On March 1st, Pakistan reopened its airspace and returned Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan to his home country via the Wagah border. As the region and its 1.2 billion people try to limp back to normality, New Delhi’s muted response to Pakistan’s peace gesture has done little to address the malign mist of disquiet in South Asia. Continued shelling across the Line of Control and Working Boundary has left dozens dead or injured, and countless fleeing their homes, and confirmed India’s belligerent attitude towards Pakistan. With elections in India only months away, the crisis-ladder is unmistakably in place.
What we know
In the early hours of Tuesday 26th February, a formation of Indian Mirage 2000 fighter jets violated Pakistan’s airspace and launched SPICE 2000 bombs against targets in Balakot and Muzaffarabad. During the daylight hours of Wednesday 27thFebruary, Pakistan responded to the previous day’s aggression by undertaking airstrikes against six targets in Indian Occupied Kashmir. In the ensuing air battle, two Indian fighter planes were shot down by the Pakistan Air Force, and an Indian Wing Commander was rescued by Pakistani forces on the ground in Azad Kashmir. While Indian claims of inflicting heavy damage on alleged targets in Balakot have been debunked by a slew of independent journalists from different sections of the international media, that action, irrespective of its impact on the ground, remains the first such aggressive employment of air force by either country since the 1971 India-Pakistan War.
De-escalation? Too early to say
The United States, United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia have been active in contacting the leaderships of both countries in a bid to de-escalate tensions. Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a speech to a joint session of parliament, announced that as a first step towards ratcheting down tensions, Pakistan would return the Indian pilot without preconditions. The hope in Pakistan was that the gesture would provide a much-needed off-ramp for the two sides, and create a climate that could help de-escalate tensions. Despite a short lull in hostilities, the Indian government has refused to publicly comment on the return of their fighter pilot, with sources in New Delhi suggesting that India continues to view the gesture as immaterial to the larger conflict at play.
As further details of the crisis emerge, sources quoting the prime minister of Pakistan have revealed that India had planned a large scale missile strike on eight targets in Pakistan on the night of the 27th of February. Pakistan informed the United States, United Kingdom and other countries of the impending attack and communicated Pakistan’s resolve to retaliate in equal measure. Subsequent involvement of interlocutors averted the imminent attack.
Given the sharp increase in heavy artillery exchanges across the Line of Control since the return of the downed MiG-21 pilot, signs of de-escalation remain remote. With Pakistan’s military high command having asserted that any further provocation by India will result in escalatory retaliation from Pakistan, the likelihood of full-scale conflict remains very much intact.
In a belated press briefing the Indian Air Force chief has remarked that operations against Pakistan remain ‘on-going’. This comes on the heels of two public rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has continued to accuse Pakistan of fomenting terror, suggesting that his government would take revenge for Pakistan’s airstrikes.
While the prohibitive costs of full-scale escalation ensure that both India and Pakistan will first seek to engage kinetically well below the nuclear threshold, the possibilities of limited war under the nuclear overhang are very much alive. A dispassionate analysis of the first few days of last week’s hostilities reveals that Pakistan retains its ability to match India’s conventional options within its cost threshold. However, the last few days of heavy artillery exchange across the Line of Control and Working Boundary is testament to the destructive impact of limited escalation on civilian populations and property. Since 2016, estimates put the civilian death toll as a result of ceasefire violations at over 170, and military casualties at nearly 130. These numbers are likely to increase sharply as both countries employ ATGMs and 155mm artillery to shell positions on each side.
While neither country can afford miscalculating the resolve and capabilities of the other, given their sophisticated nuclear arsenals, the escalation ladder in South Asia remains fraught with challenges. Recent developments in miniaturised tactical nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defenses and sea based second-strike capability, together suggestions that India may be looking to revise its No First Use policy, have meant that strategic planners in both countries have developed technologies that lower the threshold on nuclear use.
14th February: 40 CPRF personnel are killed in a suicide bomb attack in Pulwama, India Occupied Kashmir. The attacker, his vehicle and the bomb material is identified as local.
15th February: Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly rejects “any insinuation by elements in the Indian government seeking to link the attack to the State of Pakistan without investigations”.
India imposes a curfew in Jammu after protests erupt over the Pulwama attack.
16th February: Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley tweets New Delhi’s decision to revoke Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation status, and adds that basic customs duty on Pakistani exports to India will be raised to 200 percent.
17th February: India calls for a complete ban on all artistes from Pakistan. Four Kashmiri students in Jaipur are charged with sedition, while another is attacked in New Delhi.
18th February: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee questions the timing of the Pulwama attack and accuses Prime Minister Modi’s government of starting a “shadow war” just before the Indian general elections.
19th February: Prime Minister Imran Khan offers India unequivocal assistance to investigate the Pulwama suicide bombing, and warns that Pakistan will retaliate against any act of aggression from New Delhi.
India denies visas to two Pakistan shooters looking to attend ISSF Shooting World Cup. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) subsequently suspends India from hosting future events.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi writes to the United Nations detailing the deteriorating security situation between India and Pakistan.
20th February: India halts the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service and suspends cross-LOC trade. India also withdraws security cover provided to Hurriyat leaders.
US President Donald Trump describes the situation in South Asia as “horrible”.
21st February: Indian Minister Nitin Gadkari tweets the BJP’s decision to stop the share of water that used to flow to Pakistan from India’s eastern rivers.
22nd February: BCCI calls on the ICC to boycott Pakistan in the cricket World Cup. Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar speak out against any boycott.
23rd February: India steps up its brutal crackdown in Occupied Kashmir by detaining more than 160 separatists including JKLF chief Yasin Malik. At least five people are killed in the ensuing clashes.
26th February: Indian warplanes violate the Line of Control in an act of unprovoked aggression against Pakistan. India claims its jets conducted strikes against a Jaish-e-Mohammad training base in Balakot. Pakistan denies there were any casualties from the attack and says the strikes missed their targets. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accuses India of threatening regional peace and stability, and promises a befitting response from Pakistan at a time and place of its choosing.
Prime Minister Imran Khan chairs a meeting of the National Command Authority, the body that oversees the country’s nuclear warheads. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Qureshi expresses his “reservations” to his UAE counterpart over the OIC’s invitation to Indian EAM Sushma Swaraj.
27th February: Pakistan carries out strikes across the Line of Control to “demonstrate its right, will and capability of self-defense”. In response, Indian planes enter Pakistan’s air space and two jets are shot down. Pakistan captures an Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan once again calls for talks with India, and hopes “better sense” would prevail to de-escalate the situation.
The EU urges India and Pakistan to “exercise the utmost restraint” and prevent the situation from escalating further.
February 28th: Prime Minister Imran Khan announces in Parliament that Pakistan will release the captured Indian Wing Commander as a “peace gesture”.
March 1st: Pakistan hands over Wing Commander Abhinandan to India at the Wagah border crossing.
March 2nd: India hands over the body of Pakistani prisoner Shakirullah who was killed in Jaipur jail after Pulwama attack, imprisoned since 2009.
March 5th: Pakistan navy thwarts attempt by Indian submarine to enter Pakistan waters..