Pulwama crisis was the most serious military engagement between India and Pakistan since the Kargil conflict of 1999. Despite its relatively short lifecycle, there was a real danger of miscalculation that could have led to inadvertent escalation with the possibility of a major war between the two nuclear-armed adversaries. The crisis has not yet completely subsided but has already challenged several prevailing assumptions that are likely to set the direction of future discourse on South Asia.
Besides the military ramifications, the outcome of Pulwama crisis is likely to have significant political and diplomatic implications for the future of South Asian strategic stability. It is, therefore, necessary to analyze the events that led to the start of crisis; its political and military significance; how close were these two countries to a war? Was there any nuclear signaling? What are the implications of the crisis for the future and also the resumption of a dialogue? And, finally what was the role of the third party in diffusing the current crisis?
Unfolding the Pulwama Crisis? On Feb 14, 2019, a 19 years old young Kashmiri resident from the Indian Occupied Kashmir (IoK) blew himself up killing more than 40 personnel of India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Within hours, India blamed Jaish-e-Muhammad, a militant group banned in Pakistan, and accused Pakistan of harboring the terrorists. Speaking at an election rally, PM Modi vowed revenge and declared that he has given a ‘free hand’ to his military to strike at the time and place of their own choosing.
Pakistan denied its involvement and offered full cooperation to investigate the incident and bring to justice the perpetrators of the suicide attack. PM Imran Khan in his televised speech to the nation stated that Pakistan has no interest in engaging in a military conflict, but if India chose a military path, Pakistan will not think but will definitely retaliate. Cautioning India of the unintended consequences, Mr. Khan also said that it is easy to start a conflict but difficult to control.
Emboldened by the support it received from the U.S. and some other western countries, India embarked upon a diplomatic offensive to ‘isolate’ Pakistan. Starting with symbolic steps of withdrawing the status of a Most Favoured Nation (MFN) for Pakistan, hiking customs duty for the Pakistani goods, engaging in a ‘tomato war’ by halting its export; India announced that it would stop its share of water flowing into Pakistan.
On the domestic front, Indian security forces launched a widespread crackdown against the Kashmiris living in the IoK, while the RSS vigilantes harassed Kashmiri traders and students in rest of the country with complete impunity, forcing them to flee from their homes and shift to other places. The ‘military-intellectual complex’ (MIC) comprising of ‘armchair generals’ coupled with the growing ‘militant nationalism’ pushed the country towards war. Mr. Modi, who had earlier exploited and thrived on anti-Pakistan sentiments for short-term political gains was caught in his own commitment trap.
On Feb 26, India announced that it had carried out a ‘non-military’ surgical strike against ‘terrorist camps’ at Balakot, inside the Western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). The Indian Air Force (IAF) used twelve Mirage-2000 aircraft were equipped with Israeli Spice-2000 bombs and claimed that it had destroyed several multi-story buildings and killed more than 350 terrorists. Once it became clear from independent observers through the satellite imageries that there was no such damage on the ground, India shifted the purpose of its earlier strike by stating that the primary objective was to demonstrate its resolve and deter similar attacks in the future.
Pakistan viewed the aerial violation of its territory as a serious challenge to its sovereignty and a threat to its security. As promised by PM Khan in his earlier speech, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was ordered to retaliate with a ‘tit-for-tat’ response on Feb 27, 2019. Several military installations were targeted, but purposely not destroyed to avoid further escalation. In a short aerial engagement that ensued over Pakistan administered Kashmir, PAF was able to destroy one Mig-21 and a SU-30 of the IAF. One of the Indian pilots fell on the Pakistani side of the border and was captured, but subsequently returned unconditionally as a goodwill gesture and to prevent further escalation. Accepting the loss of its Mig-21 aircraft, India also claimed that it was able to destroy PAF’s F-16 aircraft during the short aerial combat, but has not been able to share any substantive evidence.
Political and Military Significance. The outcome of the crisis has a significant impact on the political standing of the two leaders. PM Modi, who had initially hoped to capitalize on the incident for his electoral gains and to build his image as India’s ‘Iron man,’ found himself struggling to deal with the unexpected outcome. Not only that the military failed to achieve its objectives, but the shifting claims and the purpose of the military strike from the Indian side have significantly damaged Modi’s domestic and international standing.
PM Imran Khan, on the other hand, has emerged as a credible leader, both domestically as well as at the international level. During his three short speeches, Mr. Khan did not indulge in nuclear threats and continued to reiterate the offer of dialogue on all outstanding issues, including the issue of Kashmir. By following through his promise of assured retaliation, Mr. Khan was able to strengthen his credibility as a strong nationalist leader, besides establishing himself as a statesman, who was willing to make the right decisions under pressure.
As a result of this crisis, India’s military image of an emerging power in the Indo-Pacific region has been severely dented. With an annual budget of over $60 billion, which is six times more than Pakistan’s defense spending of $ 9 billion, India has demonstrated that it is not yet ready for a regional leadership role and confront China, which is otherwise projected as India’s principal adversary, while Pakistan is considered only as an irritant.
