Recent events in the border region of Kashmir between India and Pakistan have brought long-running anxiety about the potential for conflict back into sharp focus. Almost twenty years ago, then-United States President Bill Clinton observed that the “most dangerous place in the world today…is the Indian subcontinent and the Line of Control in Kashmir.” While Indian and Pakistani leaders protested this characterization then, the fact was that the dispute over Kashmir was the only place in the world where an active armed conflict existed between two nuclear powers. This remains true.
Events in the past two months have done little to mitigate tensions. A brief recap: on February 14, a young Kashmiri man named Adil Ahmad Dar drove a car loaded with explosives into a convoy of India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Pulwama, killing 40 troops and injuring dozens. Another four CRPF personnel later succumbed to their injuries. The attack was the first use of a car bomb in Kashmir since 2009, and the first confirmed suicide bombing since 2000. Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a terrorist organization known to operate out of Pakistan, claimed responsibility.
The Pulwama attack led to a significant escalation in cross-border military actions by both countries. Indian Air Force fighters retaliated by bombing targets in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, the significance of which can hardly be overstated. It is the first time since the 1971 India-Pakistan War that Indian forces have crossed into the territory of Pakistan proper (all other strikes in the Kashmir region have been within disputed territory).
In response, the Pakistan Air Force attempted to strike at multiple targets on the Indian side of the LoC and took an Indian Air Force pilot into custody. The pilot was eventually returned to India on March 1—a decision that seems to have successfully calmed the nerves of both states.
A Familiar Occurrence
The recent escalation is certainly worrisome—and elements of it are unprecedented—but attacks from terrorist groups based in Pakistan are unsurprising. JeM, founded in 2000 by Masood Azhar, has itself been responsible for multiple such attacks. It is widely acknowledged that the group operates from Pakistani territory, and also recruits and trains forces with the tacit support of Pakistani authorities.
Nor is India the only country to be attacked by Pakistan-based terrorist groups. US forces in Afghanistan and Afghan security forces have been regularly targeted by cross-border attacks by the Taliban-affiliated Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, who are based in the KBK region. For its part, the Pakistani government, armed forces, and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have long denied supporting such groups or even having knowledge of their existence.
The fact is that it stretches credulity that these types of groups—and this many—could operate in Pakistan without the government’s knowledge and, at the very least, tacit permission. In fact, the goal of these groups to foment unrest in Kashmir and incite a heavy-handed response from India is viewed by elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence forces as essential to countering India’s conventional military advantage. Fighting off infiltration by these groups requires India to maintain a large and expensive military/para-military presence in the Jammu and Kashmir region, and the continuing militarization of Kashmir itself creates conditions of discontent among Kashmiri youth that enable their radicalization. This is true of the Pulwama attack as well. Adil Ahmad Dar was Kashmiri, even if he was radicalized, armed, and supported by a Pakistan-based group.
This form of insurgency on the border leaves few good options. An outright war was fought over infiltration into Kashmir in the 1960s. Once nuclear weapons were acquired by both Pakistan and India such escalation became a far more risky proposition. In a sense, the Kargil war of 1999 was a litmus test for whether a conventional war could be fought without crossing the nuclear threshold. That war, however, was limited to specific pieces of territory, and could be dialed back by Pakistan’s withdrawal from those positions. A military response to terrorist attacks does not come with the same clear objectives, making it much harder to step back from an escalatory spiral.
Conscious of these trade-offs, Indian governments have generally chosen a strategy of restraint, while continuing to press for the Pakistan-based attackers to be recognized as terrorist groups—in this case, a proposal that China has blocked. They also push for Pakistan to be placed on the counter-terrorism Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist.
The current Narendra Modi-led government, however, has been unwilling to face attacks without striking back. They have used airstrikes but, crucially, those justified by invoking pre-emptive self-defense. In the case of February, India waited to retaliate until the United Nations Security Council issued a condemnation of the Pulwama attack. The subsequent official statement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) justified the use of force as necessary to avert an “imminent attack” by JeM forces. In other words, the legal basis for the strike that India asserts is pre-emptive self-defense.
Symbolic escalation via airstrike is a reasonable tactic. This time, though, it backfired. The Pakistan Air Force responded the very next day, launching a counter-attack on Indian military targets and reportedly dropping bombs in or near some installations before retreating. This response yet again makes clear that it will not be easy to deter Pakistan’s government or armed forces from proxy warfare in Kashmir.
While India was able to justify its retaliatory strike as pre-emptive self-defense, there is no legal justification for the February 27 attack by the Pakistan Air Force. From an international law standpoint Pakistan’s air strike was an attack on the armed forces of another sovereign state. In this context, India and Pakistan were at war.
Much of the diplomatic and military responses since February have been predictable and in line with historical trends. There are, however, certain factors that make the situation in Kashmir potentially far more volatile.
In India, both traditional and social media acted as dividing forces in coverage of the February attack and retaliatory strikes. A rapid rise in internet users in the country has made the pace of social media and messaging—true or false—extremely swift. At the same time, many television news channels chose to cover these events in the most confrontational manner. As a result, a spate of unverifiable and jingoistic content swept through the country, jumping from television screens to mobile platforms in a flood of forwarded messages and shared posts.
Perhaps the best illustration of this dynamic was the exaggeration of the number of casualties allegedly caused by the airstrike on Balakot, despite the lack of any official estimate of deaths or injuries. Both the MEA and the Indian Air Force have scrupulously avoided putting out a specific figure, but this did not stop various politicians, including leaders of the ruling party, from boasting of an ever-growing number of “terrorists killed” by the operation.
Estimating the number of casualties caused by an airstrike in hostile territory is a complicated task (US estimates of casualties from airstrikes and drone strikes, for instance, are often called into question by local and international media and human rights agencies). In the absence of official numbers, any figures being spread are at best estimates and at worst fabrications with no discernible basis in fact.
A far greater risk that this sort of media environment presents is the truly frightening prospect that it can be used as a lever, as demonstrated in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Destabilized India-Pakistan relations and incitement to attacks through traditional and social media could have devastating consequences. Fault lines on social media could be at the very least exploited by a politician for gain, but the willingness of social media users and consumers to spread misinformation and amplify war-mongering messages could be potentially catastrophic in a volatile situation like Kashmir with two nuclear powers.
The Larger Context
To be sure, there is still a considerable distance between the events of February 2019 and full-fledged war between the two states, much less the use of nuclear weapons. That said, the core security conundrum for India and Pakistan remains unchanged. As long as elements in Pakistan see proxy warfare as an attractive option and India does not have the ability to physically prevent infiltration, such attacks are likely to continue.
India’s options for responding to the next such attack are highly constrained. A “one-off” reprisal loses credibility each time it is repeated. To offset this, the scale of such punitive action would have to be stepped up in each iteration. Such escalation brings the states ever closer to the nuclear threshold.
If the two states continue with this cycle of non-state actors attacking targets in India, Indian armed forces attacking targets in Pakistan, and Pakistani armed forces responding with attacks on India, another war in the subcontinent grows ever more likely. One can only hope that the leadership of both countries will find ways to resolve that confrontation as swiftly the next time it erupts.
Ameya Ashok Naik is Associate Fellow for Geostrategy at The Takshashila Institution, an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Bengaluru, India.