India and Pakistan on the Brink of Disaster

Indian military planes / Getty

When two large, powerful countries, each with well over 100 nuclear warheads, share a border of about 2,000 miles and have a deeply hostile relationship, the situation is inherently dangerous. The danger is not so much that conflict can break out at any time, but rather that the scale and intensity of such conflict could be catastrophic. So when tensions really boil, and each country launches military strikes against the other, there can come a tipping point at which leaders must work to deescalate the crisis, or the fighting will intensify and head toward the abyss, with a destructive war in sight. The current crisis between India and Pakistan is at that tipping point.

The crisis began with a terrorist attack. On Feb. 14, a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle with explosives into a convoy carrying paramilitary forces in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed, or JeM, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the car bombing, which killed more than 40 Indian Central Reserve Police Force personnel. Indian authorities immediately blamed Pakistan for the attack and promised to retaliate. Pakistan denied any role in the bombing, despite supporting JeM for years.

Less than two weeks later, on Tuesday, the Indian Air Force launched strikes in Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The Indian government said it targeted a JeM training camp and killed several terrorists. "Credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country, and the fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose," Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said. "In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary."

Gokhale emphasized that the operation did not target the Pakistani military, describing it as a "non-military preemptive action."

Some press reports contradicted India's claims, saying no bodies or wounded people were found at the scene.

Regardless, this was no routine counterterrorism operation. These strikes were the first by India on Pakistani soil since the two South Asian neighbors fought a war in 1971.

Pakistan's government initially denied that the strikes took place, or even that Indian warplanes entered Pakistani airspace. The operation embarrassed the Pakistani military, which portrays itself as the country's defender against Indian belligerence. The defense establishment cannot afford to appear weak or incompetent, but it looked both after allowing India to fly well across the Line of Control—the militarized demarcation that separates India and Pakistan's areas of control in Kashmir, a disputed border region. Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, the director-general of the Pakistani military's public relations arm, later said the strikes occurred but caused "no casualties or damage." He also promised India that Pakistan would respond.

Hours after the strikes, Pakistan fired at Indian military posts near the Line of Control. Then on Wednesday, Pakistani fighter jets crossed the demarcation to launch strikes against India. The exact details of what happened next are still unclear, with both sides making contradictory claims. What is clear is that India lost aircraft and at least one pilot is now in Pakistan's custody. The Pakistani military released footage showing the pilot in good health. Critically, India said in a statement that Pakistan targeted Indian "military installations"—after New Delhi claimed its initial strikes were "non-military." Since Pakistan acted last, India may seek to launch an equivalent attack of its own on Pakistani military sites.

The key question now is whether either side will take further military action and escalate the crisis, or whether leaders will seek to restore calm. Both New Delhi and Islamabad do not want war, but escalation is quite possible nonetheless.

At this point, each country has gotten something out of the crisis. India weakened JeM with its assault and avoided looking weak by not responding to the terrorist attack. Pakistan in turn avoided looking weak by launching its own strikes. The goal now should be to avoid further violence. But in a military standoff, if one side feels the other got the upper hand, they have an incentive to strike again. If that happens and Indian and Pakistani leaders do not make serious efforts to deescalate, the current situation could quickly spiral out of control and result in war. Because of Pakistan's low threshold for using tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict, such a scenario could be truly catastrophic.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan referenced both countries' nuclear arsenals in an overture for talks on Wednesday. "I ask India: With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation? If this escalates, it will no longer be in my control or in Modi's," Khan said, referring to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India appeared unmoved by Khan's remarks, calling Pakistan's strikes an "unprovoked act of aggression." Ultimately, Indian political leaders will determine the next step.

The Indian media is striking a nationalist tone, and Modi is under domestic pressure to respond. He and his Bharatiya Janata Party have a general election coming up in the spring and do not want to appear weak on Pakistan. Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Indian public has demanded strong action against Pakistani terrorism. If India decides to launch another attack on Pakistani soil, Islamabad is sure to retaliate more forcefully, and at that point, it is difficult to see tensions cooling. Now, at the tipping point, is the time to stop escalation.

The United States has a role to play here, as one of only a few countries with the right clout to manage an Indian-Pakistani crisis. In the past, American diplomacy prevented the 1999 Kargil War from getting worse by pressuring Pakistan, and in 2001, Washington cooled tensions after a terrorist attack on Indian Parliament by pressuring and urging restraint on India. This time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged both countries to avoid further military action. Only time will tell whether the Trump administration can help India and Pakistan avoid a large-scale war once again.

Stepping back for a moment, the constant variable that triggered almost all of these recent crises has been Pakistani terrorism. Even if the Pakistani state itself is not involved, it allows terrorist groups to operate with effective impunity on its soil. Going forward, holding Pakistan accountable for its terrorist activities and taking unprecedented measures to pressure Islamabad to stop them are essential steps to prevent situations like the current crisis. The United States must make this a priority.