Back from the brink

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There can be no doubt that Pakistan and India over the space of 36 hours came very close to outright war. Each used airpower for the first time since 1971 to target the other and both managed to avoid killing or even seriously injuring anybody on the other side. Some trees were blown down, there are now four large craters on a forested mountainside and an elderly man had his windows broken and front door blown in, resulting in a small head injury. He was able to give interviews to visiting media. One or two Indian aircraft were shot down and one Indian pilot is in custody. There are no publicly available images of any damage caused in India by Pakistan aircraft and there are no reports of Indian casualties either.

Prime Minister Imran Khan made a carefully modulated statement to the nation which once again offered dialogue with India, and Mr Modi for his part has yet to make a public response, leaving this to his foreign secretary. Both sides have stated that they will make further ‘appropriate responses’ in the event of provocation or another attack. By the morning of 28th February there was a relative lull, though firing continued at places along the Line of Control (LoC) and the international community began to stir, almost certainly prodded by thoughts of what might have been.

The Kashmir issue has resisted every attempt to resolve it since Independence in 1947 and no government on either side has come anywhere close to a workable deal that all sides could live peaceably with. Both India and Pakistan have at different times played dog-in-manger but in recent years there has been a consistently pacific line taken by Pakistan governments. Unfortunately any peace moves made by Pakistan are matched by dangerous blunderings in terms of addressing the problem of terrorism and extremism internally. In that they are inadequately addressed if addressed at all. This most recent micro-war was the direct result of an attack in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) carried out in the name of an organisation that has long been headquartered in Pakistan, and whose leader is the subject of some extremely porous house arrest.

Enter the Pax Americana. Almost as an aside in the press conference that followed the failed attempt to de-nuclearise North Korea held in Hanoi, President Trump said that “…we are involved in trying to have them stop (referring to India and Pakistan). We have some reasonably decent news. I think hopefully that (conflict) is going to be coming to an end.” The statement has been quickly welcomed by the Pakistan Foreign Ministry and at the time of writing has not been acknowledged by India. There is no indication as to what this ‘reasonably decent news’ might be and India has consistently refused, from the outset, any form of external mediation. As to what the Kashmiris themselves want well they have been consistently sidelined and ignored also from the outset and remain so today, having little but the voice of protest and acts of driven desperation – which themselves have consequences. Whether the current quietude is the lull before another storm or the prelude to a return to the status-quo Pakistan must use it to its best advantage. China is in play as is the European Union and the UN Secretary General has now offered to mediate. All have interests in the region and specifically with India and Pakistan. The best interests of none of them are well served by regional conflict.

A card that turned out to be carefully played was the fate and future of the pilot held in Pakistan. There were reports that PM Imran Khan favoured an early repatriation and a swift and very public humanitarian move. He duly made good on the reports by announcing at the end of his speech in Parliament that the pilot would be repatriated on Friday 1st March as a ‘peace gesture’. This is a welcome and entirely appropriate move that will leave India with little choice but to thank Pakistan. A rare coup for diplomacy and a classic rework of threat into opportunity. Now how about getting the Indians to talk with the assistance of the UN?