It could best be described as a hell in paradise. I still vividly recall one survivor later telling how “the ground reared up like an angry horse”, and within minutes everything around her was gone. Even a few miles out from the town of Balakot the occasional sickly whiff of death and decomposing corpses hung in the Kashmiri mountain air that was otherwise so fresh and clear it took your breath away.

Less than 24 hours had passed that day back in 2005 since the powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake had struck, flattening this picturesque place that was home to 30,000 people.

Inside the town every building was crushed, with bodies jutting out from the rubble. The usually crystal clear waters of the river Kunhar running alongside Balakot had turned an eerie blood red colour, the result I was told of minerals leeching out from the surrounding hillsides.

Higher still in this stunning valley setting, towering mountains above still appeared to be moving as landslides coursed along their flanks.

Sitting as it did near the epicentre of the quake that would ultimately take more than 80,000 lives in both Pakistan and Indian Administered Kashmir (IAK), only a trickle of international relief agencies had made it into Balakot up until that moment.

The bearded young men, some carrying walkie-talkies and Kalashnikov automatic rifles made unlikely aid workers I still recall. But long before the arrival of any large Western aid agencies they were there in the post-quake chaos handing out food, tents, blankets and medicines to grateful survivors.

Most of these young men were members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an organisation that many security analysts say represents the fundraising and charitable end of Islamist militant groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT), who fight Indian troops in disputed Kashmir. Indeed some senior members of both groups have been linked to al-Qaeda.

Their presence back then and quick response to the disastrous quake helped amplify the political and ideological influence of the armed groups among locals some analysts still maintain exists.

Last week Balakot was again in the international headlines and the centre of death and destruction according to news reports from India, after its air force launched a strike against what it said were JeM training camps in the town’s vicinity.

The air strike was in part retaliation for a earlier suicide bomb attack on February 14 in IAK that ripped apart a bus killing at least 40 Indian paramilitary police officers near the town of Pulwama.

It was also aimed at deterrence, said Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, because more suicide attacks in India were “imminent”.

“A very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen (suicide) action were eliminated,” Gokhale insisted, even though Pakistan denied such claims.

The events in Pulwama and Balakot were only the start of a wider tit-for-tat confrontation between the two nations over the past week that resulted in the shooting down of an Indian air force plane and the capture of its pilot.

Despite the pilot’s later release, the series of clashes has once again brought the two long-standing arch-rivals to the brink of another war.

With both nations now nuclear armed, any escalation between them inevitably sends jitters around the world. But what, specifically, has caused this latest flare up and why right now?

To answer these questions it’s important in the first instance to focus both on the nature of the increasing instability in IAK and the rise again of extremist Islamist groups like JeM. It’s vital also to recognise the wider geopolitical moves afoot right now as India gears up for a bitterly contested election in April-May and the efforts of Pakistan’s comparatively new prime minister Imran Khan, to find his political feet and cope with the country’s ever-powerful and influential armed forces and security services.

According to Michael Kugelman, a leading specialist on India and Pakistan at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, this new crisis should come as no surprise, given two notable trends over the last few years.

“JeM has been resurging after a period of relative inactivity, along with the public re-emergence of its leader, Masood Azhar,” observes Kugelman.

Largely out of public view until January 2014, Azhar’s reappearance has coincided with a rise in JeM attacks. These included deadly assaults on an Indian Air Force base and Army troops in 2016, along with several attacks on Indian security personnel this year. And then came the recent raid on Pulwama that set in train the current round of confrontation.

It’s been said too that the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar reportedly headed the Balakot militant camp targeted by the Indian airstrike last week.

It was Azhar who founded JeM after he was released from Indian custody in 1999, in exchange for more than 150 hostages held on an Indian Airlines flight that had been hijacked and diverted to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Azhar is said to have formed JeM with the support of then-al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban, according to the UN. There were and remain state patrons too of JeM many believe, including Pakistan’s shadowy but very powerful Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) spy agency, but more of that later.

