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Why the India-Pakistan Crisis Isn’t Likely to Turn Nuclear

History Shows Escalation Isn’t Inevitable

A rally in support of the Pakistan Armed Force, Peshawar, Pakistan, March 2019. Fayaz Aziz / REUTERS

In May 1999, an Indian military patrol stumbled on several groups of Pakistani soldiers who had set up posts in Kargil, in the Indian-controlled section of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Within weeks, India and Pakistan plunged into in their fourth war since 1947. The region’s mountainous terrain made land operations difficult, but throughout the fighting the Indian military exercised a surprising degree of restraint. Indian pilots scrupulously refrained from crossing or firing over the line of control, the de facto border in Jammu and Kashmir, despite coming under punishing fire from the Pakistani side. The Kargil War, as the conflict became known, ended two months after fighting broke out, when the Indian military recaptured the territory it had originally controlled.

Analysts generally point to Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons the previous year as the cause of India’s restraint. Indian policymakers likely feared that crossing the line of control would trigger a wider conflagration, one that could turn nuclear.

That history made it all the more surprising when last week, on February 26, Indian jets crossed not merely the line of control but the international border with Pakistan to strike an apparent terrorist camp in Balakot. Not since the war of 1971 had the Indian Air Force carried out a sortie within undisputed Pakistani territory. The strikes came in response to a terrorist attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Jammu and Kashmir earlier in February claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terrorist group.

The next day, the Pakistani Air Force hit back. The particulars remain murky, but it’s clear that Pakistani jets crossed the line of control. India scrambled aircraft in response, and each side lost at least one plane during the ensuing skirmish. Pakistan then announced that it had captured a downed Indian pilot.

Worried analysts now fear that, since India and Pakistan have breached the informal norm against using air power across the border, they will be unable to prevent further escalation. Hawkish publics in both countries

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