The Road to Perdition

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.

Crisis dyamics
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.