Conflict in Kashmir has destabilized the Indian subcontinent. Neither India nor Pakistan wants to escalate the conflict, but there are complications for both that make calming the situation difficult. A major conflict is not imminent, but the balance of power in the region is changing as the U.S. gets closer to India while Pakistan searches for allies.
- Local unrest over the death of a young militant commander in Kashmir has had geopolitical consequences.
- India is caught between prioritizing stability to protect its growing economy and needing to appear strong to other nations.
- Pakistan is having an internal argument about the use of militant proxies to further its regional goals.
- The U.S. is getting closer to India, which shifts the region’s balance of power; the ramifications are becoming evident as Russia explores opportunities with Pakistan.
Our 2016 forecast was built on one key observation: that the Eurasian landmass is engulfed in a series of political, economic and military crises. At the same time, we noted that South Asia would be the exception to the crisis in Eurasia. We also predicted that India would enjoy countercyclical economic success in 2016, that there would be no major conflict between India and Pakistan and that South Asia would be relatively stable compared to the rest of Eurasia. However, the current hostilities between India and Pakistan over the seemingly immortal problem of Kashmir challenge our model. A major conflict has not yet erupted, and there are geopolitical forces at work that limit the potential for an expanded conflict, but there are also significant forces pushing back. The first two components of our forecast for the South Asia remain unchanged for now, but the area can no longer be considered exceptionally stable compared to the rest of Eurasia.
Recent events in the Kashmir region are driving current hostilities, and some background information on the area is necessary before discussing the present conflict. Control of Kashmir has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since both countries were created in 1947; since then, Kashmir has been the subject of four wars between the two states. In 1947, India was a collection of hundreds of different states and principalities. (This remains true today.) Upon creating the new countries, the British allowed the leaders of these various princely states to decide whether to join India or Pakistan. The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was a hold-out; its leader, Maharaja Hari Singh, hoped to secure some measure of independence. Pakistan helped foment rebellion against Singh’s rule, and Singh agreed to join his princely state to India. Thus began the 1947 Indo-Pakistani War, kicking off a pattern that has repeated numerous times in the last 69 years: Pakistan stoking unrest in Kashmir and India responding.
The current state of conflict in Kashmir continues to play out along the same general religious and geographic lines as in 1947, but since then, the term “Kashmir” has become confusing in its usage. The above map outlines the boundaries of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. After the Indo-Pakistani War, the princely state was carved up and divided among governing bodies. The Northern Areas (called Gilgit-Baltistan since 2009), along with Azad Jammu and Kashmir, are now claimed and administered by Pakistan. Aksai Chin, claimed by India but administered by China, is a chunk of territory to the northwest. “Jammu and Kashmir” is the term now used for the Indian-administered parts of this land.
The word “Kashmir” creates further confusion because it refers to a district of Jammu and Kashmir but it also refers specifically to the Kashmir Valley, which is where the most recent round of unrest between India and Pakistan originated. To this day, the region has no internationally recognized borders. The de facto border between India and Pakistan is the Line of Control (LoC), established in 1972. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) was acknowledged in 1993 as the border between China and India in the Kashmir region.
The last British census of India, in 1941, estimated that 75 percent of the Kashmir region’s roughly 4 million inhabitants were Muslim and 20 percent were Hindu. (In part, Singh was unable to preserve his princely state’s independence because he was a Hindu attempting to govern a Muslim-dominated area like a prince.) The latest Indian census, in 2011, shows that even within Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, many of the districts’ populations still have a Muslim majority. Further complicating matters is an incredibly mountainous geography with harsh winters, which makes this territory difficult to control. Periodic cease-fire violations, terrorist attacks, large-scale demonstrations and protests are typical daily occurrences in this region.
The current Kashmir conflict is playing out on three levels: local, national and international. At the local level, there is a groundswell of grassroots dissatisfaction. On July 8, Indian security forces killed 22-year-old Burhan Wani, who was born in an Indian-controlled region of Jammu and Kashmir. Wani was a commander of Hizbul Mujahedeen, one of Pakistan’s sponsored groups in Kashmir. Some have speculated that it was Wani’s youth, or his popularity as a result of his social media presence, that created such significant unrest in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Others believe that Wani was able to tap into a very real and growing sentiment toward separatism in Kashmir. The precise reason for Wani’s death is impossible to pinpoint, but it is an example of local outrage reverberating at the international level.
Wani’s death sparked huge protests in Srinagar, in Kashmir Valley. Reports of up to 50,000 people joining the funeral procession quickly led to riots and protests against Indian forces. This has resulted in curfews, protests and the deaths of over 90 civilians, most recently a 12-year-old boy on Oct. 8. Wani’s death has also become a recruiting tool for many of the Pakistan-based militant outfits that are active in Jammu and Kashmir, including Pakistan-based groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT); furthermore, Wani’s death has emboldened these groups to carry out new attacks. For instance, an attack in September, suspected to have been carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammed, resulted in the deaths of 19 Indian soldiers and forced an unprecedented public Indian military response in Pakistan. Indian forces foiled another attack in the Indian-controlled Langate area on Oct. 7.
