India-Pakistan: Lessons from the week of war

Date first published: 5/3/2019

Key sectors: all

Key risks: external conflict

On 14 February Pakistani-based Islamist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) rammed a car filled with explosives into a military vehicle in Pulwama, Indian-administered Kashmir. The subsequent explosion killed at least 40 members of the Indian security forces in the single deadliest terrorist attack in Kashmir since the insurgency against Indian rule began in 1989. Delhi responded on 26 February by bombing a JeM training camp in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – its first cross-border air strike conducted across the Line of Control (LoC) since 1971 – flying past Pakistani-Kashmir and attacking camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan launched a minor attack on Indian territory, shot down an Indian plane and captured Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Varthaman’s release contained the risk of escalation, but tensions on both sides of the LoC remain elevated.

The last week highlighted three dynamics in Indian-Pakistan relations. First, there are problems with the military preparedness of both countries. The Indian Air Force (IAF) alleged that its strikes on Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa resulted in the deaths of up to 300 militants but Islamabad denies there were any causalities. Most information indicates that the latter is more likely to be correct. If accurate, India’s claim either points to an intelligence failure, or that India’s jets missed their target. The next day’s aerial dogfight across the LoC resulted in the downing of Varthaman’s MiG-21. The Soviet era MiG-21 is dated, while Pakistan uses modern F-16s. 67 per cent of its equipment is considered ‘vintage’ and less than US$15bln is spent annually on new equipment. Pakistan’s military is less than half the size of India’s and receives less than a quarter of the funding, yet years of support from Washington leaves it in a better state than India’s. However, Islamabad still faced difficulties, as it was initially unable to distinguish between Indian fighter planes and commercial aircrafts, forcing it to close it airspace to commercial aviation for several days. There are also unconfirmed reports that the IAF prevented Pakistan from attacking Indian assets along the LoC and shot down a Pakistani plane.

Second, while India was attacking in retaliation to a shocking terrorist attack, it was Pakistan that won the international public relations battle. There is little doubt that JeM and other militant groups have sanctuary in Pakistan. The Balakot strike risked little collateral damage and was a proportional response to the 14 February attack. Yet India came across as the unreasonable aggressor amid Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s constant calls for peace talks and the release of Varthaman. Imran Khan has yet to take action against some domestic militant groups and promises to do so lack credibility. Meanwhile Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said little publicly, and the government’s media team focused only on placating the domestic audience. The dominant global narrative is that the strike was in part a response to Modi’s sagging poll numbers ahead of May 2019’s general election.

Third, despite India’s growing economic and military power and Pakistan’s comparative weakness, Delhi has struggled to form coherent and effective responses to perceived aggression. India’s military options are limited due to the logic of fighting between two nuclear powers. Both sides can conduct small military operations, safe in the knowledge that it will not be a justification for a nuclear attack. Small scale conflict is anticipated by both sides and creates little deterrence or pressure.