India and Pakistan's dispute over Kashmir has been at the heart of their rivalry since each country gained independence in 1947. While New Delhi and Islamabad want to avoid a full-scale war, the intersection of cross-border militancy, India's upcoming elections and the need to retaliate to gain the upper hand will bring the two nuclear powers closer to a wider conflict unless they exercise restraint.
Rising tensions between archrivals India and Pakistan have led to the first cross-border military action in Kashmir following an unprecedented bombing in the disputed territory. On Feb. 26, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale announced the Indian air force conducted a "non-military preemptive action" against a training camp belonging to the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which supports the secession of Indian-administered Kashmir, in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Gokhale said the Indian military destroyed the facility — located in the town of Balakot — after receiving intelligence that JeM fighters were planning more suicide attacks. This follows a car bombing claimed by the group against an Indian paramilitary convoy in Jammu and Kashmir on Feb. 14 that killed 44 security personnel.
Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor disputed the Indian foreign secretary's statement. Ghafoor claimed that the Pakistani military repulsed the Indian jet fighters, adding that they jettisoned their bombs in an open area. Following a National Security Committee meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan on Feb. 26, Ghafoor vowed that the Pakistani army would respond to India's incursion into its airspace.
Why It Matters
This move by India points to the consequences of non-state actors in Kashmir triggering state-to-state violence. Pakistan has long aided JeM in Indian-administered Kashmir to pressure the Indian military, as the group seeks to achieve autonomy from New Delhi. But the Feb. 14 car bombing — coming just days ahead of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's visit to Pakistan — suggests that Islamabad could be losing control over the militants' actions.
The airstrike suggests India is testing the limits of its retaliatory actions against Pakistan, raising questions as to how far India will go the next time it responds to a large-scale attack.
For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the warplane incursion also comes ahead of a tough general election due by May — something that likely prompted him to conduct a retaliatory strike against Pakistan, even as he seeks to avoid triggering a wider conflict. Nevertheless, it was the first Indian strike into Pakistani territory beyond Pakistan-administered Kashmir since the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. This suggests India is testing the limits of its retaliatory actions against Pakistan, raising questions as to how far India will go the next time it responds to a large-scale attack.
In addition, the recent attack underlines Pakistan's troubled borders. As tensions rise with India in Kashmir, Pakistan is also facing pressure from Iran to curb militancy along their shared 904-kilometer (565-mile) border, after a militant group killed 27 members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in a recent attack. Meanwhile, Islamabad is bracing for further instability along its border with Afghanistan as well, should the United States decide to withdraw troops from the Afghan conflict as part of ongoing negotiations. In response, Pakistan will try to de-escalate tensions with Iran, and respond to India in a way that enables its military to save face while avoiding a larger conflict.
India and Pakistan each administer a portion of Kashmir, but both claim the territory in full. The rivals have fought three separate wars over Kashmir in 70 years — in 1948, 1965 and 1999. Full control over the territory would bestow each side with military advantages that its opponent wants to deny. Pakistan's sponsorship of militant proxies is part of an asymmetric warfare campaign rooted in the 1948 war, which aims at compensating for its army's conventional disadvantage against the Indian military. The car bombing on Feb. 14 was the deadliest attack to date in the 30-year insurgency in Kashmir.