Guest Opinion: A call for calm in Kashmir

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 1
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India and Pakistan perpetually shift between a steady simmer and a roiling boil. When relations reach the latter extreme, Kashmir quite often fans the flames.

Tension between the two nuclear-armed archrivals is at the highest it’s been in years, following a Sept. 18 attack on the portion of Kashmir controlled by India. Eighteen Indian soldiers were killed. India says the raid was carried out by a Pakistani militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and further asserts that the militants were actively supported by Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Pakistan denies any involvement.

Indians demanded that their government react swiftly and strongly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who up until the attack had been trying to establish better relations with Islamabad, opted to fight back Thursday with what India said were “surgical strikes” on militant bases in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir territory. Both sides spun their own versions of that retaliatory raid. India says a handful of terrorist bases were destroyed and that none of its soldiers were killed, while Pakistan insists it repelled the attack with gunfire that killed eight Indian troops.

A valley situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, Kashmir has been a flashpoint for conflict between Pakistan and India almost from the time they gained their independence from Britain. Each country claims a part of Kashmir, and Islamic militants on the Indian side have waged a yearslong insurgency for independence. Those militants have longstanding links to the Pakistani military. What really happens in Kashmir is often very murky, largely because it’s rare for journalists from either side to get approval to work there.

What’s clear, however, is that two nuclear-armed states with a history of intense animosity toward each other need to exercise restraint and stop appeasing the hawks on both sides of the border who crave inflicting damage — even annihilation — on their enemy.

The last time India and Pakistan approached a breaking point was in 2008, when a team of Pakistan-backed militants unleashed a devastating siege on the city of Mumbai that ended in the deaths of more than 160 people. Afterward, there were calls in India for military retaliation against Pakistan. Instead, New Delhi showed a surprising degree of restraint that eventually de-escalated the crisis.

India has diplomatic cudgels it can use that include suspending water agreements and trade ties with its South Asian rival. And it has the West, specifically the U.S., which can shut down the spigot of millions of dollars in loans and aid to the Pakistani economy, if Islamabad doesn’t begin cracking down on its homegrown terrorists. Pakistan needs to understand just how much damage it is doing to itself by using militant groups as proxies against India.

In the end, leaders in both countries know that economic growth represents the best path toward political popularity at home — not war with an archrival. India has forged an economy that competes in the big leagues and needs to stay on that course. Conversely, Pakistan’s economy is a paragon of dysfunction. The economy should be foremost on the minds of Pakistan’s leaders because for Pakistan, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Getting derailed by conflict in Kashmir distracts both countries from their economic aspirations. De-escalating the crisis keeps them both on track.