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Amid rising border tensions, India and Pakistan set to meet

Indian paramilitary soldiers shield themselves as Kashmiri protesters throw stones during a protest in Indian-controlled Kashmir, India, Friday. The top security advisers of India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet Monday in New Delhi.
Indian paramilitary soldiers shield themselves as Kashmiri protesters throw stones during a protest in Indian-controlled Kashmir, India, Friday. The top security advisers of India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet Monday in New Delhi. AP

Top security officials from India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet Monday for the first time in two years amid the most intense fighting waged along their disputed Kashmir border since the nuclear-armed South Asian foes signed a 2003 cease-fire agreement.

Almost daily skirmishes throughout August have exacted a rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries along the so-called “Line of Control” that separates the Indian-administered half of Kashmir from Pakistan’s side.

Similar such escalations in Kashmir have turned into either full-fledged wars or prolonged localized conflicts in 1948-49, 1956, 1965 and 1999.

Despite repeated calls for restraint from the United States and other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the ferocity of the border skirmishes has increased since the first significant exchanges of mortar and small-arms fire in May.

South Asia-focused analysts predicted no agreement on reducing tensions would emerge from Monday’s scheduled consultation in New Delhi between Pakistan’s national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz, and his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval.

Disagreements over the agenda mean the two officials will engage in unstructured talks, Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has said.

Both governments will be under severe pressures from their respective oppositions to not soften their stances.

Arif Rafiq, Vizier Consulting

“I don’t expect anything substantive,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London. “But if the two sides can maintain the momentum, it can provide future opportunities.”

The analysts were split over whether the cross-skirmishes, which resumed in 2013 after renewed infiltrations of Pakistani militants into Indian Kashmir, could escalate into another war.

That would largely depend on Nirender Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, they concurred.

After being elected to power in May 2014, he ordered the Indian army to respond punitively to any provocations from Pakistan – effectively reversing a longstanding Indian policy of so-called proportionate responses intended not to provoke a reaction from Pakistan.

“Pakistan’s behavior follows a well-worn pattern of trying to seek international attention for Kashmir, but India under Modi is breaking past patterns,” said Husain Haqqani, senior South Asia fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute and a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.

“There is definitely greater likelihood of escalation in an environment that is less predictable than the past cycles,” he said.

Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed to resume bilateral engagements in July, on the sidelines of a summit meeting in Ufa, Russia, of the Shanghai Security Organization, a regional counterterrorism forum whose members include China, Russia and five Central Asian republics that were previously part of the Soviet Union. India and Pakistan are currently being inducted into the organization.

The agreement brought harsh criticism for both prime ministers from domestic opponents – Modi for backing down on his vow not to engage Pakistan as long as militant incursions continued, and Sharif for failing to gain recognition of the Kashmir dispute in the joint statement issued at Ufa.

Until Pakistan gives up its support for anti-India jihadists and India stops making Pakistan feel insecure, talks will not represent a breakthrough.

Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador

“Both governments will be under severe pressures from their respective oppositions to not soften their stances,” said Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, a New York-based political risk advisory specializing in South Asia and the Middle East.

“So while the national security advisers’ meetings were to be a precursor to meetings between the two prime ministers in New York (on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September), there’s a decent chance that they might be canceled or, if they do take place, will not produce a joint statement.”

In particular, Sharif has little room for maneuver because Pakistan’s powerful military exercises a veto over foreign and defense policy decisions.

Pant, the professor, said the escalation in border tensions was partly “an attempt by the Pakistani military to scuttle attempts by Sharif and Modi to reach out to each other.”

Opposition within India has magnified significantly since late July, following an attack by suspected Pakistani militants on a town in the Western Indian state of Punjab in which seven people were killed.

Militant strikes within the Indian hinterland are rare because they could spark a war.

Both sides have played hardball in the lead-up to Monday’s talks.

Pakistan this week invited Kashmiri politicians opposed to Indian rule to meet its national security adviser at its New Delhi embassy. India responded by placing them under house arrest.

That pointed to a prolonged diplomatic standoff, the analysts said.

“Until Pakistan gives up its support for anti-India jihadists and India stops making Pakistan feel insecure, talks will not represent a breakthrough,” said Haqqani, who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011.

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @tomthehack

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