All it took was 48 hours to change the decades-old security doctrine between India and Pakistan.
When Indian fighter jets struck at a terrorist base camp of the group Jaish-e-Muhammad in Balakot, deep inside Pakistani territory, it was the first time in nearly five decades that air power had been used across the border. Even during the last war fought between India and Pakistan in 1999, then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declined the Indian army’s request for crossing the Line of Control.
In contrast, the government of Narendra Modi showed enormous appetite for risk and a certain audacity in approving the strike. The prime minister was also under enormous public pressure to respond militarily, once Jaish-e-Muhammad claimed responsibility for the attack against paramilitary soldiers in Kashmir on Feb. 14.
Modi is well aware that airstrikes do little or nothing to dismantle the Pakistani deep state’s architecture in which Islamist terrorist groups are groomed as assets against India.
But the decision to use air power was not so much to change things in Pakistan — in fact, it’s India that has changed.
The impunity that terrorists like Masood Azhar, the chief of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Hafiz Saeed, head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, enjoy within Pakistan has pushed even the most liberal and pacifist Indians to a point of anger, weariness and cynicism. Saeed, the man responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, is not just free — he even fielded candidates by proxy in the elections last year.
Unlike their parents, a younger generation of Indians do not carry any sentimental baggage from the 1947 partition that divided us from Pakistan. This generation is restless, impatient and exasperated by Pakistan’s inaction and India’s seeming unwillingness to address the threats head-on.
By approving airstrikes inside Pakistan, Modi was responding to the popular clamor for justice. But he was also challenging the idea that two nuclear nations will not go to battle. Indian officials privately say that the strike was about “calling out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama terrorist attack and the subsequent air assault, major global powers rallied behind India. The United Nations Security Council condemned Jaish-e Muhammad ,and even China, the chief patron of Pakistan, signed on.
India carefully described the air attack in Pakistan as “nonmilitary" and "preemptive," in other words, aimed at neither Pakistan’s military nor its civilian population. It appears as if President Trump had a forewarning when he said last week that India was “looking at something very strong.” Sure enough, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo endorsed the Indian strikes as a “counter-terrorism” measure.
But beyond the certainties proclaimed by armchair warriors or alpha-male television hosts, this near-war situation is not a video game.
In the past few hours, the nature of public pressure on the Modi government has shifted after a young wing commander of the Indian Air Force was taken into custody by the Pakistanis. In dramatic and not entirely predictable developments, Pakistani jets entered Indian airspace on Wednesday morning; Indian jets scrambled to chase them back across the border and in the aerial battle, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman ended up in Pakistani custody.
On social media, some horrific videos of an injured Varthaman were circulated, in what the Indian foreign ministry called a “vulgar display” in violation of the Geneva Conventions. And suddenly, the conversation at least momentarily shifted from how to bring the Jaish-e-Muhammad and Azhar to justice to how to bring Varthaman home. That the pilot seems to have responded with calm fortitude in all these videos, refusing to divulge any details to the questions the Pakistanis ask of him, only fortified the outpouring of national support.
It was against this backdrop that Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, went on television to call for talks and deescalation. He mentioned the Pulwama attack (though not Jaish-e-Muhammad) and offered his “empathy.” He has asked Modi to “give peace a chance.” The biggest peace offer he could make in this grim moment is to unilaterally hand over the captured air force officer back to India.
For the Modi government, the next steps present a delicate dilemma. If India chooses to respond militarily to the aggression by Pakistan’s air force, we could be heading for full-blown war.
A clinical cost-benefit analysis, however, should lead the Modi government to the conclusion that India has already made its point by successfully bombing a terrorist camp 70 kilometers inside Pakistan — where an estimated 300 terrorists were believed to be operating. That response was necessary and driven by a sense of retributive fair play.
Now perhaps it is wiser to step back, deescalate and let hard diplomacy take over.