Analysis | A Cocktail for Catastrophe: India and Pakistan Clash over Kashmir
New Delhi — Over the course of their post-partition history, India and Pakistan have been involved in four large-scale wars and innumerable skirmishes, standoffs, and confrontations. What sets apart these past conflicts from the current tensions on the subcontinent is the culmination of insurgency in the region, the role that partisan social media can have on shaping public opinion and generating fake news, and the surprising lack of Western appetite for intervening in a volatile situation between multiple nuclear powers.
Despite the major conflicts that have existed between the two neighbors, the one constant rule has been the sanctity of the de facto borders in the contested territory of Kashmir. This volatile issue has led to both the nations operating while keeping in mind the existence of a Line of Control (LOC) that separates Pakistani administrated and Indian administrated Kashmir from each other. Such an understanding has ensured that both nations, while heavily active on the border, dare not violate it whatsoever, to the extent that individuals manning the border crossings in the region usually maintain cordial relations.
However, both sides view such cordiality as being violated by allegations of support for insurgencies in both countries. Over the years, Pakistan has claimed with increasing frequency that India supports break-away activities in Baluchistan, and India has claimed that Pakistan continues to sponsor and support a number of militant terrorist groups that commit attacks in India, especially in the Kashmir region. In the past, grievances between the two nations as a result of terrorist activities have either seen diplomatic activity, increased rhetoric, or, at the most, sporadic cross-border firing that is often quickly restrained. However, India and Pakistan’s de facto policy on the Kashmir region has changed dramatically over the last few years, perhaps irrevocably, as a result of insurgent activities.
The most significant terrorist attack in the history of the relations of these two countries was the 26/11 attack in Mumbai that lasted for three days, striking the historic city’s key monuments, and that even saw the city’s storied Taj Mahal Palace Hotel partially go up in flames. As a result of this unprecedented attack in India’s commercial capital, from a Pakistani based militant group, there was an immediate breakdown and drastic escalation in tensions between the two countries. More significantly, this attack resulted in the first mention of a possible shift in Indian policy to favor striking terror camps in Pakistan — an option that was publicly brought up by then President of India, Pranab Mukherjee. As a result of the attack, and the debate over a policy shift in the future, the Indian government began a thorough investigation of developing the capacity for cross border strikes. In 2016, an attack by Pakistani-based militants on an Indian Army brigade at Uri, in Indian Kashmir, gave New Delhi the opportunity to test it for the first time.
At the time, the Uri attack led to a record number of casualties for security forces in Kashmir in two decades, and marked the first major test for the Modi government that came to power in 2014. In retaliation for the attack, the Modi government executed a number of cross-border raids, using ground troops to assault a terrorist camp close to the Line of Control. This incident marked a change in Indian policy, and laid the precedent for pre-emptive strikes against militant bases that were judged as imminent threats.
The significance of this change in policy is that India decided to use the example set by previous such American attacks, in particular Operation Neptune Spear to execute Osama Bin Laden, as justification for India’s own national security concerns. This strategy also seems tailored to counter what some Indian policymakers view as Pakistan’s ‘Bleed India with a Thousand Cuts’ strategy, which is credited to Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the sixth President of Pakistan.
The Thousand Cuts strategy made its first major impact back in the late 1970s with regards to unrest in the Indian province of Punjab, when Pakistani support was provided to separatists, in the form of weapons and money. This strategy is alleged to have continued in future iterations as well, with India claiming that Pakistan continues to partially fund militant groups like the Lashkar E Taiba, which conducted the 26/11 attacks, and the Jaish E Mohammed, which carried out the 2019 Pulwama attack that has started the latest round of tensions. The surgical strike policy is hence seen as the Modi government’s attempt to change the equation by introducing an added risk for any groups that New Delhi perceives as arming proxies to carry out strikes against India. In the process, India shortened the fuse of political tension between Islamabad and New Delhi. The risk of open conflict over Kashmir is at its highest in decades. What began as a suicide attack by an armed militant group on an Indian convoy has now devolved into a state of increased military mobilization on both sides, on a scale not seen in the region since the two neighbors acquired nuclear weapons.
