Sunday, 23 January 2022

Tension between nuclear-armed neighbors in South Asia

The latest confrontation between India and Pakistan involving tit-for-tat air raids has heightened tensions in South Asia. To begin with, the suicide attack on a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir by Islamist extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammad killed more than 40 troopers on February 14. Tensions peaked when Indian Air Force launched airstrike on Tuesday against terror camps in Pakistan in retaliation for the suicide attack. The situation worsened as Pakistan Air Force retaliated by shooting down an Indian fighter jet on Wednesday and arresting the pilot.

Increased crossfire has also been reported along the Line of Control (LOC) amid international calls to the nuclear-armed neighbors to rein in military action and sit across the negotiating table.

The conflagration has threatened internal security on both sides. The cost of military confrontation is too high for the vulnerable subcontinent going by the history of conflicts there. It would also do irreversible damage to regional political and economic order in the long run.

India and Pakistan have hardly been friendly neighbors since they separated in 1947. Bilateral relations have seen sharp fluctuations and the taste of bitter fruit of the war is not unfamiliar for both sides.

Although it is hard to maintain tranquility, it is quite necessary for both sides, especially for India, to keep tempers from rising as it will be holding parliamentary elections in less than three months.

The latest harsh military retaliation has escalated the conflict without solving the problem of terrorism. Use of force will not address the situation. The latest attack was worse than the 2016 Uri attack, when Pakistani Islamic terrorists killed 17 Indian army personnel. India responded to the Uri attack by carrying out surgical strikes across the LOC. However, retaliation did little to change the ground reality in the Valley, particularly in South Kashmir, which was the center of the new attack.

Besides, the election matters. The volatile run-up to the vote could itself foment antagonism and provoke ethnic hatred. In an election year, a muscular response to avenge the killings would complicate the situation. It is not hard to recall the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber during the 1991 election campaign and the bitterness it generated between India and its southern neighbor for years.

Nuclear weapon also matters. It would be hard for India to impose pressure on Pakistan while at the same time not getting closer to the nuclear red line. Avoiding nuclear conflict is important not only for the two countries but also for the region. The 1999 Kargil war came close shortly after both India and Pakistan going nuclear.

Restraint is not easy when a country has suffered such a horrible attack. However, terrorist organizations are common enemies of both India and Pakistan. Pakistani people also have been victims of terrorism for the last few decades. India needs to deal with the problem by working with Pakistan and rallying support of the international community to fight terrorism.

The author is an assistant research fellow at the Center for South Asia-West China Cooperation and Development Studies, Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University.

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