India & Pakistan border hostilities likely to continue as Islamabad seeks to intensify Kashmir debate

Pakistani troops: Photo - AFP

Pakistani troops: Photo – AFP

On January 13, in a joint conference with Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs, visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry asked Pakistan to work with India to establish peace. However, Aziz ruled out any dialogue with India if the disputed Kashmir region was not part of negotiations. Kerry made the comments after holding talks in India, where President Obama will visit later this month. The Pakistani stance comes as tensions have escalated considerably between India and Pakistan since the last quarter of 2014. The said tensions have been most clearly evident in numerous cross-border clashes between Indian and Pakistani troops in parts of the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir. Both sides have accused the other of being behind the escalation. Since December, around a dozen fatalities on both sides have been recorded. The most serious incident came on December 31, when five soldiers on both sides were killed.  Much of the recent fighting has been focused to the International Border between India and Pakistan, on the southern flank of Jammu and Kashmir. The International Border is a relatively smaller border portion in the overall disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. Both sides say hundreds of ceasefire violations were recorded in 2014, with unconfirmed reports indicating that the year saw the most border incidents since the current ceasefire came into being in 2003.

In that context, in late December, India’s defense minister instructed commanders stationed along the border with Pakistan to intensify retaliations against Pakistani fire. As a result of cross-border fire, which occasionally lasts for hours on end, Indian officials in New Delhi have reportedly asked local authorities in Jammu and Kashmir to construct fortified bunkers for local populations.  Over ten thousand Indian civilians have fled their communities along the border with Pakistan as a result of cross-border fire, which has mostly involved mortar and small-arms fire. Pakistani reports have also alleged Indian fire into Pakistani civilian areas.

Furthermore, the latest tensions come on the heels of ongoing negotiations to form a government in Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigned heavily for the region’s state assembly elections. After performing reasonably well, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the BJP are now trying to form a government. Turnout was deemed a success for the BJP, especially given calls by pro-Pakistani separatists in Jammu and Kashmir to boycott the elections.

Meanwhile, and in conjunction with cross-border hostilities, the threat of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, and inside major Indian cities, persists. During the morning hours of January 14, two Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants reportedly encountered Indian security forces in the Chankhan area of Sopore, 40 kilometers northeast of Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir. Reports suggested that LeT commander Abu Huzaifa, was one of the two militants.

On January 15, reports indicated that Indian military officials believe approximately 200 Pakistan-based militants may attempt to infiltrate in order to attack what the government referred to as “soft targets,” including schools, civilian areas, and religious places. The Indian Army believes the militants are poised at 36 launch points throughout the Pakistani controlled area across the Line of Control (LoC) in the Pir Panjal range. Meanwhile, five militants were killed by Indian security forces in Gader in Shopian, Jammu and Kashmir on January 15. The five were reportedly affiliated with the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Hizbul Mujahideen. Indian forces conducted a search of the forested area after intelligence reports indicated militants had entered the region. Unconfirmed reports suggest the Division Commander of (JeM), Mohammad Toyib, was among the militants killed.

Tensions between India and Pakistan are longstanding and this has necessitated a highly militarized border between both countries. At present, the conflict between India and Pakistan is highlighted chiefly by continuous allegations that both sides are using militancy to undermine the others’ security, along with border clashes in Jammu and Kashmir. Both issues are linked. On top of their historic rivalry, there are several new factors that have further undermined bilateral relations between the two nuclear armed states and exacerbated instability along their shared borders.

First and foremost, Pakistan is highly volatile and under a heightened state of alert for militant attacks. Attacks occur daily, throughout the country, including in major cities. Warnings of militant attacks have also escalated following the December 16high-casualty attack in Peshawar. As a result, Pakistan has intensified its counter militancy operations nationwide, especially in the northwest tribal regions. Pakistan claims it has killed over a thousand militants from its now intensified operations in the northwest, named Khyber 1 and Zarb-e-Azb. Pakistan may be aiming to balance its military activity, given the relative controversy of targeting militant Islamists within traditional Islamic Pakistani society, while hostility to India remains a popular policy domestically. Therefore, internal Pakistani concerns regarding the prestige of the military following the launch of campaigns targeting Islamist militants could be bolstering an interest to escalate tensions with India.

