The two belligerent neighbors, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, of which three—in 1947–1948, 1965, and a localized conflict across the LoC in 1999—have centered on the territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir and the war of 1971, which is also part of the liberation struggle of and resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. There’s a common denominator to these conflicts: all of these wars happened before any of the two had developed their nuclear arsenal.
Recently, things went downhill and led to a speculation of things running off the edge as a suicide bomber carried out the largest attack against the Indian military in a place called Pulwama in Indian Administered Kashmir which resulted in the death of more than 40 personnel, one of the highest in recent history. The Pakistan-based outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibilities for the attack starting the first phase of this flare up: the war of words. It’d all have been fine and dandy if it was limited to that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
The Indian Air Force, as a result of the suicide attack, carried out an air strike on an alleged JeM camp in Balakot, Pakistan, in the early hours of February 26, marking the first use of cross-border air power since the 1971 war meanwhile escalating the war of words. In the hours after the air strike, Indian print publications and television channels reported that an estimated 200 to 300 terrorists had been eliminated in the attack, and that the largest training camp of the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohamed (JeM) had been hit. The news outlets attributed these statements to “sources”, even though the Indian government had not officially signed off on these claims. Next day, Reuters reported from the ground of the alleged air strike, saying the air strike have resulted in four deep craters, wounded one man and partially damaged one house. Al Jazeera also confirmed the details of the Reuters report in February 28. A later update from Reuters, also on February 28, carried word of a fatality: a crow had died. Naturally Pakistan started its own counter war of words and the public joined the fray and opinions on both sides of the fence went awry.
In the morning of February 27, Pakistan Air Force went on to carry out its own attack inside India. Pakistan's military spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor later said that Pakistani fighter jets had carried out its own retaliatory "strikes" in Indian Administered Kashmir – claiming to have targeted ammo dumps and BLA training facilities - in Indian-administered Kashmir. Two Indian air force jets were scrambled and chasing the attackers, crossed into the LoC, the de facto border that divides Kashmir. For which the Pakistani jets were ready, and engaged them when they got them in sight, while claiming shooting both of them down. He said that one Indian pilot was in the custody of the Pakistani army. Drama ensued.
Indian side acknowledged the loses while the Pakistani chest thumping was evident. The Indian side after acknowledging the loss of one MiG-21 Bison asked Pakistan to return the captured pilot immediately. Coincidentally, the same morning of the Pakistani raid, India had another fighter jet crash inside Indian Administered Kashmir near the LoC killing its pilot and this happened at the same time of the crash of the MiG-21 Bison in the Pakistani side of the LoC. Another helicopter was also downed killing 6 on board. Later it was found that the helicopter was lacking an IFF system which resulted in a hit by a SAM launched to intercept the Paksitani intruders and caused the crash.
After a televised speech, which was more addressed to the Indians than the Pakistani people, PM Imran Khan asked for dialogue emphasizing the fact that as both the countries have nuclear arsenal and it won’t be to anyone’s benefit to escalate the situation. Later on, after announcing in the Pakistani parliament, the Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Vartaman was released to the Indian authorities on the 1st of March through the Wagah border as a gesture of goodwill.
In the meantime, as part of their bizarre modus vivendi, both the countries went on to exchange mortar and small arms fire, along with some artillery strikes, across the LoC since the raid on February 26.
On 5th March, Pakistan arrested 44 members of various groups, including the Jaish-e-Muhammad. Some of those arrested had been named by India in a dossier it gave to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. Pakistan said those arrested will be held for at least 14 days, and if India provided further evidence they would be prosecuted. Among those arrested were relatives of JeM leader Masood Azhar, including his son Hamad Azhar and his brother Abdul Rauf.
In retrospective, we should enquire and explore the reason behinds the suicide bombing which started all these. The teenager who carried out the suicide bombing was once interred and beaten by the Indian forces while returning from school for no apparent reason and was the reason which fueled his actions starting from joining a terrorist outfit to carrying out a deadly suicide blast. This kid’s story is not unique in any way as there are other examples which suggests that heavy handed tactics that the Indian forces are following in order to curb the Kashmiri insurgency are backfiring as many Kashmiris have gone rouge and joined terrorist outfits. These heavy-handed tactics have their roots in the 1990s when India employed Israeli advisors to train their forces to counter the separatists in Kashmir. It can be easily said that if India being the largest democracy in the world followed a political path to solve this crisis then it wouldn’t have evolved into the firepit that we are seeing today.
The crisis also is deepened by the involvement of non-state actors who act as wildcards in escalating the conflict to overflow outside the borders, an example of which can be the recent flare up. Also, to be noted is the 2001 attack on Indian and Parliament and also the 2008 Mumbai attack which brought the Indian nation in a standstill and took it to a war footing against Pakistan. Pakistan has been long accused of patronizing fringe terrorist elements which wreaks havoc on regional peace and stability by their actions. It is for Pakistan and also the greater good of the region that these patronizations are ceased as this might result in an all-out conflict. In case of a conflict, Pakistan has little bit of advantage as they have made themselves self-reliant in many aspects thus giving them a distinct advantage of logistics. For example, the fighter planes which were allegedly used to strike India, the JF-17 Thunder was developed in cooperation with China and are now indigenously produced along with spare parts. On the other hand, India still is dependent on Russia as their fleet mainly consists of Russian MiGs and Sukhois and they still couldn’t fully deploy a squadron of their indigenously developed HAL Tejas, even though now there are words of rapid development as Israeli engineers are involved in the project helping curb the problems that have halted its deployment. To mitigate the disparity Indians were forced to sought French Dassault Rafale fighters for an exorbitant price but due to questions of corruption and revelation in the courts that top-secret documents regarding the fighter jet and the deal were stolen/missing from the Indian Ministry of Defense, the deal is now practically in a limbo. They have also achieved nuclear triad which puts India in a tight place but in case of a conflict it also must be noted that India not only have a larger air force but also some of the finest and most professional pilots in the world. The issue of the Indian Air Force’s logistical problem puts them in a disadvantageous position as for the last few years they couldn’t get access to spare parts due to US sanctions on Russia which limits their capabilities as most of their fleet is grounded due to lack of spare parts.