India’s failed surgical strike that ended up into shooting down of two of its aircraft, besides the interdiction of a submarine by Pakistan has exposed India’s military vulnerabilities. PM Modi’s statement that if India had Rafale aircraft, the outcome would have been different may be intended to snub the opposition parties who have questioned the expensive deal, but this was also an endorsement of the earlier concerns highlighted by the Indian Air Force Chief a few weeks before the recent crisis erupted.
Indian military and political leadership has also been discredited due to false claims of a ‘successful’ strike and shooting down of Pakistan’s F-16 from India’s vintage Mig-21Bis aircraft. The recent report by an influential U.S. based magazine has validated Pakistan’s claim that all its F-16s have been accounted for by the U.S. officials as part of their end user agreement. India’s attempt to mislead the international community seems to have backfired and has become a serious embarrassment for its political and military leadership. This would affect India’s international standing and should also bring into question India’s past claims of carrying out a land-based surgical strike in 2016 that Pakistan has continuously maintained never happened, and therefore Pakistan never responded. If India had carried out any such action in 2106, Pakistan would have definitely responded, as it did most recently.
The Pulwama crisis has also brought serious questions on India’s doctrinal evolution process. Since the 2008 Mumbai crisis there was a dominant narrative that in a future crisis triggered by non-state actors, India would operationalize its Cold Start Doctrine (CSD), the existence of which was formally acknowledged by the current Indian Army Chief in Jan 2017. India has been annually practicing this warfighting doctrine under a nuclear environment, since its inception in 2004. It has spent significant resources and invested in infrastructural development by building new cantonments along the international border to reduce the mobilization of its troops. But once the doctrine was most expected to be put to the test after the recent Pulwama crisis, India seems to have been self-deterred by Pakistan’s Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) posture that precludes the possibility of even a limited conflict between the two nuclear-armed adversaries.
Was there a Risk of a War? Employment of air power inside Pakistani territory was a dangerous escalation and technically an act of war. If Pakistan had not demonstrated restraint and destroyed the targeted Indian military installations during its counter surgical strike on Feb 27, 2019, it would have led to a serious escalation. Pakistan also demonstrated restraint by not destroying India’s submarine once it was detected closer to Pakistan’s territorial waters. Returning the captured IAF pilot without any preconditions, and as a goodwill gesture further reduced the incentive for India to continue with its war hysteria. Any miscalculations on both sides during this entire period may have triggered an uncontrollable sequence of events that could have led to a major conflict. The crisis has not yet completely subsided, and there is a possibility of another surge, but so far both countries have avoided escalation beyond the usual rhetoric.
The Case of Nuclear Signalling. Since the last major crisis of 2008 there was a widespread perception that in a future crisis between the two South Asian adversaries, Pakistan due to its conventional disadvantage via-a-vis India would have no other option, but resort to the threat of use of nuclear weapons. This narrative promoted mainly by India became a template for several tabletop exercises and war games conducted in the western capitals, especially the U.S., where Pakistan was accused of indulging in ‘nuclear blackmail,’ and India as a victim.
These assumptions have all been proven wrong. Contrary to the dominant (mis)perceptions, Pakistan did not indulge in nuclear signaling and opted to respond proportionately through a proportional counter surgical strike. The only reference to nuclear weapons was a caution by PM Khan in his three short speeches, in which he briefly alluded to the dangers of escalation between the two nuclear powers, and hence the need for maintaining restraint on both the sides. The National Command Authority (NCA), which looks after all nuclear-related issues also met to review the evolving security situation, but unlike the past practice, did not issue a press release to avoid miscommunication.
Since Pakistan was able to achieve its political and military objectives at the start of the crisis; Pakistan, therefore had no additional incentive to indulge in nuclear signaling. If there was any nuclear signaling, it was from the Indian side and not Pakistan. According to some of the news reports, India had deployed its entire naval fleet to the Arabian sea at the start of the crisis, which also included the newly commissioned ‘Arihant’ submarine which can carry nuclear-capable ballistic missiles having a range of 750 km. These missiles may not be adequate to threaten Pakistan’s major cities, but its employment as part of nuclear signaling would set a dangerous precedent for the future.
Also, there are newspaper reports that during the crisis India had deployed its missiles close to the international border and was planning to launch a strike against at least six Pakistani targets. According to these reports, Pakistan in response conveyed that it would also retaliate with its own missile strikes if India embarked on missilery. The news reports were based on the information shared by a member of India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), who supposedly had warned that “India was prepared to go down the missile road,” if any harm came to the pilot who was in Pakistan’s custody.
It is possible that India’s claim of missile deployment through media could have been intended to salvage India’s image as a credible military power, one that is willing to take risks, but if India indeed was considering the deployment of its missiles, it is likely to have serious consequences for deterrence stability in the region. Nevertheless, the whole episode does validate Pakistan’s long-standing position that its short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), ‘Nasr,’ which are also called as tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) – are not deployed on a ‘hair trigger’ alert, as it did not indulge in any such nuclear signaling. But Pakistan would have to keep India’s evolving strategic thinking into consideration for the future contingencies since India could indulge in ‘nuclear blackmail.
