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A 14 February Jaysh e-Mohammad terrorist attack killing Indian military personnel in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir triggered the worst escalation of India–Pakistan tensions in nearly two decades. De-escalation ensued, but, especially given that high-level diplomacy may not resume in the short term, better crisis-management tools are required to ensure that war is avoided.
The sharp and sudden escalation of India–Pakistan tensions in late February 2019 was the worst in nearly two decades, bringing the two countries close to sustained armed conflict. While neither deliberately sought that result, the risk of unintended escalation between the two nuclear powers was high due to misperceptions and miscalculations. Fortuitous circumstances led to de-escalation in this instance, but the two sides cannot rely on luck to defuse tensions in the future. Especially with diplomatic channels on the Kashmir dispute dormant – as they are now and have been since 2008 – better crisis-management tools are required.
Military action–reaction cycle
On 14 February, an Indian Kashmiri carried out a suicide-bomb attack in Pulwama, killing 40 Indian paramilitary personnel. It was the worst terrorist attack ever in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Pakistan-based Jaysh-e-Mohammad (JeM) group, sanctioned and designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, claimed responsibility for the operation. The Pakistani government denied any complicity in or responsibility for the attack, but India nonetheless decided to retaliate with military force. Its move, on 26 February, was bold but risky. Reportedly 12 Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage-2000 aircraft crossed the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border between Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir, in violation of Pakistani airspace. The Indian planes then carried out a strike against what the Indian government described as a major JeM training camp in Balakot, a town in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of mainland Pakistan. India characterised this action as ‘non-military’, ‘intelligence-led’ and ‘pre-emptive’, stating that the strike killed a ‘very large number’ of trainers and terrorists.
In response, just over 24 hours later, Pakistan mounted a retaliatory air operation. Two or three Pakistani F-16 or JF-17 combat aircraft – the type remains unclear in open-source reporting – struck at unspecified targets on the Indian side of the LoC. In language similar to India’s, Pakistan stated that it had focused on ‘non-military target[s], avoiding human loss and collateral damage’. The IAF dispatched combat aircraft to counter the Pakistani strike. Several aerial engagements ensued. According to the Indian government, the Indians shot down one Pakistani plane; the fate of the pilot is unclear. In turn, Pakistani aircraft shot down an Indian MiG-21 Bison. The pilot ejected and was captured by Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan claims to have shot down a second MiG-21, which India denies.
“Key questions remain unanswered, with India and Pakistan contesting each other’s claims and counter-claims”
The pilot’s safe release and return to India on 1 March helped to de-escalate the crisis. But key questions remain unanswered, with India and Pakistan contesting each other’s claims and counter-claims. How many casualties were there, if any, from the strike on the JeM training camp in Balakot? Did Pakistani combat aircraft cross the LoC and violate Indian airspace? What were Pakistan’s targets – intended and actual – in Jammu and Kashmir? Did the IAF in fact shoot down a Pakistani F-16 aircraft, as claimed? Did Pakistan shoot down a second MiG-21? Did India threaten to use missiles against Pakistan to pressure Pakistan to return the Indian pilot? If so, what targets would India have selected? Did Pakistan repel an Indian submarine on an offensive patrol close to Pakistani waters?
India’s strike against Balakot and Pakistan’s counter-attack across the LoC were unprecedented. The initial engagement marked the first time India had carried out a strike against mainland Pakistan since Pakistan had become a nuclear power in 1998 (India acquired that status in 1974). Up to that point, India’s military retaliation had consisted of limited ground-based raids across the LoC and fairly regular exchanges of artillery fire across the LoC. Thus, India’s recent sortie abruptly ended two decades of self-imposed restraint. It also constituted India’s first employment of combat aircraft against Pakistan in 50 years. Pakistan’s action was the first time that it had retaliated with its air force across the LoC.
This situation was also qualitatively different from the last major military confrontation between the two countries in 2001–02, which led to full-scale military mobilisation by both and produced grave concern in the international community about escalation to the nuclear level. This time both sides took pains to display restraint, and both emphasised a clear intent not to strike military installations and to avoid civilian casualties. However, frenzied and jingoistic broadcasts and social-media exchanges that could have encouraged less rational government behaviour continued in both countries in spite of both governments’ de-escalatory efforts. For example, one Indian television news anchor wore combat fatigues and held a toy gun while on air.
In the event, neither side sent overt ‘nuclear signals’. While Pakistan’s National Command Authority, which is empowered to order the use of nuclear weapons, met for the first time since Prime Minister Imran Khan took office in 2018, it uncharacteristically did not issue a public statement. Pakistani authorities also made little mention of India’s recently commissioned nuclear weapons-capable submarine. Rhetorically, however, India appeared dismissive of Pakistan’s apparent restraint and sought to cast its posture as provocative and escalatory. On 9 March, for example, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security, stated that India had called ‘Pakistan’s nuclear bluff’.
