For the first time since both countries became nuclear-weapons states, India has launched an airstrike within mainland Pakistan. The target was a terror camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, beyond Pakistan occupied Kashmir. On the morning of February 26, 12 Indian Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft reportedly crossed the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan, and launched multiple 1,000 kg precision-guided Spice 2000 missiles, destroying the camp.
While this was stated to be a pre-emptive strike in self-defence against a prospective JeM terror attack against India, it served as retaliation for the worst attack in three decades in Jammu and Kashmir that took place less than a fortnight earlier, killing 40 Indian paramilitary personnel in Pulwama. The Pakistan-based JeM claimed responsibility for the attack.
Although Pakistan denied the full extent of India’s airstrike, it declared that it had the right to respond ‘at a time and place of its choosing’. That response came swiftly. Early in the morning of February 27, it stated that it had launched airstrikes across the LoC from within its airspace. This resulted in an aerial engagement between Pakistani F-16s and Indian MiG-21 Bisons, marking the first aerial engagement between their air forces in nearly 50 years.
According to Pakistan, its air force shot down two Indian combat aircraft within Pakistani air space; by contrast, the Indian government stated that one Pakistani fighter aircraft had been shot down. During the Kargil conflict of 1999, for example, no kinetic action took place between the two air forces in a show of mutual restraint. Until now, India’s responses to Pakistan’s actions have been limited to ground-based artillery or special-forces operations across the LoC.
As a result of the aerial engagement, an Indian air force pilot has officially been listed as ‘missing in action’ by the Indian government. The Pakistani army has stated that it has him in its custody. Importantly, there have been no military personnel held by either country during combat operations for nearly 50 years, since the 1971 India–Pakistan war.
Update: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said the pilot would be released on March 1.
The public debate, meanwhile, is very heated on both sides, fuelled by social media and the looming prospect of general elections in India in April and May.
Now is the time for restraint
In 2001–02, a border confrontation between the two countries had led to fears of escalation to a nuclear level. A key difference this time is that both sides are still stressing the ‘non-military’ nature of their targets.
India said that its target was a terror camp, not civilians or the Pakistani state. At the same time, Pakistan stated that it had targeted ‘non-military’ sites ‘avoiding human loss and collateral damage’ for the purposes of self-defence. However, the Indian foreign ministry has stated that Pakistani fighters violated Indian airspace and targeted Indian military posts. There has also been no military mobilisation by either side.
Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad has any desire to engage in a war with its nuclear-armed neighbour. But this sudden escalation of tensions over Kashmir does take place at a time when bilateral lines of communication are limited. Both high commissioners were withdrawn in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, and there is no official bilateral dialogue, making mutual de-escalation difficult. In this environment, there is increased scope for misunderstanding and miscalculation.
During the 2001–02 confrontation, the US and UK made strenuous efforts to diffuse tensions. Given the many distractions pre-occupying the international community today – not least developments in Northeast Asia, the peace process with the Afghan Taliban and Brexit – there is little reason to believe that external actors can bring about a meaningful improvement in bilateral relations. The resolve to handle this situation with restraint must, therefore, come from within India and Pakistan.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is the Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, and is the author of two books on India’s maritime security.
This article was originally published at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and has been re-published here with the author’s permission.