One month has passed since fighting broke out between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Despite reassurances from both governments that the fighting will be contained, the conflict has intensified. The risk of escalation is ever-present, but neither government seems to take the danger seriously. Instead, posturing is taking pride of place over peacemaking. It is a dangerous gambit.
Many questions hang over the fighting. The remoteness of the battlefield has made it impossible to obtain independent confirmation of many of the claims made by the two governments. Originally, India said that the infiltrators were Afghan guerrillas supported by the Pakistani government; now it asserts that they are mostly Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan in turn says that it has no relationship with the Mujahedeen soldiers who are fighting a jihad (holy war) to secure Kashmir’s independence from India. The number of casualties is disputed, as is the location of the fighting. That last piece of information is vital: New Delhi said that the two Indian Air Force planes that were shot down were in Indian airspace, a charge Pakistan disputes. If it is true, Pakistan has seriously escalated the fighting.
In a moment of honesty, Pakistan’s prime minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, reportedly warned last weekend that “events could slip out of control.” Unfortunately, there seems to be little stomach for the measures such realism would promote: The government in Islamabad promptly denied that Mr. Sharif ever said any such thing.
That refusal to accept the obvious has been matched in New Delhi. Indian officials have turned down Pakistan’s invitation to peace talks, saying that the timing was not convenient. In addition, India has demanded that negotiations have a definite, specific purpose: ending the intrusion. Wide-ranging talks over the disputed territory are a nonstarter. If Pakistan had hoped to use the infiltrations as a way of putting Kashmir on the negotiating table, it has failed.
The price of the failure may prove larger than anyone had anticipated. There is the risk that the conflict could escalate and trigger another war — the fourth between the two neighbors, the third over Kashmir. Both governments deny that war is possible, but the fact that fighting has continued for a month, with neither side backing down or making progress, belies the ability of either capital to see the future with any accuracy.
Politicians also downplay the possibility that a war could go nuclear. Most experts claim that neither country is in a position to deliver a nuclear weapon against an enemy. Those reservations are also worth taking with a grain of salt: Many of the same experts claimed that nuclear arsenals could stabilize the subcontinent’s troubled relations.
Indeed, just at the time when confidence-building measures are needed most, the incursion has poisoned diplomacy between India and Pakistan. It is clear, in retrospect, that the infiltration was being planned when Mr. Sharif and his Indian counterpart, Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were shaking hands and heralding a new era in relations between the two countries. The incursion is not only a slap in the face to the Indian prime minister, but it also strengthens the hand of hardliners who claim that Pakistan cannot be trusted. The Indian military has also been caught off guard by the infiltration — the guerrillas penetrated kilometers into Indian territory before they were detected. In these circumstances, any willingness to talk or negotiate looks like weakness on the part of New Delhi. In the current supercharged atmosphere of Indian politics — there will be national elections later in the fall — nothing could be more dangerous.
It will take years to undo the damage that has been done by this incursion. The recriminations will be bitter, and no ambitious politician in India will risk being “taken advantage of” by Islamabad for some time. Pakistan’s hopes to “internationalize” the Kashmir dispute are likely to be stymied. Instead, India will send more troops into the region and step up the fighting in hopes of forcing the insurgents to withdraw in a brutal, slow campaign. Pakistan will be unable to do much without openly declaring its role, which would alter public perceptions of the conflict by largely substantiating India’s claims. Thus, the stalemate continues, even as the risk of miscalculation increases.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.