The low-level tensions that are a feature of India-Pakistan relations exploded last month after Kashmiri extremists launched a terrorist attack in India and New Delhi followed with the inevitable acts of retaliation. A shrewd move by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan may have defused the crisis, but that de-escalation will only prove to be temporary as long as the larger issue — the disputed status of Kashmir — persists. This is an unacceptable state of affairs for two nuclear-armed states that neighbor each other.
New Delhi and Islamabad have fought over Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that is part of India but claimed by Pakistan, since the two states won their independence in 1947. The two countries have gone to war three times over the territory. When their militaries are not engaged in hostilities, a low-level conflict takes place, marked by terrorist attacks or the exchange of mortar fire across the Line of Control, the 900 km unofficial border that separates India and Pakistan. It is estimated that nearly 90 civilians were killed in the two countries in cross-border fire last year alone. New Delhi — and many other countries — charges Islamabad with supporting Kashmiri separatists as a way of waging war “by other means” and maintaining plausible deniability. The Pakistani government denies the accusation.
The risk of war rose considerably last month after Kashmiri separatists attacked an Indian convoy that was transporting security officers. A suicide bomber from Jaish-e-Mohammad (the Army of Mohammad), a militant group that seeks to unite Kashmir with Pakistan, rammed a bomb-laden vehicle into a bus in the convoy, killing 40 people in the worst insurgent attack in over 30 years.
India responded with airstrikes, the first since 1971, targeting what New Delhi claimed was a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. India claimed to have “eliminated” a “large number” of militants, and said that the attacks were based on “credible intelligence” that Jaish-e-Mohammad was planning more attacks. Pakistan, which denies that the group operates out of its territory, countered that the Indian planes merely released bombs “in haste while escaping” and caused no casualties nor did any damage.
Pakistan then responded with airstrikes of its own, which resulted in a dogfight between the two air forces and the downing of an Indian jet — the number is disputed; Pakistan claims two were shot down — and the capture of its pilot. Khan then announced that Pakistan would release him as a “peace gesture.” Low-level skirmishing continues, however, as the two sides exchange mortar fire. So far, at least eight people have been killed and more than a dozen injured.
While neither side wants war, the risk of conflict is real and India’s resort to airstrikes in retaliation for terrorist attacks is a serious escalation in tactics. Some fear this will become the new normal for Indian responses. Worries are compounded by the fact that India will hold a general election by May, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a fervent nationalist, cannot afford to appear weak going into the ballot. He warned last month that “This is a new India … an India that will return the damage done by terrorists — with interest.”
Left unsaid throughout all this posturing is the nuclear shadow that darkens any possible conflict between the two countries. The two governments are confident that they can control any crisis, but their proximity, the potential vulnerability of nuclear forces and the opacity of their nuclear doctrines heightens fears that an extended confrontation could become nuclear.
Japan has joined other governments in expressing concern about the deteriorating situation in Kashmir and urged both governments to exercise restraint and stabilize the situation through dialogue. Foreign Minister Taro Kono voiced the government’s condemnation of the Feb. 14 terrorist attack and urged Pakistan to take stronger measures to counter terrorism.
While terrorism must always be condemned and nuclear-armed states must always be encouraged to go ever further in their efforts to resolve disputes peacefully, tactical concerns also weigh on Japan’s response. Tokyo is torn between its burgeoning relationship with India and the worry that China is extending its influence in Pakistan. China is said to be spending $55 billion on development projects in the country and strategists are closely watching China’s development of Gwadar port, an integral piece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and a potentially vital location in the Sea of Arabia.
All these factors make resolution of the long-standing conflict between India and Pakistan more important — and more unlikely. Decision-makers in both capitals must remain acutely aware of the potential consequences of miscalculation — and their friends, allies and partners must continually reinforce the message that their disputes must be resolved peacefully.