India and Pakistan Pull Back From the Brink in Kashmir, For Now
AP Photo/Prabhjot Gill
India and Pakistan Pull Back From the Brink in Kashmir, For Now
AP Photo/Prabhjot Gill
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  • While Islamabad’s release of a captured Indian pilot has tentatively de-escalated the archrivals’ latest conflict in Kashmir, tensions between India and Pakistan remain at their highest point in decades.
  • Facing a tough election due by May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take a stronger stance against Pakistan to secure additional support, risking another escalation in the short term.
  • But as long as Pakistani support for Kashmir militants endures as part of Islamabad's long-running asymmetric warfare campaign, future and potentially larger-scale attacks between two nuclear-armed neighbors are inevitable.

For the first time in nearly five decades, India and Pakistan took their rivalry to the skies. On Feb. 26, Indian warplanes entered Pakistan's airspace and bombed what New Delhi claims was a training camp belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the Pakistani militant group responsible for a Feb. 14 suicide attack against a paramilitary convoy in Indian-administered Kashmir. The following day, Pakistan retaliated by launching airstrikes back across the Line of Control, which separates the disputed region between the two countries. Both sides claimed to have shot down enemy aircraft, contradicting each other's accounts in the process. Amid the turmoil, the Pakistani military captured an Indian pilot. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered the pilot's release on March 1.

While the two countries continue to dispute the veracity of each other’s claims, the pilot's return will enable Pakistan and India to re-channel their aggression from a more dangerous phase involving airstrikes to a more manageable phase involving diplomatic wrangling and artillery fire across the Line of Control. Nonetheless, the latest episode between the nuclear powers indicates that India is using bolder tactics against Pakistan's continued support of Kashmiri militants, meaning the next round of retaliations between the South Asian rivals will almost surely be more dangerous than the last.

Where It All Began

India and Pakistan's dispute over Kashmir has long been at the heart of their rivalry, dating back to when each country gained independence in 1947. The United Kingdom divided what had been colonial India into what is now India and Pakistan. However, as a semi-sovereign princely state, Kashmir remained an undecided territory between the two. 

For Muslim-majority Pakistan, it seemed natural that Muslim-majority Kashmir would belong under its control. Islamabad also worried that surrendering Kashmir to New Delhi would give its stronger neighbor undue influence over key waterways. India, on the other hand, refused to cede even more territory to its new neighbor, and feared that a Kashmiri secession would breathe life into other autonomous movements as well — and thereby claimed Kashmir's rightful home was under the Indian flag.

And so, Pakistan sought to conquer the disputed state by force — beginning the first of many Indo-Pakistani wars over the territory. Following the second Indo-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir in 1965, the two sides engaged in another costly war over the fate of East Pakistan in 1971, now Bangladesh, which included the last use of airstrikes into Pakistani territory since India's most recent incursion in Kashmir.

Kashmir's Current Status

Kashmir is currently split into seven regions, administered by three different countries: Pakistan, which governs the Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir divisions; India, which governs the Jammu, Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley divisions; and China, which governs the Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract divisions. And while India claims all seven regions (including China's), Pakistan only claims India’s regions along with its own.

In 1989, the question of Indian-administered Kashmir’s autonomy eventually morphed into a full-blown insurgency against Indian rule in the region — creating an opportunity for Pakistan to aid various militant groups against India over the decades, including JeM (the perpetrators of the Feb. 14 attack).

Meanwhile, Pakistan says it supports Kashmir’s right to self-determination — pointing to New Delhi’s human rights violations from its military’s heavy-handed presence and coercive tactics in India's Kashmir Valley division (the locus of militancy). In mediating the dispute, Islamabad has insisted on involving the United Nations and the international community. But for fear of such human rights violations, India has shunned U.N. involvement and has worked to keep Kashmir as a bilateral issue, framed in terms of cross-border terrorism.

While tensions over the territory between the countries are always simmering, two events in 2016 brought them closer to a boil. In July, the death of Burhan Wani, a commander of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, triggered months of protests in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that resulted in more than 120 deaths. Two months later, militants attacked an army base near the town of Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, killing 17 soldiers and provoking an Indian retaliation against militant launch pads across the Line of Control. But despite all their altercations in Kashmir over the past decades, India and Pakistan had never resorted to airstrikes in Kashmir — that is, until now.

The Devil in the Details

India and Pakistan dispute the key details of their latest exchange. Indian politician and current president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, claims New Delhi’s airstrikes killed 250 militants. However, the Indian government — which initially stated the strike was a "non-military preemptive action" — has refused to offer an official casualty count. This disconnect seemingly bolsters Pakistan’s assertion that New Delhi's strike achieved little more than flattening a few trees in the town surrounding the training camp.

In response to India's strike, Pakistan said it launched airstrikes the next day — targeting six non-military installations across the Line of Control to prove its capabilities, and bringing down the Indian pilot in the process. New Delhi was quick to claim Islamabad used U.S.-made fighter jets in the raid, citing a recovered piece of missile fitted for an F-16 as proof. However, Pakistan vehemently denies the use of such aircraft for fear of retaliation from Washington, which sold F-16 jets to Islamabad to use against militancy operations, not against India.

Regardless of who's right, the fact the Indian airstrike occurred in an undisputed territory outside of Pakistan-administered Kashmir not only demonstrates India's ability, but its willingness, to breach Pakistan’s air defenses.

Playing With Fire 

In the short term, whether New Delhi ups the ante again against Pakistan will depend largely on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's re-election campaign. Modi and the BJP face a tough election due by May, amid India's economic travails and lackluster job creation, as well as growing angst among the country's farmers. To shore up more support ahead of time, Modi will use the latest episode in Kashmir to position himself as a strong and decisive leader, best capable of defending the nation against Pakistan. In justifying these tactics, he will paint anyone who accuses him of politicizing the issue for electoral gain as abetting Pakistan — thereby putting the nearly two dozen opposition parties running against the BJP in the upcoming election on the defensive.

And indeed, Modi has already begun to incorporate these themes on the campaign trail, as evidenced by his recent speeches at rallies in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — two of India's most populous states, and key battlegrounds for the BJP’s quest to achieve another parliamentary majority in the next vote.

But even if Modi's strong-willed words don’t spark another escalation in the coming months, India and Pakistan's history, along with Islamabad's continued support of Kashmiri militants, make the next crisis in the disputed territory all but certain — with India striking back, prompting Pakistan to again respond in kind. And depending on the size of India's next retaliation, the two rivals could very well move toward a sharper confrontation that tests the limits of their aversion to another war.

Reprinted with permission from Stratfor Worldview.