International powers this week anxiously urged India and Pakistan to avoid further escalation of military confrontation. Given the two nations have gone to war on three occasions during the past seven decades and are both nuclear armed, the international concern is palpable.
The US has lately joined calls by Russia, China and Europe appealing for restraint, and for the Indian and Pakistani leaderships to negotiate a resolution to avert a catastrophic slide towards conflict.
American President Donald Trump, while in Vietnamese capital Hanoi for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, claimed that the US was mediating to defuse the crisis between India and Pakistan.
“We’ve been in the middle trying to help them both out,” said Trump.
Incongruously, however, the Trump administration has in fact acted in an opposite fashion, to inflame the recent tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both issued statements which “support India’s right to self-defense against terrorism”. The US officials have also laid the blame on Pakistan for sponsoring acts of terrorism by militant groups in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The northern territory of Kashmir has been the cause of bitter dispute between India and Pakistan ever since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.
The massacre of over 40 Indian troops earlier this month on February 14 in the Indian-side of Kashmir has sparked outrage among the wider Indian population demanding revenge. The suicide bomb attack was claimed by Kashmiri militant group Jaish e-Mohammed (JeM). India claimed that Pakistan had a hand in the atrocity through its support for JeM, which the Pakistani authorities denied.
The mounting of air strikes by India this week deep inside Pakistani territory on a militant training camp – purportedly in retaliation for the Kashmir massacre of its troops – represented a dramatic escalation. If India had limited its strikes to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir the retaliation could perhaps have been argued as being proportionate. But the violation of Pakistani territory – some 50 kms west of the historical Line of Control – was arguably an act of war. The last time Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan was in 1971 during the two countries’ third and last war.
Not surprisingly, Pakistani fighter jets have subsequently launched strikes on Indian-controlled Kashmir. There were also further alleged incursions by Indian warplanes, two of which were reportedly shot down by the Pakistani side. Pakistan also lost one of its jets in a shoot-down but the aircraft apparently crashed inside its territory.
Tensions have boiled over further with the capture of an Indian pilot by the Pakistanis who released video footage of him apparently injured with a bloodied face. That led to outcry in New Delhi that Islamabad was in breach of the Geneva Convention concerning treatment of prisoners of war. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to return the Indian pilot as a gesture towards de-escalation.
Nevertheless, the tensions and danger of an all-out war continue to mount. There have been several reports of heavy artillery cross-border exchanges between Indian and Pakistani forces. While both governments say they don’t want a war, the dynamic could explode beyond their control.
The Kashmir dispute is certainly fraught with enormous historical difficulties bestowed by baleful British imperialist legacy of partitioning land and people with such contempt for indigenous rights and traditions, as well as from cynically playing partisan politics for imperial advantage. Washington’s contemporary meddling in Indian-Pakistan affairs has echoes of past British subterfuge.
Pakistan’s relations with Kashmiri militant groups whom India denounces as “terrorist” is only part of a complex equation. Another part of the equation is India’s intensive militarization of the province and its alleged abusive occupation of territory and people who aspire to be part of Pakistan. The region is predominantly Muslim.
If a peaceful resolution is to ever succeed there must be an earnest process of demilitarizing the entire Kashmir area. That onus is primarily on India.
One thing that is certainly not constructive is the simplistic and clumsy way that the United States has intervened recently by pointedly taking the Indian side of the narrative. For senior Trump administration officials to proclaim India’s “right to self-defense” against implied Pakistani-sponsored terrorism is in effect a green light for New Delhi to launch air strikes against its neighbor.
That reckless advocacy by Washington is predictably leading to a spiral of violence which ultimately could result in an all-out war between two nuclear states.
President Trump’s self-congratulatory tone about supposed mediation between India and Pakistan is far off the mark from reality. The Trump administration’s belated words appealing for “restraint” and “calm” are belied by the earlier words from Bolton and Pompeo giving India a license to commit acts of war.
Of course, what would one expect from the American side? The Trump administration is currently in the throes of violating the sovereignty of Venezuela with threats of military invasion against that South American nation. Washington has completely lost its compass on international law and norms of conduct.
There are indeed deeper reasons for why Washington would like to see a conflict between India and Pakistan blow up. Such a confrontation would cause major geopolitical problems for China, which is historically an ally of Pakistan but which has also recently endeavored to build a rapprochement with India. Stoking a confrontation in South Asia would serve Washington’s interest in destabilizing China and Russia’s strategic plans for economic integration of Eurasia.
India and Pakistan’s political leaderships must keep cool heads and think of the bigger global picture. Only recently, India’s Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s Imran Khan were expressing an aspiration for improving ties between the two South Asian states. They must resist playing politics for internal political gains, and they must resist being manipulated by external powers which seek to gain advantage at the expense of Asian divisions. The historical thorn of Kashmir can be resolved if India and Pakistan entered into a genuine and mutual compromise.