On the 14th of February 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed when a convoy of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was attacked in Pulwama (Indian Kashmir) by a vehicle borne suicide bomber. The attack was immediately claimed by a Pakistan-based terrorist organization called the Jaish e Mohammed (JEM, the army of Mohammed), who released a video of the suicide bomber, a local lad from southern Kashmir. JEM is led by a Pakistani cleric named Masood Azhar who had been captured by Indian security forces in the 90s in Indian Kashmir, but was released in exchange for the hostages on board an Indian airlines aircraft in December 1999. After his release he went to Pakistan and set up his Jihadist terrorist organization and has operated openly in the country ever since.
This is, of course, not the first major terrorist attack in India to be claimed by an organization based in Pakistan. JEM has been accused in the past of organizing an attack on the Indian parliament as well as many attacks in Indian Kashmir. And the biggest attack ever launched in India by Pakistani-based terrorists was the attack on Mumbai in November 2008, in the course of which ten terrorists wreaked havoc in the city of Mumbai and killed at least 165 people, including a few Israelis and Americans. Some of the more prominent attacks were followed by Indian threats of military action against Pakistan but in the end the Indian establishment opted on all of those occasions to try and isolate Pakistan diplomatically but stepped back from direct military action. This option was chosen not because of any residual Gandhian hangover in India but because of two interlocking factors:
1. Pakistan and India are nuclear-armed nations with large and capable military forces and the risks of war were considered greater than any possible benefits that military action could bring to India.
2. Foreign powers (particularly the United States, the sole superpower in that era) pressed India to eschew military action to avoid the risk of nuclear war (and perhaps because they had interests in Pakistan that they did not want compromised). In exchange, they promised to press Pakistan to rein in these terrorist organizations and to support India (to whatever extent) in its diplomatic efforts to isolate Pakistan. Their pressure did lead Pakistan to scale down the recruitment and launching of terrorists into Indian Kashmir (and since 2008, to avoid any major attacks within India).
Clearly the Indian establishment felt this prudent course of action was correct because the Indian economy was outperforming Pakistan and they felt that time is on the Indian side, so the risks of war (and of course, the risk of nuclear war) were too great. The calculation seems to have been that over time India would become so much stronger than Pakistan that it could dictate terms to it, while the relative breathing space created by the slowing down of terrorist activity in Kashmir would give them an opportunity to win over the Kashmiri Muslim population (or at least, to force then to accept that the separatist/Pakistani cause is hopeless). This calculation seemed to be working for a period of time, with violence decreasing in Kashmir and the Indian economy growing at twice the rate of Pakistan’s economy. At the same time the obvious benefits of trade and normal relations with Pakistan also appeared within reach. But in the last few years the hope of “winning Kashmiri hearts and minds” seemed to flounder (how much of that is the fault of the Right Wing BJP government in India is one of those things about which opposing camps have completely divergent views) and in the last 1-2 years the level of terrorist violence in Kashmir also started to tick upwards. In 2016 there was a major guerrilla attack at Uri in Indian Kashmir and this time the Indian government conducted what it claimed were “surgical strikes” against “terrorist launch pads” in Pakistani Kashmir. The scale of this attack is a matter of dispute, with Pakistan claiming that no major action took place and India claiming that a significant commando operation was conducted (there is even a Bollywood movie about the event). In any case, the aim of the “surgical strike” was to create a new “red line”: that any major terrorist attack in Kashmir would lead to an Indian military response. Equally clearly, Pakistan insisted that no significant attack had taken place and no new red line had therefore been created. Meanwhile India is going to go to the polls in 2 months and the BJP recently lost elections in some state elections, raising the possibility that their government may be headed for defeat in the National elections as well.
In this context, the attack in Pulwama triggered a very intense bout of Nationalist fervor and calls for revenge, especially on the Indian Right.There has always been a constituency within the Indian political spectrum that felt that India had been too “soft” on Pakistan. This faction holds that any “self-respecting power” would have responded militarily against Pakistan a long time ago. Their view is that it is impossible to imagine that Mexico could be openly hosting multiple terrorist organizations dedicated to snatching the Southwest United States and carrying out multiple attacks within the United States. The first such attack would be followed by a non-negotiable demand that all the perpetrators and their handlers be handed over to the United States, and failure to comply with this demand would lead to military action against Mexico. Even Right Wing Indians are aware that India is not the United States and Pakistan is not Mexico, but the point still stands; no country capable of a military response would have failed to respond after an event like the Mumbai attack. The fact that India is “capable of a military response” is taken for granted by these people. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, this view was promoted practically across the entire Indian political spectrum (with elections coming up, no party wanted to be labeled as “soft on terrorism”). The Modi government in any case took this stance and made it clear that a military response would be forthcoming.
