The following article originally appeared in The Times of India on 28 February, 2019.
There is a long history of de-escalatory efforts following India-Pak crises
On the early morning of February 26, Indian Air Force jets entered Pakistani air space, where they struck a Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM) training camp at Balakot. The next day, it appears that Pakistan attempted retaliatory strikes against Indian military facilities. In an engagement with Indian MiG-21s, an Indian aircraft was shot down, landing on the Pakistani side of the line of control. The pilot, reported to be Wing Commander Abhinandan, survived and is in Pakistani custody.
A second aircraft was also downed on the Pakistani side of the LoC. India has said that it successfully took down a Pakistani aircraft, while Pakistan naturally claims that a second Indian aircraft was downed. Separately, an Indian Mi-17 helicopter crashed in Jammu & Kashmir in what is believed to be an accident, with further casualties.
Although a lot of these facts remain to be verified, questions will now be raised about how and why events unfolded as they did.
It is important to assess the significance of the Balakot strike, conducted in response to the February 14 terrorist attack by JeM at Pulwama. Indian aircraft certainly entered Pakistani air space and managed to return unscathed. This, also accepted in Pakistan’s version of events, is itself something of an embarrassment for the Pakistan military, and may have necessitated some form of retaliation as a face-saving gesture.
Additionally, India has framed its strike on Balakot as a pre-emptive action: proportional, motivated by intelligence about further terrorist attacks on India, and designed to minimise civilian casualties. Supportive statements in the immediate aftermath suggest that India’s rationale for its strike has been accepted by certain other countries.
Moreover, the significance of the target needs to be assessed. Balakot is one of the earliest JeM training facilities developed after the release from Indian custody of its leader Masood Azhar in 1999. In its early years, it was used for planning and training for suicide bombings, including against religious minorities in Pakistan, across the LoC against India, and against US targets in Afghanistan.
Although devastated in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the JeM facility was rebuilt. In recent years it became a venue for lectures by Azhar, his family members, and close associates, and continued to play host for training efforts. And it was part of a general revival of JeM’s fortunes following increased recruitment efforts and a partial crackdown on Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Pakistan’s response should also be seen in context. The shift in narrative over the first 24 hours after Balakot is somewhat reminiscent of that after the 2011 US raid against Abbottabad in which Osama bin Laden was killed. In that instance, the army initially claimed that it was a party to the US operation before it made it a matter of US violations of Pakistani sovereignty (avoiding questions about how and why bin Laden was in Abbottabad).
Now, after claiming that Indian aircraft were chased out of Pakistani air space and inflicted no damage on Balakot, it is asserting a retaliation in self-defence. It is worth asking what – beyond an air space violation – Pakistan is retaliating for if, as it claims, no significant damage was inflicted by India.
The Indian air strike and Pakistan’s retaliatory actions will undoubtedly be seen as part of a dangerous escalation between two nuclear-armed countries. Greater escalation is certainly possible, including in the event of further Pakistani reprisals or depending on the fate of the captured Indian pilot. His mistreatment in custody would undoubtedly increase Indian public hostility.
But unwarranted alarmism is also unnecessary, at least for now. India and Pakistan have tested each others’ militaries in the past, including after the nuclear tests of 1998, the Kargil war of 1999, Operation Parakram in 2002, and the ‘surgical strikes’ of 2016. On both sides, addressing domestic expectations are paramount, especially in the backdrop of the forthcoming Indian general election.
But there has also been a long history of de-escalatory efforts following crises between the two countries, and today there are more channels for diminishing tensions. It is possible, as has been the case in the past, that both sides will find in their recent actions enough to claim a successful defence of their countries. In that case, the facts of the matter, which will be made clear in time, will speak for themselves.