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When asked about Kashmir during her recent visit to India, British Prime Minister Theresa May avoided the pitfalls of the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who offered to ‘mediate’ in the dispute between India and Pakistan; instead, she reaffirmed the safe diplomatic position that India and Pakistan must resolve their dispute through bilateral dialogue, without the involvement of other governments.
This approach, followed by almost every other government, has not succeeded in addressing the fundamental causes of the violence, and the current spike in tensions indicates that there is not much scope for an India–Pakistan conflict resolution effort.
So, as so often happened in the past, pressure applied by international actors will be crucial in limiting further deterioration of relations between the two nuclear powers.
On 29 September, India’s Director General of Military Operations announced that Indian special forces had conducted ‘surgical strikes’ along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, the de facto border, claiming to have targeted militant ‘launch pads’ which were allegedly used as final stopovers for attackers prior to infiltration into India.
This came days after a major militant attack on an Indian army brigade headquarters in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed. Pakistan has rejected India’s claims, asserting that no such strike occurred inside its territory, and accused India instead of having initiated a cross-border firing incident which allegedly resulted in the death of two Pakistani soldiers.
Pakistan’s denial that an Indian incursion on its territory has taken place was made easier by India’s refusal to provide further official details about what its military was supposed to have done inside Pakistan.
However, based on past precedent, the Indian claim to have performed such a surgical strike is credible, as cross-border operations were not rare before the 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two countries, and they appear to have resumed over the last few years. Indeed, the fact that Pakistan captured an Indian soldier around the time when the Indians claim to have performed their incursion seems to indicate that Indian forces did in fact enter Pakistani territory.
India’s claim to have conducted the incursion finds its strongest support in what may be perceived as Pakistan’s response—the military escalation along the India–Pakistan international border and the LoC. Since the attack in Uri on 18 September, and particularly since the purported Indian strike, there has been a sharp increase in the number of ceasefire violations, with both sides accusing each other of initiating exchanges and targeting civilians. In addition, prospects for a meaningful bilateral de-escalation dialogue seem increasingly bleak. Allegations of espionage and the expulsion of diplomatic officers from the high commissions of both countries have compounded the hostility.
International pressure has served to de-escalate tensions and facilitate diplomatic engagement in the past, with US involvement vital to the resolution of the 1999 Kargil war and the major arms build-up which followed it.
It is also worth recalling that the previous instance of a dangerous escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan – due to accusations of spying – came soon after the US reduced its involvement in the region as Washington became preoccupied with preparations for its Iraq War.
Today, both India and Pakistan have a significant amount to lose by ignoring pressure from international actors, provided these international actors carry heft.
China’s growing profile in the region is of increasing importance, as it holds leverage over both countries: for India, China is the key to the continued flow of the Brahmaputra River; for Pakistan, the creation of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) depends upon Chinese investments of up to $46 billion.
Furthermore, China’s diplomatic engagement would open a much-needed avenue for US–China cooperation, as it is in the interests of both countries to promote stability in the region. Recognising this mutually beneficial possibility, the US has even expressed a desire to contribute to the development of CPEC, although this promise was made before the election of Donald Trump.
Besides, Indian military pressure is unlikely to incentivise Pakistan to act against violent extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed; even if the authorities in Islamabad wanted to act, any perception that they are taking the action as a result of Indian military pressure would be politically suicidal – and even physically dangerous – for Pakistani decision-makers.
Thus, although India may have demonstrated its will to respond to terrorist threats, its operation does not represent a new norm, and it certainly does not point to India’s ability to conduct deeper strikes.
Nevertheless, there is a danger that the latest Indian military incursion, combined with implicit approval for the strike from people such as the Russian ambassador to India, as well as indirect acknowledgement of Pakistan’s role in the Uri attack contained in a statement by the White House National Security Council, could pave the way for future Indian operations of this nature.
However, in order for international diplomatic pressure to be constructive, it must treat the Kashmir dispute as separate from the problem of militancy and governance deficiencies throughout the region, as India perceives the two as separate issues and has summarily dismissed discussions which conflate the two problems. Previous attempts by external players to discuss the subject, such as the effort of the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, have often coupled the topics and have only succeeded in eliciting outrage in India. Moreover, although the UK can play an important part, its colonial legacy will continue to restrict London’s ability play the leading role in mediation.
Despite the fact that the states involved possess nuclear powers, the India–Pakistan relationship is rarely perceived as the most urgent security concern among international actors. But it should be, for the increasingly bellicose rhetoric adopted by media and political leaders in both countries has not allowed any room for productive dialogue, and is increasingly generating dangerous showdowns.
Aaditya Dave is a Research Assistant at RUSI.
Banner image: The ceremony at the India–Pakistan border at Wagha. Courtesy of Koshy Koshy/Flickr/CC 2.0.