In response to a suicide bombing in Kashmir that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries last month, the Indian Air Force struck targets in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
I imagine that many readers around the world today would read that sentence the way that 105 years ago they would have read the sentence: “A Bosnian separatist shot the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo today.” Many would have been saddened by the news or shocked at the outburst of violence and the senseless death . . . and then went about their day. After all, that was way over there in the Balkans. “What does that have to do with us?”
Similarly, many might be tempted to write off the latest news from Kashmir—the disputed territory between India and Pakistan—as just another regrettable flare up of violence. But it is not. As two nuclear-armed nations with deep-seated hostilities sitting at the crossroads of a new geopolitical order, India and Pakistan represent the Balkans of our day. We ignore the events there at our own peril.
So let’s take a closer look at what just happened (or didn’t happen) between India and Pakistan, and what it means in the bigger scheme of things.
On February 14th a suicide bomber killed 40 members of India’s Central Reserve Police Force in the Indian-controlled part of the Kashmir region that marks the northernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent and includes Indian, Pakistani and Chinese-administered territories. Considered the most militarized area on the planet, the Kashmir region has played host to numerous skirmishes, including three Indo-Pakistani wars, one Indo-Chinese war, an insurgency campaign, and ongoing civilian unrest. So it is perhaps no surprise that the latest round of tensions between India and Pakistan would be centered there.
But in many ways, this is not just another flare up in tensions. The death of 40 Indian troops is far larger than the last major incident, a 2016 attack in the Indian city of Uri by Pakistan-based terrorists that resulted in the death of 19 Indian soldiers. At that time, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi authorized what he termed “surgical strikes” of “terrorist launch pads” across the Pakistani Line of Control (LoC). The mission was of dubious military value, but marked a big political win for Modi, who managed to save face with the Indian public by acting tough in the face of a dastardly terror attack.
Following that logic, it was not difficult to predict that this latest suicide bombing would provoke an even bigger response. And—after some diplomatic chest-beating about “isolating Pakistan” with a “crushing response” and placing economic restrictions on Indo-Pakistani trade—that’s exactly what happened. Sending fighter jets into Pakistani airspace (less than 100 km from Islamabad), the Indian Air Force reported they had successfully carried out a pinpoint strike on a key terrorist compound. They went so far as to claim that as many as 350 terrorists and trainers had been killed in the raid.
Pakistan had a different story: the Indian jets only crossed a few miles over the LoC and unloaded a few bombs on empty countryside before skidaddling back home.
Now, a bombshell new investigation (forgive the pun) by Reuters seems to bolster the Pakistani version of events. Satellite images of the area that India claims to have struck show no discernible signs of damage of any kind to the madrassa that India supposedly destroyed. In other words, unless Modi and the gang in Mumbai come up with credible evidence to the contrary, it seems they have been caught in a bald-faced, outright lie about a military operation right smack dab in the run up to Modi’s re-election campaign.
Regardless of the potential political fallout from the story, there is another type of fallout that is of concern to humanity as a whole: nuclear fallout. At the height of the crisis on February 27th, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired a meeting of Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority, asking his Indian counterparts: “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?”
The answer, of course, is no. Which is why the fiercest fighting between the two countries in decades is not to be taken lightly.
Compounding all of this are the two elephants in the room that I’ve discussed at length here before: Uncle Sam and his Chinese counterpart (Uncle Chan?).
Regarding China, readers of this column will already know about China’s $62 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to form new trade routes across Eurasia, where all roads will lead to Beijing. Last time we checked in with these strange bedfellows there was the sense that India and Pakistan had turned a corner. They had both just become full-fledged members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, pledging themselves to closer economic, political and even military coordination.
But of course, any honeymoon between the feuding parties was short-lived. Remember in September 2017 when Xi held the First Annual Belt And Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing? You know, the highly-prestigious event to bring together 28 world leaders to kiss Emperor-for-Life Xi’s bottom and beg for that filthy infrastructure money? And remember how India boycotted the forum because the CPEC passes through Kashmir? The message was loud and clear: Mumbai is not going to sit back and let Beijing establish a new geopolitical reality in one of the most contested patches of earth by just throwing some yuan around.
As I reported at the time, China is walking a tightrope between India and Pakistan, doing its best to upset neither side (or, at the very least, to upset both sides equally). No surprise, then, that Beijing’s response to the current crisis in Kashmir is as neutral as possible, merely calling for restraint on both sides.
And no surprise either that the other elephant in the room, Uncle Sam, is keen to drive that wedge as far as possible. As I reported last year, the Trump Administration has gone so far as to attempt to rebrand the Asia-Pacific region as the “Indo-Pacific” in an attempt to butter Mumbai up for its new role as US proxy/roadblock to China in Eurasia. Unfortunately for Modi, Washington is (as always) playing a double game: Propping up India as their main Asian ally on one hand and supporting their enemies on the other. Pakistan’s use of F-16s purchased from the US during recent aerial dogfights has been a matter of some concern in the region over the last couple of weeks.
So now we have a perfect mess in Kashmir. It contains territories administered by three nuclear powers, all of whom have been to war in the region within living memory and all of whom have their own tangle of political, economic and military interests in the area. And now there is the ever-present specter of the nuclear gorilla, the US, hanging over the region, too.
At press time, it seems the most spectacular fighting in the area—the strikes and counter-strikes, aerial dogfights, downed jets and captured pilots—is calming down, but the story is far from over. The sentiment that an all-out war to settle the matter once and for all is gaining strength as India engages in a crackdown on Kashmiri independence campaigners and reports of clashes with terrorists in Indian-administered Kashmir continue to filter out of the region.
In other words, Kashmir is a powder keg. All it needs is a lit match. So don’t be surprised if the historians of the future treat our apathy over skirmishes in Kashmir in the same way we treat the apathy of people a century ago over the skirmishes in the Balkans.
“What does that have to do with us?”