Published on Feb 28 2019
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, India launched an air strikeon a target or targets in Pakistan. While there has been no official confirmation of the damage caused, according to speculative reports in the Indian media more than 200 militants were killed in a hailstorm of 1,000kg explosives that rained down from Mirage fighter jets on a major terrorist training facility in Balakot.
In an official statement, the Indian government would only say that a “very large number” of terrorists linked to the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) group had been killed after what it described as a “non-military pre-emptive action” on a base believed to have been run by Yousuf Azhar, the brother-in-law of JeM chief Masood Azhar.
JeM is the group that claimed responsibility for a suicide bombingin India-administered Kashmir’s Pulwama on February 14 that led to the deaths of more than 40 paramilitary police officers.
Pakistan has rejected India’s claims, with Prime Minister Imran Khan even promising to take domestic and international media to the “claimed area of the strike” so that they can “see the facts on the ground”.
Yet at the same time, Khan has also vowed a response to India’s “uncalled for aggression” that would be delivered “at the time and place of [Pakistan’s] choosing”.
How Islamabad does respond will determine the future contours of India-Pakistan relations, and have knock-on effects on the larger regional challenge of
Pakistan to my mind has two choices: one is to take the higher diplomatic path and “reject” India’s claims by taking the international media to Balakot, as Khan said he would do. This would enable Islamabad to put New Delhi on the defensive and force it to come up with its own evidence of the supposed damage done to terror camps in the wake of the strike.
The other would be to respond militarily and set in motion a cycle of escalation. India and Pakistan regularly exchange fire across the Line of Control in the disputed region of Kashmir but this has been restricted so far to artillery guns and mortars.
Balakot, meanwhile, represents the first use of air power against a target in the other country’s territory since the two sides were at war in 1971. In the event that Pakistan responds in kind with warplanes or missiles – something that India would have taken into account when planning the strike – the possibility of a limited war is now on the cards.
In every war-game scenario so far envisioned, the two neighbours’ nuclear capabilities are the greatest cause for concern.
But it is precisely this capacity for annihilation via escalation that will prevent any nuclear exchange from taking place, according to a former president or Pakistan and retired army general, Pervez Musharraf.
“Indian and Pakistan relations have again reached a dangerous level. [But] there will be no nuclear attack,” he said in a recent interview that took place after the suicide bombing in Pulwama.
“If we would attack India with one atomic bomb, then [it] could finish us by attacking with 20 bombs. Then the only solution is that we should first attack them with 50 atomic bombs so that they cannot hit us with 20 bombs. Are you ready to first launch an attack with 50 bombs?”
While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to deploy aerial assets is a departure from earlier practice, it does demonstrate the country’s resolve to combat terrorism despite nuclear tensions.
New Delhi’s repeated assertion that the strike was “pre-emptive” and based on intelligence it received that JeM was planning attacks elsewhere in India carries a subtext of implied restraint.
The government also defines the action as “non-military” because it sees it as a counterterrorism operation, which does not threaten Pakistan’s territorial integrity or any of its civilian or economic assets.
If Pakistan can credibly “reject” the Indian claim of an attack on Balakot and also quietly begin to clamp down on groups like the JeM then there may still be a peaceful way forward.
But army generals who have invested in what has been termed “nuclear weapon-enabled terrorism” may be tempted to act in a volatile or irrational manner – akin to the “madman theory” of nuclear deterrence once championed by former US president Richard Nixon.
The only question now is: will such theories be put to the test by the realities of life on the troubled Indian subcontinent?
Source: South China Morning Post, 27 February 2019, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/2187803/will-terrorist-tensions-kashmir-drive-india-and-pakistan-brink