On the Brink in Kashmir

On the Brink in Kashmir

In early May, as the snows melted along the Karakoram Range, Indian troops on routine border patrols discovered that three strategic salients–Dras, Kargil and Batalik–in the Indian states of Ja


In early May, as the snows melted along the Karakoram Range, Indian troops on routine border patrols discovered that three strategic salients–Dras, Kargil and Batalik–in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir had been occupied by insurgents. These guerrillas, coming from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, had breached the de facto Indo-Pakistani border, known as the Line of Control (LoC). They rained volleys of punishing artillery fire on the Indian military units and the Srinagar-Leh highway. They appeared to be well supplied with mountaineering equipment, including snowmobiles.

The disaffection of the Kashmiri people arises against the backdrop of extensive abuse by various Indian regimes. Younger Kashmiris, better educated and politically more savvy than the older generation, resorted to violence when they saw that all other avenues of dissent were blocked. Since the 1989 outbreak of insurgency in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, no dramatic military clashes had taken place along the LoC until now. The government of India had used a combination of coercion and co-optation to contain dissent, and the success of the strategy had led many in New Delhi to ignore the possibility of renewed violence arising from infiltration from Pakistan. The Pakistani leadership seems to have reached the same flawed conclusion; thus they felt pressured to rejuvenate the flagging rebellion. The Indian Army had sealed off the normal routes of infiltration, so the Pakistani military had to direct its efforts toward scaling craggy passes at altitudes of 14,000 to 16,000 feet. When the infiltrators were discovered, panic ensued in New Delhi, resulting in a sharp military response.

If any doubts remained about Pakistan’s covert support for the insurgents, they have now been dispelled: Mere condottieri, dependent on their own resources, could not possibly have mounted this well-orchestrated military assault. Why has Pakistan embarked on this new and potentially risky venture, given its recent gestures to try to improve relations with India?

One answer is that the regime of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been coping poorly with the international sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan after their 1998 nuclear tests; these sanctions have hit Pakistan much harder than India. Faced with myriad problems, Sharif fell back on the tried-and-true tactic of stoking patriotic sentiment against an outside adversary. Pakistani belligerence has also arisen from the same source as its economic woes: the nuclear tests. Nuclear prowess has emboldened the regime to suppose that India would be loath to expand the scope of the conflict. The carefully calibrated Indian response seems to bear out Pakistan’s calculations.

Right now, the prospects that the war will escalate are relatively small. Both India and Pakistan have too much to lose from a widened conflict; it would bring stepped-up pressure from key countries, especially the United States, to eschew their newly acquired nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, neither side has the technology to deliver nuclear weapons to its opponent efficiently and accurately. If, however, the conflict continues to fester over the next several months, a larger war could ensue. Frustrated by its inability to dislodge the insurgents, India may strike across the international border elsewhere, perhaps in the southern Pakistani province of Sind. In an effort to prevent a deep Indian incursion into this province, already debilitated by ethnic strife, the Pakistani military could threaten the use of nuclear weapons.

Could certain bilateral, regional or multilateral initiatives be undertaken to reduce the likelihood of further escalation and bring a swift end to the crisis? The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the only regional body, is forbidden under its charter from dealing with “bilateral and contentious” issues. After years of UN efforts to resolve the Kashmir problem–beginning with UN resolutions in 1948 that called for a plebiscite in Kashmir but failed to give high priority to Pakistan’s withdrawal of its troops–India has declined any further UN attempts to address the dispute. The United States has already dispatched high-level emissaries to both capitals. If they are to succeed, these emissaries must pursue two distinct goals. In Islamabad, they will have to make it clear that continued support of the insurgents in Kashmir will lead to a declaration that Pakistan is a terrorist state. In New Delhi, they will have to convince Indian leaders that no solution to the Kashmir crisis can be reached without addressing the justifiable grievances of the Kashmiris. In these efforts lies the only hope of achieving peace on the subcontinent for the new millennium.

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