What started off as a suicide bombing in India is now threatening to balloon into a full-fledged war between India and Pakistan, with terrible consequences for the entire region and the world. A benign end to the conflict that seems to be rapidly escalating is highly unlikely, unless the great powers of the world step in and recognize the dangers of this rapidly snowballing conflict.
India and Pakistan appear headed for a full-scale war. The cause of the war is the attack on India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) forces in Pulwama in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir on February 14, 2019, by a suicide bomber with links to the Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The attack killed 49 personnel of India’s CRPF, and inflamed passions in India, with many Indians screaming for revenge.
The Indian government promised retaliation, and it finally came in the form of air strikes at a town deep inside Pakistan, called Balakot, inside the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the early morning hours of February 26, 2019. The Indian side claimed that they had specifically targeted JeM terrorist training camps operating in that town. It was reported that three locations were planned, but the location that was accurately hit was the camp in Balakot.
In response, Pakistan sent its attack aircraft across the line of control on the morning of February 27th, aiming to attack Indian military establishments. The Pakistani aircraft were met by Indian fighters, and a dogfight ensued, resulting in one Indian aircraft being downed and one Pakistani aircraft being downed. The pilot of the Indian aircraft ejected and was captured by the Pakistanis.
Following the Pakistani response, Pakistan PM Imran Khan issued an appeal to India on the 27th to resolve this issue through talks. Many on both sides of the border had hoped, in the interests of peace, that the Modi government in India would accept his offer.
However, India rejected Imran's latest overture. Not only did the Indian government angrily reject the offer on the evening of the 27th, saying that the Pakistanis had escalated the conflict by attacking India, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also compared the Indian attack on Balakot to what the Americans had done by taking out Osama bin Laden. This gloating was accompanied by India saying that there would be serious consequences to the Pakistani response. Most likely, there will be another attack from the Indian side, this time on a Pakistani military establishment, which will provoke another response from the Pakistani side, and so on. This suggests a continuous ratcheting of the pressure and an escalation of hostilities until a catastrophic end.
Why did Imran issue an appeal for peace on the 27th? And why did India reject his offer? There are multiple potential reasons, but let us look at a few.
The major reason for both Imran's peace offer and for India's rejection is to do with counting.
For the Indian side, Pulwama was Pakistan's attack no. 1; Balakot was India's response no. 1. Pakistan's attack on the morning of the 27th was attack no. 2, and therefore India must respond for parity to be achieved. It should be noted that after the Balakot attack, the Indian government said that it was satisfied with its attack and was not looking for further escalation or attacks.
For the Pakistani side, Pulwama was an internal matter, which, according to it, cannot be blamed on Pakistan, and Balakot was India's attack no. 1; and its response on the 27th was response no. 1, and so, according to Pakistan, the two sides are even and so, can talk peace.
In addition, India is making a distinction between its attack on Balakot on the 26th and Pakistan’s response on the 27th. India characterizes its attack as a “non-military strike,” by which it implies that since its target was a terrorist camp, not a Pakistani military establishment, it does not count as a military strike. Pakistan’s attack on the 27th was targeted at Indian military establishments, which India views as an escalation. Whether this distinction will be accepted in international law is to be seen.
Of course, neither side is completely correct. Pakistan's response that it had nothing to do with the Pulwama attack is disingenuous considering that the JeM is free to operate with no restrictions inside Pakistan in spite of repeated protests by India; and once Indian fighters crossed the international border and attacked a target within Pakistan, it is an act of war, even if the target was a terrorist camp. India has violated Pakistani sovereignty. For instance, there is an Indian-origin economic offender by the name of Mehul Choksi, who has taken refuge in the country of Antigua and taken Antiguan citizenship, because that country does not have an extradition treaty with India. If India were to launch a clandestine commando operation to kidnap Choksi in Antigua and bring him to India, the Antiguan government could view it as an act of war, even though no military action was involved, because Antiguan sovereignty was violated. Since the justifications and counts of the two sides (India and Pakistan in this case) will never agree, this is going to be an escalating spiral of violence.
