The Slatest

Pakistan and India Shoot Down Each Other’s Planes and Raise Fears of a War in South Asia

Indian Border Security Force personnel walk along a fence at the India Pakistan border on the outskirts of Amritsar on February 27, 2019.
Indian Border Security Force personnel walk along a fence at the India Pakistan border on the outskirts of Amritsar on February 27, 2019.

As if there weren’t enough conflicts to keep track of around the world, you can add a new one to the list. Although more than new it’s more of a blast from the past that has suddenly escalated to such a degree that it is making many wonder whether a nuclear war between old enemies India and Pakistan is on the horizon. The good news? Not quite yet. The bad news? After each country carried airstrikes against the other, the crisis between India and Pakistan is escalating to a level not seen in years and could raise tensions in an area of the world that is no stranger to conflict.

How did we get here anyway? It all started when the militant group Jaish e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on Feb. 14 that killed more than 40 Indian troops in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. That led India to conduct airstrikes against what it alleged was a militant camp in Pakistani territory.

A senior Indian official tells Reuters that 300 militants were killed in that strike while Pakistan claims there were no casualties. But then on Wednesday, Pakistan said it carried out its own airstrikes as a show of force. And then Pakistan’s military said it had shot down two Indian fighter jets that had entered Pakistani airspace and captured a pilot. India later said it had “lost” one of its fighter jets, claiming the jet was trying to stop an attack by Pakistan. India also claims a Pakistani jet was shot down.

Although conflicts and tit-for-tat shows of force are hardly uncommon between India and Pakistan, what sets this apart is that it marked the first time since a 1971 war that the countries carried out raids on the other side of the “line of control” that separates the Indian administered portion of Kashmir from Pakistan’s side. In past instances of jets attacking the other country, India and Pakistan always made sure the aircraft actually stayed within their sides of the line. Any attacks that did cross the line, such as in 2016, were within the disputed territory of Kashmir.

One of the main reasons for concern about a possible escalation is politics. Happymon Jacob at Al Jazeera explains:

Although this is easily the most serious military escalation between the two sides in close to two decades, since the Kargil crisis, what makes this even more dangerous is that it is election season in India and the hawkish Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a second term in office.

Given that Modi’s government has consistently made strong claims about security matters, it could not help but respond with force to the February 14 attack in Pulwama. Not responding would have been politically unsustainable for the prime minister and his right-wing party, given the unrelenting calls from the opposition for a counterattack and the rather disappointing performance of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at important by-elections over the past year.

The Pulwama attack came at a politically opportune time for Modi and he will seek to capitalise on it as much as he can, which could make him seek further escalation against Pakistan.

For now though the world seems to have sent a message that it is standing a bit with India on this one. Or at the very least, it isn’t standing with Pakistan. “Few governments rushed to Islamabad’s defense” after the attack by India considering many had signaled they were impatient with Pakistan’s lack of action against militants after the terror attack earlier this month, notes the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor. “This must greatly disappoint Pakistan because it would have expected its most trusted all-weather friend to make a straight condemnation of India,” Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta wrote. “But it’s a new world with no patience for terror as an instrument of policy.”