An Indian military operation in the Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir has resulted in the death of four rebel separatists including the commander of Hizbul Mujahideen. Riyaz Naikoo was one of the most wanted men in Kashmir, spending the last eight years on the run and evading Indian security forces. His luck ran out on Tuesday when he was killed by Indian troops in his home village of Beigh Pora. Naikoo had assumed command of Hizbul Mujahideen after the group’s former leader Burhan Wani was killed by security forces in 2016. Naikoo’s killing comes days after militants killed eight Indian security officers in two separate encounters in northern Kashmir.
On Wednesday morning, Indian authorities locked down mobile internet access across the region to prevent large crowds from gathering to mourn Naikoo’s death. The underlying fear here is that such a gathering will lead to more violence and unrest in the region. As a nationwide lockdown to combat COVID-19 continues across India, fighting between separatists and Indian security forces and army troops in Kashmir has intensified. Separatist groups like Hizbul Mujahideen have been fighting against Indian rule for decades, desiring either independence for the Kashmir region or to join Pakistan.
The next month will likely see tensions rise, and fighting increase in Jammu and Kashmir. Snow is beginning to melt in the mountainous region, making it easier for militants to cross the border from Pakistan. Historically, May is the time of the year when infiltration activities across the Line of Control reach their high point.
Kashmir is a long-established flashpoint and the focal point of Indo-Pakistani hostilities since 1948. 2019 saw the disputed region flare up once again, almost leading to open conflict between India and Pakistan in February. A suicide bombing by a Pakistani-supported terrorist group killed 40 Indian security personnel. Two weeks of rising tension followed, culminating with Indian and Pakistan launching airstrikes on targets in each other’s territory. The situation remained tense and then in August India’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special status threatened to spark a major conflict.
Over the past few days the situation along the Line of Control (LoC) has deteriorated with ceasefire violations bringing on cross-border shelling, and raids by Indian and Pakistani troops. The latest bout of fighting comes on the heels of Pakistan accusing India of moving medium-range ballistic missiles into Kashmir, and allegedly removing fencing in areas along the LoC. The Pakistani foreign minister warned India against “any misadventure” at the line, highlighting Pakistan’s concerns about events in the area.
Kashmir will continue to be an area worth monitoring in 2020. As the Modi government continues to project its nationalist-fueled domestic and foreign policies, the prospect of Kashmir erupting in fighting again remains high. Pakistan has relied on diplomacy to challenge India’s actions in Jammu and Kashmir. Unfortunately, those efforts have not forced India to reconsider its designs for J&K and its millions of Muslim residents. The Modi government’s new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is causing headaches on the domestic front. Violent protests, and unrest have broken out across India as opposition to the bill grows. Pakistan is worried India could be thinking about engineering a military conflict somewhere along the LoC to divert attention away from the anti-CAA protests.
As is evident above, the dynamic on the ground in Kashmir is made up of many moving parts. More important is the fact those parts are becoming more brittle as time goes on. Going into the new year, it will not take much to turn the region into a conflagration that could spark a major war, or worse. Bear in mind that both India, and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons.
Last week at the UN General Assembly Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan placed Kashmir back on the global stage with a thinly veiled warning. If the world does not pay attention to events in Kashmir, a nuclear war that engulfs the entire world will be the result:
“If a conventional war starts between the two countries … anything could happen. But supposing a country seven times smaller than its neighbor is faced with the choice either you surrender, or you fight for your freedom till death? What will we do? I ask myself this question … and we will fight. … and when a nuclear-armed country fights to the end, it will have consequences far beyond the borders.”
Khan’s contentious address to diplomats and world leaders in the general assembly hall was generally viewed as a threat wrapped in a warning about Kashmir following India’s move to integrate the territory with the rest of the nation. In spite of Khan, and many other Pakistani politicians’ efforts, India continues to charge ahead with its plans.
For its part, India responded to Khan’s rhetoric with calm and poise. Indian diplomat Vidisha Maitra called the Pakistani leader’s speech “brinkmanship, not statesmanship.” She also addressed Khan encouraging Muslims in Kashmir to rise up against the Indian occupiers, reminding him of Pakistan’s reputation as the home base for most terrorist groups in the region.