On the 26th of February this response came in the form of an air attack on what the Indians described as a major terrorist training camp in Balakot, Pakistan. Or did it? This is where the fog of war comes in; everything about this attack and its aftermath remains shrouded in confusion:
- Balakot airstrike. We know for sure that some Indian bombs fell around a hilltop near Balakot in KPK province in Pakistan. This is very significant because Balakot is not in the disputed region of Kashmir, it is unambiguously in Pakistan itself. The Indians claim that bombs hit a terrorist training camp and killed dozens of terrorists (anonymous”sources” were used to inform Indian media that 300 terrorists had been killed, but this was not the official claim, which was relatively circumspect). Pakistan claims that the bombs fell harmlessly on a hillside and only killed a few trees. India claimed that their planes crossed into Pakistani territory to conduct this raid. Pakistan seemed to confirm this initially, but is now happy to say that they did not cross far and maybe did not cross the “line of control” (LOC) in Kashmir at all. Pakistan is now conducting journalists to the site and showing them craters in the forest. India insists they have proof that several terrorist barracks were hit. Some local did report seeing ambulances in the area, but by now such testimony has disappeared and if past events are any guide, will not reappear.
Current status of outsider knowledge: India bombed something in Balakot for sure. Indian planes probably crossed some distance into Pakistani Kashmir to conduct this strike. It is likely that some people were killed on the ground, but numbers are likely small. Everything else is disputed.
2. Pakistan counter-strike On February 27th Pakistan claimed that its aircraft had carried out retaliatory air strikes across the LOC, targeting “non-military, non-populated targets”. Pakistan claims that Indian planes that came to challenge this intrusion were then engaged by Pakistani aircraft and 2 Indian aircraft were shot down. One Indian pilot was captured alive. 2 more were said to have landed in Pakistani Kashmir, but a few hours later these other pilots disappeared from the story. Meanwhile India claims that the IAF intercepted Pakistani planes trying to attack across the LOC and chased them back over the LOC. They claim that an IAF MiG 21 then shot down a Pakistani F-16 before being shot down itself. Pakistan denies that any Pakistani plane was hit. No one has been shown the wreckage of the second plane and no one seems to know what happened to the other pilots reported as having bailed out.
Current status of outsider knowledge: An Indian MiG 21 was certainly shot down and the pilot captured, no one disputes that. A second plane may have gone down. That second plane may even be Pakistani. But nobody knows for sure.
3. Pilot Released. On March 1st, Pakistan released the Indian pilot without any preconditions. This was portrayed in Pakistan as a gesture of peace. It has been portrayed elsewhere as the result of pressure being placed on Pakistan by the US, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Current status of outsider knowledge: The Indian pilot was released very quickly. Who put pressure and how is not for us to know.
4. LOC Shelling. Both India and Pakistan are shelling each other across the LOC in Kashmir as we speak. Both claim to be responding to aggression from the other side.
Current status of outsider knowledge: Clashes are going on across the LOC. It is impossible to say who started it. If past history is any guide, this confrontation will continue for a few days but there will be no change in the ceasefire line and eventually both sides will tire of pointless exchanges of fire and will stop, till the next time.
So who won? and is it over?
- The strategic balance; India has shifted the strategic calculus decisively with its airstrike in Balakot. It has shown willingness to use force in Pakistan, in spite of nuclear deterrence. The next time there is a terrorist attack in India that can be traced to Pakistan-based Jihadist organizations, India will respond militarily. This is a big change from the status quo ante. And all Pakistani claims about confidence in their armed forces notwithstanding, Pakistan cannot actually sustain such a confrontation for too long.
