Pakistani troops exchanged small-arms and mortar fire with Afghan forces along their shared border on Sunday, raising regional tensions in a month that has already seen India and Pakistan fire artillery across the line of control in Kashmir. Regional experts worry that the subcontinental nuclear powers are edging closer to war.
Decades-old tensions over the disputed Kashmir region flared in February after a car bomb killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops in the region. India responded by sending warplanes into Pakistan to strike what it called a terrorist training camp. The following day, Pakistan shot down an Indian fighter jet, and the day after that, the two countries exchanged artillery fire across their border.
Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said earlier this month that the air strike on Pakistani territory “frankly marked an escalation of India’s responses. It signaled that they would not be responding anymore to terrorist attacks with restraint.”
The probability that India and Pakistan might escalate to war “has increased significantly,” though it is not yet likely, Smith at an Oct. 4 Hudson Institute event.
One country that might have stepped in to persuade India to calm down — the United States — was handicapped by its habit of conducting surgical strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere in the name of counterterrorism.
“I don’t know what grounds the U.S. has to say to India, ‘on’t do that,’” Smith said. “Everyone knows how the U.S. would respond if it were happening to us from one of our neighbors.”
The artillery exchange took place a few weeks after Pakistan strengthened its forces along its de facto border with India in Kashmir. “We have beefed up our presence along the line of control and also in Pakistan, because the armed forces are ready, and, in fact, the people of Azad Kashmir and Pakistan are ready,” Sardar Masood Khan, president of the Pakistan-administered region of Kashmir, told reporters in September at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C.“If there is a misadventure by India they would retaliate and defend their territory, under all circumstances,” he said.
Pakistan officials have long maintained that the situation in Kashmir will hurt the government’s ability to crack down on the Afghanistan border. It’s hard to say how the escalating tensions on both sides of the border affect one another, but likely not in a stabilizing way.
But some Pakistanis are skeptical of how their government is framing the issue to Western audiences. “This kind of posturing, this statement, is aimed at scaring the U.S,” said Shuja Nawaz, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Pakistani television broadcaster, said of Khan. “I think it’s misplaced,” Nawaz said at the Hudson event. …“This is really appealing to public sentiment [in Washington] that maybe Pakistan will be forced to not doing enough on the Afghan border if the situation persists. [The rhetoric] can only go so far.”
Another key factor exacerbating tensions is the Aug. 5 decision by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to unilaterally revoke the special semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir and to drastically cut the ability of its majority-Muslim population to communicate with the wider world. (India partially lifted the telecommunications blockade in October, though inhabitants still can’t use Internet or prepaid phone cards.) Western journalists have described the situation as a lockdown and say it is hurting the local economy. Robert Destro, assistant U.S. Secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, has called the humanitarian situation in Kashmir a “disaster.”
Democratic lawmakers have criticized India for the blockade. Last week, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, said the move an “attack on human rights.”
When a government prevents communities from communicating with the outside world, it is an attack on human rights.— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) October 23, 2019
The communications blackout in Kashmir is unjust and goes against democratic values. pic.twitter.com/hLFXqqnjZa
Said Nawaz: “The Indian government has trashed all the historical context of the Kashmir discussion…and it has now essentially solidified the boundaries including the change from the line of control to a kind of international boundary.”
But Smith said Pakistan President Imran Khan has also fed the tensions because it benefits him politically. “He’s lied about the situation to inflame rhetoric and violence because that serves Islamabad’s political agenda,” Smith said. Khan believes that “It helps us if there’s violence in Kashmir because it shows how bad the Indians are.”
Even if the situation does not descend into broader conflict, it’s unlikely to get better any time soon, either on Pakistan’s border with Kashmir or its border with Afghanistan, in Smith’s view. The fundamental issue is the Pakistani government’s acquiescence to terror groups. “There has, periodically, been cosmetic action against these groups, and it’s kind of gone up and down, but if you look at actual assessments…there has yet to be a fundamental mindshift [in the Pakistani government] to abandon these groups. Until that happens, I think peace will remain elusive in Afghanistan. Peace will remain elusive in Kashmir.”
This week brought Kashmir a pair of terrorist grenade attacks that have injured 23 people — and a visit from nearly 30 mostly-hard-right-wing European parliamentarians, the first foreign delegation to visit since the partial lifting of the telecom ban.