Stockholm (Ekonamik) – Indian fighter jets destroyed a terrorist camp in Balakot, Pakistan Tuesday (February 26), killing over 300, according to India officials, and stoking fears of an escalation that could lead to war between the two nuclear-armed countries.
The strike on the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed was retaliation for a suicide bombing in Pampore in Indian-administered Kashmir two weeks ago that killed 44 members of India’s security forces. India’s Foreign Minister Vijay Gokhale portrayed the strike as a necessary intervention following reports that the group was planning further attacks.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office said Pakistan would respond “at a time and place of its choosing” and rejected India’s claim that it had either struck a terrorist camp or inflicted heavy casualties. Mr Khan directed Pakistan’s armed forces and the public to “remain prepared for all eventualities.”
India’s benchmark stock index S&P BSE Sensex fell 0.7% at close in Mumbai, recovering from a 1.4% drop. The rupee was hardly affected. Pakistan’s stock index plunged 1.9%.
The strike by 12 aircraft inside Pakistani territory represents the worst escalation between Pakistan and India since both moved ballistic missiles and troops to their border in 2001, following an attack on parliament in New Dehli that was also blamed on Jaish-e-Mohammad.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since partition and independence in 1947. The air strikes mark the first time the Indian Air Force crossed the line of control between the countries since the Indo-Pakistan war over Bangladesh in 1971.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces a general election (Lob Sabha) by May. The strikes put him in a stronger position after characterising the attack in Kashmir as the worst in several decades. His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) will use his response as an illustration of his forceful leadership, though it is unclear whether it will move votes.
It is also unclear whether or how the conflict will escalate. Prime Minister Khan had vowed retaliation if India launched a military response to the February 14 attack. Now his government is disputing the extent of the attack or whether there were any casualties.
“Under forced hasty withdrawal aircraft released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties,” spokesman for Pakistan’s armed forces Major General Asif Ghafoor wrote on Twitter, where conflicting accounts rage on. Pakistan provided pictures of what it said were Indian bomb payloads that missed in a forest.
Payload of hastily escaping Indian aircrafts fell in open. pic.twitter.com/8drYtNGMsm
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) February 26, 2019
The move could be a manoeuvre to de-escalate tensions. The strikes represent Mr Khan’s first major foreign policy challenge, and Jaish-e-Mohammed is banned as a terrorist organisation in Pakistan. Pakistan may not want to escalate the crisis beyond its present level despite the Indian government’s accusation that it had a “direct hand” in the February 14 attack.
In addition, Pakistan remains of critical importance in the region to the United States, a staunch ally of India, following its planned drawdown in Afghanistan. Its government will likely tread carefully.
Mr Modi, for his part, had been criticised for an insufficient response to border incursions in his first term, after being elected as Prime Minister in 2014 in part by attacking the weakness of his predecessor Manmohan Singh on the issue.
Mr Modi has been facing an uphill battle in his election campaign this year following the defeat of the BJP in five Indian states last December, and the strike is a clear electoral calculation to reinvigorate his party and his candidacy on the foreign policy issue Indians care about the most.
Despite simmering tensions, it remains unlikely either nuclear power has the incentive or desire to escalate further at this stage, although media on both sides is stoking nationalist sentiment (with a veritable virtual war unfolding on social media), making de-escalation harder and demanding additional courage from the political leadership of each country.
Update (February 27): The crisis has escalated, with Pakistan’s air force shooting down two Indian fighter jets over Kashmir. India has confirmed the loss of one plane but says it shot down a Pakistani jet in response to the incident. One plane fell inside Pakistan-controlled Kashmir while the other went down in Indian-controlled Kashmir. One Indian soldier remains in Pakistani custody.
Image: Kashmir Map 2019 Balakot Airstrike (Wikimedia Commons)