Another disturbing element of Pak-India rivalry is that both countries do not maintain a clear distinction between their conventional and nuclear missiles, and most of these are capable of carrying ‘different types’ of warheads. Any use of missile could be misperceived as a pre-emptive counterforce strike forcing the other to respond with whatever possible means or risk losing everything. Several senior Indian decision makers have in the recent past alluded to such a possibility where India might opt for a ‘first strike’ against Pakistan to neutralize or degrade Pakistan’s capacity to retaliate. With such claims being made by India’s strategic enclave, any ‘missile signaling’ could have serious consequences for the regional security.
The possibility of the Resumption of a Dialogue. The Pulwama crisis was an outcome of rising militant nationalism in India, which seems to have further thrived on anti-Pakistan sentiments and is being exploited by India’s political leadership for their domestic politics. This may have already reduced the space for the future Indian government to engage with Pakistan, thus reducing the prospects of the resumption of a dialogue process in the immediate future, but looking at past history both India and Pakistan have managed to resume their dialogue after a spike in their uneasy relations.
Both countries engaged in a dialogue process after the 1998 nuclear tests that led to the signing of the Lahore MoU in 1999. The events of Kargil (1999) and the 2001-02 military stand-off impeded further progress but after realizing that there is no military solution to resolve their political differences, both countries once again agreed to start a Composite Dialogue process in 2004. This was again abandoned after the Mumbai crisis of 2008. There is a likelihood that India may consider re-engaging with Pakistan, but much would depend on the outcome of the ongoing elections in India. If Mr. Modi is re-elected with the majority, he may feel confident in engaging with Pakistan, but if there is a coalition government under the BJP Congress, it may become difficult for a weaker government to take a bold decision of resuming the dialogue and the possibility of another military crisis would remain likely.
The Role of a Third Party. In the past, the extra-regional powers, especially the U.S. played an important role in diffusing the crisis between India and Pakistan, and there is a general perception that the U.S. may have also helped diffuse the current crisis. This may only be partially true since the U.S. was not a neutral party from the very start and other countries, like Russia and China, may have played a more meaningful role in helping to de-escalate the recent crisis.
According to one influential U.S. based scholar, the U.S. was engaged in what he termed as ‘recessed diplomacy,’ intended to press Pakistan, while at the same time provided latitude to India to undertake punitive measures against its adversary. The White House, in its statement within a few hours of the incident, called on “Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil.” The U.S. National Security Advisor (NSA), John Bolton defended India’s right to self-defense, thus implicitly giving the go-ahead for military action against Pakistan. President Trump also echoed India’s tough signaling by warning that “India is looking at something very strong,” in another way, endorsing India’s military action against Pakistan.
Owing to this clear bias, it seems implausible that the U.S. would have been in a position to influence Pakistan’s choices. The story ‘of lies and deceit’ propagated by India to emphasize the U.S. role could be aimed at shaping the post-Pulwama narrative and divert attention from India’s military, diplomatic and political failures. By putting the onus of responsibility for India’s inaction to a third party, which in this case was the United States, the Indian leadership hoped that it could cover up its blunders.
The U.S. that has traditionally been brokering peace between India and Pakistan seems to have lost its clout by overtly siding with India. It nevertheless did play some supporting role, but other international actors, including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE were seen more active in diffusing the current crisis between the two South Asian neighbors.
Conclusion. The post-crisis commentaries coming from India give an impression that ‘Balakot strike’ was intended to be symbolic and to send a message that in a future crisis India would not hesitate to strike Pakistan’s mainland. The way events have unfolded indicates that if India did attempt a similar measure in the future, it may even come out more bruised and embarrassed due to its perpetual political and military vulnerabilities.
The recent crisis has also challenged the dominant discourse since the last Mumbai crisis of 2008. Pakistan did not indulge in nuclear signaling but was still able to assert its FSD posture and establish the credibility of its conventional deterrence against an adversary that enjoys a relative conventional advantage. Pulwama crisis has brought some useful lessons for the future of strategic stability in South Asia. One, there is no space for a limited or an all-out war between the two nuclear neighbors; two, if India attempts to launch a surgical strike (land or air), it would have to take into consideration the associated political, diplomatic and the military cost that may not always be in India’s favor; three, India might have greater influence in the western capitals, but there is a limit to which it can influence the narrative; and finally, the U.S. is no longer a reliable broker in the region, thus offering space for others to play a constructive role and enhance their influence in South Asia.
In the absence of a sustainable bilateral mechanism to resolve their outstanding disputes, both India and Pakistan could possibly consider a relatively neutral player like Norway, New Zealand, etc., or else a group of countries (U.S. Russia, China, UK, and others) that could be acceptable to both, to help facilitate the process and could act as guarantors. Without any outside help, it is more likely that the two nuclear adversaries would continue to remain entangled in a cycle of crises that may eventually end up into a major conflict with the possibility of a nuclear war.
About the Author: Dr. Adil Sultan is a visiting research fellow at King’s College London. He can be reached at [email protected]
A different version of this article was published at Pakistan Politico.