Similar conditions have led to conflict in the past, such as when Pakistanis sought to exploit the large-scale indigenous insurgency that broke out and culminated in the 1999 Kargil War. The Kargil War was a disaster for Pakistan. It lost when the U.S. sponsored a deal that ended the war, and the embarrassment has defined India-Pakistan relations ever since. And because India and Pakistan backed away from a major conflict in 2002-2003, after the Indian parliament was attacked by Pakistan-based militants, there has been a divergence of interests between Pakistan and its old militant proxies – many of whom have gone rogue and stage attacks in India from time to time without official blessings from the Pakistani state. These rogue groups want to trigger an India-Pakistan war that would allow Islamist militants to become more powerful. The main difference between the Kargil War and the situation today is at the governmental level. Although Pakistan does not want a conflict, it has less control over the militant groups that are taking advantage of the current unrest than it did in 1999.
India and Pakistan
In addition to examining the current hostilities at the local level, they must also be explored at the national level between India and Pakistan. India did not want a fight in Kashmir. One of the main issues, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized in his campaign, is economic development. Modi has sought to eliminate obstacles to foreign investment and has made significant progress that has removed some of the barriers for foreign investment in his country. Modi does not want to jeopardize that progress through a potential war with Pakistan. The “surgical strikes” carried out by the Indian military across the LoC on Sept. 28 frightened markets, and a full scale conflict could seriously threaten investor confidence and hurt the Indian economy. Modi and his government desperately want to avoid that.
A second plank of Modi’s rise to power is that he comes from a conservative and hawkish political party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and this has boxed him into a corner. Earlier this year, a 2009 video circulated of Modi saying India should stop writing “love letters” to Pakistan and speak to the country in a language it understands: force. This creates challenges in the current situation. On one hand, Modi’s party wants to remove the special autonomous status that Jammu and Kashmir currently enjoys; the party also wants to fully integrate Kashmir into the Indian political system. On the other hand, when Modi campaigned in Kashmir, he insisted that he would bring jobs and better infrastructure to the region, which would counter the separatist sentiment.
Modi has a record of adopting a tough stance towards both Pakistan and Kashmir. This is, in part, what allowed him to make an overture to Pakistan at the end of 2015 during an impromptu visit to the neighboring country, the first time an Indian head of state visited Pakistan in 12 years. Hawkish leaders often have more maneuvering room when it comes to making peace with an old rival, but Modi’s visit backfired. He was embarrassed by the January 2016 Pathankot attack by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed because relations appeared to be moving forward. The attack once again soured relations, but Modi was still able to prevent it from spiraling into a larger conflict. That has not been the case in the most recent conflict, however. The unrest in Kashmir and the subsequent militant attacks on Indian forces, including the Pathankot attack and a more recent attack in Uri, have been too serious to ignore. Modi cannot simply let attacks go unanswered without being seen as weak by both Pakistan and his own public.
That fear of weakness motivated India to announce that it carried out surgical strikes at specific targets across the LoC after more than a decade of not responding to attacks by militants from Pakistan. It is difficult to say what really happened because there are few reliable details surrounding the airstrikes. Regardless, it is clear that the public touting represents a major break in India’s treatment of Pakistan-based terrorist groups since the Kargil War. Prior to these strikes, India did not engage in cross-border hits on militant infrastructure, even after the 2008 Mumbai attack. No doubt Modi hoped that the strike would put the issue to rest, uphold his reputation for being tough on Pakistan, deter future militant attacks and scare Pakistan into realizing that he is serious about cracking down on cross-border terrorism. The problem is that although India may have sufficiently jolted Pakistan with the strikes, it cannot solve the militant problem with just one surgical attack. Modi is in a difficult position and faces two conflicting imperatives: India must have some measure of calm and stability for economic reasons, but at the same time, the country cannot afford to be viewed as weak.
Pakistan’s role in the brewing conflict is also complicated. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also has a history of military confrontation going back to 1992 and was prime minister during the Kargil War in 1999, the last time conventional war broke out between India and Pakistan. When Pakistan lost the war, Sharif was removed in a bloodless military coup by Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani army, and Sharif returned to power in May 2013 when his party won the parliamentary elections.
Pakistan is by far a weaker power than India in terms of size, economy and military strength. It has historically compensated for its weakness by cultivating militant groups in Kashmir to threaten India. Pakistan has also threatened India by supporting Islamist militants in Afghanistan, most famously with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, in an attempt to gain a friendly government there. Further complicating matters is the fact that these relationships have been primarily managed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Pakistan has done all this to secure a measure of strategic depth, but that depth has come at a severe price: an ever-present fault line in Pakistan between the civilian government and the military government. That said, Pakistan has no interest in going to war with India right now. It has plenty of its own problems, not the least of which is the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Besides that, a conflict with India would likely result in defeat.
