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The Explosive India–Pakistan Situation

Walter Russell Mead

The explosive situation in Kashmir is getting worse, and India and Pakistan, the two nuclear powers most likely to find themselves at war with each other, are closer to armed conflict now than in many years. The New York Times reports:

Escalating tension over the contested Kashmir region is presenting a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who needs regional peace to reach his principal goal of economic revival there. But Indian citizens have been clamoring for a response to what they say is a provocation by Pakistan.

The tension reached a boiling point on Sunday when militants attacked an army base in the Indian-controlled side of Kashmir and killed, at last count, 18 soldiers, setting off a war of words between the two nuclear powers, which have fought three wars in recent decades. India accuses the militants of having links to Pakistan.

The situation not only risks economic growth but could also send two nations skidding into a nuclear war.

Tick tick tick.

The last great crisis between the two rivals came early in the Bush Administration when, as Colin Powell puts it, U.S. diplomacy helped stop a nuclear war. The U.S. has less influence in Pakistan now than it did then, so Washington has less ability than to prevent escalation.

The Pakistani security establishment appears to view the unrest in Kashmir as a major strategic opportunity and is doing what it cam to fan the flames of religious conflict between the Muslim majority Kashmiri population and the Hindu nationalists now ruling India. It is a dangerous game, but it is one that the Pakistani state is addicted to and, as we have seen, one that it thinks will ultimately play to its advantage.

With militants coming from Pakistan attacking Indian positions and killing Indian soldiers, a wave of outraged patriotic emotion is sweeping much of the country. That makes it harder for the Modi government to develop and implement creative political ideas that could lower the political temperature in Kashmir and deprive Pakistani troublemakers of the openings they are currently exploiting to such dangerous effect.

For Indian Prime Minister Modi the crisis comes as a major test of his statesmanship. For Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif it comes as one more reminder of the strict limits on civilian authority in Islamabad. The more important the issue, the less the opinions and actions of Pakistan’s civilian politicians matter.

In the midst of all of this, Pakistan’s army chief is set to retire this fall, the WSJ reports:

Three years ago, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, took office in his country’s first transfer of power from one elected leader to another. Now, aides say, Mr. Sharif wants to preside over another democratic milestone: the on-time retirement of the army’s top officer, whose term is set to end in November.

Generals have dominated Pakistan’s coup-ridden 69-year history—heading military governments, fomenting opposition against elected governments, and pulling strings behind the scenes during periods of nominal civilian control. If Gen. Raheel Sharif steps down as chief of army staff, it would be the first time anyone has left the military’s most powerful job as scheduled in two decades.

The army chief may or may step down; the system itself cannot. The contempt, much of it justified, with which many in the military view Pakistan’s venal and, on the whole, not particularly competent civilian politicians, and the deep concern they feel for the future of the country, ensures that the defense establishment will not give the car keys willingly to the civilians.

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