing Islamabad. If this worsens Kashmir for India, the United States will shrug away from intervention unless New Delhi agrees to Washington’s mediation which it won’t.

And in the meanwhile, the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have turned their attention to the sub-continent seeing the paths of growth blocked in the Middle East after Syria. The Islamic State is using Sri Lanka as a staging post (following the Easter Sunday bombings) and the Al-Qaeda has eyes on Kashmir as a springboard to target the rest of the country. In this scenario, the regime has to think beyond Pakistan’s narrow militant aims, taper off muscular policies in Kashmir, and open a political dialogue with non-mainstream Kashmiri groups. (The mainstream is in the electoral process anyway.) Following this, talks have to begin with Pakistan. India’s Kashmir problems in the nineteen eighties have their origins in the Afghan jihad from which the Pakistan military and intelligence establishment derived considerable benefits and learnt valuable lessons. Denying this geopolitical background to the Kashmir crisis won’t make the crisis disappear. The regime cannot think in strategic terms about Kashmir and there is no other way left.