“I have sent my family to relatives and keep my door locked,” said Mohammad Iqbal, 55. “When I am sure peace is restored, I will bring them back.”
Recent attacks involving Indian and Pakistani troops have been the worst border violence since a 2003 cease-fire. Now, with snow falling on the mountainous border, fighting has subsided and displaced residents are trickling home.
But analysts fear the calm will be relatively short-lived. While few expect another war, the flare-ups illustrate the simmering tensions that may only increase as the two countries jostle for influence in Afghanistan while U.S. troops withdraw.
“This is the new normal,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow and South Asia analyst at the Brookings Institution. “This is going to be just like the Middle East, but only with two countries with nuclear weapons.”
The fighting this fall, which included artillery and mortar fire, claimed civilian and military lives on both sides of the border. Ominously, it took place not only in Kashmir, which has been a source of tension for decades, but also farther south on the outskirts of Sialkot, an industrial area known for producing quality soccer balls.
Since predominantly Muslim Pakistan was separated from mostly Hindu India in 1947, the countries have fought two wars over Kashmir, which is divided between them but has a majority Muslim population.
Each side has blamed the other for the recent fighting.
Pakistanis speculate that the Indian government is becoming more aggressive toward its neighbor, in part to gain support ahead of national elections. Meanwhile, Indians accuse Pakistan of failing to rein in Islamist militants seeking an independent Kashmir. Some of the militant groups are widely suspected of having ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
The conflict started in January, when Pakistan accused Indian forces of killing a Pakistani soldier on the disputed border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control. India then claimed Pakistani soldiers or militants crossed the border and killed three of its soldiers.
In August, the feud took a dangerous turn when five Indian soldiers were slain in Kashmir. Pakistan denied responsibility but shelling between the two sides escalated.
Last month, Pakistan’s military accused India of firing 4,000 mortar shells and 59,000 machine-gun rounds during a two-day period that coincided with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with President Obama in Washington. One of those shells killed the rickshaw driver in Tahir Joian.
“We were forced to retaliate,” said Brig. Mateem Ahmed Khan, a senior commander for Pakistan’s border force near Sialkot. He accused India of stoking the tension to undermine Sharif’s visit to Washington. “It was a rain of fire coming down on our villages and posts,” he said.
With Pakistan restricting Western reporters’ access to the border, it is difficult to verify the claims of its military. In Tahir Joian, chunks of concrete were missing from walls and a hole was visible in a thatched roof, but there did not appear to be widespread damage.
Efforts to avoid crisis
When a reporter visited a Pakistani ranger outpost recently, soldiers were looking out over a tranquil border, listening to music from an Indian Border Security Force bunker about a quarter-mile away.
The sound of music across the border underscores a crucial point: Unlike previous conflicts in the 1990s and early 2000s, which led to fears of another major war, India and Pakistan are working to keeping their skirmishes from turning into an international crisis.
The directors of military operations for both countries hold weekly conference calls to try to keep hostilities in check. Khan recently met his Indian counterpart at the border to discuss matters such as how Indian forces can clear brush around their outposts without fear of being targeted.
Sharif, who campaigned on improved relations with India before taking office in June, is pressing for security and trade negotiations with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Though the two met in late September, Singh has appeared hesitant to engage in substantive talks, expressing concern that Pakistan is not doing enough to control Islamist militant groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.
But many Pakistani analysts doubt that this country’s military is to blame for the tension, since it is focused on battling domestic militants. A bloody insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban has claimed more than 45,000 lives.
“Pakistan is preoccupied with domestic issues at the moment, so the military would have no interest in heating up the Line of Control, none whatsoever,” said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. “In fact, it has an interest in assuring all is peaceful on the eastern front so it can focus on the western front” with Afghanistan, an area where many militants are based.
Lodhi said Singh may be adopting a tougher approach to Pakistan because of Indian elections in the spring. Singh is stepping aside, but his Congress Party faces a stiff challenge from the BJP party, led by Narendra Modi, an ardent Hindu nationalist who wants to take a harder line with Pakistan.
The Afghanistan factor
Even after the elections, analysts fear, the India-Pakistan border could turn volatile as the two countries struggle for influence in Afghanistan.
In recent months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been reaching out to India for military aid, a potential alliance that unnerves Pakistani leaders, who fear their country could become further isolated in the region.
To Pakistanis, their nation’s regional importance was highlighted this summer when U.S. officials turned to the country for help in trying to arrange peace talks between the Taliban and Karzai’s government. The talks ultimately didn’t happen.
In Pakistan, some officials believe India escalated tension at the border to draw attention away from Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts.
“India was anxious it was getting left out and that Pakistan was not taking it seriously,” said Riaz Khokhar, Pakistan’s foreign secretary from 2002 to 2005.
Sushant Sareen, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, called Khokhar’s comments “utter rubbish.” The real cause of the skirmishing on the border, he said, was Pakistan’s unwillingness to stop Islamist militant groups from crossing the border.
In recent weeks, before snows in the Himalayan mountains made passage difficult, as many as 100 Pakistani insurgents sneaked into Indian territory, according to Indian intelligence and security officials. They say the insurgents plan to carry out attacks before the elections and stoke separatist fervor in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
“Before, there was this looming American presence in the region that kept things from happening,” Sareen said. “But now, with that focus shifting from the area, it’s going back to business as usual.”
Annie Gowen in New Delhi and Babar Dogar in Lahore, Pakistan, contributed to this report.