The Nuclear ‘Flashpoint’ That Lies Beyond the Middle East Crisis

The war in Gaza and its violent ripple effects across the Middle East may mark some of the most explosive developments playing out right now in Asia, but an ongoing standoff between two nuclear powers across the highlands of the Himalayas continues to constitute a potentially even more devastating threat to the international community.

“Kashmir is a flashpoint,” Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan told Newsweek. “And India thinks that it has taken care of it. But Kashmiris don’t think that, and Pakistanis don’t think that.”

The Kashmir dispute is nearly exactly as old as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both issues having been born out of rival territorial claims that emerged from the end of the United Kingdom’s colonial rule. The two conflicts have also sparked a number of major wars that have brought death and destruction, but no lasting solution.

But the presence of weapons of mass destruction on both sides of the Line of Control that divides India and Pakistan across contested Kashmir adds another dimension to the 75-year feud, one that Khan argued needed to be addressed by Islamabad and New Delhi to avoid a major crisis, intended or otherwise.

“I think that, realistically speaking, we should have talks not only on the future of Jammu and Kashmir and the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, in accordance with international law and the United Nations Security Council,” Khan said, “but we should also have nuclear confidence-building talks, so that we establish reliable communication channels.”

“India and Pakistan should have some sense of where we are, what our capabilities are, what our intentions are, as a matter of fact, and so that our entire approach to the region is not accident-prone,” he added. “And as two responsible nuclear weapons states, we must resolve outstanding disputes in Kashmir as well.”

Indian Army soldiers stand guard atop an armored vehicle near Gadole forest of Kokernag in the Anantnag district of India-administered Kashmir on September 16, 2023, after officials said five Indian officers and two suspected rebels…

AFP/Getty Images

A Dangerous ‘Blind Spot’

India-Pakistan ties remain virtually frozen, however. Meanwhile, Pakistani officials have often lamented what they view as a lack of international attention being paid to the issue of Kashmir, where Islamabad has accused New Delhi of instituting a mass crackdown since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked India-administered Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 in a bid to clamp down on insurgents.

“We would say that attention from Kashmir is moving away because of Ukraine or the preoccupation of the Western world with China as a competitor, as a challenger to the existing order, and so on,” Khan, who previously served as president of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir, said. “Now, in addition to Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific politics, you have the Middle East.”

“So, Kashmir is no more on the radar screen of the international community, and yet the oppression continues there,” he added. “So, I’ve always said this is a blind spot, and this is very dangerous, this is very perilous for the international community because the Kashmiris’ freedoms are as sacrosanct as the freedoms of any peoples in any part of the world.”

Pakistani officials have also often drawn connections between the Kashmir dispute and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, owing to some common historical roots.

Khan too referenced these commonalities, but pointed out the “dissimilarity” as well, noting particularly how Palestinians, despite their ongoing struggle for self-determination, have garnered global support and even observer status at the United Nations as well as statehood recognition from the majority of U.N. member states.

“Kashmir used to enjoy that kind of support, but it is no more,” Khan said. “Because of that, I remain more worried, more concerned about Kashmir.”

Proxy Warfare

India, for its part, has criticized Pakistan’s attempts to link the two long-running disputes in international fora and has raised concerns over how the tactics used by the Palestinian Hamas movement in its October 7 surprise attack that sparked its deadliest-ever war with Israel could impact the security situation along the Line of Control.

Last week, an Indian Army spokesperson told Newsweek, “The employment of innovative means by Hamas while attacking Israel on October 7, 2023, has raised alarm among security agencies across the world.” As such, “requisite measures have been instituted along the Line of Control and International Border Sectors to thwart any such malafide attempts from across the Western Border.”

India has also strongly defended its policies in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as a necessary step toward stamping out unrest that it links directly to Pakistan, which the Indian Army spokesperson argued at the time “continues to innovate and adapt its proxy war in J&K to keep the pot boiling and present a disturbed situation in J&K.”

