Two of the world’s most acrimonious neighbors also happen to be among the few countries on the planet to have nuclear weapons. Long-running tensions between India and Pakistan center on the border region of Kashmir, an area in the Himalayas claimed in full — and ruled in part — by both. Violence flares often, as it did early in 2019 when a terrorist attack led to the most serious military escalation in more than a decade. The repeated skirmishing is playing out against a backdrop of superpower jockeying by the U.S. and China.
1. Why do they distrust each other?
The independent nations of India and Pakistan were created by the partition of British India in 1947, a split largely driven by religion: Pakistan became primarily Muslim while India remained mostly Hindu. The drawing of new borders uprooted 14 million people and resulted in sectarian violence that killed as many as 1 million people. The two countries have fought three major wars since then, two of them over Kashmir. Pakistan’s leaders have seen India as an existential threat since the partition; some think India still harbors hopes of reversing the split. India has been frustrated by what it sees as the Pakistan military’s support for terror groups that strike inside its territory.
2. What’s so special about Kashmir?
At the time of partition, India and Pakistan courted the subcontinent’s various kingdoms (which were only indirectly ruled by the British) to join their fledgling nations. The Hindu ruler of Muslim-majority Kashmir — a region roughly the size of the U.K., with a population of some 12 million today — dithered over which to join. Pakistani politicians sponsored an invasion by irregular fighters, India intervened and the two countries fought to a stalemate. Today they face off along a 460-mile (740-kilometer) de facto border known as the Line of Control, one of the world’s most militarized zones. The region also includes two areas that are controlled by China and claimed by India.
3. How often do they fight?
Artillery and small-weapons fire are exchanged often, but clashes rarely escalate to the level seen in February, after a suicide bomber killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in the part of Kashmir controlled by India. Jaish-e-Mohammed (Soldiers of Mohammed), a Pakistan-based jihadi group, claimed responsibility. India responded with its first airstrikes on Pakistani soil since 1971, which led to an aerial dogfight. Tensions eased when Pakistan returned a captured Indian pilot. It was the closest the two countries had come to another war since an attack on Parliament in New Delhi in 2001 that was blamed on that same group and another, Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure). In August, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned that escalating tension in Kashmir had the potential to “blow up into a regional crisis” after India deployed extra troops and evacuated thousands of tourists, students and pilgrims citing terrorist threats.
4. Does Pakistan harbor terrorists?
Yes, according to its neighbors, the U.S. and many other countries. U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 withheld $2 billion of security aid to Pakistan, saying it provided a haven to the “terrorists we hunt” in neighboring Afghanistan, including Taliban insurgents. The leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for deadly attacks across Mumbai in 2008, also live in Pakistan, as did al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden. The multinational Financial Action Task Force has Pakistan on a grey list of countries with inadequate controls over money laundering and financing of terrorism. Khan has vowed to curb militant groups, some of which (such as the Haqqani network) grew out of the U.S.-backed fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But Pakistan’s civilian leaders have had little power to shape foreign or security policy, an area dominated by the military and the main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The country’s generals have been accused of supporting such groups as proxies to indirectly harry Indian forces and to prevent Afghanistan from falling under the influence of India, a prospect that provokes fears of encirclement in Pakistan.
5. How are China and the U.S. involved?
India has moved closer to the U.S. as it keeps a nervous eye on China’s growing influence across Asia. Pakistan is among the biggest beneficiaries of China’s regional infrastructure initiative, attracting some $60 billion of investments including in the part of Kashmir administered by Pakistan, much to India’s consternation. While Pakistan still serves as a key supply route for American forces operating in Afghanistan, U.S. influence in Pakistan has waned. Trump can’t afford to alienate Pakistan entirely, however, as he wants to withdraw U.S. forces from the Afghan conflict and Pakistan has played a key role in bringing the Taliban insurgents to the negotiating table.
6. Any resolution in sight?
Khan, who took office in 2018, has called for renewed dialogue with the Indian government. His Indian counterpart Narendra Modi used the February clash to whip up his supporters and win re-election, then quickly carried out a campaign promise to revoke the region’s autonomy. The move gives the federal government complete control of the police there, which risks inflaming tensions. Previous peace talks have come to nothing. The U.S., China and other world powers urge restraint when crises flare. Pakistan and India remain wary of a full-blown conflict, each deterred by the other’s nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, the people living in the Kashmir region have endured decades of human-rights violations violations and abuses at the hands of security forces on both sides, according to a 2018 report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
To contact the reporter on this story: Iain Marlow in New Delhi at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at firstname.lastname@example.org, Paul Geitner, Grant Clark
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