Only three weeks after drawing back from the brink of war, India and Pakistan have clashed again. This time, the setting is disputed marshland near the Arabian Sea. On Tuesday, India shot down one of Pakistan’s marine reconnaissance planes, killing all 16 people aboard. Pakistan responded the next day by firing a missile at Indian helicopters inspecting the wreckage. Although neither country wants, or can afford, a war, events could easily slip out of control.
Kashmir has been the site of three wars between India and Pakistan, but it is not the only flash point. The Arabian Sea is perhaps even more flammable. The Rann of Kutch, where the clashes have occurred, is only 100 km. from Karachi, Pakistan’s only port and its main commercial center. Most of the country’s food and oil imports go through the city, making it an extraordinarily valuable target. If the port were blockaded, it is estimated that Pakistan would not have enough food and fuel to last two weeks. On the Indian side of the marsh is one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world.
India claims the Pakistani plane was 10 km inside its territory when it was challenged by one of its fighters. When it turned in a “threatening” manner, it was brought down by a missile. Pakistan says the plane was in its air space; both sides have parts of wreckage to back up their claims. After “reserving the right to make an appropriate response,” Pakistan flexed its military muscle a day later; fortunately no one was hurt.
This week’s clash is a product of the aborted Kashmir incursion. India’s tolerance has been cut to zero; the margin for error has been eliminated and the risks of miscalculation have increased in turn. As a U.S. official noted, relations between the two countries are going in the wrong direction.
Military tension in the region serves no purpose. It diverts resources that are desperately needed by the two countries’ impoverished citizens. It provides the military with disproportionate influence in two democratic countries. And it gives nationalists a ready opportunity whenever they want to stir up trouble. As the nuclear shadow lengthens, there are few signs that politicians are ready to move things in the right direction.
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