- The battle of perceptions: the score here is tied. Initially, when Indian conducted an airstrike and none of its planes was shot down, the PR battle was clearly in India’s favor. There were celebrations all across India and there was significant depression in Pakistan. But the next day Pakistan launched a counter-strike and managed to shoot down at least one Indian MiG and capture the pilot. This was enough to shift the perception within Pakistan completely and decisively. Any pressure that the Pakistani army may have felt domestically has been completely relieved. On day 2 the Indian domestic audience was clearly depressed and confused, but the rapid release of their pilot (and his generally dignified performance, including attempts to escape capture and destroy documents when surrounded by locals) seems to have allowed the Modi government to regain its balance. It is my impression that perceptions within India are currently generally positive about the Balakot airstrike and most people have accepted the govt’s claim that a Pakistani F-16 was shot down (changing the perceptions of the February 27 dogfight to a “win”, since an ancient MiG 21 shot down a superior F-16). “India has struck back against terror at last” and that sort of thing seems to dominate the Indian media at this time. But elections are coming up and it is not possible that opposition parties will allow this “win” to remain undisturbed. Questions about the effectiveness of the initial airstrike and even about the F-16 shoot-down are likely to come up. Domestic Indian opinion may not remain uniformly pro-Modi, though my guess is that the episode may remain a net positive for him. Outside of India the situation is more complicated. Islamist militants do not have a good reputation in the world at large, so most outsiders are primed to side with India on that account. But the BJP government is not popular with elite liberal opinion and this encourages greater skepticism and questioning in the foreign media. In addition, India’s apparent inability to provide incontrovertible proof of either the effectiveness of the bombing or the purported shooting down of a PAF F-16 is bound to raise questions. Overall, the battle of perceptions may be tied in the outside world, but only because Jihad is unpopular. Otherwise the Indian performance is not seen as something to write home about.
- Diplomatically Pakistan has suffered a setback. Pakistani territory was violated by an Indian airstrike and none of its friends took a stand against this intrusion. Even China offered up a vague statement asking “both sides” to exercise restraint. The reason is not hard to see. Jihadi terrorism is a threat to most countries (including most Muslim countries; the sole exception may be Turkey) and whatever their feelings about the Kashmiri people or the integrity of Pakistan, they are not happy with the fact that Pakistan still hosts several such organizations. This is not a new problem for Pakistan, but this episode does not bring any relief in this domain.
So What Happens Next?
Best case scenario: Pakistan (ie the military regime, not just their civilian face in the person of Imran Khan) recognizes that while they have been lucky this time (thanks to the IAF sending up a primitive MiG against superior Pakistani aircraft), continued hosting of Jihadist terrorist organizations is not a winning strategy. Future attacks in India will undoubtedly lead to renewed Indian coercive action and while the military balance is not as one-sided as many outsiders (and most Indians) imagine, India can sustain this sort of thing much longer than Pakistan can. Pakistan is almost bankrupt and its closest friends (China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc) are not eager to support any Islamist adventurism. Therefore Pakistan will crack down on these organizations for real this time. This leads to reduced tensions with India. After the Indian elections the new Indian govt (whether BJP or not) sees these actions and dials down their rhetoric. Negotiations reopen and both countries agree to make peace on existing borders, with some minor concessions to satisfy the aspirations of Kashmiri Muslims. This is the best case scenario because peace in the subcontinent means a better life for 1.5 billion people and a new economic powerhouse in the world, extending from Burma to Central Asia. This is also an unlikely scenario. Pakistan has just defeated the US in Afghanistan. Its Islamist proxies have powerful nuisance value and the ruling elite sells themselves to various powers as managers of this threat. They are not exactly in the mood to change this too completely.
2. MIddling scenario. Pakistan army takes some actions to tone down but not eliminate Islamist militants. India feels that it is in no position to coerce Pakistan more than that without fighting a potentially disastrous war. Peace does not break out, but the status quo ante is more or less restored. Talk-talk with occasional flare-ups continues. India hopes this will change once they are far more economically developed. Pakistan hopes that things will fall apart in India while China will emerge as the world’s leading superpower and as our patron will be able to provide us with an edge over India. In fact, the gap between India and Pakistan will slowly increase in India’s favor, but slowly. No big change may happen for several years. This is possible, but this too is not the most likely scenario.
3. Most likely scenario: Pakistan gets carried away with celebrating what is at best a minor tactical victory in the air war in Kashmir. Jihadi militants continue to operate. Meanwhile India is distracted by elections. In the midst of this there is another major terrorist attack in Kashmir. India then surprises Pakistan with larger scale military retaliation. Pakistan retaliates. Then finds itself trapped in a long standoff which it cannot sustain. Shit happens but nuclear confrontation is avoided. Pakistan is forced to undertake steps it should have taken voluntarily much earlier. Everyone suffers, but India eventually comes out on top. Just barely.
4. Worst case scenario. A major terrorist attack is followed by larger Indian retaliation. Pakistan retaliates in force. This lead to full scale war and eventually to nuclear war. Shit happens on a grand scale.
What do you think?
Our podcast on this topic:
and a pretty balanced Indian view: