Pakistan’s New Prime Minister Faces Turbulent Times Ahead

Pakistan’s new prime minister is inheriting a turbulent situation that will only grow worse in the coming months. Along with a morose economic picture and the fallout generated from Pakistan’s latest constitutional crisis, Shehbaz Sharif is now facing the prospect of a mass resignation in parliament. Over 100 lawmakers who remain loyal to ousted prime minister Imran Khan quit today. If the resignations are accepted by the parliament speaker, 100 new elections will have to take place within two months. This will almost certainly be a major distraction for Sharif early on. It also provides an opportunity for Khan to mobilize his support and set the stage for deeper political turmoil in Pakistan down the line.

Sharif took the oath of office at Pakistan’s presidential residence late on Monday at a ceremony packed with lawmakers and leaders. Unlike his predecessor, Sharif enjoys good relations with Pakistan’s military. Pakistan’s military has traditionally controlled the country’s foreign and defense policies, leaving the prime minister to deal with domestic issues largely unfettered. He is looking to repair ties with the United States and improve relations with both India and China down the line. With regards to India, however, Sharif said warmer ties will not be possible until the Kashmir situation being resolved.

Sharif’s election as prime minister marks the return of political dynasties to the center of power and influence in Pakistan. He is the brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was removed from power by the supreme court in 2017 because of undeclared financial assets. The Sharifs and Bhuttos, normally rival political clans, came together to unseat Khan. In essence, the establishment has won out and is now back in power for the moment.

Yet Khan will probably not fade into the background quietly. As mentioned above, this resignation of lawmakers may be the start of Khan’s counteroffensive. It remains unclear if the end result will be his return to power, but at the very least, Pakistan’s political landscape will face some boisterous times in the near future  

Bloody Clash In the Himalayas

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Indian and Chinese troops battled on Monday night in the same disputed border area these two nations fought a war over in 1962. Soldiers from the two ascendant, nuclear-armed Asian powers met brandishing rocks, and sticks. When the dust settled 20 Indian soldiers were dead, and according to Chinese state media 43 Chinese troops had died. It was the first fatal clash along the Line of Actual Control since 1975 and came after weeks of smaller incidents between Indian and Chinese forces at the border area. There is no independent confirmation on what brought about the skirmish but predictably Beijing is blaming India, and vice versa.

Following talks between Indian and Chinese general officers last week there was a feeling that the situation along the border was under control and could be managed until a diplomatic solution was found. Obviously, this is no longer the case. This clash was too large, and bloody to just sweep under the carpet and move forward. Lives were lost on both sides and even more significant to Beijing and New Delhi, national pride has been wounded. The fact that both Indian and Chinese leaders are nationalists will be a major factor in what comes next. Nationalism has been fueling Indian and Chinese policy moves at home and abroad to varying extents for some time.

This latest escalation has caught much of the world by surprise, myself included. The rest of the week’s posts will be dedicated to updates of the Himalayan crisis, and if time allows, a more in-depth analysis of what the near future could have in store.

Kashmir Separatist Commander Killed in Raid

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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.

Amid the Global Pandemic, Kashmir Flares Up

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COVID-19 is affecting the Kashmir region just as it is practically everywhere else. The difference here is that Kashmir is already one of the most dangerous places on the planet, rife with religious, and national tensions. Actions over the last year, specifically the ambush of Indian security forces by Pakistani-backed militants and the subsequent clash between Indian and Pakistani military forces last February, as well as India’s move to incorporate its Kashmir territories into the greater union have heightened tensions even further.

Over this past weekend, the situation in Kashmir escalated once more when Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged artillery fire across the Line of Control. Civilian areas were apparently targeted by both armies, a violation of the 2003 ceasefire accord. There were civilian casualties on the Pakistani side of the LoC at least. The Pakistani military has accused India with violating the frontier repeatedly since last Friday. Flareups in Kashmir occur from time to time, but with the world’s attention presently focused on the pandemic, and both countries reeling from COVID-19 the chances of a major military confrontation rise considerably with each passing day.

In other conflict zones around the world, attempts to bring about ceasefires during the pandemic have met with some level of success. Syria, and Yemen have quieted down with the respective combatants now more focused on fighting the virus instead of each other. In Kashmir, however, it has been business as usual, so to speak.

Author’s Note: Short update today, apologies. I’ll post again tomorrow and then over the weekend. I hope everyone is staying safe, and sane. 😊 –Mike

Potential 2020 Flashpoints: Kashmir

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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.