The dispute over Kashmir has sparked two wars between India and Pakistan and countless smaller incidents. Currently, the countries are engaged in their worst clash over the territory in years. This time, however, there is a big difference: The two are nuclear powers. If the conflict spirals out of control, the price would be enormous. Both sides dismiss the possibility, but the fact that fighting continues is proof that strategists on both sides of the line of control do not have all the answers.
India has launched two waves of airstrikes against 600 “infiltrators,” allegedly Afghan guerrillas supported by Pakistan. This is the first time that fighter planes and helicopter gunships have been used over Kashmir in peacetime. New Delhi claims to have killed 160 of the invaders and lost 17 Indian soldiers. Pakistan denies any connection with the fighting, although it claims that India has dropped bombs on its territory, a charge India denies. (There is no independent confirmation of the reports as the region is closed to journalists.)
Exactly one year ago, India and Pakistan conducted tit-for-tat nuclear tests. Seemingly sobered, the two governments then tried to improve diplomatic relations with a couple of high-profile meetings. The new bout of fighting suggests that the limits of feel-good diplomacy have been reached. Officials are similarly disinclined to notice the limits of their military policies. Force of arms will not solve the Kashmir problem.
Neither side wants this conflict to escalate, but both governments are under serious domestic strain. India is preparing for a general election, and nationalist forces are in the ascendant. In Islamabad, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is under attack for corruption and for failing to control violence. In both capitals, a foreign distraction might seem welcome. It is a dangerous gambit.
An immediate ceasefire is needed. Mutual testing of the two countries’ political intentions and military strength must stop. Serious diplomacy should take precedence over photo opportunities. The courage to end 50 years of senseless violence might even pay domestic political dividends. It is the one policy that seemingly has not been tried.
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