Riot police stood guard at a roadblock on Friday in Jammu

Islamabad faces international pressure to crack down on extremist groups focused on the disputed territory and domestic pressure to counter India’s new strategy there

by Saeed Shah

ISLAMABAD—India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy leaves Pakistan’s leadership in a bind over how to handle jihadist groups that Pakistan’s military nurtured to liberate the disputed area.

Islamabad is under international pressure to crack down on the extremists or face financial sanctions. Worst, attacks by those militant outfits could ignite armed conflict between India and Pakistan.

But the government is also under domestic pressure to counter India’s move in a region Pakistan views as an integral part of its identity, making such extremist groups a tempting tool. Now, after India’s shift, experts say Pakistan is unlikely to continue what they say is the government’s first serious effort to dismantle its jihadist infrastructure.

While Hindu-majority India has long viewed Jammu and Kashmir as one of its states, it had until now given the Muslim-majority area an unusual degree of autonomy. India regards its shift last week as a purely domestic issue, while Pakistan sees it as an annexation of a disputed territory.

The developments have put on edge already fraught relations between the two nuclear-armed nations over the mountainous border region between them.

India, which has hundreds of thousands of soldiers there, has imposed an almost complete military lock down and cut off nearly all phone service in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite that, protests erupted over weekend, with stone-throwing locals met with tear gas and pellet-gun shots from security forces, video footage showed.

In response, Pakistan suspended trade with India, expelled the Indian envoy in Islamabad and urged the United Nations to take up the issue. Opposition Pakistani politicians are pressing Prime Minister Imran Khan for more action. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, said that the military would “go to any extent” for the Kashmiris, without explaining what that meant.

“Either Pakistan does something, or, if it doesn’t, the military risks becoming very unpopular,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, author of “Military Inc.,” a book on the Pakistan army’s finances. “There will also be unimaginable pressure from hawks within the institution.”

India’s move came after the recent reelection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose career has been rooted in a Hindu nationalist movement that has stoked tensions with the country’s Muslim minority.

Since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims by the departing British Empire, it has claimed Muslim-majority Kashmir, but so has India. Each country administers parts of the region.

Pakistan’s powerful military created the jihadist groups in the 1990s to stage attacks on Indian forces in Kashmir to inflict pain on its adversary without a full-out war. Conversely, Islamabad accuses India of sponsoring insurgents in Pakistan. Both countries deny using proxy attackers.

Human-rights groups accuse India of arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial killings and the use of pellet guns to blind hundreds of protesters in its part of Kashmir, incensing opinion in Pakistan. India denies it has used excessive force, and says accusations of widespread human-rights abuses are baseless or exaggerated.

Pakistan has periodically said that it was cracking down on the extremist groups but mainly left them to operate openly. This time, the action looks more concerted, say foreign observers, though U.S. officials have noted that the steps taken so far are reversible. In recent months, Pakistan has begun to seize the assets of militants, taken over their schools, closed some training camps and arrested some of their leading members, say local and foreign officials.

Some experts say that Pakistan wouldn’t risk unleashing the militants now, after India showed earlier this year that it would retaliate. Even within the Pakistani military establishment, there is some recognition that jihadists have harmed the Kashmiri cause by allowing India to divert attention from a largely indigenous struggle for human rights there to cross-border terrorism.

But militant groups could act by themselves, and any attack that New Delhi links to a Pakistani extremist group is likely to provoke a reprisal. In February India bombed Pakistan after a Pakistan-based group claimed responsibility for a bombing in Kashmir even though the bomber himself was a local Kashmiri man.

In October, an international body will meet to decide whether to put Pakistan on an international blacklist alongside Iran and North Korea for failing to control terror financing and money laundering. Such a designation would devastate Pakistan’s struggling economy by cutting it off from the global financial system. Pakistan also risks losing the $6 billion economic rescue package the country accepted in May from the International Monetary Fund.

Pakistan faces other perils in shutting down the extremist groups. Frustrated anti-India extremists might gravitate toward transnational jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State that are already embracing the Kashmir cause.

“Kashmir is being handed over by India to Daesh,” said a person closely associated with a Pakistani militant group, using the Arabic name for Islamic State. “The youth are now not looking to the Pakistani militant groups. They are looking to al Qaeda and Daesh.”

So far, al Qaeda and Islamic State are fringe elements in Kashmir. But some militants in Kashmir are being buried wrapped in the flag of Islamic State, the person said. A local franchise of al Qaeda called Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind is active in the Indian part of Kashmir, where in May this year Indian forces killed its leader, a militant known as Zakir Musa.

Both those groups vehemently oppose Pakistan’s government. In July, in a video message called “Don’t forget Kashmir,” al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri issued a recruitment call, saying that the youth of Kashmir were trapped between “Hindu brutality” and Pakistani “treachery.”

Shehryar Fazli, an analyst based in Islamabad, said that Pakistan will likely hope that the cooperation it is providing the U.S. for the Afghanistan peace process will convince Washington to hold off on pushing the financial blacklisting.