Sending attack aircraft 80 km behind enemy lines, successfully executing an attack on Pakistani soil, and safely returning without any casualties would have given India a lot of confidence. India probably feels that, given their success on the 26th, they can do a lot more damage to the terrorist infrastructure within Pakistan with another raid. Whether this is true or not will soon be verified. But another attack on Pakistan is very likely soon, within a time frame of hours to days, given the Indian official response that “there will be consequences.” It is fair to say that a war is well underway. Retired air marshals are urging a continuation of hostilities on talk shows on Indian TV, saying that quitting while having the upper hand is not the right thing to do.
This could be the reason for Imran's peace initiative too - that he realizes they are getting hit, and wants to reduce further damage.
The relative failure of Pakistan's counter-attack on 27th morning has clearly emboldened India. Unlike India, which was able to evade Pakistan's aircraft defenses and go 80 km deep into Pakistan and return, Pakistan's aircraft could not cross the Line of Control (LOC) without encountering Indian Air Force (IAF) planes. While Pakistan managed to down an IAF plane in a dogfight, the damage India did at Balakot was likely a lot more. The IAF’s experience in the Pakistani raid on the 27th must have confirmed to the Indian military that India has the capability to prevent a Pakistani air attack on its territory.
Again, Imran's peace overture may have to do with understanding the realities and the intrinsic weakness of Pakistan's conventional military capabilities.
Both Pakistan and India cannot sustain a long war due to lack of supplies, ammunition, and spare parts. This is well known. But Pakistan is in worse shape than even India is. India probably feels that if it continues the military pressure for a couple weeks longer, it can bring Pakistan to its knees. This will certainly hold if China does not come to Pakistan's aid.
Again, this calculation could not have escaped Imran's attention and that of the Pakistani military, and it certainly could be a reason for his peace initiative.
All this is certainly true, and this accounts for the triumphal reactions of the retired Air Marshals and Generals on the talk shows. There is a lot of enthusiasm in India to continue the attacks. Military analysts are saying that India should not stop the offensive until Pakistan agrees to stop support for terrorists, until all the terrorists have been flushed out, until Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed are in Indian prisons, etc.
But there is a serious miscalculation in all of this.
Let us grant, for argument, that the Indian military is superior to the Pakistani military, both in training and equipment.
Let's grant that the Indian military can outlast the Pakistani military in a conventional war.
But what's the endgame here? Are the Indians being realistic?
Do Indian military chiefs really think Pakistan will agree to all the camps of the LeT and JeM in Pakistan being destroyed by the IAF at will? Do they really think Pakistan will submit to such humiliating terms as are being discussed on Indian TV channels, often by retired Air Marshals and Generals, such as Pakistan handing over top terrorists and destroying terrorist camps that they have themselves built and sustained for decades?
Do the Indian planners really think that they can keep inflicting defeat after defeat on Pakistan and nothing will happen in return?
Does the Pakistani political and military leadership not need to face their people? Can they afford the optics of continuously being beaten by the Indians? Will they not need to show a victory on their side to save face?
What happens if they cannot produce victories? If they lose face, then it is curtains for both the political and military leaders of Pakistan. Can they afford that?
NO. They cannot. That’s when the nuclear option becomes a reality.
If it is a question of their political survival, and if their backs are to the wall, they may not hesitate to use the only trump card they possess - the nukes. A small military setback may be acceptable to them. A comprehensive and crushing military defeat at India's hands would end the careers of Pakistan’s top politicians and generals. Nobody in power in Pakistan wants that.
They may not be able to deliver the nukes using their planes, as India’s air defense is very strong, and their planes will certainly be intercepted before they can reach any significant targets.
But they do have ballistic missiles. And we cannot stop an ICBM fitted with a nuclear warhead, especially if they launch multiple nukes at once. At present, Pakistan is estimated to have about 120 nuclear weapons.
To be sure, if they launch nuclear weapons at Indian cities like Amritsar, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, or Delhi, India too can lob their nuclear ICBMs at Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Sialkot, etc.
But is this the endgame that India wants? A nuclear holocaust that will destroy both countries?
This is not an exaggeration. If the Pakistanis do not have a face saver and a way out with honour, the world might be staring at Armageddon.
