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“I have sent my family to relatives and keep my door locked,” said Mohammad Iqbal, 55. “When I am sure peace is restored, I will bring them back.”
Recent attacks involving Indian and Pakistani troops have been the worst border violence since a 2003 cease-fire. Now, with snow falling on the mountainous border, fighting has subsided and displaced residents are trickling home.
But analysts fear the calm will be relatively short-lived. While few expect another war, the flare-ups illustrate the simmering tensions that may only increase as the two countries jostle for influence in Afghanistan while U.S. troops withdraw.
“This is the new normal,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow and South Asia analyst at the Brookings Institution. “This is going to be just like the Middle East, but only with two countries with nuclear weapons.”
The fighting this fall, which included artillery and mortar fire, claimed civilian and military lives on both sides of the border. Ominously, it took place not only in Kashmir, which has been a source of tension for decades, but also farther south on the outskirts of Sialkot, an industrial area known for producing quality soccer balls.
Since predominantly Muslim Pakistan was separated from mostly Hindu India in 1947, the countries have fought two wars over Kashmir, which is divided between them but has a majority Muslim population.
Pakistanis speculate that the Indian government is becoming more aggressive toward its neighbor, in part to gain support ahead of national elections. Meanwhile, Indians accuse Pakistan of failing to rein in Islamist militants seeking an independent Kashmir. Some of the militant groups are widely suspected of having ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
The conflict started in January, when Pakistan accused Indian forces of killing a Pakistani soldier on the disputed border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control. India then claimed Pakistani soldiers or militants crossed the border and killed three of its soldiers.
In August, the feud took a dangerous turn when five Indian soldiers were slain in Kashmir. Pakistan denied responsibility but shelling between the two sides escalated.
Last month, Pakistan’s military accused India of firing 4,000 mortar shells and 59,000 machine-gun rounds during a two-day period that coincided with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with President Obama in Washington. One of those shells killed the rickshaw driver in Tahir Joian.
“We were forced to retaliate,” said Brig. Mateem Ahmed Khan, a senior commander for Pakistan’s border force near Sialkot. He accused India of stoking the tension to undermine Sharif’s visit to Washington. “It was a rain of fire coming down on our villages and posts,” he said.