It is far from the first flare-up between India and Pakistan in recent years along the Line of Control, the de facto border in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. But the still-unfolding crisis there, which was sparked by a suicide bombing last month that killed 40 Indian soldiers in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, points to troubling new trend lines in how future conflicts could unfold between these nuclear-armed neighbors.
Every recent crisis—from the Kargil War in 1999 and the so-called Twin Peaks incident in 2001 to the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and India’s 2016 “surgical strikes” on Pakistan—began with a provocation emanating from the Pakistani side that was, to varying degrees, attributable to its government or military. In the latest standoff, the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the car bombing in Kashmir; its leader allegedly ordered the attack from a Pakistani army military hospital where he is receiving palliative care. In the aftermath of such provocations, Indian leaders have always faced difficult choices about how to respond without triggering a dangerous military escalation that could ultimately result in the use of nuclear weapons.
This time, there was considerable, though not unusual, saber-rattling from Indian officials. Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari threatened that India would stop the flow of river water allocated to Pakistan under the Indus Water Treaty, diverting it for domestic use instead. Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed at a rally that “every tear that has been shed will be avenged” and that the Indian military would have “full freedom to decide the place, time, intensity and nature of the retaliation against the enemy.” What was different about this episode was Modi’s deference to the military, which may set a new precedent in which India’s military leadership, rather than civilian leaders, calls the shots during future crises—something that has long been true on the Pakistani side.
India’s military decided to strike back on Feb. 26, with Indian air force jets bombing a Jaish-e-Mohammad training camp in the town of Balakot—about 30 miles west of the Line of Control. The airstrike was significant because it marked the first time that Indian forces crossed into Pakistani territory proper, rather than territory claimed by India and Pakistan, since the two sides were mired in a full-scale war in 1971, although the Indian military disputes that the jets crossed the Line of Control. A day after the operation—which India claimed killed a significant number of terrorists, something the Pakistani military denied—Pakistan responded with an airstrike along the Line of Control, hitting unoccupied open land, instead of a military target, allegedly in order to avoid further escalation. But during an aerial skirmish—the first dogfight since the 1971 war—an Indian Air Force pilot ejected over Pakistani territory and was taken prisoner by Pakistani forces. He was ultimately released into Indian custody on March 1.
The recent crisis is a sobering reminder that there is no law stating that nuclear powers cannot fight each other conventionally.
The readiness with which both countries’ leaders reached for military options in recent weeks was the first troubling trend line, reflecting a new willingness, especially in India, to assume risk. India has historically exercised a certain amount of strategic restraint in response to attacks by Pakistani-backed terrorists, but this crisis suggests India will no longer exercise such caution. The new, more risk-accepting posture is most attributable to Modi, whom some accuse of playing to domestic audiences ahead of India’s upcoming general election in April. The episode raises the specter of future crises being bloodier and even more perilous. It is a sobering reminder that there is no law stating that nuclear powers cannot fight each other conventionally.
This latest crisis may also signal a shift in how future India-Pakistan crises unfold. Whereas previous crises were mostly fought on the ground, this one unfolded primarily in the air. It will likely hasten New Delhi’s attempts to procure much-needed modern fighter aircraft for the Indian air force.
Tit-for-tats between India and Pakistan have often been shrouded in claims and counterclaims from both sides, with even the basic facts hard to verify. With its “currents of misinformation,” the latest standoff was especially ambiguous and resulted in even more finger-pointing than in the past. The Indian and Pakistani governments each issued official statements via Twitter, some of which were directly contradictory and at least one of which was inaccurate and had to be revised.
The release of the captured Indian pilot appears to have marked the denouement of this crisis, barring any new developments, but no there is no end in sight to the broader rivalry. Since at least the late 1990s, the United States has assumed the mantle of mediator and peacemaker on the subcontinent. President Bill Clinton played an integral role in negotiating an end to the 1999 Kargil War, which began after Pakistani forces occupied mountaintop positions on India’s side of the Line of Control. In conversations with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Clinton compared the severity of the situation to the Cuban missile crisis and succeeded in convincing Sharif to order the withdrawal of Pakistani forces. Similarly, during the “Twin Peaks” standoff in 2001 and 2002, U.S. officials played an important role in reducing tensions and de-escalating the crisis. But this time, in stark contrast, the U.S. did not play a substantial mediator role, at least publicly. Instead, Saudi Arabia emerged as an unexpected intermediary.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has eschewed a conciliatory position toward Pakistan, and this crisis might signal the moment when Washington clearly demonstrated its shift in throwing its weight more fully behind India. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on the crisis—urging restraint from both sides but emphasizing Pakistan’s need to act against “terrorist groups operating on its soil”—underscored this pivot. Last year, the Trump administration suspended $300 million in security assistance to Pakistan, pending a more concerted crackdown on internationally recognized terrorist groups that seek support from Islamabad.
There is still some uncertainty about what exactly transpired between India and Pakistan over the past month, but it is almost certain that a similar crisis will occur again in the future. The question now is whether the key actors in New Delhi and Islamabad—and Washington—will draw lessons from this crisis that reduce the risk of the next one escalating even further.