The possibility of nuclear war hung over the Indian subcontinent Thursday as India and Pakistan each shot down jets belonging to the other in a long-simmering conflict that has widened into a major crisis.
The flashpoint for the escalation was Kashmir, a disputed region at the northern tip of India. Both nations claim all of Kashmir. Each controls half. Low-level skirmishes between soldiers have been a feature of the border area since the 1971 war over the region. However, this week has shown conflict that is unprecedented in recent years.
The fighting has spawned fears that the two nations would resort to nucelar weapons. The Washington Post has estimated India has at least 130 nuclear warheads while Pakistan has 140.
“I think we are more concerned than the rest of the world. We are sitting right on the brink of a flashpoint,” said Ul Haq of the Pakistan Muslim League, according to The Express.
“I don’t think there is going to be a conventional war this time around,” he said. “And I think somebody is going to be stupid enough to press the button and then everyone is going to face it.”
Pakistan said it shot down two Indian fighters, CNN reported. One pilot was captured and shown on TV, which enraged Indian officials who called for his return.
India, in return, said it shot down one Pakistani jet.
Tensions between the two nations began to boil after a Feb. 14 car bomb attack in Kashmir that killed 40 Indian soldiers. India then launched an attack in the Pakistan-held side of Kashmir, to which Pakistan replied.
On Thursday, border skirmishes had killed four civilians on the Pakistan side of the Kashmir border, CNN reported.
President Donald Trump, in Hanoi, Vietnam, for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, offered hope that cooler heads will prevail.
“They’ve been going at it, and we’ve been involved in trying to have them stop. And we have some reasonably decent news, hopefully that’s going to be coming to an end,” said Trump.
However, Trump’s words follow a speech from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that called for standing with India’s military.
“The world is watching our collective will. We trust our army’s capability and because of this, it is extremely necessary that nothing should happen that harms their morale or that our enemies should get a chance to raise a finger against us,” Modi said.
“When our enemy tries to destabilize the country, when terrorists attack – one of their goals is that our progress should stop, our country should stop moving ahead. To stand up against this aim of theirs, each Indian should stand like a wall or a rock. We have to show them that neither will this country stop, nor will the country’s progress slow down,” he said.
Referring to the nuclear stockpiles of each nation, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke to India Wednesday and asked, “Can we afford any miscalculation with the kind of weapons that we have and you have?”
“If a war takes place, it will not be in my or Narendra Modi’s control,” he said during a televised address, according to Australia’s News.com.
He later added: “All wars in world history have been miscalculated. Those who started the wars did not know where it will end.”
Experts said the clash between nuclear states shows the role of nuclear deterrence in foreign policy.
“This is like reality is playing out and testing deterrence theory,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies and a security expert in New Delhi.
Tony Dalton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that domestic concerns could force leaders to escalate rather than back down.
“The probability may be 1 percent, but the consequences are so terrible,” he said.
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