A recent series of clashes between Pakistani and Indian troops near the Indian town of Uri has reinvigorated a barely tamed conflict between the nuclear-armed nations.
Spats are historically not uncommon along the flashpoint Line of Control dividing the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan military. But these military flare-ups broke a relative calm in the borderlands.
A Pakistani soldier was killed January 6 following what Islamabad claims was a raid by Indian troops into Pakistan. New Delhi denied the accusation claiming self-defence, pointing the blame of instigation at Pakistan instead.
Indian troops were apparently caught a few days later on January 8 reportedly straying into Pakistan in heavy fog where they were promptly ambushed by Pakistani soldiers, resulting in two dead Indian soldiers.
In what seems to be par for the course, it was Islamabad’s turn to deny the events. And a cursory glance could be forgiven for filing the attack under ‘N’ for “Normal Kashmir Events”.
Yet what makes this particular firefight curious can be found deeper in the details. The official story, and the way the Pakistani military diplomatically penned their statements after the attack, hints at a more disturbing possibility.
Following the attack, an Indian military spokesman discussed in indignation the physical state of the soldiers killed in the wooded region of the Himalayas. An apparent mutilation of the Indian soldiers – one of which was found beheaded according to some military sources – has been described as ghastly and unacceptable by Salman Khurshid, India's Minister for External Affairs.
Also, in what could be the very same attack, Pakistani soldiers were reported firing on the stricken Indian patrol dressed as Sihks with “black headscarves”. Pakistan denies involvement in this particular attack, issuing in thick coatings of outright dismissal to the mutilation reports as blatant propaganda by the Indian government.
It is extremely unusual for state soldiers to mutilate bodies of other dead soldiers, lending some credence to the suspicion of militant involvement. If the attack reporting is accurate, and the shooters were Pakistani troops and not belligerent militants wearing stolen Pakistani uniforms as they have been known to do, then Kashmir has entered a different field.
The restive Kashmir region has long been a matter of national significance for both India and Pakistan. The two nations orient a large slice of their military toward the region; prepared for the zero-hour should a serious conflict ever be touched off.
Yet Islamist militants in the region are a twisting thorn in each nation’s side. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad can claim influence over the various militant groups scattered throughout the subcontinent.
Such groups, stateless and pursuing anarchic goals of widespread destabilisation in both India and Pakistan, pose a serious risk to security in one of the world’s most populous regions.
Pakistan used to control, or perhaps a better word would be ‘handle’, a network of these Islamist groups. Their proxy network of the Afghanistan Taliban and other Islamist groups proved extremely useful in projecting Islamabad’s hand into Central Asia and south into the Indian subcontinent.
Since the United States and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began military operations in Afghanistan over 10 years ago, those groups have been focused on the Pakistani-Afghan border regions.
Over the years an unfolding evolution resulted in two distinct branches of the Taliban forming, one with goals in Afghanistan and one with goals in Pakistan.
They are tearing increasingly out of Pakistan’s control causing no end of strife for Islamabad. Suicide bombings and political assassinations have killed thousands of people in recent years.
But their fluid militant agenda could well be changing.
The Pakistani Taliban, known by their official name as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, issued a proposal in early January wishing to cease attacks on fellow Muslims in Pakistan and open a new front against India from the disputed Kashmir region.
Further north, Pakistan and India cannot be sure the situation in Afghanistan will be steerable in a post-U.S. environment. Exactly what will happen after 2014 is anyone’s guess but negotiations between the four major nations concerned are proceeding apace.
The reality is that the political and security situation in the entire region is changing rapidly, adding unpredictable variables almost monthly.
With such an inflammable region as Kashmir, disputed by nuclear-armed nations on constant alert with the imminent reality of a vacuum of U.S. military presence, any provocative activity by militants has the potential to spiral rapidly out of control.
So while regrettable, the events earlier this month are a reminder for the two nations that knee-jerk reactions reaching for the shiny red launcher buttons are a sobering possibility if care is not taken.