India and Pakistan on the Brink

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India and Pakistan on the Brink

As South Asia’s nuclear neighbors trade strikes and accusations, a fragile region holds its breath.

India and Pakistan on the Brink

An Indian army solider walks past the wreckage of an Indian aircraft after it crashed in Budgam area, outskirts of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Wednesday, Feb.27, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

On February 26, the Indian Air Force (IAF) carried out an aerial strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror training camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Unlike in September 2016, when Special Forces of the Indian Army carried out so-called surgical strikes on terrorist launch-pads near the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) — the LoC is the de-facto line that divides the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into POK and the Indian state of J&K — this time IAF jets went far into Pakistani airspace to destroy one of JeM’s main training camps.

Tuesday’s strikes are the first to be launched deep into Pakistan territory since the 1971 India-Pakistan War. Even during the 1999 confrontation at Kargil, Indian fighter jets did not cross the LoC. The IAF’s assault on the Balakot camp is therefore significant.

An assault on JeM training camps was expected. Less than two weeks ago, a suicide bombing by JeM in Pulwama in J&K claimed the lives of more than 40 paramilitary personnel. The attack triggered a wave of anger and outrage across India, with many calling on India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government to give Pakistan a “befitting response.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also been promising to avenge the death of the security forces at Pulwama.

With Indians scheduled to vote in general elections in April and May, the BJP, a right-wing party which espouses a muscular nationalism, was under pressure to respond militarily. The IAF strikes on the JeM training camp was the result.

Pakistan-based JeM is labeled a terrorist group in India and India has been trying to get the United Nations Security Council to blacklist JeM’s founder-leader, Masood Azhar. However, it hasn’t succeeded in this endeavor, with China blocking its efforts.

Between 1994 and 1999, Azhar was jailed in India for his terrorist activities in the Kashmir Valley. Then in December 1999, India freed him in exchange for the safe return of passengers on board a hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft.

In Pakistan, Azhar founded JeM with generous support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and since then the group has moved from strength to strength and carried out several attacks in India, including an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 — an incident that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war in 2002 — and on an IAF base at Pathankot in January 2016.

Tuesday’s IAF airstrike is reported to have destroyed a JeM training camp where hundreds of terrorists were staying. Among those reportedly killed in the strike was Azhar’s brother-in-law, Yousuf Azhar, who masterminded the 1999 airplane hijacking.

India claims that the air strikes eliminated a significant number of JeM fighters. But what has it achieved beyond that?

The strikes delivered a “robust” message, an editorial in The Hindu, an influential English daily said. Certainly, the strike signaled to Pakistan that India will not hesitate to use force if it continues to support terrorist attacks targeting India. By targeting a terrorist camp, India has indicated also that it “doesn’t want to go beyond [destroying Pakistan’s] terror infrastructure,” security analyst Uday Bhaskar has observed. 

However, Tuesday’s strikes “are unlikely to have any enduring impact on the long term trajectory of Pakistan-backed terrorism,” Ajai Sahni, counter-terrorism expert and Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, told The Diplomat.

The 2016 surgical strike did not reduce terrorist attacks in India. Rather it resulted in “an escalation of terrorism in J&K and increased firing” by Pakistan along the LoC, which resulted in scores of Indian soldiers and civilians losing their lives.

It did serve the BJP’s agenda well, however, Sahni says.

And “Surgical Strikes 2.0,” as India’s recent strikes are being referred to “can be expected to do precisely this,” he added. The strikes are likely to provide a shot in the arm to the BJP’s electoral chances in the upcoming general elections.

“In the immediate future, the impact [of the strikes] will probably be escalatory,” Sahni said, adding that the Pakistani leadership is under pressure “as great as the pressure” that the Modi government was under to respond to the Pulwama attack. Pakistan’s leadership is under pressure to respond to India’s air strikes “immediately and visibly.”

In the coming days, Pakistan can be expected to further escalate cross-border firing and carry out terror attacks in J&K as well as other parts of India, Sahni said.

The conflict is already escalating.

Within hours of the Indian assault on the Balakot terror camp, Pakistan began firing at Indian military posts near the LoC. A day later, Pakistan Air Force aircraft crossed the LoC into J&K. It appears that jets from the two sides were locked in a dogfight in the skies.

Pakistan’s immediate response indicates that its military “is willing to engage in unprecedented escalation,” said Sahni.

