Taliban militants provoke nervous nuclear-armed nations in Kashmir
Residents of Indian-controlled Kashmir were this week warned by the Indian government to prepare for a possible nuclear attack as cross-border clashes increase. New Delhi downplayed the warning as a “normal exercise”, but tensions remain high in the disputed borderlands.
A recent series of clashes between Pakistani and Indian troops near the Indian town of Uri has reinvigorated a barely tamed conflict between the nuclear-armed nations.
Spats are historically not uncommon along the flashpoint Line of Control dividing the Kashmir region between the two nations. But the latest clashes broke a relative calm in the borderlands.
A Pakistani soldier was killed January 6 after what Islamabad claims was a raid by Indian troops into Pakistan. New Delhi denied the accusation, claiming self-defence, pointing the blame at Pakistan instead.
Indian troops were apparently caught on January 8 reportedly straying into Pakistan in heavy fog and were promptly ambushed by Pakistani soldiers, resulting in two dead Indian soldiers.
In what seems to be par for the course, it was Islamabad’s turn to deny the events. And a cursory glance could be forgiven for filing the attack under ‘N’ for “Normal Kashmir Events”.
Yet what makes this particular firefight curious can be found deeper in the details. The official story, and the way the Pakistani military diplomatically penned its statements after the attack, hints at a more disturbing possibility.
An Indian military spokesman discussed in indignation the physical state of the soldiers killed in the wooded region of the Himalayas. An apparent mutilation of the pair – one was found beheaded, according to some military sources – has been slammed as unacceptable by Salman Khurshid, India's Minister for External Affairs.
Also, in what could be the same attack, Pakistani soldiers were reported firing on the stricken Indian patrol dressed as Sihks with “black headscarves”. Islamabad denies involvement in the attack, issuing an outright dismissal of the mutilation reports as propaganda by the Indian government.
It is unusual for state soldiers to mutilate bodies, lending some credence to the suspicion of militant involvement. If the attack report is accurate, and the shooters were Pakistani troops and not belligerent militants wearing stolen Pakistani uniforms – as they have been known to do – then Kashmir has entered a new and deadly phase.
The restive Kashmir region has long been a matter of national significance for both nations, which orient a large slice of their military toward the region, prepared for the zero-hour should a serious conflict ever develop.
Yet Islamist militants in the region are becoming a thorn in each nation’s side. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad can claim influence over the various groups scattered throughout the subcontinent.
Stateless and pursuing anarchic goals of widespread destabilisation in both countries, they pose a serious security risk in one of the world’s most populous regions.
Brave new world
Pakistan used to control, or perhaps a better word would be "handle", a network of these Islamist groups. Their proxy network of the Afghanistan Taliban and other Islamists proved useful in projecting Islamabad’s influence into Central Asia and south into the Indian subcontinent.
Since the United States and International Security Assistance Force began military operations in Afghanistan more than 10 years ago, the militants have focused on the Pakistani-Afghan border regions. Over the years two distinct branches have evolved, one with goals in Afghanistan and the other in Pakistan.
They are moving increasingly out of Pakistan’s control and are causing no end of strife for Islamabad. Suicide bombings and political assassinations have killed thousands of people in recent years.
But their fluid militant agenda may be changing.
The Pakistani Taliban, officially known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, issued a proposal earlier this month hinting it wanted to end attacks on fellow Muslims and open a new front against India from the disputed Kashmir region.
Further north, Pakistan and India cannot be sure the situation in Afghanistan will be stable in a post-US era. What will happen after the 2014 pullout is anyone’s guess, but negotiations between the four major nations concerned are proceeding apace.
The reality is that the political and security situation in the region is changing rapidly.
With such a volitile region as Kashmir, disputed by nuclear-armed nations on constant alert and aware of the reality of an end to the US military presence further north, any provocation by militants could spiral rapidly out of control.
While regrettable, the latest Kashmir firefights are a timely reminder to the two nations that a knee-jerk reaction and reaching for the shiny red nuclear launch buttons is a scary possibility if care is not taken.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict