India and Pakistan are headed towards a potential military escalation in the wake of the February 14 attack in Pulwama carried out by Pakistan-based armed group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which killed over 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers.
On February 26, the Indian military launched what it said were retaliatory air raids which allegedly destroyed a “terrorist” training camp in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Pakistan for its part also responded with air raids across the line of control (LoC) which separates Indian- from Pakistan-administered Kashmir and claims to have downed two Indian fighter jets.
Military standoffs or escalations between India and Pakistan are not new, nor is the use of military means to settle scores. However, what sets this round of escalation apart is that this is the first time since the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war that the two countries attack targets deep within each other’s territories.
In the past, when India sent fighter jets to attack Pakistan (say during the Kargil war), it always made sure that the aircraft remained on its side of the LoC in Kashmir; Pakistan did so as well. Also, any cross-border attacks were always within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a disputed territory, and not in Pakistan proper, as was the case with the September 2016 “surgical strike” in response to the Uri army camp attack in Indian-administered Kashmir.
While India’s reasons to attack may have been partly influenced by the upcoming national elections in the country, with its counterstrike, Pakistan seeks to avoid embarrassment and to ensure that such attacks do not become routine in future. One side wants to create a new military normal, and the other side wants to desperately avoid that.
It’s Indian election season
Although this is easily the most serious military escalation between the two sides in close to two decades, since the Kargil crisis, what makes this even more dangerous is that it is election season in India and the hawkish Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a second term in office.
Given that Modi’s government has consistently made strong claims about security matters, it could not help but respond with force to the February 14 attack in Pulwama. Not responding would have been politically unsustainable for the prime minister and his right-wing party, given the unrelenting calls from the opposition for a counterattack and the rather disappointing performance of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at important by-elections over the past year.
The Pulwama attack came at a politically opportune time for Modi and he will seek to capitalise on it as much as he can, which could make him seek further escalation against Pakistan.
For Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, not responding to a much-publicised India attack could mean political suicide; for the Pakistan army, the lack of a response could deeply erode their popular legitimacy and the morale of the rank and file.
What happens next?
Earlier this morning, Pakistan decided to respond to India’s air raid by carrying out air raids in Indian-administered Kashmir. Predictably, India struck back and the two sides fought it out in the airspace above their shared border.
The scale of the “air battle” is difficult to gauge given conflicting reports. Both sides have claimed that they have shot down each other’s aircraft. There are also contradictory accounts of how many aircraft have been downed, whether their pilots have been captured and what damage the air raids have caused, among others.
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What could potentially complicate the situation is how the captured pilots are treated, whether or not they are returned, and whether the continuing air raid results in large scale damage on the Indian side.
In the wake of the Indian air raids, Pakistan also activated the LoC with heavy shelling, a strategy used before by the two countries during heightened tensions. In the days ahead, New Delhi and Islamabad could increase the intensity and calibre of the LoC firing by engaging in what is referred to as “fire assaults”, a standard form of border escalation by the two sides.
How far this escalation can go is still unclear. If India carries out a counterattack, most likely using attack aircraft once again, the two sides could find themselves in an unpredictable conflict escalation, unless of course Pakistan decides to back off at that point.
Islamabad has the option to downscale its military response and instead give armed groups a free run to attack targets in India. It has done it before. After the Indian “surgical strikes” of 2016, attacks against Indian convoys and military installations and “terror” incidents in general in Indian-administered Kashmir sharply increased. However, this option would not bring much political capital to the Pakistani prime minister or the army.
It is important to note that this is also a war of perceptions for both Modi and Khan. Therefore, a de-escalation could very much hinge on their ability to step back and still save face in front of the general public.
Prospects for a de-escalation
Having hit back, and hence achieved a certain “balance of strikes” with India, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan extended an olive branch earlier today, offering New Delhi cooperation in fighting terrorism in order to end the standoff. At this point, there have been no early signs of an Indian desire to engage in a dialogue with Pakistan as doing so at this point might be domestically costly for Modi. India now faces the choice between an unfavourable compromise or an escalation which would invariably involve more violence.
Currently, there are hardly any backchannel contacts between the Indian and Pakistani governments, which makes it even more difficult for them to negotiate an immediate cessation of hostilities. At the same time, the desire on both sides to make political gains from the confrontation is high.
However, both Modi and Khan likely understand that an all-out war is not in their best interest.
If the two sides fail to de-escalate on their own, the international community, especially the United States, the European Union, China and Russia, will step in decisively and pressure the two sides to disengage, given that they are both armed with nuclear weapons and the danger of a nuclear war is real.
Whether these world powers have enough leverage over Islamabad and New Delhi to restrain them and prevent a major conflict in South Asia remains to be seen.