On the midnight of Feb. 26, 2019, the Indian Air Force jets crossed the Line of Control (LoC) entering Pakistani airspace but flew back after Pakistani fighter jets forced them to retreat. Meanwhile, the Indian warplanes dropped their payload into a forest near Balakot. India said it was a response to the Feb. 14 Pulwama attack and termed it a “pre-emptive strike on the biggest training camp of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM)”. India’s claim was rejected by Pakistan saying the Indian jets hit “an empty area” and that no casualties or damage to infrastructure occurred. International observers also found little evidence to support Indian claims.
On the following day, Pakistan Air Force in a swift retaliatory attack hit open spaces after locking on Indian military targets in Indian controlled Kashmir and shot down two Indian fighter jets. In this action, Pakistan also captured an Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman who was later released by Pakistan as a “peace gesture”. This event constitutes the first time the two nuclear-armed powers have launched air strikes against each other since the Pakistan-India war of 1971.
Pakistan’s retaliation was inevitable, and was meant to avoid weakening of deterrence at the conventional level. The Indian unilateral and escalatory action pushed Pakistan to retaliate in order to deny India in establishing a “new normal” in a bilateral mechanism aimed at conducting acts of aggression at its own pretexts.
The unfolding of the whole episode is a clear manifestation of Indian motives behind aggression which could be the attainment of great power status, and Narendra Modi’s election domination domestically, and to put into test Pakistan’s will to retaliate. The drivers of Indian aggression could be its confidence in its strategic partnership with the US and Israel, growing economy, conventional military superiority and advancement in military technology that the country has experienced over the years. Had Pakistan not retaliated, Indian aggression would have damaged the credibility of Pakistan’s conventional deterrence and would have gradually weakened the effectiveness of the country’s nuclear deterrence as well.
There is always a possibility of a limited conventional war between two nuclear-armed adversaries under their nuclear thresholds. India escalated crisis to coerce Pakistan into a submissive position and to justify its air raid into Pakistan’s territory what it called a “counter-terrorism operation.” Faced with Indian power display, Pakistan’s calculated retaliation preserved its conventional deterrence aimed not only at shackling the Indian overconfidence in violating the sovereignty of the country but also punishing it and raising escalation cost for India. Consequently, Pakistan’s reaction burst the bubble of the Indian air force’s superiority by downing the country’s two fighter jets. Moreover, India’s claim of successfully targeting militant hideouts and striking the country’s F-16 fighter jet lost its ground as its narrative is heavily being questioned both domestically and internationally.
Pakistan’s escalatory path was also not without escalation control measures. The escalation control mechanism is important to prevent intensification of an armed conflict. Pakistan’s possession of a credible nuclear deterrence, its retaliatory strike to preserve conventional deterrence and subsequent nuclear signaling by convening National Command Authority’s meeting following India’s air intrusion, meanwhile taking de-escalation measures fulfilled basic requirements of escalation management. PM Imran Khan’s repeated calls for preserving peace and return of Indian pilot Abhinandan were well chalked out de-escalatory measures. The return of the pilot helped in de-escalating the crisis.
However, this might be a temporary period of calm. Despite Pakistan’s sustained efforts to de-escalate the crisis, including Imran Khan’s reconciliatory stance towards India by recommending dialogue as a way of moving forward, the situation remains complex.
In India, this crisis has become a domestic political issue, especially after PM Modi’s use of national security as a pivot to electioneering. Never before had any Indian leader attempted to use war and national security as means to achieve electoral victory. Though, it remains to be seen whether PM Modi can score a win by making national security a central plank of his election campaign. However, many believe that by acting against Pakistan, PM Modi’s position has become better when compared to his party’s last year defeat to Congress in three key states.
At the same time, India is pushing the UN Security Council (UNSC) members to name Masood Azhar, the founder of JeM which India believes was behind the Pulwama attack, as a UN-designated terrorist. The US, UK and France have decided to move a resolution at the UNSC for listing Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist.” Although, India’s efforts to push the UNSC for such a listing has been vetoed by China on “technical grounds.”
There is a growing belief that another Pulwama type attack could trigger a major crisis between Pakistan and India, even a full-blown armed conflict. However, forgotten through the crisis is the fact that Kashmir which remains disputed for decades, continues to burn and violence continues unabated in the region. Just weeks after Pulwama attack, nine people including four Indian soldiers and a policeman were killed during a gun battle between Indian troops and Kashmiri fighters.
Nevertheless, there are questions – for instance, what is the guarantee that Pulwama like attack cannot happen again in Indian controlled Kashmir? Pakistan has no control over the worsening situation in Indian controlled Kashmir and what is more worrisome is that Pulwama like attack by a third actor can push Pakistan and India on a collision course anytime.
India blames Pakistan for violence in Kashmir and fails to acknowledge the root cause of the Kashmir issue. The successive Indian governments have treated the Kashmiri resistance as only a security issue and have tried to manage it by using excessive force resulting in the killing of a large number of Kashmiris. This strategy has encouraged more and more Kashmiris to join armed struggle against the Indian forces.
Therefore, it is necessary for India to realize that unaddressed Kashmir blemishes its reputation and if remain unresolved, it would be neither in India’s favor nor in Pakistan’s.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
About the authors
Muhammad Abdul Qadeer is a Research Fellow at the Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII). He holds an M.Sc. in International Relations from National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad. His area of research focuses on South Asian & East Asian politics. He tweets at @AQadeerOfficial.
Moiz Khan is a Research Fellow at Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad. Prior to joining the SSII, he worked as an intern at the Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs Directorate in the Strategic Plans Division, Pakistan. He holds an M.Sc degree in Defence and Strategic Studies from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. His area of research focuses on Arms Control & Disarmament and Nuclear Strategy. He tweets at @MoizKhanKakar.