Avoiding Catastrophic Conflict in South Asia
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The alarming new standoff between India and Pakistan could end in any number of ways, from talks and a quick truce, to a series of military escalations that risk ending in a nuclear exchange. At such a perilous moment, the need for calm and dialogue is plain – but more than this is required. The longtime South Asian rivals need to recognize that when tensions flare, the spiral of escalation is unforgiving and hard to control. They should help each other to avoid it.
India sent fighter jets into Pakistan on Tuesday for the first time in decades, to bomb a suspected terrorist training camp in retaliation for an earlier suicide bombing that killed 40 members of the Indian security forces in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Then, having claimed that Indian bombs struck nothing but a deserted hilltop, Pakistan fired missiles from its own jets into Indian-controlled Kashmir, and shot down and captured an Indian pilot. India’s government now faces pressure to retaliate again.
These symbolic exchanges, once started, can lead to disaster. Both governments should resolve not to start or extend them.
That said, the root of the problem is clear: Pakistan’s sheltering of terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, which took credit for the attack that prompted this latest confrontation. Pakistanis have suffered at the hands of Islamic extremists. Yet their military and civilian leaders have let these groups operate openly in their country and attack its neighbors – India, Afghanistan and Iran. Until this stops, Pakistan cannot expect to be respected as a law-abiding nation.
India also has cause to reflect. Kashmir is unsettled after more than 70 years and a new generation of Kashmiris has grown radicalized partly because successive Indian governments have clamped down on dissent and treated Kashmiris like second-class citizens. Security forces have responded to recent protests with excessive force. Many Indian politicians think Kashmiris should be punished for disloyalty. As well as being plainly counter-productive, this is beneath a country that prides itself on being the world’s biggest democracy.
The media in both countries have been irresponsible. Rather than challenging officials and seeking facts, they’ve dealt in phony information and bayed for blood. With so much at stake, they should recognize their own duty to promote moderation and truth.
The international community, too, could and should do more. China has shielded Pakistan from international censure and has blocked efforts at the United Nations to designate the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, as a global terrorist. The U.S. erred in not forcing Pakistan to cut off ties to such organizations after the 9/11 attacks. The Trump administration has taken a tougher line recently, but it could go further – by weighing Pakistan’s status as a “major non-NATO ally” and using its influence in international bodies (such as the Financial Action Task Force, which monitors terror financing) to put pressure on Islamabad.
Pakistan has appealed to the UN to intervene and is hoping global powers will persuade India to show restraint. That would be good – but the international community should also insist that Pakistan take specific and concrete actions against Jaish-e-Mohammed and other militant groups.
The Kashmir dispute has held a sword over South Asia for long enough. All sides should recognize their interest in resolving the quarrel peacefully, and for good.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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