The Kashmir Problem: Why India & Pakistan May Go To War & Why It Matters

By Aalok Joshi 


For as long as the nations of India and Pakistan have existed, the region of Kashmir has been the flashpoint of their ongoing international conflict. Both nuclear powers have claimed to be the sole legitimate government of Kashmir and both countries claim Jammu & Kashmir, the full name of the region, to be an integral part of their territory. These nations have fought several wars since 1947 over control of the region, and to this day a final border or solution has not been found. Instead, the balance of the region hangs at the LOC or Line of Control – the de facto border between the two neighbors. Skirmishes between the Pakistani and Indian forces are common and both countries invest large portions of their military budgets in maintaining a large presence in Kashmir and the Siachen glacier.

However, recent events have changed the seemingly never ending deadlock in Kashmir. On September 18th, 2016, four armed terrorists conducted a pre-dawn ambush on an Indian military camp in the border town of Uri. This attack killed 18 Indian soldiers and instantly escalated the situation in Kashmir which has been the center of unrest and killings of protesters since the beginning of this summer.

The Indian response so far has been mixed. Leaders from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have called for a declaration of war and swift justice. The BJP’s Secretary General Ram Madhav posted on Facebook, “For one tooth, the complete jaw”, while Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister tweeted, “Pakistan is a terrorist state and should be identified and isolated as such”. However, to the shock of Indians and Pakistanis alike, India’s firebrand Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has not made any such rash statements. Instead, he has shifted the focus back to development saying, “I want to tell the people of Pakistan, India is ready to fight you. If you have the strength, come forward to fight against poverty. Let’s see who wins. Let’s see who is able to defeat poverty and illiteracy first, Pakistan or India”. Though such rhetoric is a reprieve from war mongering on both sides at best and innocuous at worst, Modi is hinting at certain actions which could have severe consequences for Pakistan. Shortly after the attack, Modi claimed, “Blood and Water cannot flow simultaneously”, referring to the highly contested and vital Indus Water Treaty. This 56 year old agreement allows for water sharing between Pakistan and India as most of Pakistan’s rivers flow through India first. Modi and other BJP leaders have hinted at scrapping the deal altogether as a measure to place sanctions on Pakistan. Voiding the pact would mean that India would resume dam building activities on portions of the Indus and Jhelum rivers, thus crippling Pakistan’s agricultural hub of Punjab. This escalation of water war would no doubt result in the hoarding of water on both sides. Such a move would be extreme and would only heighten tensions between the giants, however, the political climate in India is very conducive to such a move.

The Pakistani response has been less focused on the attack and more focused on the civil unrest in Indian administered Kashmir. Since the killing of Kashmiri militant leader, Burhan Wahi, by the Indian military, the region has witnessed constant civil unrest which has led to the imposition of a week’s long curfew and the death of more than 85 civilians. Leaders of the majority Muslim League party in Pakistan, such as Rohail Dar, have said, “Pakistan is not supporting terrorism, it is rather a victim.” Pakistani political commentators, such as Mosharraf Zaidi, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, have both denied Pakistan’s involvement in the Uri attack . Meanwhile, Sartaj Aziz, one of PM Sharif’s closest foreign policy advisors, has made it clear that Pakistan will take India to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) if it violates the Indus River Treaty. Pakistan is justified in its plan of escalation to the ICJ because it’s mainly agricultural economy would be decimated by a chokehold on a vital input like water. Additionally, Pakistan has mobilized its military and reports of F-16s buzzing throughout the night over Islamabad have made leaders on both sides of the Line of Control even more worried.

Why It Matters…

India and Pakistan have the third and sixth largest standing militaries. Both countries have at least 100 nuclear warheads and the large populations of both nations’ means that any war between them would directly affect 1.5 billion people. The majority of these people coexist peacefully, do not live in Kashmir, and have very little to do directly with this conflict. However, because of a rising tide of Hindu and Muslim nationalism, desperation for control over resources, and underlying socioeconomic consequences, Pew data shows that many people on the subcontinent are ready for war – even nuclear war.

The Kashmir situation has not developed in a vacuum. Major world powers have been positioning themselves for a conflict like this, and since the attack in Uri states like the U.S., China, Russia, and Israel have amplified their rhetoric and action. The recent developments in Kashmir have made Russia’s position in the subcontinent even more complex than it has been. India and Russia have been longtime allies since the Cold War and Russia has been India’s largest military supplier and one of its largest trade partners. However, India’s recent shift toward the United States – seen through Obama’s multiple state visits to India and Modi becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, has been alarming to Russia. Since then, Russia has agreed to begin selling military equipment, like helicopters and jets, to Pakistan. Additionally, as a part of Putin’s realpolitik strategy, Russia has agreed to construct a major natural gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. On September 23rd, just five days after the Uri attack, Pakistan and Russia conducted their first joint military drill. In the U.S. the shift from Pakistan to India has been marked not only by increased diplomatic and international cooperation between the two democracies, but also by new legislation in the U.S. Congress which would designate Pakistan as a terrorist state and cut off military aid.

As Russia and the U.S. reverse roles with their longtime allies, others like China and Israel remain entrenched in support of their subcontinental horse. China is currently pursuing its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $45 billion project which would give the Chinese direct access to the Arabian Sea. As recently as late September, Beijing has kept its neutral stance on the Kashmir issue, however, due to the strained Indo-Chinese dynamic over economic policies, border disputes, and disagreement on India’s bid for a permanent Security Council seat, it’s safe to say China would like to keep its trump card, Pakistan, close. Following the Uri attack, another nation, Israel, has also made its stance on the Kashmir issue clear. Israeli ambassador to India, David Carmon, suggested after the attack that India adopt a grid based, technology focused plan to secure its border. Israel has since offered its support in developing a system with India that would mimic Israel’s own tight borders.

The Bottom Line….

With Pakistani PM Sharif’s hour long tirade against India at the UN General Assembly  and India pulling out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit on September 28th, it seems that a quick de-escalation of this conflict is unlikely, however, total war can and should still be avoided. If tensions do rise and one nation declares war on the other – this time it wouldn’t just be the two neighbors squabbling, it could involve other powers like Israel, Russia, China, and the United States in a war which would have globally catastrophic consequences.

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