India-Pakistan ties have got off to a volatile start in the New Year. First, Pakistan’s finance minister misread a conversation with the United States ambassador and subsequently announced that the US Congress had cleared an aid instalment of $532 million under the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which links aid to Islamabad’s cooperation on counterterrorism. India’s sharp reaction prompted the US state department to clarify that Congress had not approved such aid. These diplomatic moves happened against the backdrop of the controversy over the alleged ‘terror boat’ from Pakistan and cross-border firing along the Samba and Kathua districts of Jammu and Kashmir where civilians and soldiers have lost lives on both sides. The firing along the border is taking on worrying dimensions. Around 10,000 people have fled their homes following heavy shelling while politicians continue to trade charges.
All this does not portend well for the months ahead: A fresh round of India-Pakistan recriminations ahead of a visit by the US president, contested suspicions that terrorists communicating with the Pakistan army were headed for the Indian shores and a disregard for casualties on the border to prove tactical or political points will polarise policymakers further and add to instability in the region. The fog of cross-border violence allows governments to shape narratives in the direction they prefer, but they must exercise that power with responsibility. Returning fire and matching rhetoric are useful to rally domestic support and establish the terms of engagement with a neighbour but they must be elements of a wider strategy.
Both India and Pakistan must take a step back and reflect on the consequences of these hostilities — for there is a lot at stake in the region. Frayed relations with India are unlikely to nudge Pakistan towards constructive positions on Afghanistan, delaying progress in the country while reinforcing suspicions in New Delhi. Tensions with India invigorate militant actors in Pakistan and undercut Islamabad’s declared counterterrorism plans. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also cannot be distracted by frequent bilateral tensions as he pursues his expansive development agenda. Cross-border violence can escalate; it destroys communities, hardens public attitudes, and generates wider geopolitical effects that do not advance peace in the region. Both countries must act to stop it immediately.