The most important story in the world last week may not have been the Trump-Kim summit or Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony. Instead, it might have been the brinkmanship between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
The two South Asian nations have fought four wars since independence in 1947, and they could have been on a path to a fifth, only this time with an arsenal that could mean catastrophic consequences for the region, if not the world.
The precipitating event was a Feb. 14 suicide car-bombing attack that killed about 40 paramilitary forces in India-administered Kashmir, an area also claimed by Pakistan in a dispute that’s one of the driving dynamics in the decades of enmity between the two countries.
Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan-based terrorist group, claimed responsibility, but India believes that Pakistan’s government is ultimately responsible because it hasn’t reined in JeM or similar terrorist groups.
But India went beyond blaming to bombing, and targeted what it said was a JeM camp in Pakistan. It was the most significant military escalation since each country raised the stakes with late-1990s proliferation.
Pakistan claims no people or structures were struck — just pine trees — but it retaliated by sending jets into Indian-administered Kashmir to drop bombs in open country in a display of strength. A dogfight ensued, and two Indian jets were downed — one in India (which India denies) and one in Pakistan.
The Indian pilot ejected and was captured by Pakistani forces in what could have been the tipping point into calamity. But the pilot was well treated, then soon released, and both sides have seemed to step back from the brink.
Now the two countries need to do much more.
In India, jingoism on social media and from ostensible journalists has whipped up an irresponsible war fever that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing an April national election, cannot allow to engulf his populace. Indeed, while Modi made his reputation as an unrepentant Hindu nationalist, he should be an Indian nationalist by embracing diplomacy over bellicosity.
In Islamabad, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan must go beyond bromides and convince Pakistan’s most powerful institution, its armed forces, that tacit acceptance of terrorist groups will ruin the nation. (Pakistan’s overdue arrest of dozens of JeM suspects on Tuesday is a good start.)
“These two countries had become gripped in an unsustainable cycle in which Pakistan backed various terrorist and military groups to launch attacks in Kashmir, and India, in my opinion, showed remarkable restraint for many years,” Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who specializes on South Asia, told an editorial writer.
India was rewarded as “the more mature partner” internationally, Smith said, but this pattern changed when Modi responded more martially in 2016.
From India, Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, told an editorial writer in an e-mail exchange that “India has primarily acted in self-defense.”
Ultimately, the Kashmir issue must be addressed. But Gopalaswamy said the solution needs to come from the two parties directly involved and that an outside power “should only involve itself if and when there is an invitation by both India and Pakistan to resolve the issue.”
That moment can’t come soon enough. As Khan warned after a meeting with his country’s National Security Council: “I ask India: With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?”
Then, with words that must be acted upon, he added: “Let’s sit and settle this with talks.”