The conflict between India and Pakistan arose out of the 1947 partition of British India, which established a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India. The India Independence Act provided the diverse regions of Jammu and Kashmir the opportunity to choose which country to accede to. The local maharaja (Kashmir’s monarch) initially sought independence, seeing as Kashmir had been neglected for centuries by the empires that subjugated it. However, he ultimately agreed to join India in exchange for help against invading Pakistani herdsmen. India then took over the defense of the region, launching the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947-48. In 1949, the Karachi Agreement established a cease-fire line overseen by UN military observers and recommended a referendum in the territory, though one never materialized.
Tensions simmered until a skirmish between border controls escalated to a full-blown war in 1965. In 1971, India and Pakistan fought another brief war over East Pakistan, with Indian forces helping the territory gain independence. India and Pakistan attempted to usher in a new era of bilateral relations with the 1972 Simla Agreement, which established the Line of Control (LOC), a provisional military control line that split Kashmir into two administrative regions. In the following decades, though, the conflict took on a new dimension when both states developed nuclear weapons, raising the stakes of any confrontation.
In 1989, a burgeoning Pakistani-supported resistance movement in Indian-administered Kashmir reignited tensions, beginning decades of communal violence. Despite a recommitment to the LOC in 1999, Pakistani soldiers crossed the line of control later that year, sparking the Kargil War. Although both countries have maintained a fragile cease-fire since 2003, they regularly exchange fire across the contested border. Both sides accuse the other of violating the cease-fire and claim to be shooting in response to attacks. An uptick in border skirmishes that began in late 2016 and continued into 2018 killed dozens and displaced thousands of civilians on both sides of the Line of Control.
In 2014, after India’s then newly elected Prime Minister Modi invited then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend his inauguration, there were hopes that Modi's government would pursue meaningful peace negotiations with Pakistan. However, after a brief period of optimism, relations turned sour once more in August 2014 when India canceled talks with Pakistan’s foreign minister after the Pakistani high commissioner in India met with Kashmiri separatist leaders. A series of openings continued throughout 2015, including an unscheduled December meeting on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. This led to a meeting between national security advisors in Bangkok a few days later, where the Kashmir dispute was discussed. Later in December, Prime Minister Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore to meet with Prime Minister Sharif, the first visit of an Indian leader to Pakistan in more than a decade.
Momentum toward meaningful talks came to an end in September 2016, when armed militants attacked a remote Indian Army base in Uri, near the Line of Control, killing eighteen Indian soldiers in the deadliest attack on the Indian armed forces in decades. Indian officials accused Jaish-e-Mohammad, a group with alleged ties to the Inter-Services Intelligence—Pakistan’s main intelligence agency—of being behind the attack. Later in September 2016, the Indian military announced it had carried out “surgical strikes” on terrorist camps inside Pakistani-controlled territory across the Line of Control, while the Pakistani military denied that any such operation had taken place.
Militants launched attacks in October 2017, against an Indian paramilitary camp near Srinagar, and in February 2018, against an Indian army base in the Jammu region, which killed five soldiers and a civilian. These attacks came amidst a period of increased cross-border shelling along the Line of Control, with more than three thousand reported violations in 2017 and nearly one thousand in the first half of 2018. Violent demonstrations and anti-India protests calling for an independent Kashmir also continued; over three hundred people including civilians, Indian security forces, and militants were killed in attacks and clashes in 2017. After months of Indian military operations targeting both Kashmiri militants and demonstrations, India announced in May 2018 that it would observe a cease-fire in Kashmir during the month of Ramadan for the first time in nearly two decades; operations resumed in June 2018. In May 2018, India and Pakistan agreed to a cease-fire along the disputed Kashmir border that would restore the terms of their 2003 agreement.
The diversion of jihadi fighters and proxy groups from Afghanistan to Kashmir threatens to further increase violence along the border. If another Mumbai 2008-style attack, where Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters rampaged through the city for four days, killing 164 people, were carried out by Pakistan’s militant proxies, it could trigger a severe military confrontation between the two nuclear-armed states.
The United States has identified South Asia as an epicenter of terrorism and religious extremism and therefore has an interest in ensuring regional stability, preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, and minimizing the potential of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.
With continued violence in Kashmir and a heightened threat of terrorist activity by Pakistan-based militant groups, tensions and concerns over a serious military confrontation between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan remain high. In August 2019, following a deployment of tens of thousands of additional troops and paramilitary forces to the region, the Indian government moved to revoke Article 370 of the Indian constitution, removing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. India-administered Kashmir remained under lockdown for over a year, with internet and phone services intermittently cut off and thousands of people detained. While India sold the move as a crucial step toward security and economic development, Kashmir has instead become more dangerous and economic investment has declined.
In February 2019, an attack on a convoy of Indian paramilitary forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least forty soldiers. The attack, claimed by Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, was the deadliest in Kashmir in three decades. Two weeks later, India claimed to have conducted air strikes targeting a terrorist training camp inside Pakistani territory. Pakistan retaliated a day later with air strikes in Indian-administered Kashmir. The exchange escalated into an aerial engagement, during which Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircraft and captured an Indian pilot; the pilot was released two days later.
Violence along the LOC peaked in 2020, with more than four thousand reported cross-border firings. India also observed an increase in militant recruitment, despite a slight drop in militant activity. However, tensions eased following a February 2021 ceasefire that has since held. Nonetheless, New Delhi continues efforts to bring Indian-administered Kashmir under its control. In 2022 and 2023, it cracked down on independent media in the region, redrew the electoral map to privilege Hindu-majority areas in Kashmir, and held a G20 tourism meeting in Srinagar. Targeted killings against Hindus have become more frequent, motivating some to flee and protest government policies
At the May 2023 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in India, the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan traded barbs over Kashmir, missing an opportunity to improve relations. Furthermore, actions of the Pakistani military against Imran Khan in early 2023 have raised concerns that Pakistani political turmoil will fuel the arguments of Indian hardliners and hinder peace.
Separately, China has increasingly waded into the volatile region, stepping up its own border dispute with India. In 2020, clashes broke out in the Galwan Valley over territory in Ladakh, and another skirmish occurred in 2022 near the countries’ Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh. The fighting has prompted more militarization in the region, as India fears the prospect of a two-front war with China and Pakistan.