September 23, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Nuclear Powers Clash Over Kashmir

• Tensions between India and Pakistan have flared after militants killed 18 Indian soldiers in the disputed region of Kashmir.

• The attacks took place amid the backdrop of months of civil unrest in Kashmir sparked by the killing of a popular militant commander by Indian security forces.

• The deaths of Indian soldiers have put pressure on India’s Prime Minister for a robust military response, testing India’s historic policy of ‘strategic restraint’ toward Pakistan.

• The violence underscores the inherent risks of a heavily militarized border between nuclear adversaries.


Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated this week over the contested region of Jammu and Kashmir. On September 18, militants crossed over the Line of Control (LoC) from Pakistan into Indian-administered Kashmir (IAK) and killed 18 Indian soldiers in the town of Uri. The incident was followed two days later by an exchange of gunfire between Indian and Pakistani forces on the LoC, and a failed attempt by militants to infiltrate into IAK. Both sides have exchanged heated rhetoric in the aftermath of the incidents, raising the prospect of another military escalation between the two nuclear armed powers. 

Kashmir has been wracked by protests and violence since July 8, when Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, a popular rebel commander of the Kashmiri militant separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen. Wani had attained a celebrity status among pro-separatist Kashmiris, and his death sparked massive unrest. In response, India imposed a curfew over many parts of Kashmir and intermittently cut off internet and mobile services. The cycle of protest, crackdown, and escalation has continued to spiral, as India’s policing tactics—including the controversial use of pellet guns—inspire further protests. The violence since Burhan Wani’s killing has caused over 80 deaths, consisting mostly of Kashmiri protestors but also including several Indian security personnel.

The recent increase in violence along the LoC is challenging India’s policy of ‘strategic restraint’, which emphasizes political and economic responses to attacks emanating from Pakistan, rather than risking military confrontation. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi ran on a platform that emphasized a hard line against Pakistan, especially over the question of Jammu and Kashmir, and his parliamentary majority rests on the support of Hindu nationalist voters. The deaths of Indian soldiers at the hands of alleged Pakistan-backed militants has prompted calls from the Indian public for Modi to confront Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan is using the platform of this week’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to make its case to the world. In his speech to the assembly, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assailed India’s rule in Kashmir and lauded Burhan Wani as ‘the symbol of the latest Kashmiri intifada.’

The contest for international support puts the U.S. in a familiar strategic bind between the two countries, both of which are important security partners for Washington. As the world’s largest democracy and a potential balance to a rising China, India’s relevance to U.S. grand strategy in Asia is growing. Each time violence in Kashmir flares, India is quick to condemn U.S. military aid to Pakistan. At the same time, the U.S. considers Pakistan’s cooperation to be crucial for U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Thus, the fight over Kashmir puts the U.S. uncomfortably in the middle of a zero-sum diplomatic competition. 

The LoC is the most active flashpoint between India and Pakistan, and it has seen several major flare-ups in violence since the 1947 partition of India. The countries have fought several wars over Jammu and Kashmir, which both countries claim in its entirety. The frequent flare-ups along the LoC highlight the risks of a heavily militarized border between two nuclear armed adversaries, especially when non-state militant groups operate in the area. The mountainous terrain along the LoC is difficult for India to patrol, making it conducive to exploitation by militants who neither respect the military status quo, nor have to account for the fallout if the violence escalates. 

For the moment, neither India nor Pakistan is willing to risk all-out war, relegating retaliatory options to the political and economic realms. Despite calls from the Indian public for a robust response, the risk of a tit-for-tat escalation mitigates the strategic value of a strike into Pakistani territory; such a strike would be unlikely to curtail the threat emanating from Pakistan anyway. Nonetheless, the specter of nuclear annihilation has not stopped the two countries from going to war previously. Despite the regularity with which violence erupts in Kashmir, the high nuclear stakes promise to push the issue to the forefront with each flare-up.


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