Before we analyse where the conflict between India and Pakistan is headed a bit of background is necessary.
A terrorist attack by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on February 14, 2019 killed more than 40 paramilitary personnel. Prior to this in 2016 there were two JeM attacks on military bases in J&K. After the second incident in September 2016, India conducted what was described as “surgical strikes” against some terrorist training camps.
On February 26, 2019, India significantly escalated its response using its Air Force to hit a JeM base on Pakistan’s territory – the first time since 1971 Indian military aircraft had crossed the Line of Control (LOC) between the two countries. The strike was also significant because it was outside the disputed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Pakistan in its turn conducted a 24-aircraft strike against India the next day. An Indian Mig-21 which intercepted the Pakistani aircraft was shot down when it crossed the LOC and its pilot was captured. India has demanded the immediate return of the pilot. Pakistan’s Prime Minister told his Parliament today (February 28) that the pilot would be returned as “peace gesture”.
After the Pakistan Air Force action, the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, while indirectly mentioning nuclear weapons, has called for talks to reduce tension. Significantly, it appears he is willing to discuss terrorism and has not mentioned the usual demand to talk about the Kashmir imbroglio. India has not, so far, responded. The international community has also called for de-escalation to defuse the conflict between two nuclear-armed neighbours. Some countries have offered to mediate.
Significantly, no country has condemned India’s military action on February 26, and most have supported India’s call for dismantling terror bases in Pakistan, including the February 27 joint statement by the foreign ministers of China, India, and Russia after their meeting in Wuzhen (China).
But apart from international pressure, equally important to any analysis of possible tangible de-escalation in a quick timeframe is the internal situation in both countries. India and Pakistan are ruled by populist leaders who came to power on the platform of promoting economic prosperity, restoring national self-esteem and dignity. While Pakistan recently completed its election process, India will face elections within the next three months. Both – Narendra Modi and Imran Khan - have to rely primarily on their personal ratings to derive legitimacy to rule.
Neither of them can be seen to be backing down under pressure from either from each other or the international community. The Pakistan Army-backed Khan cannot afford to seem taking action against the JeM under Indian pressure. Equally, India’s Narendra Modi – facing a critical election – cannot announce satisfaction without some visible and tangible action taken by Pakistan against some of the terror hubs on its territory.
The challenge is clear – there is a need to find a formula which will allow both countries to claim victory in front of their respective domestic audiences. Both states are, without full success, desperately trying to create that “story” of victory.
The challenge before the international community is equally difficult – walking the tightrope between maintaining good relations with Pakistan and supporting anti-terrorism actions. The Pakistani “deep state” will have to be convinced that the policy of using terrorist proxies to promote its interests is a self-defeating policy.
For the immediate future, it appears there won’t be any escalation of the current tension sparked off by the February 14 terrorist attack. The pressure from the international community, particularly the great powers including the United States, appears to be acting as the necessary restraint. But any long-term solution, however, depends on a significant change in Pakistan’s policy of employing terrorism as weapon against Afghanistan, Iran and India.