For two decades, analysts have likened the squabble between India and Pakistan over Kashmir to “two bald men fighting over a comb.”
Much of the contested area’s land is inhospitably frigid, mountainous terrain. Much of the rest is high, rolling foothills of little more than thorn scrub and coarse grass, where wild sheep outnumber people.
Yet India and Pakistan have tugged over the territory since 1948. Twice, the hostilities have broken out into hot wars.
Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi recently made a bold move to consolidate control over the lands on the Indian side of the Line of Control. He moved more military forces into the region and asked pilgrims, students and tourists to leave.
Then Modi’s government introduced legislation to scrap the 1947 constitutional provision that granted a large measure of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.
Though the action was calculated and deliberate, it caught everyone by surprise. It’s likely to prove popular with many Indians. But what will Pakistan and Muslim extremist groups do? Will they escalate? We don’t know.
Modi said Thursday night that his government’s efforts to change Kashmir’s status from a state to a territory and end its special constitutional status will “free Jammu and Kashmir of terrorism and separatism.”
Historically, Pakistan has used Jammu and Kashmir is a means to end – a strategic pain point where Islamabad can ratchet pressure up or down when it wants to get Delhi’s attention.
While the two nations haven’t fought a full-scale war in decades, hostile action is never far off. They regularly exchange artillery fire over the Line of Control. Terrorist attacks on the Indian side – often supported by the Pakistani military – wax and wane. In February, the two sides downed jets in air combat.
Meanwhile, both countries wage constant propaganda campaigns against each other.
For its part, India has pursued a two-track approach: defending Indian territory on the one hand, while trying to more fully integrate the region with India proper through ever-increasing investment and infrastructure development.
What has never worked well is an effort to broker a diplomatic solution. Annexing Kashmir is an extremely popular and deeply emotional issue for many Pakistanis, and Islamabad is loath to give up on the one area where it feels it can exercise some leverage against its archrival.
The Indian government, for its part, doesn’t believe it needs a diplomatic solution to prevail in the end. And Delhi refuses to restart a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan until the latter abandons its support for terrorist groups.
Modi’s latest move shows that little has changed. And while unexpected, it was not entirely unpredictable. The manifesto of the BJP, Modi’s ruling party, has long called for this. And Pakistan has already done something similar with the portion of Kashmir it administers.
Why would Modi do this now, though?
Maybe Delhi was spooked by Trump’s July meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and subsequent reports that the U.S. is getting ready to pull out of Afghanistan. Perhaps the Indians were worried this might free up a new of wave terrorists to flood into Kashmir and saw a need to act preemptively.
Or perhaps Modi just figured his political power will never be stronger, so there is no better time. At this point, all we can do is speculate.
So, what role is there for the U.S.? Not much. Indians will consider this an internal matter and resent any outside attempt at intervention or coercion.
India has always rejected outside mediation in Kashmir, and the U.S. government considers the Kashmir dispute a bilateral issue to be resolved between India and Pakistan.
Unless the courts overrule the parliament, Modi’s move will likely strengthen his hand in the Kashmir dispute. For Pakistan, it’s a strong signal it is losing is last real leverage over India.
It is time for a shift in Pakistan’s strategic thinking. Rather than cling to a foreign policy founded on the belief that Pakistan can get ahead by holding India back, Islamabad would do much better to start working to promote regional stability, peace and prosperity.
If Pakistan does not make that shift, look out! Things may get very messy, very fast.