The crisis between India and Pakistan that began on February 14 with the Pulwama attack continues and has reached a new inflection point after the Indian Air Force struck targets on Pakistani soil in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) Province, well across the Line of Control.
We crossed an important threshold with Indian military retaliation. The retaliatory action had been promised by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, so the fact of its occurrence wasn’t necessarily a surprise. What did take many observers aback was the audacious choice of a target: a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in undisputed Pakistani territory.
Of course, India made clear that the attack was “non-military” — in the sense that the target was not the Pakistan Army — and “pre-emptive,” based on specific intelligence inputs that suggested an attack was being planned. In the immediate 24 hour period following the attack, most countries have been largely supportive of India’s position, even as they have called for restraint.
The U.S. statement, released on the evening of February 26, was particularly supportive. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized Washington’s “close security partnership and shared goal of maintaining peace and security in the region” with India, making no comment on the merits of the attack itself.
On Pakistan, Pompeo took on a more prescriptive tone. In the State Department readout, he noted that he had conveyed to Pakistan’s foreign minister that Islamabad needed to take “meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil” and underscored “the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action.”
The latter point is where most attention falls now. Following India’s statement on the strikes on Tuesday, Pakistan’s military convened a press conference. The director-general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, confirmed that Pakistan would retaliate against India at a time and place of its choosing, effectively cornering Islamabad into retaliatory action.
[Editor’s note: Shortly after this piece was published, reports came out that Pakistani and Indian aircraft had engaged in an aerial battle as Pakistan attempted to strike targets in Indian-administered Kashmir. Early reports indicate one Pakistani and one Indian aircraft were downed.]
This marks a sharp difference from Pakistan’s reaction to the September 2016 “surgical strikes” claimed by India after the Uri terror attacks that same month by Pakistan-based militants. Pakistan was able to de-escalate the crisis by claiming no such strikes had occurred.
By confirming that the Indian Air Force had penetrated as far as Balakot in KPK in the first place, Pakistan’s military cornered itself this time. Similarly, commentators in Pakistan have raised pressure on the military by asking questions of the performance of Pakistani air defense crews in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, wondering how the Indian Air Force’s fighters would have been able to cross the Line of Control to conduct a strike. To repel these notions, Ghafoor said Pakistan was not caught off-guard or surprised by the Indian attack.
At a higher level, the challenge for Pakistan’s military now is to re-establish what it sees as the failure of its nuclear deterrence. Pakistan has maintained an aggressive nuclear strategy and posture to make conventional military action by India against its territory unthinkable in theory. This held largely between the conclusion of the 1999 Kargil War almost 20 years ago and Tuesday.
The Indian strikes this week marked not only the first intentional crossing by the IAF since the 1971 war between the two countries, but the first-ever use of conventional airpower by one nuclear-armed state against the territory of another nuclear-armed state. Even with its low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons, Pakistan had failed to convince the Indian leadership that such action would be unthinkable — it clearly was not.
Nuclear weapons are slowly eking their way into the ongoing crisis. The most direct indication came with comments by Ghafoor on Tuesday. The Pakistani military spokesperson confirmed that the country’s National Command Authority (NCA) would meet on Wednesday. With little subtlety, Ghafoor added: “I hope you understand what is National Command Authority; what does it constitute.”
The implication was nuclear weapons. The NCA was formalized as the supreme civilian decision-making body to authorize the use of nuclear weapons after the country’s breakout in 2000, attaining further legal sanction in 2007. Ghafoor’s remark was not a threat, per se, that outlined the conditions under which nuclear weapons would be brought into play, but they were a reminder — to the Pakistani public and Indian government alike — that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed power.
With Pakistan now under pressure to take its decision on how it will retaliate for the Indian strikes on its territory, the prospect of a nuclear crisis grows. While it initially appeared that escalation may have been avoidable like in the aftermath of the 2016 “surgical strikes,” Pakistan has set that option aside. (Thinking about nuclear weapons among the Pakistani military’s senior officers is deadly serious; see Praveen Swami’s report this week for some insight into the discussions among retired Pakistani military officials on nuclear weapons.)
This crisis remains serious and the probability of a nuclear exchange shouldn’t be understated. But until we see Pakistan’s retaliation, it should not be overstated either; we’re not sitting at the cusp of a nuclear conflict in South Asia. In fact, neither New Delhi nor Islamabad have serious incentives to seek the start of an uncontrollable escalation spiral.
On the Pakistani side, there are more mundane considerations that should be taken into account. Pakistan’s military has just proven itself unable to protect the country’s borders, opening it up to the same kinds of criticism that it faced internally after the United States’ May 2011 raid on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound at Abbottabad. Now, with the country in a serious fiscal crisis, its proportion of national spending might decrease.
In order to retain its share of the national budget — and its influence over the country’s democratically elected leaders — the military will need to show that it continues to be a vital national institution. The IAF’s strike at Balakot, in this regard, would be an opening.
Pakistan’s retaliation will be about sating domestic audience costs and saving face after the perceived embarrassment resulting from the Balakot strike. The question is whether Islamabad can do that in way that won’t inevitable reset India’s position and put Modi back in a position where has to strike back.
That’s how a war might begin. And even if both sides find a way to stand down in a matter of days or weeks, there’s the unfortunate reality that India’s retaliation for the Pulwama attack will likely fail to deter groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed or those in the Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus that continue to see utility in those groups as a tool of subconventional warfare. One crisis would end, but another would be a virtual inevitability.
Editor’s Note: Listen to a recent discussion with the author concerning the India-Pakistan crisis after the Balakot strike on The Diplomat’s Asia Geopolitics podcast.