Huffpost WorldPost
Michael Kugelman Headshot

Deadly Pakistan-India Border Clash: The Shot That Wasn't Heard 'Round the World

Posted: Updated:

Did you know that early on Sunday, the Pakistani and Indian armies exchanged fire along their disputed border in Kashmir, resulting in the death of a Pakistani soldier?

If not, you wouldn't be the only one. After an initial spurt of media coverage, this incident on the boundary known as the Line of Control (LoC) has received relatively little attention. (Another deadly border incident, which occurred on Tuesday and according to Indian media reports involved the beheading of an Indian soldier, may get more attention.)

The lack of buzz crystallizes how much Pakistan-India relations have improved over the last few years. Twenty years ago, last weekend's incident may have sparked a war between the two rivals. Today, everyone quietly moves on. That's what happened after the 75-plus similar "cease-fire violations" occurring along the LoC last year (which collectively resulted in eight deaths).

On Sunday, as in most previous cases, each side accused the other of provoking the attack, and gave conflicting accounts of what happened. On Monday, Pakistan lodged a formal protest with India's high commission in Islamabad. Yet that has largely been it.

Since early 2011, when the two capitals resumed the Composite Dialogue process suspended after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, confidence-building measures have ensued and mutual goodwill has proliferated. This warming trend has produced a series of high-level meetings, civil society and private sector exchanges, a milestone visa agreement, and Pakistan's long-awaited decision to extend Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to India (15 years after New Delhi granted it to Islamabad).

The bilateral relationship has been tested on several occasions during this cordial period -- and it has successfully withstood each challenge. Recall the summer of 2011, when terrorists once again struck in Mumbai. New Delhi neither responded punitively nor even uttered any harsh words toward Islamabad. Instead, it vowed to work with Pakistan to track down the perpetrators (whose names, affiliations, and nationalities have never been identified).

Recall as well when an Indian army helicopter drifted into Pakistani airspace in October 2011. The Pakistani military did not shoot down the chopper or cause much trouble for its occupants. After being detained briefly, the Indian troops were sent home unharmed.

While too early to know for sure, in all likelihood the latest challenge -- Tuesday's apparent beheading of the Indian soldier -- will be weathered as well.

The Pakistan-India relationship has also improved because no longer is each nation the sole obsession of the other. India is increasingly anxious about China's activities on its eastern flank, and high-level Indian military officials have declared that China -- not Pakistan -- is India's chief threat (admittedly, however, the most recent indications suggest this appraisal is changing). India's military modernization represents an effort to keep up with China's own military upgrades, and to maintain its competitiveness with Beijing in the rapidly increasing pursuit for deep-sea energy and other natural resources in the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani military recently announced that "homegrown militancy" -- not India -- is its chief security threat. Rawalpindi has in fact said this before. However, the announcement has particular significance now, given the recent upsurge of violence against Pakistani military and police targets in the volatile northwest. Such is the intensity of this unrest that some informed analysts now suggest that parts of non-tribal Pakistan -- including the city of Peshawar -- could soon be "lost" to militants.

This is not at all to say that the Pakistan-India relationship is gliding toward normalization. For all the progress on "soft" issues -- economics, trade, cultural exchange -- little has been accomplished regarding the core territorial issues of Kashmir and Sir Creek. Additionally, last year, after an avalanche killed 138 Pakistani soldiers stationed on the Siachen Glacier, there were calls to resolve that territorial dispute. Yet nothing has been done.

Perhaps most disconcerting is that even the much-ballyhooed MFN issue -- and the Pakistan-India trade normalization that should follow -- has run into trouble. Pakistan was to phase out its negative list -- goods that cannot be exported to India -- by the end of 2012. The date has come and gone, and the negative list remains. The Pakistani media now speculate that the whole process may be delayed for at least six months.

The bilateral relationship could be headed for even more trouble in Afghanistan. Pakistan has muscled its way to the center of the Afghan endgame negotiating table, and a post-2014 scenario featuring a political role for the Taliban (an outcome supported by Islamabad) appears ever more likely. India -- where memories of the 2008 Mumbai attacks remain raw -- fears that this could allow Afghanistan to once again become a sanctuary for anti-India militants.

Still, let's give credit where it's due. Not long ago, the headline "Ceasefire Violation: Pakistani Soldier Killed as LoC Heats Up" may well have prompted each side to take up arms. This time, millions across the Subcontinent were indeed calling for war -- but not on the battlefield. The bellicosity was focused on a friendlier venue: a cricket pitch in New Delhi, where, last weekend, a marquee match was fiercely contested -- by none other than Pakistan and India.

NOTE: This post has been updated since publication.