January 19, 2010 / 12:11 PM / 9 years ago

Q+A - New skirmishes could further strain India-Pakistan ties

REUTERS - A spate of border skirmishes between Pakistani and Indian forces could further strain ties between the nuclear-armed rivals, and complicate U.S. efforts to stabilise Afghanistan.

A Border Security Force (BSF) soldier patrols near the fenced border with Pakistan in Suchetgarh, southwest of Jammu, January 12, 2010. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

Border skirmishes underline long-standing mistrust between Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars since their independence in 1947.

Here are a few questions and answers on the impact of border clashes on relations.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED?

There have been three exchanges of fire between Pakistani and Indian forces this month. As usual, each blamed the other for provoking the incidents.

In the latest incident, Indian forces fired across a ceasefire line separating the Indian and Pakistani parts of the disputed Kashmir region on Tuesday, killing a Pakistani soldier and wounding one, the Pakistani military said.

On Sunday, border forces traded fire near the Pakistani city of Sialkot, north of Lahore.

Last week, Indian officials said one of their soldiers was killed in firing across the so-called Line of Control (LoC) dividing the Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Two days earlier, the two sides traded accusations on firing across their border near the Pakistani city of Lahore.

Armies of the two South Asian neighbours used to frequently exchange fire across the LoC before they agreed on a ceasefire in Kashmir in 2003. However, skirmishes along their international borders, like Sialkot and Lahore, are rare.

WHY HAVE SKIRMISHES ERUPTED?

Nothing specific triggered the incidents. But both sides have been talking tough in recent weeks.

Remarks from Indian army chief General Deepak Kapoor that his country was capable of fighting Pakistan and China at the same time raised alarms in Pakistan, although Indian analysts said his comments had been distorted.

Pakistan last week expressed concern about a “massive” build-up of arms by India, warning it could jeopardise a regional balance.

CAN TENSION EASE?

The latest tension could reduce the chances of reviving a 5-year-old peace process India suspended after attacks by Pakistan-based militants in Mumbai in 2008 in which 166 people were killed.

Analysts do not expect any progress unless India is satisfied Pakistan is taking strong action against the militants behind the Mumbai attack.

Indian officials say the situation has not basically changed since the Mumbai attacks. Tension remains high but India has taken a wait-and-see approach to Pakistan. There is little point, military and government officials say, in going an extra diplomatic mile while Pakistan is so unstable and it is unclear who is in charge.

Deeply unpopular Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is at odds with the powerful Pakistani military and he could be further weakened if his eligibility for office is challenged in court.

India knows it has more to lose by an aggressive stance to Pakistan, and is more concerned with focusing on its growing economic and political influence on the global stage, something that irks Pakistan.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

The United States would be dismayed over an escalation of tension between Pakistan and India as it struggles to stabilise Afghanistan. Washington wants ties to improve so Pakistan can focus on helping fight an insurgency in Afghanistan supported by militants on the Pakistani side of the border, especially now that U.S. President Barack Obama plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

It’s a complex and volatile regional equation.

Pakistan and India are vying for influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan is resisting U.S. pressure to dismantle militant groups, including Afghan Taliban based on its soil, because it sees them as potential allies in its rivalry with India.

Pakistan accuses India of fomenting a separatist insurgency in its south-western Baluchistan province on the Afghan border.

IS A FULL-BLOWN CONFLICT POSSIBLE?

Border clashes have been sporadic for decades and have never sparked a war. But with relations strained since the Mumbai attacks, there is always a risk of heavier exchanges of fire though war is not likely.

There is a danger too of al Qaeda trying to orchestrate another Mumbai-style attack which could lead to war and further its aims in the region.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who visits India this week, told the U.S. Senate last month he believed al Qaeda wants to provoke a conflict between India and Pakistan in order to destabilise Pakistan, fighting an insurgency waged by al Qaeda-linked Taliban militants.

He said al Qaeda was providing Lashkar-e-Taiba militants — the group blamed for the Mumbai killings — with targeting information to help the group plot attacks in India.

Analysts say al Qaeda and its Islamist allies want to provoke Pakistan-India confrontation because it would force Islamabad to withdraw troops from its western border with Afghanistan and deploy them on the eastern frontier with India.

(Additional reporting by Paul de Bendern in New Delhi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Jerry Norton)

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, click here)

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