Indian-administered Kashmir suffered its deadliest attack in nearly three decades on February 12 when a suicide bombing killed 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in Pulwama. Although the assailant was a Kashmiri native, the attack was claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is a Pakistan-based militant group with close ties to the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). For New Delhi, this was enough to put the blame firmly on Islamabad. Immediately after the attack, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed for revenge by retaliating with increasing tariffs on Pakistani imports and announced to restrict the flow of water to downstream Pakistan.
India’s Air Force bombed a training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan, and the planes struck an alleged militant facility deep inside Pakistani territory with India claiming that hundreds of militants were killed. However, satellite imagery raises doubts on whether the Indian airstrikes truly hit their target and the official Spokesperson of the Pakistani military claimed on Twitter that a prompt Pakistani response forced the Indian pilots to ditch their payload and retreat. Upon further examination, the Indian jets used sophisticated precision-guided bombs of Israeli origin.
These munitions were specifically designed with a small error probability, meaning that half of the strikes would have hit their targets. Since the missiles caused no damage, there are two possibilities for what truly occurred. Either an error in the targeting process caused the strikes to fail or India’s airstrikes were designed to demonstrate military capability while managing escalation by not targeting areas of interest. Whichever scenario is true, the assault was the most significant breach of the Line of Control since 1971.
In response, Pakistan sent their own jets to bomb targets in Kashmir and these airstrikes also hit empty fields as a demonstration of military capability. Once more is that in the ensuing air battle, both sides shot down the other’s aircraft and Pakistan captured an Indian pilot. At the same time, lawmakers and media outlets from both sides deliberately spread misinformation and built up the prospects of a military victory. The only voice of reason came from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who quickly deescalated the conflict by returning the captured Indian pilot.
Unfortunately, fighting resumed overnight with gunfire being exchanged along the Line of Control in Kashmir. Pakistan has a long history of backing militants who mounted deadly attacks in India (most notably was the Mumbai attack in 2008 which killed around 165 people), and policymakers in Islamabad promised to shut down such extremist militants, but never did.
At the background of the stalemate is a nuclear shadow. In the last major skirmish in 1999 (also known as the Kargil Conflict), Pakistan and India possessed nuclear weapons, but lacked proper delivery systems. Today however, it is estimated that India has around 130-140 warheads while Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal includes around 140-150 warheads. Each side wields a batch of matching missiles, but Pakistan has also developed tactical nuclear weapons with a range of 70 kilometers which can be used against Indian ground forces. Essentially, the tactical nuclear weapons grant Islamabad an edge in the military stalemate which in turn forms the basis of Pakistan’s deterrence doctrine.
Meanwhile in India, a rival military doctrine known as the Cold Start shapes the narrative. Cold Start was developed in response to the 2008 Mumbai attack, and it is essentially an Indian version of blitzkrieg where the Army, Navy, and Air Force would attack simultaneously and swiftly take control of strategic posts in Pakistan thereby forcing Islamabad to concede defeat. The trick is to launch the assault in limited, but rapid progression as not to push Pakistan over the edge and provoke a full-scale retaliation. The trouble with this plan is that Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons further lowers its retaliation threshold. Set against the backdrop of the recent skirmish, India has two distinct objectives. One being strategic and the other political.
From a strategic angle, the Indian airstrike was intended to set a precedent to demonstrate that New Delhi had the capacity to escalate the crisis if it wanted to. Had this succeeded, it would have proven that India’s conventional forces had the upper hand. This would have also reinforced India’s Cold Start doctrine, but it would have changed the dynamics of the Kashmir conflict and grant Indian policy makers a proactive template to respond to Pakistan-based militant groups in the future. With that said, Pakistan’s retaliatory airstrikes undermine the strategic goal of its archrival and further reinforced Islamabad’s deterrence creed.
From a political angle, the consequences of this skirmish are more upfront. For decades, Modi has carefully crafted the persona as a bold, resolute leader who does not back down from a fight. The return of the Indian pilot by Pakistan has made it difficult for Prime Minister Modi to spin this as a victory, given that he faces an election next month. Even before the standoff in Kashmir, Indian opposition parties have joined their numbers to pose a credible challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Now with only a month to go before the general elections, Modi will find it difficult to go campaigning while having failed to secure a decisive military victory. In a way, Modi is a captive of his own rhetoric and this shapes a great deal of his policies.
Moreover, over the past five years, Modi has failed to bring about promises of prosperity and growth. In retrospect, the Indian economy has grown by 7 percent annually and Modi’s efforts have delivered the nationwide goods and services tax. However, there are not enough jobs being created and unemployment has risen during Modi’s tenure. Meanwhile, the renowned goods and services tax has proven to be strikingly expensive to maintain. Modi has also failed to privatize state-owned firms and banks, and as the election draws closer, the Prime Minister has also implemented policies with brief, temporary benefits that are likely to harm the economy in the distant future. Modi’s economic promises have not lived up to the hype.
Thus, considering the military, economic, and political applications, what happened most likely in Kashmir was that Prime Minister Modi, under pressure by the upcoming elections, decided to act in retaliation to the latest suicide bombing in Kashmir. However, Modi had to balance domestic public approval with the risk of a military confrontation that would have been costly for both countries. As such, bombing an empty field in Pakistan while claiming victory made sense. With the general elections closing in, the Indian Prime Minister has political incentives to push for an extended crisis and rally around his base.
With all things considered, a resolution to the India-Pakistan standoff in Kashmir is likely to remain elusive. In the long run, military leaders in Islamabad will have to end their support to militant groups, and there is little evidence that such a narrative is being considered since there is no global pressure on Pakistan to do so. In the short term, the Indian Prime Minister shares the responsibility to stop an escalation between two nuclear powers. The issue is that Modi has made a critical error of playing with fire. Evidence of this can be traced to 2002 when he made no effort to stop the ethnoreligious riots in Gujarat, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds, as well as his own political rise to power. Even so in the military standoff with Pakistan, the stakes are considerably higher and an error in judgement could spell calamity.
A final consideration is that the Indian government must recognize that it has a Kashmir problem, which in turn, encourages Pakistani involvement. To put things into perspective, Prime Minister Modi suspended the locally elected government of Kashmir and used force to suppress protests there leading to civilian casualties. Not surprisingly, tensions have been high ever since. Yet, the result of the tinder box that is Kashmir was the suicide attack that was carried out by a homegrown militant. In this fashion, by neglecting the Kashmiri grievances and frustrations, as well as violating their human and civil rights, such suicide bombings are likely to occur from time to time. As a result, airstrikes will bring no peace to the region.