Ironically the war in Afghanistan may also have contributed to the recent public re-emergence of Azhar and resurgence in JeM.

With moves by Washington to pull US troops out of Afghanistan and amid ceasefire talks with the Taliban, JeM, who have been involved in the fight there, may now be re-focusing their attention on Kashmir.

“JeM’s resurgence could be a desire to reassert its jihadi street cred in Kashmir amid challenges from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group,” says Pakistan specialist Kugelman.

Adding to this driving factor is that the nature of the insurgency in IAK has become more locally driven as a result of heavy-handed security measures by Indian forces.

On this local level the present combustible mix can be traced back to the 2016 killing of the young Kashmiri militant, Burhan Wani.

During his reign as a commander in one of the groups, Wani, while only in his twenties, had already given a modern shift to the Kashmiri militancy movement as more and more youth joined him.

With his death at the hands of Indian security forces the movement gained new life that still reverberates today and has left people polarised on both sides of the conflict.

“The Kashmir story is one of diabolical narratives. On one side is a section of Kashmiris who say ‘we are all Burhan Wani’, and the other is a section of people who say, ‘they (Kashmiris) are all terrorist,’” was how one Indian analyst summed up the situation.

The National:

THE roles too of both India and Pakistan’s political leaders and security establishment both in the past and current crisis have also been crucial factors. While the government of Pakistan, now as always, denies involvement, there has long existed evidence that JeM is linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Some security analysts suspect the role of ISI in “supporting the masterminds” of the Pulwama terrorist attack which set in motion the current crisis.

“The self-proclaimed involvement of JeM in the attack raises serious questions about the role of the ISI in supporting the masterminds of this operation,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst was quoted last week as saying.

The Pulwama attack, which has direct footprints inside Pakistan, poses the first set of major challenges to Pakistan prime minister Khan, said Riedel, who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institute think tank.

Security experts conclude that over the years with support from ISI, JeM was able to carry out an audacious attack on the state assembly building in Srinagar, the summer capital of IAK, and then an even more stunning attack on the Indian Parliament building in 2001. About a million troops across the region mobilised for war afterwards, which was narrowly averted at the time.

While the Kashmir insurgency is now largely homegrown, in part a result of draconian security measures by Indian forces, as long as the JeM leadership remains ensconced in Pakistan, denials of complicity from Islamabad will convince few outside the country, least of all in New Delhi.

These past few days the Pakistan government has been resorting to type, professing an arm’s-length relationship with JeM. After every flare up involving the Islamist extremists it goes through the now familiar pattern of rounding up the usual suspects for polite detention, which on occasion has even included Masood Azhar himself.

While no Pakistani court has dared to convict him, Azhar is believed to live in a compound in Bahawalpur, a city in Punjab 270 miles from the Indian border.

On Friday Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi admitted in an interview with CNN that Azhar is in Pakistan and is “very unwell”, adding that Islamabad is open to “any step” that will lead to a de-escalation of tensions with India.

But aside from the thorny issue of Azhar’s presence and Pakistan’s relationship with JeM and other militant groups operating in Kashmir, other geopolitical factors too are having a profound bearing on the current crisis.

Ultimately two men hold the key to whether India and Pakistan edge closer to an all out war over Kashmir.

One is the former tea merchant turned politician prime minister of India Narendra Modi, the other cricketing legend and leader of Pakistan, Khan.

By agreeing to free the Indian pilot shot down last week Khan has taken the first step towards de-escalating tensions but problems and potential flashpoints still lie ahead.

What complicates matters is that Modi is seeking to retain power in general elections scheduled to take place in April-May.

Known for his Hindu nationalist politics, he has consistently blamed Pakistan for propagating terrorism in India. A strong stand on terrorism over Kashmir before elections is likely to go down well with voters, meaning it might not be in Modi’s interests to fully de-escalate the crisis, leaving it simmering dangerously.

While saying he was happy with Pakistan’s decision to return its airforce pilot, Modi in election mode will be unwilling to back off further until he sees concrete evidence that its neighbour is taking action to stem terrorism emanating from its territory.