Pakistan denies such accusations of sponsoring insurgents that have continued to stage attacks across the Line of Control in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. At the same time, Pakistan has its own struggles with increasingly active insurgents, some of which it has accused India of supporting, despite New Delhi’s denials, who operate across the borders with Afghanistan and Iran.

Islamabad and Tehran have traditionally sought to cooperate on counterterrorism measures. But the two countries exchanged tit-for-tat blows last month when Iran conducted strikes against alleged militant group positions in Pakistan, and Pakistani forces retaliated against alleged insurgent sites in Iran.

ISIS Resurges

The unprecedented event captured international headlines, even as Iran became increasingly embroiled in the crises gripping the Middle East to its west. But for both Iran and Pakistan, which have since moved to mend their ties, the incident highlighted the growing risks posed by increasingly brazen attacks conducted by insurgents motivated by ethnic separatist and religious agendas, including the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Having been behind the deadliest attack in Iran’s post-revolutionary history last month, ISIS struck again in Pakistan on Wednesday, claiming responsibility for bombings that killed at least 28 at election offices in southwestern Baluchistan province. The blast follows a spate of insurgent attacks against military and civilian targets and comes on the eve of a highly anticipated national vote already steeped in controversy over the jailing of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and crackdowns on his party.

ISIS, specifically its Khorasan branch, known as ISIS-K, has ramped up its attacks and rhetoric against Pakistan coinciding with the upcoming election in a series of recent publications. The group has also issued new threats against India, specifically channeling the issue of Kashmir, adding yet another volatile element to an already precarious situation along the Line of Control.

Among the insurgent groups that Pakistan is contending with, however, Ambassador Khan argued that the greatest concern surrounded attacks by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also referred to as the Pakistani Taliban to distinguish from the Afghan Taliban that took over neighboring Afghanistan following the U.S. military withdrawal in August 2021. While the two groups may differ, the TTP has, like a number of groups, been known to stage attacks from Afghan territory.

“They’re using Afghan soil, they’re using sophisticated weaponry and communications equipment, and this is threatening Pakistan’s sovereignty,” Khan said.

People gather at a bomb blast site outside the office of an independent candidate in Pishin district, around 30 miles from Quetta on February 7, 2024, on the eve of Pakistan’s national elections. At least…

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Risks and Opportunities

While dialogue remains stalled with India regarding lingering tensions to the east, Pakistan has engaged in ongoing talks with Taliban-led Afghanistan to the west in hopes of ushering in an elusive sense of security and stability for the region. But, as Khan noted, “For the rest of the world, the war on terror has come to an end, not for Pakistan.”

Khan also saw opportunity, however, at the end of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which deeply complicated the relationship between Islamabad and Washington. Now, he hoped to continue to build more substantive ties between the two nations, based not only on security but also in various other fields such as investment, education and climate change.

This comes as concerns remain in Pakistan over the increasingly robust relations developing between the U.S. and India. Khan said Pakistan was willing to put aside these uncertainties, however, just as he hoped to assuage Washington’s concerns over the strategic partnership forged between Islamabad and Beijing.

“At least, this is our endeavor, that India’s close ties with the United States should not negatively impact our relations with the United States,” Khan said. “And similarly, we’ve been assuring Americans here that our relations with China are not at the expense of the United States.”

As for the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and India, Khan emphasized that he felt only engagement could overcome their deep-rooted dispute and the risks associated with it.

“Where I am coming from is not jingoism, it’s not some anti-India rhetoric,” Khan said. “What I’m trying to say here is that we have a problem between India and Pakistan that involves fate, the destiny of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

“As two civilized neighbors as two civilized nations, we should come to the negotiating table and try to resolve this issue through dialogue, through diplomacy, through multilateral diplomacy, bilaterally or through third-party mediation or some good-faith mediation,” he added. “That’s what ought to be done.”

Update 2/7/24, 1:50 p.m. ET: This article was updated to include ISIS’ claim of responsibility for deadly bombings in southwestern Pakistan and additional context regarding the group’s resurgence in the region.

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