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India and Pakistan clashed again in Kashmir. Here’s what you need to know.

- September 30, 2016

Early on Thursday morning, the Indian army claims its special forces attacked “launchpads” used by militants to infiltrate across the Line of Control between the Indian and Pakistani administered areas of Jammu and Kashmir. Though it has made similar raids in the past, this is the first time the Indian government has openly acknowledged a raid across the LOC, both in public statements and in leaks to the media. Two Pakistan army soldiers and an unknown number of militants were killed in what the Indian army referred to as “surgical strikes.”

This is not the first time that India and Pakistan have clashed in Kashmir. Multiple past wars — most recently the Kargil conflict in 1999 — have been joined by regular skirmishes, cross-LOC artillery exchanges and raids, especially before a cease-fire in 2003. Why, after a long period of relative calm, have we seen this new escalation?

Retaliation for an earlier attack

The raid is clear retaliation for a Sept. 18 militant attack that killed 18 soldiers in an Indian army camp near Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir. Since the Uri attack, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been seeking to put diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, ranging from condemning it at the United Nations to orchestrating a boycott of the SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad, to bringing up government human rights abuses in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.

Indian commentators and politicians had been demanding a vigorous response, especially because the Uri attack was preceded by a similar attack against an Indian air force base at Pathankot in January 2016. Modi’s government attempted an opening to Pakistan’s civilian leaders, but the combination of Panthankot and Uri has led Indian policymakers to abandon a policy of conciliation toward Pakistan and instead to combine simultaneous military, economic and diplomatic coercion.

There was already a crisis in the Kashmir valley

The India-Pakistan crisis is not occurring in isolation. Since July, massive waves of protests have rocked the Indian-administered Kashmir Valley. These protests were triggered by the killing of militant Burhan Wani, a Hizbul mujahideen leader who had become a popular face of resistance to India. The administrative and police apparatus of the state government broke down in large parts of the valley, leading to widespread curfews and massive deployments of Indian security forces.

Indian forces have been criticized for an excessive reliance on pellet guns that have killed, maimed and blinded protesters, including children. More than 80 Kashmiri civilians have been killed. Large parts of the Kashmir Valley saw the writ of the state collapse amid large-scale backlash against Indian rule. The Indian army has been used to restore state control over many of these areas, with politicians and the state police unable to operate in the face of large-scale resistance.

This crisis has undermined the Indian government’s strategy to overcome past rounds of protest, as in 2008 and 2010. As I wrote in 2013, Delhi has relied on local “pro-India” political parties, promises of development aid and an extensive security presence to try to buy off, co-opt or suppress mobilization. This effort at restoring “normalcy” was undermined by many Kashmiris’ rejection of the political status quo and exacerbated by an increasingly unpopular state coalition government between the valley-based People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This bred growing anger, disillusionment and a widespread belief that the Indian government has little interest in accommodating any Kashmiri demands.

Many in the valley support an independent Jammu and Kashmir, while smaller numbers support accession to Pakistan. Wani’s killing provided a focal point around which a variety of Kashmiri grievances coalesced.

This crisis within the valley had two effects. First, the widely publicized killing and blinding of civilians encouraged Pakistan to press India on the matter. Second, it has provided an opportunity for hard-liners in India to frame all Kashmiri protesters as Pakistani stooges or Islamist fanatics.

With the Indian raids and possible future escalation along the LOC, the valley’s ongoing crisis is now becoming even more closely fused to an India-Pakistan conflict, further reducing the likelihood of substantial political movement by the Indian government. The dysfunctional politics of the valley will be pushed to the back burner until the next round of mass protests, as India’s politicians, media and public instead focus on Pakistan.

Indian and Pakistan are also battling over facts and narratives

The novel thing about these raids is not that they happened, but that India has openly publicized them.

Pakistan, by contrast, has denied that any cross-LOC raid even occurred, blaming the deaths of its soldiers on Indian artillery shelling. We are still deep in the fog of war and much remains unclear, but both of these strategies have implications for how the crisis will play out.

For India’s Modi, this public stance has two audiences. First, it is intended to show his domestic electorate that India will not absorb attacks from Pakistan without a response. Modi campaigned as a strong leader who can take on Pakistan, making the Uri and Pathankot attacks a political vulnerability that the opposition Indian National Congress has sought to exploit.

Second, it is aimed at Pakistan’s public and political class. The Pakistan army would know about a secret raid, as in the past. By going public, Modi is signaling to Pakistani society at large that India has been able to inflict damage on Pakistan’s side of the LOC. It also may be intended to suggest that there would be further punishment if Pakistan retaliates.

The Pakistani response is currently more ambiguous. Simply denying that the raid happened at all may be an effort to preemptively limit escalation pressures. It could also let the Pakistan army claim that it was not caught by surprise and that it did not allow an actual cross-LOC raid. Cross-LOC artillery is a much more common, less dramatic occurrence and avoids embarrassing questions about preparedness.

Regardless, we are seeing a fascinating battle of “dueling truths” between India and Pakistan over what actually happened and what it means for the political relationship between the two countries.

What about the risks of escalation?

India’s raids are also intended to show that India has military room to operate below the threshold that would trigger major conventional, or even nuclear, escalation. As Manoj Joshi notes, the Indian army has explicitly said that it does not intend to continue operations and that it targeted militants and Pakistan army soldiers protecting them, not core formations or facilities of the Pakistan army itself. The raid has been framed as a matter of tactical, preemptive self-defense against militants, making it potentially less likely to escalate than more aggressive military options.

With both militaries now on high alert and the specter of nuclear weapons in the background, there are powerful incentives to avoid intensified conflict. U.S. policymakers, for their part, are urging mutual restraint. A return to a tenuous stability is the most likely outcome, achieving Indian goals adequately without threatening Pakistan’s core interests.

Nevertheless, the risk of escalation remains, especially if clashes spread beyond the LOC. Pakistan’s military will seek some measure of retaliation, whether through direct attacks or, more likely, an increase in militant infiltration into Indian-administered Kashmir. If this results in another major attack against Indian security forces, or especially civilians, Modi will face pressure to up the ante, which could push beyond his ability to surgically control.

This is the major risk of Indian strategy: Pakistan may dare Modi to move farther up the escalation ladder. Preventing this unwanted cycle of action and reaction will be the overwhelming priority of policymakers, in the subcontinent and beyond, in the days to come.

Paul Staniland is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.