By Kamran Bokhari

According to Reuters, at least 19 people have died since Friday in Kashmir as a result of cross-border clashes between India and Pakistan. Details of the clashes remain sketchy amid the usual competing claims of which side opened fire first and the resulting damage. But over the past six weeks, an unmistakable escalation has occurred between Indian and Pakistani forces – largely in the disputed region of Kashmir. Occasional cease-fire violations have occurred since 2003, when both sides walked away from the brink of full-scale war that could have assumed a nuclear dimension.

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The difference this time is that clashes stem from India’s unprecedented decision to retaliate for an attack by Pakistan-based Islamist militants by conducting what New Delhi describes as a “surgical strike” inside Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Until mid-September, the understanding following the 1999 Kargil War was that India would refrain from carrying out cross-border raids against militant infrastructure on Pakistani soil for fear of escalating matters to full-scale war. The Sept. 18 attack by Pakistan-based militants on an Indian military base in the Uri border area led India to abandon that understanding.

Eighteen Indian soldiers were killed and over two dozen others were wounded in that particular attack. This sparked massive national outrage and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was pressured to take action. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had pledged, even before coming to power, that it would deal with cross-border terrorism. But as often happens, the BJP realized its campaign promises were difficult to deliver once in office.

Despite Modi’s harsh talk on the campaign trail, he tried to establish closer relations with Pakistan. Modi even made a brief surprise visit to the Pakistani city of Lahore as part of an effort to improve bilateral relations. A week later, however, Pakistani-based militants attacked an Indian airbase in January. The 17-hour gun battle at the Pathankot Air Force Station in the province of Punjab left seven military personnel dead and three dozen others injured. At the time, it was important for the Modi government to allay fears that his administration was going to be hawkish on foreign policy. Even so, simply ending the entente was enough at the time to settle the issue. India did not feel compelled to counterattack.

Modi’s government came to power on a mandate that included improving the economy by attracting greater foreign investment in Kashmir as well as the rest of the country. This economic imperative, and the old paradigm that India would not engage in cross-border action without risking a major war, continued to guide the Modi government. The Uri attack, however, was too serious for Modi to overlook, particularly after relying solely on diplomacy to deal with the Pathankot attack. Both domestic political compulsions and the need to shape perceptions on the Pakistani side meant that the Indians had to break with their strategy and engage in the Sept. 29 “surgical strikes.”

An Indian Border Security Force soldier looks through binoculars towards Pakistan during a patrol at the India-Pakistan border southwest of Jammu, on Oct. 3, 2016. AUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

The details of what exactly transpired in the operation remain hazy. The Indians say they carried out covert strikes. The Pakistanis deny the strikes ever happened. The Indian desire for secrecy and the Pakistani claim that nothing actually happened are examples of both sides trying to de-escalate the conflict. Their actions have created a need for some kind of tangible response from both sides, but they are also trying to react without escalating tensions to a point that could lead to war.

That said, New Delhi’s previous fears that retaliating against the Pakistanis would lead to a broader war have not materialized. Therefore, even if the first strikes were brief and limited in scope, the Indians will be emboldened to strike again should the need arise, possibly with increased intensity. Conversely, the Pakistanis cannot allow this to become a pattern and must demonstrate the cost of doing so is extremely high. This would explain the heavy exchange of fire along the border.

In Pakistan, civil-military relations have taken a turn for the worse in the wake of the strikes. This has shrunk Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s room to negotiate with India considerably. The prime minister is under pressure from the military to maintain a hardline against India. Even without this pressure, the Sharif government cannot simply ignore that India is no longer inhibited from retaliating against militant strikes. Now more than ever, the Pakistani government cannot afford to simultaneously be seen as cracking down on militant groups and soft against Indian aggression.

Sharif’s main opponent, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, has accused the prime minister of pursuing weak policies in the face of a hostile India. Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party has also threatened protests starting Nov. 2 to force Sharif to step down in the face of corruption charges. Earlier this year, the Panama Papers revealed that the prime minister, along with his family and friends, maintain massive offshore accounts. It is thus even more imperative that Sharif pursue a defiant stance against India.

That said, Pakistan cannot afford to engage in war with India. Sharif may be able to deflect Khan’s pressure, but elections are set for early 2018, and Sharif cannot risk possible defeat in a battle against India before voters head to the polls. The prime minister has been hoping that a visible reduction in chronic power shortages and the mega-project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor can help him get re-elected.

These common constraints that Sharif and Modi face are pushing them to avoid escalation. At the same time, neither can ignore the situation on the ground. War is in neither side’s interest, but underlying forces are driving them towards conflict, and these forces bear close watching.

Kamran Bokhari
Kamran Bokhari, PhD, is a regular contributor to and former senior analyst (2015-2018) with Geopolitical Futures. Dr. Bokhari is now the Senior Director, Eurasian Security & Prosperity Portfolio at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington, DC. Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He has served as the Coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @Kamran Bokhari