Conflict and incident background
Tension between India and Pakistan has escalated sharply once again, following a militant attack in Kashmir’s Pulwama in mid-February. What started as war of words eventually became a diplomatic crisis as the Indian military carried out airstrikes against militants that Pakistan has been accused of harboring. Since then, there have been genuine fears that the tension if mismanaged, could erupt into a full-scale conflict between the two nuclear-armed South Asian rivals. Situations remains fluid though both sides have continued to exercise restraint as de-escalation efforts got underway.
A history of rivalry between two countries
The history of animosity between India and Pakistan can be traced back to 1947 as both countries declared independence from Britain. Since then, numerous wars and armed conflicts have been fought between the two countries with the issue of Kashmir being the most contentious among others. Apart of the territorial issue, the growing threat of cross-border militancy in Kashmir in recent years have also been a source of dispute as Delhi has often accused Pakistan of harboring militants that target the former’s citizens and military. In 2008, both countries came fleetingly close to a war after an attack in the Indian financial hub of Mumbai. The Lashkar-e-Taiba group was blamed for the attack and the role of Pakistan was highlighted. Although tension was eventually defused, low-intensity conflicts have been reported throughout the past decade, particularly in Kashmir. In the wake of the attack in Pulwama, a déjà vu feeling also precipitates in the region as both Delhi and Islamabad confront a similar crisis that they experienced back in 2008.
Pulwama terror attack sparks latest confrontation between both sides
The prelude to the aerial encounter started with a suicide bomb attack on an Indian military convoy in the Pulwama area of Indian-controlled Kashmir on 14 February. The bombing was the most serious attack by militants in years in the region. The attack was claimed by the jihadist separatist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a group that is based in Pakistan. On the morning of 27 February one of the most serious incidents in decades occurred in the form of an air-to-air confrontation between Indian and Pakistani warplanes, the first since 1999. Available reports indicated that a Pakistani F-16 fighter jets faced off an older and less capable Mig-21 of the Indian Air Force in the air above the line-of-control separating Indian- and Pakistani controlled Kashmir. At least one Indian plane was shot down during the incident and one pilot was captured on the Pakistani side. India claims having shot down one Pakistani jet, a statement that has been denied by the other side. The exact details of what transpired in the skies above Kashmir remains unclear, as both sides have provided conflicting details of the events. While the confrontation occurred in the air there were cross-border firing incidents involving ground forces at several locations along the line-of-control. The day before the clash in the air, Indian bomber planes also carried out a major airstrike on a camp allegedly used by the militant group on the Pakistani side of the border
Modi’s big gamble ahead of election as Pakistan’s Khan appeals for calm
While India’s move to bomb the militants’ hideout inside Pakistan appeared to be a calculated one, there are still risks that it can escalate the situation into a full-blown war. A strike that took place deep in Pakistan’s territory could be viewed as an encroachment of the country’s sovereignty and there is likely be to be pressure within Islamabad’s ruling circle for a harsher response. As such, Pakistan will need to find ways deter further strikes by India in its territory so that it will not become a new normal. Delhi on the other hand wants to send a signal that if Islamabad continues to be complacent in fighting terrorism, it will fill in the role by targeting militants even if they are in Pakistan.
It is important to note however prolonging the stand-off might not necessarily play out well for both governments despite the possible political gains. For Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, putting the country into a war or even an armed conflict just before an election could be a double-edged sword while the newly-elected leader of Pakistan, Imran Khan also benefited very little from such situation as his post-election priorities have been to improve the livelihoods of the people. It is perhaps such thinking that Khan has decided to offer an olive branch to India to de-escalate the tension where he vowed to co-operate with Delhi in the fight against terrorism. In another gesture to convince Delhi, Islamabad also released the Indian air force pilot who was captured in the latter’s territory. It remains unclear for now how receptive Modi’s government to such idea as any action that exhibits weaknesses in front of the general populace could also be used by the opposition against him during campaigning. On the other hand, refusal to engage in any dialogues could also dampen India’s international image, something Modi would like to avoid as the country moves forward to become a major world power.
While the governments ponder on their next move diplomatically, a slight increase in terms of cross-border firings are highly likely as a show of resistance by both sides though anything beyond that, such as airstrikes could venture the situation into unknown waters. Outside of the region, major powers including the United States, European Union and China will pay close attention to the situation and pursue both sides to disengage. Some could even be playing a role of mediator should talks between them failed in order to avoid the situation developing into an all-out war.
Regional crisis, global impact
Shortly after the incident on 27 February, Pakistani authorities closed major airports and the airspace across the country, and some Indian airports were temporarily shut as well. As a result, all incoming or outgoing flights as well as domestic services within Pakistan were halted. Beyond this many international airlines were forced to immediately cancel or reroute flight services that operated across Pakistani airspace. The closure thus affected a major air route linking Southeast Asia and Europe and caused thousands of travelers across the globe to be stranded.
During the unfolding events the SAFEY team maintained close monitoring of the situation as it developed. Alerts where sent out through the SAFEY system concerning the hostilities both on the ground and in the air. Further expanded warnings concerning disruption to flight services were provided when airports were closed on both sides of the border and about the closure of Pakistan’s airspace.
As part of our work in global security monitoring, militant attacks, international incidents, and major transport service disruptions are all developments that we focus on. The recent events in Kashmir and beyond constitutes an intersection of these areas and indicates how rapidly local issues can have global implications in an interconnected world.
The following is a timeline of the events at the border between India and Pakistan and some of SAFEY reports since 14 February (all times local):
14 February: A convoy of vehicles carrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Pulwama, Kashmir was hit by a suicide bomber, leaving at least 40 personnel dead. It was one of the deadliest attacks seen in the region in decades.
15 February: India revokes “Most Favored Trading” nation status for Pakistan. The revocation was issued as the Pakistani-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack.
26 February: Indian forces carry out airstrikes against militants in Balakot in Khyber Paktunkhwa province of Pakistan at about 03:30. SAFEY reports on the situation at about 09:00 upon confirmation of the strike by the Indian military.
27 February: Conflicting claims by India and Pakistan over the situation at the border in Kashmir. Pakistan said it has shot down an Indian jet and captured its pilot. India while confirming that its pilot was captured, added that it has also shot down a Pakistani F-16 jet. Islamabad however disputed the claim, saying that no such jet was being used during the counter-attack. On the same day, the airspace of Pakistan was also shut over the situation while India also closed several airports in the Jammu and Kashmir region. During this period, SAFEY reported on the disruptions caused by the airspace closure toward the aviation sector, particularly for flights between Asia and Europe. The disruptions lingered for few days and Thai Airways and Eva Air were among the worst-affected airlines.
1 March: Pakistan released the captured Indian pilot, whose plane was shot down few days earlier. The pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman was handed over to Indian officials at the Wagah border crossing.