Pakistan has failed to muster collective outrage from fellow Muslim nations in Asia and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has informed India that it understands New Delhi’s actions in Jammu & Kashmir. This position was personally conveyed by the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to India’s senior security adviser Ajit Doval during a meeting in Riyadh Wednesday.
The real concern for the time being is not Pakistan and India turning the region into a pane of glass via nuclear weapons. The true danger is that Khan and Pakistan will encourage Muslim groups in Kashmir to launch attacks against Indian security troops and other government targets in the state. Action such as that could prove to be a catalyst which eventually makes Khan’s words last Friday prophetic in nature.
Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has pledged his country will not explore military options to deal with India’s decision to strip its portion of the Kashmir region of the special autonomy it has held since 1949. This statement has eased concerns of a possible military conflict breaking out between the two South Asian rivals as a result of the current situation in the Kashmir region. Pakistan, according to Qureshi, will rely on political, diplomatic, and economic measures to deal with the situation.
Pakistan’s actions over the past thirty-six hours have mirrored that pledge. The Pakistani government has downgraded diplomatic relations. Islamabad expelled the Indian High Commissioner, and recalled its own envoy from New Delhi. Trade ties with India have also been suspended. Even though this move is symbolic, it will hurt Pakistan’s economy more than India’s.
These moves have certainly matched the rhetoric coming out of Islamabad since Monday. Aside from the latest statement by the foreign minister, most Pakistani politicians have taken a more bellicose tone when speaking on events in Kashmir. The Minister of Human Rights has claimed India’s status change of Kashmir violates the Geneva Convention, which considers any change in a held area’s demographic composition to be a war crime.
There has been little independently corroborated information coming out of Jammu and Kashmir. The region is effectively on lockdown and a communications blackout is in place. Internet access is blocked, and a curfew imposed. Newspapers in cities across the two states are not being published. For the outside world, news is restricted mainly to government statements or reports by pro-Indian government media outlets. Travel restrictions are also affecting daily life in J&K considerably. The Indian government’s attempts last week to clear the region of tourists and foreigners was largely successful. Many nations around the world are presently advising their citizens not to travel to Kashmir until the situation there stabilizes.
For now it appears that India’s move to place Jammu and Kashmir under the full control of New Delhi is succeeding.
The beginning of the week has been a volatile one across the world from the Middle East to Asia. I am coming off of a long weekend and feel the best way to begin the week on here is with a brief on some of the world’s brightest flashpoints at the moment.
The Indian government has decided to fully incorporate the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into the nation. It will become a union territory and the central government in New Delhi will assume considerably more control over the state’s affairs. The Kashmir region has enjoyed almost full autonomous authority since 1949. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the section of the document allowing J&K to conduct its own affairs, will be scrapped. Last week, a buildup of army troops, and paramilitary police in Kashmir, coupled with government warnings for visitors to leave the region immediately, foreshadowed Monday’s announcement. Unrest is expected and will likely occur. The growing concern in the region and around the world is what Pakistan’s reaction will be to India’s move. It will likely intensify tension between the rivals, who have fought multiple wars over the Kashmir region in the past. The Pakistani government has called for a joint session of the nation’s parliament today, and the military leadership has begun discussions on ‘regional security.’
Turkey Prepares for Syrian Offensive
Turkey has started moving forces onto its border with northwestern Syria as a major offensive against the US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces in that area becomes likely. A military move against the Kurds by Turkey will significantly ramp up already high tensions between Ankara and Washington. A delegation of US military officials is presently in Turkey and conducting talks aimed at heading off the Turkish offensive. Whether or not the Turks heed the US warning remains to be seen.
US-China Trade War
Following a sudden, and sharp drop of the yuan against the dollar, the US Treasury has designated China as a currency manipulator. The exchange is the latest as the US-China Trade War shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. The US viewed the drop in the yuan’s value as a deliberate move by Beijing to make China’s products cheaper on the international market and circumvent US tariffs. Stock indexes around the world reacted negatively to the Chinese action, and the US label, especially Wall Street which saw its worst trading day of the year. Today, China’s central bank set the yuan’s official position above the 7 yuan-to-the-dollar mark, bringing it out of currency manipulation territory and calming world markets. It is becoming clear, however, that the US-China Trade War will likely escalate further before it calms.