But it didn’t. Not this week, at least. What did happen is, for the first time literally ever, two nuclear powers genuinely attacked each other. Let’s jump in, and bear with me — it’s complicated.
First, a primer on Kashmir. Set in the Himalayas between Pakistan and India, the majority-Muslim province is claimed by both bordering states, and is as intractable a problem as Israel:Palestine. I’ll give you three guesses why. Go on, guess. Oh, you! First try! It was British colonialism! Damn.
In 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Uncle Dickie if you watch The Crown) was sent to oversee the end of the British Raj, and in an effort to get the job done quickly, half-assed the whole thing and split the territory in a way that might have made to a white dude with 6 months of experience in the region, leaving Kashmir’s fate ostensibly in Indian hands but largely undetermined, leading to multiple wars and decades of tension. These days, Pakistan controls some, India controls some, and there’s a Line of Control along the middle. China’s involved too, but don’t worry too much about them. Got it? Good.
On February 14th, an 18-year-old boy rammed a convoy of 2,500 paramilitary troops in India-administered Kashmir with a truck full of explosives, killing 42 people. The attack was claimed by a group called Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamist militant group whose stated goal is to reclaim parts of Kashmir from India and unify it with Pakistan. While the group is technically banned in Pakistan, India and the US claim it continues to operate under different names, and Pakistan admitted today that JeM’s leader is currently in Pakistan — but that they won’t arrest him unless the Indians can come up with solid evidence “acceptable to Pakistan’s courts”.
In response, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to retaliate. On Tuesday we woke up to Modi claiming successful airstrikes against a JeM training camp deep in Pakistan — not Kashmir — and killed ‘hundreds of terrorists’. The ‘surgical’ airstrikes were seen as a roaring success, and Modi, who faces reelection this spring, seemed primed to springboard off the crisis as he shored up nationalist support at home in the wake of suggestions that his chances at reelection were waning. All good.
Except it didn’t happen like that. Local villagers outside the village of Balakot reported to Reuters that the bombs had merely hit empty forest, and left a single 62-year-old man with a cut above his left eye. Indian press didn’t run the Reuters story, and social media was set ablaze with videos and pictures of buildings destroyed by an earthquake a decade ago.
Even worse? It turns out the Pakistani air force shot down an Indian jet and local villagers on the ground captured the pilot. Not exactly the look you wanna go for when the point is projecting strength, and Modi’s critics have been harsh.
Across the metaphorical table from Modi sits new Pakistani PM Imran Khan, former cricketer and playboy. This isn’t the first time India and Pakistan have gone toe to toe — but it is the first time under the untested Khan’s watch, and he aced the test. Pakistan scrambled its jets in time to force the Indian planes to drop their payload in the forest, knocked one out of the sky, captured the pilot (alive), and asked, “given the weapons [India and Pakistan] have can we afford a miscalculation” as he invited India to negotiate. Then, when they negotiated the return of the pilot, Khan stole Modi’s thunder by magnanimously announcing that he would return the captured pilot as a sign of goodwill.
Basically, Khan was able to condemn the original attack, effectively stand up to India’s aggression, and prevent a conflict between two nuclear powers from spiraling out of control. That’s a pretty good week for a fresh-faced celebrity of a prime minister.
Given all that, the title seems pretty dire, no? But no one intends nuclear war. As Khan said, “wars are full of miscalculation.” It’s flash in the pan things like this that have the capacity to escalate to all out war. For Modi, the incursion into a fellow nuclear power’s airspace was politically savvy, but strategically dumb as shit.
Or was it? Modi announced that India would retaliate the day after the attack, on February 15th — but didn’t take action until the 26th, allowing ample time for local militant groups — notoriously hard to pin down in the first place — to disperse in advance of any attack. The cynic in me wants to believe Modi wanted the optics, but not the war, and threatened an attack with enough lead time to make sure nobody would really get hurt, knowing he could spin the news story as a victory for India. Risky play, but it almost worked.
Meanwhile, Imran Khan’s star is rising just as the US needs Pakistan most. Pakistan has, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 90s, been crucial to US efforts in Afghanistan as the only country through which the US can move supplies to its troops. Moreover, Pakistan will almost certainly need to play a role in whatever future Afghanistan might have. Indeed, Taliban negotiators said the events in Kashmir would affect the peace process to end America’s longest war. Meanwhile, Trump has begun the withdrawal of 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan. And all this comes in the wake of Trump’s decision to cut off US funding to Pakistan at the beginning of 2018.
There’s not an end to this story. There’s always more. I’ve written 900 words here and I’ve done the bare minimum on half the things I wanted to talk about. It’s complicated, and it’s dangerous, and it’s people’s lives. Thousands of deaths, tens of thousands displaced, human rights abuses, potential nuclear holocaust. We have to be better. We have to understand. #fpf
Special thanks to Scherezade Khan, who sent me an invaluable reading list on where to start my research.