Conflict in Kashmir: Why this old simmering conflict ignited

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NEVER TRUST an expert. Until last week, they were saying that India and Pakistan could never fight again: they are both nuclear powers and it was simply too dangerous. Now they are fighting again.

Until Wednesday the grizzled generals and suave analysts were sure that India could not possibly use air power to dislodge the 600 or 700 "mercenaries", "militants", "Afghanis", or "Pakistani soldiers in disguise" who had dug themselves in on the Indian side of divided Kashmir's de facto border.

Now, 40 or 50 Indian Air Force sorties later, that wisdom has evaporated. Two MiGs have been lost, two helicopter gunships brought down, eight Indian soldiers and (according to India) between 160 and 400 of the intruders killed. All this is certainly dangerous: the shooting down of the MiG was described by India as "a hostile and provocative act". But the campaign goes on.

Yesterday, Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, announced that he had used the hotline to his Indian counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and said that there would have to be talks on the Kashmir issue.

The word "war" has been used by India, then withdrawn as a slip of the tongue. But the surviving Indian pilot is being held by Pakistan as a prisoner of war. And the shooting down of aircraft in Indian airspace, as the Indians insist they were, by Pakistani missiles fired from the Pakistani side certainly looks like an act of war.

So the notion of what cannot happen between India and Pakistan is ripe for revision. If a campaign on this scale can happen, then why not another full-blown war like those of 1948, 1965 and 1971? If India's and Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons has not inhibited them from fighting this week, can it be relied on to prevent them from dropping those weapons on each other's cities?

Fifty years after the end of the first war, at least 300,000 Indian soldiersconfront a similar number of Pakistanis across the 1949 ceasefire line, which since 1972 has been called the Line of Control (LoC).

The passing of the decades might lead one to suppose that there had been a gradual, agreed scaling down of offensive readiness across the LoC.

Far from it. Just as the Indian and Pakistani border guards at Wagah in Punjab continue to glower at each other as they slam the border gates each evening, the jawans (soldiers) across the LoC are in a state of armed alert.

This week has produced several alarming precedents. The incident that provoked the Indian air strikes, the intrusion of 600 or more highly trained "militants" into the Indian side, is unprecedented. Infiltrations happen at Kargil every year when the snow melts, but they are hit-and-run affairs, involving a few men who quickly return to the Pakistani side.

This operation took the Indians by surprise, and was carefully planned, expensively supplied and, India admits, very difficult to dislodge. It has brought the first use of air power since 1971, and the logic of the campaign is for continuing incremental expansions.

One foreign defence specialist pointed out, for example, that the Indian aircraft were vulnerable to missiles based on the Pakistani side of the LoC. If air strikes continue, it would be prudent to destroy Pakistan's local ability to launch missiles. But this would undoubtedly be taken by the Pakistanis as a grave escalation. A further escalation which might tempt the Indians would be to hit Pakistan's brigade headquarters some 12.5 miles deeper into Pakistani Kashmir.

So far the war, if we may call it that, is going all Pakistan's way. Their action has hugely embarrassed the Indian government: the Lahore Declaration, promising negotiated solutions to disputes between the two countries, touted as Mr Vajpayee's greatest achievement, is now in tatters.

By leaving India with no realistic military option for flushing out the infiltrators except air strikes, Pakistan has made India appear the rash aggressor. They have brought Kashmir back to world attention; already calls are being heard for a UN envoy to be sent to the region. India has always insisted Kashmir is inalienably Indian; Pakistan insists its ownership is in dispute. Pakistan's only hope of keeping the Kashmir issue alive is by keeping that argument going. This week they have succeeded.

In the past two wars over Kashmir, Pakistan was crushed by superior Indian force. But last year's nuclear tests may have changed that. The balance which deterrence requires does not exist. For the first time in five decades of fighting, Pakistan has the upper hand. And Pakistan knows it.