Strategically speaking, Pakistan is also likely concerned over the continued American so-called pivot to East Asia. As a major strategic ally of America, Pakistan is likely concerned that the pivot, along with the end of American military operations in Afghanistan, could leave it increasingly isolated, thus forcing it to become more reliant upon American rivals like China and Russia for various kinds of support. Conversely, it is also likely that Pakistan is wary of growing ties between India and the US, highlighted by Obama’s upcoming visit. This could necessitate Pakistan to take steps in order to ensure its interests are secured.

As tensions with India have been a major focus of John Kerry’s visit to the region, it is possible that Pakistan aims to cite the increasing tensions with India to place the US as a mediator between the two sides. Additionally, Pakistan is likely to cite India’s growing military and economic prowess, along with the threat from internal Pakistani militants, when requesting further American assistance.

Pakistan likely has an interest to reinvigorate the Jammu and Kashmir debate, especially on the global stage. Islamabad is likely concerned that the regions will eventually be perceived as de-facto Indian or a non-conflict. As Pakistan ultimately aims to reclaim these areas, this may warrant hostilities in order to showcase Pakistan’s claim. Targeting the International Border could also be a Pakistani attempt to show that all of Jammu and Kashmir is under dispute, not just certain border markings. The lack of international concern resulting from India’s elections in the disputed regions only likely enhanced Islamabad’s views on this matter. Those elections were widely perceived by Indians as a referendum on Indian rule in the disputed regions.

Despite the tensions with India, national security and foreign affairs advisor Aziz’s statement indicates a possible Pakistani interest in renewing talks with India over Kashmir. Direct military pressure could be a method to achieve this goal, especially as President Obama could use his visit to urge India to engage in fresh negotiations with Islamabad. PM Modi of India, however, is a Hindu nationalist and likely wary of entering negotiations meant to retake territory under Indian control. The elections in Jammu and Kashmir likely served to further cement his hesitation towards negotiations over these disputed regions. Also, Modi is likely cognizant of the strategic ramifications of bending to Pakistani demands at a time of rising concerns of future tensions with China. Both China and India have active border disputes in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, which led to a brief war in 1962. Furthermore, the recent cases of Pakistani shelling of Indian border villages, as opposed to fighting positions, may have been an effort to exert further pressure on the Indian government to ultimately force it to the negotiating table.

In that context, the Indian threat of severe retaliation was likely meant to deter Pakistan from taking more aggressive steps that could force India into another border war. The current BJP government is likely keen to avoid an escalation at this time, as this could complicate the establishment of a new government in Jammu and Kashmir, and counter an overall national security strategy to reach strategic parity with China. As mentioned above, Pakistan may be hoping that PM Modi will choose negotiations to ease the fighting in Kashmir.

If negotiations are the goal, Pakistan is likely of the impression that a certain and calculated level of force is required to achieve this. This assessment is bolstered in that much of the recent fighting has taken place along the southern International Border of Jammu and Kashmir, which is manned mostly by the Indian Border Security Force. Their positions are less fortified when compared to the regular and better-armed Indian army troops positioned in the rugged mountains of northwest Kashmir. Moreover, tactical analysis from recent clashes points to efforts by both sides to control the level of escalation. They have refrained from using airpower and heavy artillery.

Altogether, tensions will remain high along the border in the coming weeks. Further clashes should therefore be expected, along with the possibility of a more widespread escalation. Such an escalation could result incidentally from unacceptably high casualties suffered by either side during bouts of cross-border shelling. Nonetheless, much of the fighting, even the possibility of an escalation, and will remain localized to Jammu and Kashmir, most likely the southern sector, over the coming weeks. Efforts to avoid such a development are likely as well, as both sides likely aim to keep the situation under control in order to protect their respective interests.

About Daniel Brode

Senior Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm in Israel. Articles have been published in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Al-Arabiya, and Hurriyet. Matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute; completed US Army Airborne School and an exchange program at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces Hamburg. Studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before receiving a B.A. from Duquesne University in History and a Minor in German. Graduated with a M.A. in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University. Interned as a research analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies in the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and represented Tel Aviv University in the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition. Completed mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
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