Military tensions have been escalating this week along the Line of Control, which divides the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. Though periodic cross-border flare-ups between the South Asian rivals are not particularly unusual, this week's incidents portend the growing problems the two countries will likely face as the U.S. war in Afghanistan draws to a close and as Pakistan struggles to reassert control over its militant landscape.
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A recent period of relative calm had existed along the Line of Control until Jan. 6, when Indian and Pakistani forces clashed, leaving one Pakistani troop dead. Islamabad claimed that Indian forces had conducted a raid on a Pakistani post; India denied the accusation and said its soldiers returned fire only after being attacked. Two days later, New Delhi claimed that Indian forces conducting a patrol in heavy fog were ambushed by Pakistani troops a half-mile inside Indian territory. Two Indian troops were killed in the ensuing firefight, and Indian army sources reportedly claimed the bodies of the deceased were found badly mutilated — one supposedly had been decapitated — in a heavily forested area. The Indian military did not confirm the beheading, but it expressed outrage about the mutilation of the bodies. On Wednesday, Pakistan denied that its troops had killed "any Indian soldier" and described New Delhi's claim as propaganda intended to divert attention from the Jan. 6 clash.
Looking past the flurry of accusations, there are several aspects of this week's incidents that do not seem to fit the norm. The mutilation and possible beheading of soldiers are not common military behavior. Unconfirmed Indian media reports citing Indian army sources also claimed that the uniformed Pakistani troops that allegedly attacked the Indian patrol on Jan. 8 had been disguised in black headscarves commonly worn by young Sikhs. In a carefully worded official statement, Pakistan denied that its soldiers had killed any Indian soldier, but the statement left open the question of whether militants donning army uniforms have been conducting cross-border attacks in hopes of triggering a conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Such a possibility is certainly concerning to India as it watches with unease ongoing negotiations about the shape of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Tensions in Kashmir have simmered in recent years, but violence there has not been nearly as intense as it was in the 1990s. It's no coincidence that this relative lull has coincided with the Afghan war, which caused Pakistan's carefully crafted militant proxy network to unravel and militant activity to concentrate in the Pakistani-Afghan border region. While Washington, Islamabad and the Taliban are attempting to forge a deal that would allow U.S. forces to withdraw, the Taliban to gain political recognition and Pakistan to fill a power vacuum left by the United States, India is trying to anticipate how it could be harmed by such an arrangement.
The Pakistani Taliban, operating under the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan banner, senses that it would be one of the losers in a deal between the United States and Pakistan. While Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar will likely play a big role in negotiations, the Pakistani Taliban sit in a different camp. The group's militant campaign has stemmed from its hostility against the Pakistani military establishment, and it would likely be viewed by Islamabad as military targets rather than negotiating partners.
This likely explains why the Pakistani Taliban has pre-emptively called for a truce with the Pakistani military. In a lengthy statement released Dec. 27, the militant group said it was willing to forgive Pakistan's military and political forces for acting as "mercenaries for America" and start cooperating with the state on a revised agenda. Most notably, the group said that instead of waging violence against Muslims, the military should prepare to take revenge for Pakistan's 1971 war with India in a campaign that would "add the potential of Kashmiri mujahideen" to Pakistani forces. In a rare video appearance on Jan. 6, top Pakistani Taliban leader Wali Ur Rehman pledged to send fighters to Kashmir and wage a struggle for the implementation of Sharia in India. Two days later, the prominent chief of Kashmiri militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, Syed Salahuddin, called for an armed struggle to resolve the Kashmir dispute.
India has good reason to be alarmed by this apparent attempt to redirect militant attention toward Kashmir. In the past, the Pakistani military regularly shuffled militants between fronts according to its strategic needs, enabling New Delhi to hold Islamabad responsible for militant attacks staged in Pakistan. But as revealed by the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Pakistan no longer has a firm grip over the militants operating within its territory. Indeed, in what has developed into an extremely messy militant landscape, Islamabad is struggling immensely to discern hostile militants from those who are reconcilable.
While Pakistan attempts to sort through this militant morass, the last thing it needs is additional pressure from its larger and more powerful neighbor, India. But neither Islamabad nor New Delhi will necessarily be able to fully control the emerging situation, even if the two sides attempt to work together behind the scenes. Thus, closure for the United States in Afghanistan may well lead to conflict between India and Pakistan down the line.