India’s response by launching air strikes through precision bombings of terrorist launch pads in the Pulwama attack — if as extensive as claimed by the Indian government — is significant in a number of ways. It marks the first time that the air force of either nation has violated the airspace of the other since the war of 1971. It also pushed the boundaries of military engagement established by the 2016 strike by employing the Indian air force. Furthermore, unlike the 2016 reprisals, which took place within a ten minute drive across the Line of Control in Pakistani-administrated Kashmir, these strikes extended deep into Pakistani Kashmir and throughout non-Kashmiri regions of Pakistan — a response without modern precedent.
The Indian government claims the strikes were aimed at non-military and non-state targets, perhaps as a way of politically de-escalating the situation and dissuading Pakistani retaliation. Nevertheless, the aerial combat that took place on Wednesday points to no such cooling in tensions. Actions taken by both sides, including the establishment of a no-fly zone over the entirety of Pakistan, and Northern India, increased army deployments by both sides to the region, and even increased naval movement, have only served to further fray nerves and reduce the opportunity for a peaceful resolution. Military actions are not the only contributing factors to these tensions. Constant media coverage of the events, paired with the influence of the upcoming general election in India and international efforts at peace brokering — or the lack thereof — will hold significant sway over the shape of events in the coming weeks and months.
These events have also shed light on the impact that fake news and polarized media outlets can have on modernized conflict. With both governments unwilling to participate in head-of-state press conferences to present the facts, in order to preserve defense intelligence and posturing information, social media and traditional media channels have fallen victim in the past weeks to reporting fake news numerous times. Footage from prior accidents involving Indian and Pakistani aircraft spread like wildfire across social media as evidence of further combat. In a desperate rush to provide new coverage, even traditional media channels across the spectrum in both countries have been duped into using these in their coverage. Furthermore, with an increasingly polarized polity in both countries, the media on both sides of the LOC has become reluctant to reach out to sources across the border. The lack of international coverage and unbiased investigative journalism on the conflict has also removed the role that esteemed international organizations can play by providing a neutral perspective with verifiably-sourced information.
Domestic politics in both nations have also come into play. With an election in April and May in India, Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party sees the conflict as a potential rallying point. The urge to be aggressive is quite powerful given the party’s flagging poll numbers and lackluster domestic approval due to a number of failed domestic initiatives. This is much more the case than perhaps usual for a President in Modi’s position, as his right wing government draws on a party base that takes a much more aggressive view of Pakistan and is quick to advocate for military solutions.
In Pakistan, there is always a tenuous balance between the civilian government, the military, and the intelligence apparatus in the state. Having come to power in August 2018 as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, on the backs of an election that was widely seen as having been influenced to some extent by other players in the country, Imran Khan needs to be more mindful of the potential domestic impact his actions can have. As a result, neither side can really afford to be the one to first back down in a substantial manner, and so ultimately a coordinated backing down is the only potential way that tensions can be defused. However, for this to occur, a strong and unbiased international actor is needed.
Unfortunately, no major international power seems willing to intervene. In past conflicts between India and Pakistan, either talks were convened at the United Nations to bring diplomatic focus on such issues, or an external power actively engaged with each nation separately to negotiate a withdrawal of forces and de-escalation. However, in this case, such actions do not appear likely to materialize from traditional major powers. The lack of American leadership in the region regarding this issue, a focus on domestic issues, as well as its much hyped discussions with North Korea, suggests that the Trump Administration may not be the player that would jump into the fray in a manner that past American Administrations have. Actions by China would not be feasible due to pre-existing parallel tensions between India and China, which explains China’s neutral calls for regional peace. While the Russian Federation could potentially serve as a neutral broker to pursue a dialogue, Russia’s attention on the conflict in Syria and the Ukrainian crisis makes one wonder if President Putin would be willing or able to delve into yet another sensitive discussion.
As a result, neither side’s political leadership truly has the political motivation or means to back down first. The sheer number of structural factors (media coverage, social media, and internal politics) will do more to continue focusing domestic attention on this disturbance, preventing either side from standing down. The only likely avenues are external engagement and neutral international coverage, which could create the factors needed to de-escalate the situation by increasing international pressure, and calming domestic tensions by providing an alternate to the incendiary media coverage domestically in the two countries. Only time will tell if such actions are likely to come about at this stage, or if only increased military confrontations between the two sides will bring greater international attention to this tenuous conflict involving more than a billion people in a volatile and nuclear setting.
Untitled, by Kashmir Global, Flickr
All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.