Despite the promising rapprochement (here and here) that gathered pace between India and Pakistan last year, disruptive military tensions are never far from the surface. This point was amply demonstrated by last month’s skirmishes along the 450 mile-long boundary – known as the Line of Control (LOC) – separating the two armies in the disputed Kashmir region. The fighting, which left two Indian and two Pakistani soldiers dead, was the worst flare-up since an uneasy ceasefire agreement came into effect along the heavily-militarized LOC in November 2003 and has put a damper on the détente process.
The clashes are a stark reminder of how combustible the military rivalry in Kashmir remains and how even localized incidents there can have important ramifications for the broader relationship.* Accusations that Pakistan decapitated one of the dead Indian soldiers and carried off his head as a trophy provoked fury in New Delhi. The Indian army chief warned of “aggressive and offensive” reprisals in the event of further provocation and a senior leader in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party, demanded that India “get at least 10 heads from their side” if the Pakistanis did not return the soldier’s head. An influential Hindu nationalist group even called for nuclear retaliatory strikes – a contingency that was underscored when Indian officials inexplicably advised residents in Kashmir to prepare for a possible nuclear war. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a dogged champion of better ties with Islamabad, was forced to announce that “there cannot be business as usual with Pakistan.” One immediate consequence is New Delhi has put on hold a liberalized bilateral visa regime that had been hailed as an important milestone in relations.
Although the two countries managed to contain the fighting, The Hindu, an English-language Indian newspaper, has provided fascinating details about the long record of tit-for-tat competition along the LOC. According to the newspaper, last month’s incidents can be traced back to September, when an elderly woman in the Indian part of Kashmir slipped across the LoC to join her sons and grandchildren residing on the Pakistani side. Alarmed at the ease by which she was able to do this, the Indian army quickly began building concrete observation bunkers in the area. Since military construction along the LOC is forbidden by the 2003 ceasefire accord, this elicited heated Pakistani protests, which the Indians dismissed on the grounds that the bunkers were defensive in nature and therefore not a threat to Pakistani forces.
The Pakistanis soon began to punctuate their demands with gunfire and mortar shelling directed at the Indian posts. Matters came to a head in early last month when, following an exchange of fire, Indian troops crossed the LOC to raid the Pakistani position that was targeting them. A Pakistani commando team thereafter retaliated with an assault on an Indian post located elsewhere along the LOC, at a point where frictions have likewise been simmering since last summer over the construction of new Indian outposts. According to the newspaper, similar clashes occasioned by disputes over Indian border construction have occurred over the past few years.
The Hindu also reports that Pakistan has filed a long series of heretofore undisclosed protests about Indian cross-border raids with the United Nations group in charge of monitoring the LOC. Included in the protests are allegations that Indian forces have engaged in the torture, mutilation and decapitation of Pakistani soldiers since at least 1998, as well as the massacre of civilians living on the Pakistani side of the LOC. New Delhi rejects these charges.
The newspaper explains that the combustibility of the military rivalry is caused in part by informal nature of the ceasefire agreement, which bans the construction of border fortifications but provides no guidance about how to define them or address possible violations. New Delhi and Islamabad have exchanged drafts for a more detailed written agreement and diplomats met last December to discuss the matter but failed to resolve their differing interpretations. Although the two military establishments are in regular communication, disputes are rarely reported to diplomatic officials in both countries until tensions reach a boiling point.
Last year’s narrative in bilateral affairs was about cross-border bonhomie and a détente process driven by growing economic engagement. The headline last month was about cross-LOC military raids and security competition arising from festering territorial disputes. As noted in earlier posts (here and here), political turbulence in Pakistan in the coming months, along with the likelihood of renewed geopolitical jousting over Afghanistan, portend the return of long familiar themes of rivalry and security-seeking behavior in the year ahead.
Even though the rapprochement now appears to have stalled, leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad would do well to preserve existing gains as well as lay the groundwork for forward movement once a more propitious climate emerges. They can do this by redoubling support for the constructive dialogue about important confidence-building measures that is taking place between retired senior military leaders from both countries. And they might think about setting up a joint commission of business leaders and distinguished private citizens to develop recommendations about expanding trade and transportation links across the LOC. This would accentuate the cooperative impulses on both sides as well as generate bold ideas and valuable political cover that could never be delivered by risk-averse bureaucrats. A recent series of useful reports (here, here and here) from groups in both countries offer a point of departure for this effort.
* The 1999 Kargil mini-war in the mountainous reaches of northern Kashmir epitomizes how military tussles along the LOC can escalate into a wider confrontation and subvert important diplomatic initiatives. By coincidence, new revelations about the conflict emerged in Pakistan just as the last month’s fighting broke out. I’ll turn to this topic in my next post.