6 July 1999

Keeping Calm About Kashmir

Yes, the tension in the Himalayas is worrying. But not as much as many in the West seem to think.

By Gerald Segal

The scene seems set for another classic crazy conflict in the developing world. Some 16,000 feet up in the snowy peaks of Kashmir, two of the world's poorest countries look ready to go to war. The script includes bombastic rhetoric that Indians and Pakistanis conjure from their British imperial past. With flashbacks to the ancient religious roots of the conflict, and flash-forwards to the chance of looming mushroom clouds, the world seems ready for a war worthy to succeed Kosovo.

The reality is far more boring. Sure, tensions are higher in Kashmir than at any point since India dismembered Pakistan in 1971. Pakistan has supported infiltration into Indian-controlled Kashmir by well-armed insurgents. India has responded with air power (not used since 1971) and more troops than ever before. The risks of war are real. But stand back a bit, look more closely at history and the recent triggers of conflict, and it begins to look as though both sides have matters well under control. In 1971, Pakistan learned that it would lose a major war with India. Only a suicidal Pakistani leader (which Nawaz Sharif, the current prime minister, is not) would see virtue in being trounced by
India. Pakistan is fragile enough that any war with India might well complete the destruction of the nation.

For its part, India knows that no matter how bad things get with Pakistan, the condition is not life-threatening. Delhi does not need to move too quickly; India can do what it usually does every year when Pakistani insurgents slink across the line of control-take time to build up forces, creep up the sheer mountains and engage in the bloody process of retaking remote redoubts. This is a nasty and painstaking process, but it works, and the snow's return makes fighting impossible.

The soaring rhetoric of both sides often makes it hard to focus on the mundane and manageable military realities. But keep in mind that Pakistan is an unstable democracy with a rickety freedom of the press; India, meanwhile, is a raucous, stable but fragmented democracy. The hyperbole, in other words, is little more than the steamy air of politics. To Western ears the adjectives sound scary, but in South Asia they have long-since learned to watch the movements of troops, not those of politicians. Talk to officials privately, on both sides, and there is no sense of being on the path to major war.

What about the nukes? Worried Westerners misunderstand the impact in Kashmir of the nuclear tests in May 1998. These two developing countries, it is said, are thought to be too poor to afford first-class nuclear deterrence and too politically underdeveloped to manage crises. In fact, the South Asian nuclear balance shows that at least in some circumstances, nuclear weapons can enhance overall deterrence. The risk of nuclear war helps keep tension in Kashmir cool.

Nor is any outside power stoking the embers. The West, with its hands full in the Balkans, is cautious. The United States has correctly blamed Pakistan for this year's tension and implicitly warned that Pakistan would be held responsible if matters slipped out of hand. Russia and other Asian powers have also warned both sides to stay calm; even China, with a recent round of diplomacy, has been constructive.

Of course, though logic says the storm will blow over, there are countervailing signs. The largest uncertainty surrounds the role of the Pakistani armed forces. Was their support for the insurgents a calculated snub to a prime minister more committed to decent Indo-Pakistani relations than many of his predecessors? Some foolish parts of the Pakistani political and military system may think they can embarrass Sharif and win the next election. Elections are also a cause of uncertainty in India-with a caretaker government facing a vote in the autumn. But given the potential for demagoguery, it is remarkable how little division there is among the Indian politicians on the need for a calm but firm strategy in Kashmir. Of course, if casualties rise sharply and India suffers military reversals, the coming election may drive leaders to think about dangerous military solutions.

But assuming that autumn brings snow and calm to Kashmir, the crisis should abate. Worriers in the West should then rethink their biases about this and perhaps other conflicts in the developing world. Indians and Pakistanis are not a bunch of primitives who cannot calculate risk or value human life. They have a mature relationship with a distinct language of politics and war. They can make mistakes like the rest of us (should the West preach after Kosovo?) but they will have to make their own choices. As in the equally long and distinctive Arab-Israeli conflicts, peace only comes when the locals decide they have had enough, and see the virtue of seeking
prosperity by thinking more about connecting with the outside world. When you see India genuinely engaged in economic reforms, you will know that Kashmir may soon once again become a wonderful tourist resort.

Segal is the director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London