On February 14, 2019, a Central Reserve Police Force convoy was attacked by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber near Pulwama in Kashmir. The blast which killed 40 personnel was claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a banned terror outfit from Pakistan. In response to the attack, on February 26, the Indian Air Force (IAF) struck a JeM terrorist camp at Balakot, located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. This was the first time since the 1971 War that Indian aircraft had carried out an airstrike on Pakistani soil.
The next day, the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) launched a retaliatory strike in the Rajouri sector of Jammu. In the ensuing aerial battle, India claimed to have shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter aircraft while losing a MIG-21 whose pilot was captured after he was forced to eject over Pakistani-held territory.
The return of the Indian pilot after 48 hours and some quiet international mediation defused the situation. On February 28, then President Donald Trump announced at a press conference in Hanoi that there was “reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India” and that the rising tensions could be coming to an end. After the situation had eased, both India and Pakistan claimed victory. This implies that the two countries have learned different lessons from the crisis, which is likely to have implications for how military force is used in the event of a future crisis.
Two Claims of Victory
On the Indian side, there is a sense that Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail strategy has run its course. The Balakot airstrikes illustrated that strategic space exists for the limited use of military force, and fears that any level of conflict would quickly escalate into the nuclear domain are unfounded. With these lessons in mind, India can no longer remain in a passive posture that has encouraged Pakistan to continue with its “proxy war” in Jammu and Kashmir.
There is also an opinion that India’s conventional military superiority must be used to deter Pakistan from backing terrorist activity in India. This view is accompanied by criticism that India acted feebly in response to previous terror attacks—notably the Parliament attack in 2001 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008—by not employing its military power against Pakistan. While cross-border military strikes may not lead to Pakistan dismantling its terror network, they would send a strong message that Pakistan’s behavior would incur costs.
From India’s perspective, the Balakot strike also dispelled the notion that the use of airpower is escalatory. Speaking at a seminar in 2020, the Indian Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhaduria, stated: “Balakot was a clear demonstration that there exists a space within the sub-conventional conflict boundary wherein the Air Force can be used for targeting and yet have escalation control.” With stand-off weapons and precise targeting capability, the use of airpower could be a more attractive and less risky option in the future compared to sending soldiers across the Line of Control (LoC) as was done in September 2016.
On Pakistan’s part, the PAF’s retaliatory strike on February 27 named “Operation Swift Resort” was also hailed as a victory. Addressing an Air Staff Presentation meeting held in Islamabad on May 1, 2019, Pakistan’s Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, said that a “befitting reply” had been given to the “enemy’s misadventure” and that “the PAF’s swift response was the demonstration of our firm resolve, capacity and capability in thwarting the nefarious designs of the adversary.”
Pakistan’s response following the crisis also indicates the military’s belief that it can conventionally respond in a more than equal measure to any action restricted to a limited cross-border operation. Speaking at an IISS-CISS Workshop in London on February 6, 2020, retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai noted that Pakistan has a “declared policy of ‘Quid Pro Quo Plus’ against a limited Indian attack.” To prevent escalation, Pakistan also continues to rely on its nuclear capability. As opposed to the Indian thinking that it had called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff, retired Gen. Kidwai further stressed that the Balakot crisis “amply demonstrated” that “Pakistan’s nuclear weapons continue to serve the purpose for which they were developed,” and that: “It is precisely the presence of these nuclear weapons that deters, and in this specific case, deterred India from expanding operations beyond a single unsuccessful airstrike.”
The “Quid Pro Quo Plus” strategy noted by Gen. Kidwai is an attempt by Pakistan to restore nuclear deterrence by claiming that Pakistan is willing to climb the escalation ladder. India sees this as a bluster. With neither side wanting to back down on its public posture, the graduated use of military force is likely in a future crisis.
Lessons Learned and Future Crises
A takeaway for both India and Pakistan from the crisis is also that the scope for international mediation has been reduced. The United States, which has been a principal mediator in the past, appears more focused on its great power rivalry with China and Russia. Moreover, after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington appears to have little appetite to engage with Pakistan seriously, beyond some limited counterterrorism measures.
Any mediation between India and Pakistan requires a level of neutrality and confidence of both the countries in the mediator. Today, there is no such actor. The U.S. appears aligned to India, China towards Pakistan, and Russia will take no position in an India-Pakistan crisis. All others potential actors play a minor role with little equal influence on India and Pakistan.
In a simple distillation of the lessons learned, both India and Pakistan feel that in the case of a grave provocation, there is scope for the use of military forces to attack targets on each other’s territory. However, escalation can be controlled, in the Indian view because of its conventional superiority, and in the Pakistani view because of its nuclear arsenal. This combined with a lack of serious international mediation can quickly create a situation with loose levels of military restraint.
What does this mean for stability in South Asia? The scale and scope of India’s military options against Pakistan in response to major terrorist attacks has indeed widened. However, the fears that this will lead to a swift escalation with the looming danger of a nuclear exchange are overblown. A more accurate perspective requires observers to look at how the two countries have attempted to handle recent crises through public statements accompanying military actions.
In both 2016 and 2019 India and Pakistan’s leadership used public messaging to signal that a military action had achieved its desired end. After the cross-border operations in September 2016, the Indian Director General of Military Operations announced that the army had “conducted surgical strikes” at terrorist launch pads across the LoC, and went on to signal an end to actions adding: “The operations aimed at neutralizing the terrorists have since ceased. We do not have any plans for continuation of further operations.” The Pakistan military completely denied that any operation had been conducted by the Indian Army, ruling out any need for a military response.
Following the Balakot airstrike, the statement read out by the Indian Foreign Secretary called the response a “non-military preemptive action” that was specifically targeted at a JeM camp. The target selection was “conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties.” After the retaliation on February 27, a Pakistan Foreign Office statement noted that the strikes were carried out at “non-military targets, avoiding human loss and collateral damage.” The purpose of the strikes was “to demonstrate our right, will, and capability for self-defense. We have no intention of escalation but are fully prepared to do so if forced into that paradigm.”
Both statements emphasized the success of the individual operation and the selection of targets that would avoid civilian casualties. These statements are a clear indicator that beyond a point, neither side is keen on further escalation. It must also be realized that even after both countries became overtly nuclear, there has been no letup in active military hostility along the border. In 2020 alone there were 5,133 reported ceasefire violations in which 30 civilians and 29 security personnel were killed along the LoC. While India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire in February 2021, practically, the two armies have learned to live with a certain level of violence without it escalating out of control.
The only possible joker in the pack is public opinion. Any incident involving national security generates social media outrage and puts enormous pressure on the leadership to take early action. Political leaders thrive on approbation on social media networks and are keen to display a strongman image by making swift, decisive moves. This could adversely impact escalation management, with decisions being taken primarily to satisfy mass sentiment.
Ultimately, all military actions are influenced by the political environment. If victory can be claimed by both sides, as Balakot shows, it would be the best possible solution. However, despite official statements attempting to control escalation, political rhetoric with an eye on electoral success could ratchet up tensions and become the primary driver of conflict. The Indian Army describes the current situation with Pakistan as “No War No Peace.” Despite some dangers and a greater proclivity for the use of military force, this paradigm is likely to continue in the future.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a four-part series featuring reflections from senior analysts and policymakers in the United States, India, Pakistan, and China on the lessons learned from the 2019 Pulwama/Balakot Crisis. Read the full series here.
Image 1: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command via Flickr
Image 2: Jameel Ahemed/AFP via Getty Images