India also can’t concentrate all its force on Pakistan alone as they share a 3380 km of border with China and have to keep most of their superior Sukhoi Su-30MKIs deployed in multiple bases extending from Aksai-Chin to Arunachal. On the other hand, Pakistan has the ‘luxury’ to concentrate on India alone as it has got no other belligerent, at least openly, actors surrounding it.
India, after the 2001 attack on Indian Parliament, switched to the Cold Start doctrine which called in for a rapid mobilization of conventional forces to strike Pakistan and present a strategic surprise. This plan hinges on armored spearheads and necessary air support. In case of an all-out war Pakistan will be fighting for its existence as it lacks the strategic depth. Thus, the Pakistani plan to counter such moves is a drastic deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to negate the spearheads early on. This raises the antes in this high-risk game of international politics as India will be forced to use its own nuclear arsenal to counter that of the Pakistani ones and this exchange of nuclear warheads will escalate from a counterforce mode to a countervalue mode thus bringing in a nuclear apocalypse of this subcontinent but the effects of such an exchange will not be limited to this area alone as the fallout will be carried by the winds to great distances, as far as Western Europe, in a matter of days and the resultant dust cloud will limit sunlight all around the world which in turn will bring in a worldwide famine.
There is also the factor of how different international players will respond and react to such a conflict. China being the dependable all-weather friend of Pakistan will not sit out such an escalation and will retaliate in its own way. Russia on the other hand might play a dubious role as it’s the largest weapons supplier to India but is now friends with China and is also developing a close relationship with Pakistan. Americans will be having a hard time intervening in such a conflict even though India is their ally in the region and is also a key player in the Indo-Pacific strategy as this will bring them face-to-face with the Russo-Chinese alliance sparking in a World War. Pakistan also has the distinct advantage of being supported by other Muslim countries, namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle Eastern countries.
Now coming back to the recent escalation, there are some takes in how this situation unfolded and was resolved in quite a peaceful manner.
Beijing’s response towards this escalation was no different than the earlier ones and has closely mirrored its handling of past Indo-Pakistan tensions, where it called on both sides to show restraint. Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered this message to both India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj – who happened to be visiting China for a Russia-India-China (RIC) summit – and to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in two phone conversations.
Washington on the other hand took a rather passive approach, thus far there is no sign that the Trump administration plans to engage in any overt manner. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have not engaged either leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have made calls to express solidarity with India following the Pulwama attack and to urge calm after last week’s airstrikes, but beyond this rhetoric, no broader effort appears to be underway to reduce tensions in a systematic way. No official travel to the region has been announced.
Interestingly for China this conflict has presented a unique dilemma as despite bilateral and geopolitical differences, economic ties have been steadily growing over the years between China and India. China ranks among the fastest-growing sources of foreign direct investment in India. In 2017, China invested an estimated $2 billion, compared to $700 million in 2016, tripling the funding in a single year. Mauritius was the largest source of foreign investment in India, followed by the U.S. and the U.K. in 2016-17.
China is also the biggest trading partner of India, and India is the largest project-contracting market for Chinese companies in South Asia. Despite being locked in an antagonistic relationship over Doklam, India-China bilateral trade scaled up to $84.44 billion in 2017, rising 18.63%, which is well above the $71.18 billion registered in 2016. This is a major milestone for both countries.
On the other hand, China has made its biggest investment to date in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor worth more than $62 billion. The CPEC will connect the Pakistani port of Gwadar to the capital of China’s Western most province, Urumqi.
Finally, the first cross-border airstrikes in decades and the short-fuse nuclear weapons capabilities that implies that the international community should seek to introduce a new conflict-monitoring regime in the region to avoid repetition of any further escalations. Introducing additional monitoring and surveillance tools, ideally through a cooperative framework between India and Pakistan, would reduce the risk of escalation in future crises and help reduce the saliency of facts produced from such a system. The tools could be used to monitor for cease-fire violations along the static Line of Control or in other ways, such as verifying defensive positions declared under the cease-fire agreement, occupation of which would be a source of conflict in the future. A third party, whether the United States, Britain, the United Nations, or someone else mutually agreed on by the two sides, could oversee the arrangement.
De-escalating this situation permanently is more likely to succeed with outside mediation. The United States has historically led the effort to de-escalate disputes between India and Pakistan, including after the 1999 Kargil War, the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. These efforts were pursued in cooperation with allies such as the U.K., which in the current crisis has already engaged at the highest levels to deliver clear messages.
Last but not the least, a worrying dimension to this crisis has been the role of the media and social media in inflaming hostility and aggression on both sides of the border. When the potential for escalation was already high, the flames of hatred fanned on social media from both sides had made the crisis progressively more difficult to control.