And it is clear from the past few days that if the Pakistanis do have some victories - if they do manage to evade India’s air defences and bomb some defence establishments in India - then the chorus to escalate and retaliate will only rise in India. Just one pilot being captured and one plane being downed has the Indian government promising to escalate the situation further. Imagine if the Pakistanis had a major success.
So, whether India succeeds in dominating militarily over Pakistan or not, unless India compromises, the end of the current hostilities can only end in a terrible tragedy.
Unless the mood in India changes, and unless Indians put pressure on the government to ease off, the world could be staring at an apocalyptic future.
So far, China has stayed out of this conflict. But if the conflict continues over several days, and if Pakistan is continuously losing (to take the best Indian scenario), then would China sit idly by? A dominant India is not in China's interest - that is why it has opposed India's attempts to corner Pakistan in international fora such as the UN; why it has opposed India's entry to the NSG unless Pakistan is also admitted; and why it has objected to Hafiz Saeed being labelled as a global terrorist. It is unlikely that China would just sit idly and watch its client state Pakistan go down in flames. This is especially true given how much it has invested in Pakistan as part of its Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Condoning a single attack from India on a JeM camp is one thing. Doing nothing over multiple days as its ally is getting pulverized is quite another. If China enters the war, even indirectly, Indian casualties could rise, and this could provoke more demand for retaliation. This could either force India to stop the hostilities without a clear achievement of its goals, or it could lead to the nuclear holocaust discussed before. Either way, it does not look good for India, Pakistan, or the world.
India should look at history for a clue. In the Korean War, Douglas MacArthur took his troops right up to the Yalu river in his counterattack starting with the Inchon raid, and he was convinced (like many Indian planners today) that China would not intervene.
But China, after being quiet for a long time, did intervene, and their intervention almost completely annihilated the American force in Korea. At that time, MacArthur issued calls to use nuclear weapons on China, for which he was relieved of duty. His successor Matthew Ridgway stabilized the situation.
Closer to home, we all know what happened in 1962 when Nehru and Krishna Menon implemented their “forward policy” — Menon ignored intelligence reports that the Chinese were unlikely to take this provocation lying down, and the rest is history. We suffered our worst defeat in history.
So China has a history of watching carefully and intervening at the right time for them. If Pakistan is pushed too far into a corner, India may have a nasty surprise awaiting them.
Both India and Pakistan are locked into this game of one-upmanship. India will only talk of de-escalation when it has the upper hand, and so will Pakistan. This can only escalate to dangerous levels.
The only thing that can prevent this from becoming a nuclear holocaust is intervention by countries like America, Russia, and China, possibly with the aid of the UN. Only such an intervention can stop the childish behavior of both countries which are both currently saying “He did it first.” To be sure, both have compelling reasons domestically. Modi is facing general elections in May (this may be postponed if the war continues) and cannot afford to look weak. In the current hyper-nationalistic atmosphere in India, he has very little wiggle room, and any concession may be viewed as weakness. Modi has backed himself into such a corner with his rhetoric that now he needs to show a comprehensive victory to save face. Even a proposal like that floated by the French, the British, and the Americans in the UN to brand Masood Azhar a global terrorist, if China does not veto it, may not go far enough for India in the current atmosphere. In the same way, Pakistan’s PM and military cannot afford to look weak in front of their population. Both leaders have almost no room for compromise, and so the only benign outcome from this confrontation is if the big powers intervene and negotiate a settlement.
And they should because it is very much in everyone’s interest in the world to stop a nuclear holocaust. If a dozen nuclear bombs are exploded in the Kashmir border, in Pakistan, and in Delhi and other Indian cities, the consequences will be faced by far more than just India and Pakistan. The radiation clouds will spread to China (Xinjiang and Tibet), to central Asia, to Iran, Turkey, the central Asian republics, the Ukraine, and southern Russia. The rivers originating in the Himalayas, including the Ganga and the Yangtze, will become poisoned by radioactive elements such as cesium. Northern India and Pakistan will both become wastelands, incapable of habitation for at least 50 years. There will be mass starvation on an unprecedented scale in India as the bread basket of India will be destroyed (all of Pakistan will likely be destroyed as well.) The world will not recover from this shock for decades.
And unless the rest of the world steps in, this is exactly what will happen in a few weeks’ or months’ time.