FIGHTING BETWEEN India and Pakistan over the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region has escalated to its most serious level since 1971. India has mounted a fierce and ongoing ground and air campaign against what it claims are Pakistani-supported incursions into the north of the Indian-controlled Kashmir region. This resulted in several hundred casualties and the loss of three Indian aircraft, one MiG-21, a MiG-27ML and a Mil Mi-17 helicopter. Clashes have involved considerable artillery fire, and hand-to-hand fighting has been reported.
Despite an agreement by both governments to engage in talks over the upsurge in fighting, the clashes look set to continue. India is moving more forces into Kashmir and intensifying air strikes (already having reportedly killed some 200 people), with the assignment of Mirage 2000 jets to the operation. The Indian Ministry of Defence has set a six-month timescale on the operation to re-take the Kargil area of Kashmir due to the difficulties of conducting a military campaign at 15-20,000ft (4,500-6,000m) altitude in the inaccessible terrain of the Himalayas.
Rival and contradictory claims proliferate, with the Pakistani Government denying any participation in the incursion, claiming that those forces opposing Indian troops on the ground are indigenous Kashmiri Muslim separatists. Pakistan also claims that Indian MiG-27s have struck positions within Pakistani territory and that the two MiGs brought down were within Pakistani territory. The Mi-17 shot down whilst operating as a gunship, has been claimed by a radical Kashmiri separatist group. It is noteworthy that the Mi-17, in its gunship configuration, is probably the only medium-sized combat helicopter capable of operating against the insurgents’ positions at the high altitudes in the disputed region.
For its part, India claims that both MiGs were operating on the Indian side of the border on May 27 when one MiG-27 suffered engine problems, forcing the pilot, FI Lt K Nachiketa (26), to eject. A MiG-21 escorting the stricken aircraft was engaged by a FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-launched SAM and shot down. The pilot of the MiG-21, Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja (36) was killed, but Fit Lt Nachiketa, who was detained by Pakistan for eight days, was expected to be released on June 3.
India claims that Pakistan has broken the 1971 cease-fire line by moving Pakistani-trained and supported Kashmiri guerrillas, as well as Pakistani Special Forces and Taliban mercenaries from Afghanistan, roughly 4 miles (6.4km) across the ‘Line of Control’. The Afghan Mujaheddin movements received FIM-92 Stingers, of the type used against Indian aircraft, from the US during the 1980s Iran-Contra affair. India states that insurgents are using radios with burst transmission facility, night vision goggles and other high-tech equipment that would suggest some Governmental backing. Pakistan denies any incursion by Pakistani forces or any allied groups but does admit to offering ‘moral support’ India, however, claims to have the body of an uniformed Pakistani soldier found inside the Indian border, and it is widely reported that Taliban, which maintains very close ties with Islamabad, is closely involved in the fighting.
Notwithstanding the stated commitment of both parties to a negotiated settlement, and undertakings by both sides not to escalate the confrontation to a full-scale, and possibly nuclear war, there seems to be no immediate cessation in hostilities. New Delhi has unequivocally ruled out any territorial concessions and has refused to allow third party arbitration. Under the 1972 Shimla agreement, both India and Pakistan agreed that the Kashmir issue was a bipartisan issue and agreed not to involve third parties, including the UN. As the UN charter precludes UN intervention in internal state disputes, any UN involvement would be seen in India as giving validity to Pakistan’s claim that Kashmir is not an integral part of India’s territory. Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister, has nonetheless called for UN intervention, but Russia, a long-running Indian ally, declared it would block Pakistan’s attempt to raise the Kashmir issue in the United Nations.
By forcing the Indian armed forces to rely on air strikes, Pakistan has manoeuvred the Kashmir issue into a position of prominence on the international stage and successfully portrayed the Indians as aggressors. During previous clashes between the two sides, India has historically relied on conventional military superiority to ensure a favourable outcome. The net effect of the spate of nuclear testing is that there is now relative parity between the two states in strategic terms, as both have a fledgling strategic missile capability and India has lost the guarantee of military superiority. Pakistan, needing to increase the international profile of its claims over Kashmir, has manoeuvred the Indians into a corner. So far, Pakistan shows little sign of conceding its advantage.