During the crisis, both India and Pakistan also engaged with various external actors, notably the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Although India publicly denied any mediation by third-party countries, the latter were involved in brokering the return of the Indian pilot and the de-escalation of tensions. In particular, US National Security Advisor John Bolton and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly had telephone conversations with senior Indian and Pakistani officials to defuse the situation. UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan also contacted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Khan by telephone during the crisis. While Russia and China were also engaged, it is not clear what role, if any, they played.
“India appeared dismissive of Pakistan’s apparent restraint and sought to cast its posture as provocative and escalatory”
The question is whether India’s Balakot strike has established a new normal, one that signals that India will respond in a similar manner the next time Pakistan-based terrorists launch an attack on Indian territory. In any case, it is a foregone conclusion that, post-Balakot, no Indian national security adviser could remove a retaliatory strike on the Pakistan mainland from the options presented to any Indian prime minister in the future. The employment of airpower across boundaries no longer appears to be off-limits to either India or Pakistan.
With the probable exception of JeM cadres in their training camp, no military or civilian casualties apparently occurred. Nevertheless, the situation could easily have spiralled into sustained combat and possibly outright war. India’s airstrike could have inadvertently hit Pakistani military personnel or assets that its human or technical intelligence did not pick up. Pakistan’s counter-strike could have killed Indian military or civilian personnel. The Indian pilot could have been killed. That, in turn, could have prompted another Indian strike, followed by another Pakistani military response. In the dogfight that actually took place, additional aircraft could have been disabled, and could have landed on Indian or Pakistani villages or schools.
An escalatory scenario would have arisen in a diplomatic vacuum. Bilateral dialogue between the two countries on a comprehensive range of issues – including on the Kashmir dispute – were suspended following the Mumbai terrorist attack in November 2008. In April 2010, the two sides agreed to resume talks, but they occurred only intermittently, and in any case were suspended in January 2013, after Pakistani troops killed two Indian army officers along the LoC. The two sides had agreed to restart the comprehensive bilateral dialogue in December 2015, but a terrorist attack on an IAF base in Pathankot in January 2016, resulting in the deaths of seven Indian security personnel, precluded any resumption. Thus, no substantive or meaningful dialogue on Kashmir has taken place for over a decade. Against this background, de-escalatory interaction between the two countries was far from assured.
“How much thought they had actually devoted to next steps – and, in particular, to de-escalation – remains ominously opaque”
In retrospect, it was lucky that the crisis concluded without serious military escalation or further diplomatic deterioration. One salient reason that it did not is that each side considered the episode a victory. This outcome, however, was always highly contingent if not improbable. India ran a significant risk in launching a major incursion into Pakistani airspace across the LoC and targeting mainland Pakistan. Although both sides had embraced ‘restraint’ by seeking non-military targets, how much thought they had actually devoted to next steps – and, in particular, to de-escalation – remains ominously opaque.
A decrease in tensions with Pakistan over the next couple of months is highly unlikely. The absence of a current diplomatic dialogue appeared to be the single biggest factor in raising the risk of escalation once the crisis had begun. Yet until a new government takes office in New Delhi at the end of May, following the elections of 11 April, there is virtually no chance that official bilateral dialogue will resume. If the currently ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was to win the elections and return to power for the next five years, a dialogue with Pakistan could eventually resume, in time. The conditions for the resumption of a dialogue have already been set and, if met, the next BJP government would likely have the political will and clout to make progress. In contrast, a government led by the Indian National Congress party (INC), while eager to resume dialogue with Pakistan, would face withering scrutiny from the BJP and might not have sufficient credibility to deliver results. A ‘third front’ government of regional parties, backed by the INC, would primarily focus on domestic issues and would need to formulate a policy towards Pakistan agreed by all of its constituent partners, which would take time.
Even assuming the BJP wins, talks will not be easy. India has rejected the European Union’s offer of mediation, which would have sweetened the proposition of resumption for Pakistan. Moreover, for talks to be feasible, India would have to perceive that Pakistan had taken effective action against India-focused terrorist groups operating on its soil. But the recent crisis has only intensified widespread perceptions in India that Pakistan’s security establishment tolerates and tacitly encourages Pakistan-based terrorist groups, which have deep roots there. Indian officials assess that Pakistan’s security agencies essentially manage the JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the Mumbai attack, by permitting them to operate as religious charities and seek funding from public sources. This ensures them freedom of operation and movement within Pakistan without fear of arrest despite a US bounty; allows them to set up training camps; and enables them to recruit robustly and to foment religious extremism. Khan has indicated that his government is determined to dismantle those groups. Even if Islamabad were to act and India were to credit the effort, however, it is uncertain that Pakistani officials could impose sustained control.
Given uncertainty about the resumption of high-level diplomacy and doubt about Pakistan’s willingness and ability to rein in terrorist groups, India and Pakistan may need to resort to other measures to manage crises like the one that arose in February. In particular, they could consider reinstituting a back channel between their national-security establishments. Although a hotline has long existed between the two directors general of military operations, it was not used during the crisis. Another possibility would be an informal line of communication between the Indian and Pakistani intelligence services. On account of the Kashmir issue, the two countries will remain vulnerable to emergent security crises for the foreseeable future. Unless more effective means of controlling risks once such crises arise are in place, the overall risk of escalation will stay prohibitively high.