Line of Control, Contention and Contestation 7 November 2013
Recently, the Line of Control (LOC) dividing contested Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has again become contentious. The ceasefire that Indian and Pakistani military forces declared in November 2003 has been essentially abrogated, while the number of cross-LOC incidents has increased to pre-ceasefire levels. The reasons for the increase in incidents are unclear, but there are a number of possibilities.
According to the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24700088), India claims almost 200 LOC violations this year. Pakistani counter claims of Indian violations are similar. (See http://tribune.com.pk/story/622293/loc-violation-indian-firing-injures-three-in-sialkot/). Even though the United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan was established to observe and monitor LOC violations, it does not publicly report or discuss these. Therein, therefore, lies one of the great challenges of India-Pakistan relations: verifying exactly who did what to whom and when.
LOC incidents seemingly start for no reason, after which there is an equivalent response by the other side’s militarily. Exchanges involve small arms fire, artillery barrages and, lately, deadly sniper fire, including against civilians. Last January, my blog piece titled ‘A LOC-al affair …’ etc. (http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2013/01/25/a-loc-al-affair-and-india-lacks-a-covert-capability-for-use-against-pakistan/) discussed why there had been increased ‘aggression and hostilities’ over the LOC, including in relation to the alleged beheading of an Indian soldier. I predicted, correctly on this occasion, that ‘if history tells us anything, there indubitably will be more [incidents] in future’.
With the benefit of a further nine months of cross-LOC incidents, a number of factors appear to be promoting the current upsurge of violence. On the Pakistan side, a new Chief of Army will be appointed later this month. Possibly, some ‘rogue’ commanders either have been operating pro-actively or they are trying to impress leaders in Islamabad. Equally, the Pakistan Army may be trying to show Pakistan’s politicians, especially Nawaz Sharif, who is currently serving as the prime, foreign and defence ministers, that the military is the paramount power in relation to India-Pakistan relations. Sharif, who wants civilian control over the military, has a battle on his hands that he may win, but probably only on the margins. The Pakistan Army is too big and powerful to be tamed by Pakistani politicians.
Another factor may be Muslim Taliban-type militants, ‘encouraged’ by their Pakistani religious and military ‘supporters’. With Indian forces having made the LOC almost impenetrable, these men from south-eastern Afghanistan or north-western Pakistan may be proxies fomenting problems for ‘Hindu’ India on the LOC. This seems unlikely. Afghanistan is currently so unstable that Taliban-type elements need to be there to militarily advance their own group’s position, particularly as the bulk of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will leave Afghanistan next year. Equally, the Pakistan Taliban is under significant pressure, as Hakimullah Mehsud’s recent death shows. It has little spare capacity to operate outside north-western Pakistan. Only militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba appear able to do so, although they currently are keeping a low profile, possibly to help Pakistan appease the US. Equally, these groups’ leadership may be waiting to see how Pakistan fares under the new Sharif government or they are keeping their ‘powder dry’ in order to influence events in Afghanistan in 2014.
Increasingly, Islamabad is becoming anxious about the post-ISAF situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan is nervous about its neighbour’s future stability and about whether the Afghan regime will be sufficiently amenable towards Pakistan. A more pressing problem is whether the United States and other Western nations, such as Australia, will still be interested in Pakistan after 2014. Islamabad is realising that Pakistan may become strategically isolated and/or irrelevant. Such feelings are heightened as India-US relations converge, because India-Afghanistan relations are strong, and as India and China normalise their relationship, including via strong bi-lateral trade and, most recently, the signing of their Border Defence Cooperation Agreement.
Put simply, Pakistan is again feeling deeply insecure. Many Pakistanis have felt this way since 1947, particularly in relation to India. One cost-effective way for Islamabad to shore up Pakistan’s strategic situation and keep the world interested in this economically- and socially-troubled but nuclear-armed nation is to try (to again) internationalise the Kashmir dispute. This crude strategy worked in 1999 with the Kargil War, after which Washington sought to ramp down tensions in J&K. This time, the strategy seemingly involves creating incidents along the LOC. Thankfully for Islamabad, the active Indian (and foreign) media is happy to publicise such incidents. In response, Islamabad claims mis-reporting, Indian bias, or bellicose Indian nationalism.
Two factors drive India. Politically, next year’s national election is making both the Congress-led government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition want to appear to be strong about defending the nation. With the BJP currently appearing to be the electoral front runner, Congress may be ordering the Indian military to be pro-active and respond strongly to all Pakistani provocations. Militarily—and this may be the most significant factor—after the beheading of the Indian soldier in January, India’s Chief of Army, General Bikram Singh, told his troops to be aggressive when replying to any Pakistani violations of the LOC. For Indian soldiers, this unacceptable Pakistani act was not just ’cricket’. It went beyond the pale of what was acceptable on the battlefield. Indian soldiers have taken Singh’s order to heart, as evidenced by the recent statement by Major-General V.P. Singh (photo above), who is commanding forces in Indian J&K, about giving a ‘befitting reply’ to Pakistan at a time and place of India’s choosing. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGaMejgcxE4&feature=c4-overview&list=UU6RJ7-PaXg6TIH2BzZfTV7w.)
Consequently, the Line of Control is now a ‘line of contestation’. This situation is unlikely to change until after India’s elections next May. Then, a new, more politically-secure, Indian government may tell the Indian military to tone down its rhetoric and LOC activities. This may partially help Pakistan deal with its anxieties of feeling isolated and left largely alone to deal with an increasingly buoyant and self-assured India.
7 November 2013