Alison Redford studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is the former premier of Alberta and spent a year as a consultant to the World Bank on energy regulation in Pakistan.
Regional issues between India and Pakistan can seem irreconcilable, being so far away from our daily lives in Canada. Yet, the consequences of the animosity of these two nuclear powers extends far beyond their own borders. We need to examine the events of the past week to support more constructive dialogue in the region and reduce the risk of growing military and nuclear conflict.
The various alliances that India and Pakistan have with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) mean that if hostilities increase, there is the risk of many countries becoming involved in the defence of their traditional allies. We have seen what this has meant in Afghanistan for the past 30 years and how that has affected the rest of the world.
The international community must look beyond the mounting narrative of historical misdeeds on both sides and stop allowing rhetoric to exacerbate this dangerous rivalry. Global powers have to stop relying on their historic biases in this conflict and must insist that unproven accusations are not sufficient to justify acts that can lead to war and escalation of the nuclear threat.
For too long, Pakistan’s actions have been unreasonably characterized as aggressive.
The primary conflict between India and Pakistan has focused on Kashmir, which continues to exacerbate a dangerous cross-border relationship. Seventy years of animosity have been based on both countries’ claims to the entire territory, a legacy from England’s empire, that illustrates how partition is still the dominant driver of their foreign policy and regional security goals.
Since 1971, both countries have observed a line of control, which has served as a de facto border. Although there have been incursions across this line, both sides had observed a buffer zone for military aircraft operations – until now.
On Feb. 26, the Indian Air Force crossed the line of control and attacked civilian targets in Pakistan. In response, the next day, the Pakistan Air Force shot down at least one Indian Air Force plane in Pakistani air space, capturing a pilot who has now been repatriated to India.
India’s justification for the original attack was that it was retaliating against Jaish-e-Mohammed, an insurgent group that claimed responsibility for an attack on Indian troops in Kashmir on Feb. 14.
There is no dispute as to the events that took place, but the characterization of them has made resolution more difficult. In various media outlets this week, Pakistan was characterized as the aggressor in this latest round of military activity.
The facts demonstrate a different reality. Indian military jets breached the line of control and launched an attack on civilian targets in Pakistan, (even boasting of civilian deaths), based on an unproven allegation that the insurgents responsible for the Kashmir attack against Indian soldiers were supported by Pakistan. In response, during the next Indian sorties, which appear to have been a second breach, Pakistan, acting in self-defence, shot down at least one Indian military jet in Pakistani airspace.
While some might argue that India was justified in its actions, which are questionable under international law, this also assumes that India’s claims of Pakistan’s support for Jaish-e-Mohammad are correct.
First, in media reports, India refers to 40 years of terrorist attacks against India by Pakistan without equal mention of terror attacks perpetrated by India on Pakistani soil, as recently as three months ago in Karachi, or India’s support for independence insurgents operating in the Northwest of Pakistan over the past 10 years.
Second, although in the past there have been allegations that Jaish-e-Mohammed has been supported by Pakistan, the organization has been banned in Pakistan since 2002 and support for its operations and training activity was withdrawn. Yet, India continues to assert this position, without providing evidence to support it.
Third, it is against the fundamental principles of international law to launch a military attack on civilian targets, which can be considered an act of war. In those circumstances, one can argue that Pakistan had the right to defend itself and that its response was both measured and reasonable.
On the Kashmiri question, Pakistan has called for United Nations mediation, but India has refused, saying that it is an internal issue, while violently suppressing a growing, and younger, local insurgent movement. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized India for using excessive force in 2017. More than 500 people, including 100 civilians, have been killed in 2018.
In recent months, India’s tactics have been increasingly violent, leading to more international criticism of its conduct and occupation of Kashmir, including most recently by British parliamentarians, and two resolutions at the OIC this past weekend condemning its violent actions in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also faces criticism domestically from Indian opposition leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, for manipulating these events to bolster Mr. Modi’s political support in an election year.
There have been times when both countries have been accused of being involved in unwarranted actions against the other and the international community is quick to ignore the complicated dynamics in the region and rely on history. Instead, each incident should be assessed on its own merits to avoid dangerous rivalries from being perpetuated. With a real nuclear risk, we cannot afford to be complacent.