There is some indication that even the ISI realizes the militants are more of a liability than a strategic asset and is therefore supporting the civilian government in attempting to rein in the militants who are attacking India. However, this may be difficult to do as tensions rise. In a striking tell-all report published on Oct. 6, Pakistan’s most respected newspaper Dawn reported on a meeting between Sharif and the country’s military leadership, including ISI representatives. The report said that the ISI has sent senior leaders to all sector commanders and instructed them not to interfere if law enforcement targets militant groups for arrests. Furthermore, the report says that Pakistan’s civilian government specifically mentioned clipping the wings of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network. Lastly, Dawn reports that Pakistan will move forward on an investigation into the Pathankot attack and that Pakistani trials related to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks would be resumed; both of these actions would be notable concessions to Indian demands.
The prime minister’s office has denied the Dawn story, but the source is generally credible. Furthermore, the report makes a great deal of sense. If the report is true (either in whole or in part), it indicates that Pakistan may have an interest in defusing the current hostilities with India. The Dawn report noted that Pakistan is becoming increasingly isolated on the international front; both Afghanistan and Iran have expressed anger at Pakistan in recent months, and Pakistan’s relationship with the United States is at one of its lowest points in history. Additionally, the journalist who wrote the Dawn story has been placed on an exit control list, creating greater internal crisis in Pakistan.
Defusing tension with India will require Pakistan to shut down militant proxy groups, which isn’t easy. In part, this is because the ISI isn’t of one mind when it comes to these militant groups. Some officials in the organization want to stop supporting them because they are increasingly hard to control, but this camp faces opposition from those who continue to view these proxies as strategic assets against India.
Additionally, Pakistan has raised and nurtured these militant proxy groups, another reason they are difficult to shut down. They have a significant presence in Pakistani society through their schools, medical centers, charities and humanitarian relief outfits, which makes them difficult to uproot. Lastly, Pakistan will lose much of its credibility with these groups, and will also lose its ability to influence their actions, if it appears that Pakistan is caving to Indian demands.
In other words, Pakistan has conflicting imperatives. The nation needs to end this conflict before it gets out of control, but it is unclear whether Pakistan can defuse the conflict even if it wants to. Additionally, ending the conflict may trigger an earthquake on the civil-military fault line because of the uneasy India-Pakistan relationship, and because there is a greater chance of domestic political crisis due to the differing perspectives through which the crisis is viewed. Finally, Pakistan cannot afford to appear weak to India, to its proxies and to elements of its own government.
Great Power Politics
Beyond analyzing the conflict at the local and national levels, it must also be examined on the international level. Here, international allegiances have continued to change at an accelerated pace. During the Cold War, India aligned with the Soviet Union; in response, the United States became a key supporter of Pakistan. After 9/11, the U.S. and Pakistan found common ground beyond balancing against India’s power on the subcontinent: Pakistan had intelligence the U.S. badly needed, and so the partnership continued. Meanwhile, China, a country that has always viewed India with suspicion, generally supported Pakistan as well.
Relations between Pakistan and the United States soured after the U.S. discovered that Osama bin Laden had resided in Pakistan for a decade. That discovery also came as the U.S. began to shift its military policies, seeking to withdraw from its land-based wars in Eurasia and trading direct involvement for strategic partnerships with key players. The United States is still invested in a balance of power on the Indian subcontinent, but there is a bigger game now afoot. China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea has led the U.S. to solidify relationships with the usual suspects in the region — Japan, South Korea and Australia — but has also caused it to reach out more to India.
China has maintained its support for Pakistan, though distance, geography and China’s own economic issues dampen the potential impact of anything China can meaningfully offer Pakistan. Recently, Russia has begun to express interest in Pakistan. Russia lifted its arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014, sold weapons to Pakistan in 2015 and recently concluded the first Pakistan-Russia joint military exercises, which were held in Pakistan from Sept. 24 to Oct. 10. These are small moves, but they are an overture to an improving relationship between Russia and Pakistan, one that will likely grow stronger as the U.S. and India draw closer together.
If India continues to improve its ties with the United States, Russia and China have every reason to create problems for India and the United States. For China, a viable opponent in Pakistan means India would have to concentrate on its western frontier rather than being allowed to focus solely on impinging China’s sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific. For Russia, the more the U.S. is tied down by Islamist militancy or a potential for regional conflict, the less the U.S. will be able to prioritize blocking Russian moves in Eastern Europe. But the problem is that South Asia dos not offer the same kind of opportunities for Russia to exploit. India and Pakistan are much stronger and much more coherent than many of the pawns that outside powers have been using in the Middle East, but they are not immune to being used by outside powers for greater purposes. Therefore, South Asia is unlikely to be an arena for the U.S.-Russia geopolitical struggles that are taking place elsewhere in the world.
Tensions are riding high in Kashmir, and the current situation goes beyond a typical minor flare-up. Both India and Pakistan have strategic imperatives to stifle the current conflict, and it appears that both sides are trying to do just that. However, they face three barriers to success. There is a groundswell of locally based unrest that neither side can completely control, both countries have conflicting imperatives that undermine their ability to control the situation at the state level, and outside powers have an interest in how the current bout of unrest is resolved. Not all of those powers may want to see the issue disappear, or at least not in a way that weakens Pakistan’s already inferior position on the subcontinent. South Asia now has its own brewing crisis to add to Eurasia’s instability, and the balance of power in the region has shifted as the United States moves its attention away from Pakistan and toward India.