For his part, Khan, being fairly new to office and close to Pakistan’s powerful armed forces, will need to tread warily in terms of his country’s foreign policy and ISI’s mischief making in IAK – especially the use of JeM and other Islamist militant groups as proxies.

“All wars in history were miscalculated. With the sort of weapons we both have, can we afford any miscalculation?” Khan asked his counterpart in India as tensions rose last week.

On that point few would disagree, but there are still some within both countries who would like to see war.

Many of Pakistan’s Islamists will no doubt be itching for jihad against the Hindu state.

In India, meanwhile, Modi’s government, long affiliated to the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organisation, may be ready to escalate the conflict, against a backdrop of rising anti-Muslim hate across the country.

In short, how this crisis plays out with domestic audiences in both nations will have a crucial bearing on future events.

The deep and bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan is such that incidents like those that unfolded last week quickly take on a volatile energy of their own, an energy that may ultimately be difficult to contain.

For now the shelling across the Line of Control in the disputed territories has not yet abated but the threat of all out conflict has receded.

But make no mistake about it, the flirting with the hell of conflict in the otherwise scenic paradise that is Kashmir continues and many caught in the crossfire still suffer.

Timeline of tension: India and Pakistan 1947-2019

1947: Britain, as part of its pull-out from the Indian subcontinent, divides it into secular (but mainly Hindu) India and Muslim Pakistan. The partition causes one of the largest human migrations ever seen and sparks riots and violence across the region.

1947/48: The first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir is fought, after armed tribesmen from Pakistan’s north-west frontier province invade the disputed territory. The Maharaja, faced with an internal revolt in addition to an external invasion, requests the assistance of the Indian armed forces, in return for acceding to India. He agrees to hand over control to the Indian government. The conflict officially concludes when the United Nations arranges a ceasefire, with an established ceasefire line. It is agreed Pakistan will control approximately one-third of the state, referring to it as Azad (free) Kashmir. It is semi-autonomous. A larger area, including the former kingdoms of Hunza and Nagar, is controlled directly by the central Pakistani government. The Indian (eastern) side of the ceasefire line is referred to as Jammu and Kashmir state. Both countries refer to the other side of the ceasefire line as “occupied” territory.

1965: India and Pakistan fight their second war. The conflict begins after a clash between border patrols. The war ends with both sides holding some of the other’s territory.

1971: India and Pakistan go to war a third time, this time over East Pakistan. Hostilities lasted 13 days, making this one of the shortest wars in modern history. East Pakistan becomes the independent country of Bangladesh.

1972: Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi meet to sign the Simla Agreement that designates the ceasefire line of December 17, 1971, as being the new “Line-of-Control (LoC)” between the two countries.

1989: Armed resistance to Indian rule in the Kashmir valley begins. India says that Pakistan is supporting the resistance by providing weapons and training to fighters, terming attacks against it in Kashmir “cross-border terrorism”. Pakistan denies this.

1999: Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif sign the Lahore Declaration. It represents the first major agreement between the two neighbouring countries since the 1972 Simla Accord, which establish a new LoC. Some of the diplomatic gains are eroded, however, after the Kargil conflict breaks out in May.

2001: Tensions along the LoC remain high, with 38 people killed in an attack on the Kashmiri assembly in Srinagar.

2008: On November 26, armed gunmen open fire on civilians at several sites in Mumbai, India. More than 160 people are killed in the attacks. In the wake of the atrocities, the Indian government breaks off diplomatic talks with Pakistani counterparts.

2009: The Pakistani government admits that the Mumbai attacks may have been partly planned on Pakistani soil, while vigorously denying allegations that the plotters were sanctioned or aided by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

2016: India launches what it calls “surgical strikes” on “terrorist units” in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in September, less than two weeks after an attack on an Indian army base leaves 19 soldiers dead. Pakistan denies the attacks took place.

2019: In the early hours of February 26, India conducts air attacks against what it calls Pakistan-based rebel group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)’s “biggest training camp”, in Balakot killing “a very large number of terrorists”.