The latest clashes between India and Pakistan come as no surprise to observers of the region. But few could have anticipated the scale of India’s actions against Pakistan, or predicted the acute tension that now threatens to precipitate an all-out war.
Weeks of sabre-rattling warned of an impending crisis. A devastating suicide attack on 14 February, which killed 40 Indian soldiers in the Kashmiri town of Pulwama, stoked existing hostilities. The attack itself was mounted by a local Kashmiri. But Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based terrorist group known to be actively fuelling the insurgency against Indian forces in Kashmir, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Within hours India had promised retaliation and threatened to respond with force against terrorist targets in Pakistan. It claimed that Pakistan offered protection to Jaish-e-Mohammad – an allegation that Pakistan strongly denies.
Indian strikes soon followed. On 27 February Indian fighter jets crossed the ceasefire Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir and mounted a series of raids against militant bases inside Pakistan. It marked the first major breach of the cease-fire line since 1971 – and the first such incursion since India and Pakistan became nuclear powers in 1998.
Pakistan’s response was swift. Within 24 hours it had staged its own air strikes against Indian territory across the LOC and, in the ensuing battle, shot down two Indian jets and captured one of their pilots.
But the actual facts surrounding these strikes and counter-strikes remain mired in controversy, exacerbating nervous tension in the region.
Uncertainty abounds over precisely where Indian forces hit their targets inside Pakistan, how far Indian jets were able to penetrate into Pakistani territory, how much damage India inflicted, how prepared Pakistani forces were to repel India’s initial air strikes, and whether Pakistan had misjudged the risk of escalation by under-estimating the Indian threat.
India insists that its jets hit targets in Balakot in Pakistan’s northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, some 80 kilometres from the LOC. Pakistan maintains that Indian jets went no further than the hamlet of Balakote, a mere 5 kilometres from the LOC on the Pakistani side.
There is no agreement over casualties. India claims that strikes killed up to 300 militants; Pakistan says the only damage done was to surrounding woodland. And while India declared that it overcame resistance at the border, Pakistan says it responded with restraint to avoid risking a major conflagration.
The claims and counter-claims have done little to calm the bellicosity that now prevails across vast swathes of India and Pakistan.
Although the United Nations, European Union, United States and China have urged restraint, leaders in India and Pakistan appear more intent on pandering to their domestic constituencies than addressing their obligations as responsible, nuclear-armed members of the international community.
There are also political motivations at play. Elections are imminent in India; Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who seeks a second term, is aware that being seen as tough on Pakistan could be a vote winner. Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, also understands the advantage of denying that terror groups continue to flourish in and operate out of Pakistan, especially those favoured by Pakistan’s military to whom Khan is said to be politically beholden.
The temptations for both sides may prove too great to resist. Modi will be eager to capitalise on the opportunities that sharpening his anti-Pakistan rhetoric presents. Khan is likely keen to shore up his government’s wafer-thin majority by appearing to resist India’s pressure to confront militancy.
Both leaders clearly understand the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war (and in their saner moments have called for de-escalation). But the outcome of this crisis will ultimately depend on the will on both sides to discount the short-term political gains of confrontation.
Dr Farzana Shaikh is an associate fellow of the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House and the author of Making Sense of Pakistan (2009).