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Peace proves elusive after clashes in Kashmir stir India-Pakistan tensions

Both nations are concerned about projecting power – domestically, as well as to their rival. But brinkshanship could get out of hand.

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    Indians living close to the border with Pakistan wait for transport to move to safer places after authorities ordered the evacuation of villages near the highly militarized Line of Control dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan, at Hamirpur village in Akhnoor, near Jammu, India, on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.
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Skirmishes between India and Pakistan have erupted in past weeks in the disputed region of Kashmir, renewing conflict between the two nuclear powers.

This week, Indian officials announced details of a raid in which Indian soldiers said they crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to strike against Pakistani-backed militants who had planned attacks in major Indian cities. The troops, said India, killed several militants before melting back across the LoC.

Or perhaps that wasn't the case at all: Pakistani officials, speaking anonymously, offered a decidedly different account, in which Pakistani forces spotted Indian troops as they approached the LoC and repelled them before they could cross, killing eight and capturing another.

A few details are clear: an Indian soldier has indeed been detained – though India says he was captured after he wandered mistakenly into Pakistani-held territory – and Indian authorities forced thousands of villagers to evacuate for safety, according to the Associated Press.

The incident follows a Sept. 18 attack by members of Jaish-e-Muhammed, a group of fundamentalist Islamic militants fighting to separate Kashmir from Indian control, against an Indian military base in Kashmir. Seventeen soldiers died and more than two dozen were wounded.

Such incidents have heightened concern that long-burning hostilities might turn into a full-bore war. And they further frustrate hopes for a lasting peace and resolution to a conflict that dates back to the two countries’ divorce in the 1940s, when the former British Indian Empire was split into majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan. 

Paul Staniland, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and co-director of its Program on International Security Policy, tells The Christian Science Monitor that he sees little common ground that could be built upon by the two countries' leaders.

"It would be nice to find that. But right now, the consensus seems to be that [Indian prime minister Narendra] Modi's government has given up on diplomatic engagement," he says. "They're on a diplomatic offensive at the UN" as part of a quest to "isolate and punish Pakistan" for recent attacks, including one on an Indian air base in January. 

International efforts to manage the crisis may have a limited effect, he adds, saying India "has zero interest in being told what to do by China and the US."

But the incidents aren't necessarily putting the sides on a direct march to a war. "It's not as escalatory as you can imagine," given the long history of skirmishes, Dr. Staniland says. "On the other hand, I'd be surprised if the Pakistani Army doesn't retaliate within days or weeks. Maybe they'll wait a while, but they will."

Another source of conflict has entered the mix in recent years, as the Monitor noted this week: the right to water, increasingly contentious as India has gone about building dams and erecting hydropower plants that channel energy to the rest of the country. Mr. Modi is considering a push to accelerate the construction of two hydropower plants, which would "maximize" the amount of water taken from rivers that connect the two countries.

Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, called the plan a breach of a decades-old treaty, and "an act of war or a hostile act against Pakistan." 

And since July, Indian-controlled Kashmir has been hit with unrest, with dozens of people killed in protests against the government, first sparked by the death of a pro-independence Kashmiri militant. Accusations of Indian troops' excessive violence during the protests has led to criticism from Mr. Nawaz, who called for an independent inquiry into extra-judicial killings in Kashmir at the United Nations.

"The obvious first step is that the major powers, particularly the US and UN, should have stepped in by now and said, 'Guys, this is not done,' " says Adil Najam, the dean of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, in an interview with the Monitor.

Perhaps occupied by other global crises, he speculates, neither the US or UN have pressured India and Pakistan as aggressively as they might have.

"The world is looking the other way as if this would just sort itself out. There's nothing in their history that should give you that hope," he says.

"What worries me about the brinksmanship is that, when you are playing a game of chicken, it only works if both sides are sensible enough to stop before the last moment. I don’t think both sides are sensible enough."

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