Both sides are making contradictory claims. However, it does seem that both have lost aircraft and at least one Indian pilot, who went missing in action, is in Pakistan’s custody.

The latest India-Pakistan confrontation has begun claiming lives.

Both sides, incidentally, have said that they don’t intend to escalate the conflict. They may not want to, given the severe impact that an armed conflict of even a few days duration can have on their economies, but they are standing on a slippery slope and if they do not halt their strikes and counter-strikes now, it may become impossible for the two nuclear-armed neighbors to pull back.

India’s air strikes on Balakot are a huge loss of face for the Pakistani military. India’s Mirage-2000s were able to fly 80 km into Pakistani territory, undetected. This is shocking considering that Pakistan’s military should have been on high alert following the Pulwama attack and the public warnings India issued to Pakistan in its wake. It again “exposes the rudimentary capability of Pakistani air defenses,” writes Indian defense analyst Ajai Shukla.

The Pakistani military will feel the need to teach India a lesson for that embarrassment.

There is much jubilation in both India and Pakistan. Bellicose rhetoric and hysterical media coverage seems to have convinced the masses in both countries that victory is theirs.

The mood in J&K is starkly different.

People in J&K are anxious and those living near the LoC have started packing their bags to leave for safer areas. The Valley’s bazaars are shut and the sale of petrol for vehicles has stopped. Kashmiris know that in the event of a further escalation in the India-Pakistan hostilities it is they who will bear the brunt.

If India aims to pressure Pakistan to dismantle terror outfits and the network that supports them, the recent air strikes on the JeM camp at Balakot and the ongoing escalation in hostilities is unlikely to achieve that goal.

It may bring Pakistan under serious pressure from the international community to shut down terror camps, but rarely has Pakistan responded positively to such pressure.  At best, Pakistan may take a few cosmetic measures to shut down a few outfits. That was Islamabad’s response in 2003, for instance, when the United States pressured Pakistan and India to pullback from the brink of war.

It is likely that the current developments will boost extremist outfits and anti-India sentiment in Pakistan. This will bring terrorist factions together to step up attacks on India.

In 2003, India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire which came into effect along the international border, the LoC and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in Siachen. This was a dramatic development especially for people in Kashmiri, who for decades had endured daily shelling from across the LoC.

For the first time ever, thanks to the ceasefire, Kashmir’s mountains were no longer  echoing with artillery fire. The ceasefire led to a peace of sorts. An array of confidence-building measures were put in place. For the first time in decades, buses shuttled between the two Kashmirs and trade was set in motion. There was contact now between Kashmiris divided by the LoC for decades. All these gains are now in jeopardy. The ceasefire is on the brink of death.

The ceasefire has been fraying since the end of the last decade. Both sides have accused the other of violating it. Indeed, in recent years, the ceasefire has seemed all but dead. Recent developments could end up hammering the last nail into its coffin.  

This, in turn, will deal a deadly blow to India’s efforts to halt Pakistan’s infiltration of terrorists into J&K.

For decades, Pakistan infiltrated terrorists into J&K under cover of shelling. The shelling would distract the Indian security forces and the Pakistani military would help the terrorists slip into Indian territory.

Should the ceasefire collapse, Pakistan will return to infiltrating terrorists under cover of heavy shelling as it did in the pre-2003 period.

Since 2014, when the BJP came to power, the situation in Kashmir has deteriorated even more. The number of militants has increased as have the number of militant attacks. Worryingly for India, it is local youth who are joining the militant groups in droves. Besides, the militancy in Kashmir is said to have touched levels that existed in the 1990s when the anti-India militancy was at its height.

Pakistan’s support to militants and terror attacks in J&K through providing weapons, explosives and training is fuelling the violence. It has long fished in Kashmir’s troubled waters. The militarization of the conflict and Pakistani support to terrorists has weakened the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

However, the BJP government’s muscular handling and excessive use of force to deal with Kashmiri alienation cannot escape responsibility for the deterioration of the security situation in Kashmir as well.

India has sent a strong message to Pakistan to shut down anti-India terror factories on Pakistani soil. It must mobilize the international community to pressure Pakistan to shut down terror outfits.

Simultaneously, Delhi must put its house in order. The Modi government must address the turmoil at home. Sadly, it lacks the political will to deal honestly with Kashmiri grievances.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.