Tensions between India and Pakistan are flaring once again over Kashmir, raising global anxiety about the risk of conflict between the two nuclear-armed rivals. The Himalayan region has been the focus of a bitter dispute dating back decades. In responding to the current crisis, the United States must balance its competing interests in the region.
The details of what occurred are still cloudy, but this latest flare-up started with a suicide bombing by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a UN- and U.S.-designated terrorist group. At least forty Indian paramilitary forces in India-controlled Kashmir were killed in the attack. India responded with air strikes targeting one of JeM’s camps just outside the Kashmir region, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Islamabad then launched retaliatory strikes on targets inside India’s Kashmir, though it said it avoided targeting personnel. In the course of this assault, Pakistan shot down at least one Indian jet over its territory and captured the pilot. In what Prime Minister Imran Khan called a “peace gesture,” Pakistan later released the pilot.
India and Pakistan have been bitter rivals since they emerged from British colonial rule in 1947. Pakistan views Kashmir, which like it has a Muslim majority, as a natural part of its state. For secular but Hindu-majority India, Kashmir is vital to its identity as a multiethnic state. Over the last seven decades, their competing claims for the mountainous territory have helped fuel three wars and periodic bouts of violence.
On one hand, Pakistan is a longstanding U.S. ally, although ties have been rocky at the best of times. The United States needs to work with Pakistan as the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan. It also wants Islamabad to step up its counterterrorism efforts. Across administrations, the United States has repeatedly criticized Pakistan for not doing enough to stop terrorist groups such as JeM from operating within its borders, and it suspended security assistance to the country last year.
On the other hand, the United States continues to strengthen ties with India, a rising power and one that largely shares Washington’s emphasis on a rules-based international order. India and the United States both seek a balance of power in Asia, not a region dominated by China. Since 2016, India has been a major defense partner of the United States, and a strategic partnership between the two countries established in 2005 includes joint military exercises, significant bilateral trade, and extensive people-to-people ties.
President Donald J. Trump and members of his administration have indicated they might stray from their typically hands-off approach to Kashmir. This week, Trump said he was “trying to help them both out and see if we can get some organization and some peace,” and he suggested de-escalation was possible. Additionally, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with both countries’ leaders and said the United States was “working hard” to help ease tensions.