What’s happening in Kashmir and how likely is it to kill us all?

When last we checked in, India and Pakistan were lobbing insults at one another from the floor of the United Nations over recent attacks by Pakistani militants on Indian targets in Kashmir. On September 28, two entire battalions of Indian soldiers entered Pakistani Kashmir and destroyed a number of staging areas that militants had been using to launch those cross-border attacks. A number of militants were killed.

Uh, maybe. For such a dramatic operation it’s been surprisingly hard to confirm that it actually took place:

Details about the commando mission remain oddly sketchy. A short statement issued by the Indian military said that its intelligence agencies had received “very specific and credible information” about an impending terrorist attack. The commandos’ “surgical strikes at several of these launch pads” caused “significant casualties,” the statement added; it specified nothing further. (Additional facts about the operation have only emerged in subsequent, anonymously sourced media reports.) In a twist, Pakistan denied altogether that such an operation even transpired. The night of September 28 was quiet except for a near-routine bout of shelling and some exchange of small-arms fire across the Line of Control, Pakistani officials insisted. Correspondents for the The New York Times and the Washington Post managed to get close enough to Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control to interview villagers who testified that no Indian troops had crossed over.

For what it’s worth, the cross-border militant attacks are continuing; Indian soldiers reportedly killed three Pakistani militants just today.

The Indian government has been insisting that the raid did happen, so loudly that you might start to think they’re trying to show off for their voters, and if we’re at the point where Indian PM Narendra Modi is showing off for his Hindu nationalist base, then things are likely to escalate before they start calming down. Which, of course, raises the possibility of a full-scale war breaking out, and that, of course, raises the possibility of a nuclear exchange.

What can be done? Kashmir is a very tough nut to crack. It can’t just be partitioned, because India and Pakistan both want the same region, the fertile Kashmir Valley, whose Muslim-majority would probably opt, if given the choice, to join Pakistan (unacceptable to India) or to become independent (unacceptable to India and Pakistan). A referendum to allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir to determine their own future is a non-starter for India (and for Pakistan, if “independence” is offered as a choice) and, as Rajan Menon notes in that piece to which I just linked, if the Muslim majority prevailed, the region’s sizable Hindu and Buddhist minorities would undoubtedly reject the results and the conflict would continue.

Political map of Kashmir (Wikimedia)

Still, such a referendum is probably the only hope for a long-term solution to the conflict–in the short term, in order to resolve the immediate crisis short of war, both India and Pakistan will need to stop provoking one another, and India will need to stop provoking Kashmiri Muslims. But good luck with that. Right now the conflict is locked into a tit-for-tat cycle that doesn’t seem likely to be broken any time soon. It’s possible that Washington could play a constructive role in easing tensions–Pakistan seems to be fairly perturbed by the budding relationship between India and the US, who were always fairly cool toward each other throughout the Cold War and really until Barack Obama was elected. Obama seems to have a close rapport with Modi, despite the fact that Modi is a guy who has a fair amount of blood on his hands, and it’s certainly true that Pakistan is a problematic ally for the US these days, but maybe Obama could leverage both his relationship with Modi and the historical US-Pakistan alliance for the sake of, I don’t know, preventing a large cloud of fallout from hitting the west coast right before the election.


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