Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany.
This week, the world could see a deescalation of nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea. But almost at the same time, two other nuclear powers are engaging in hostilities.
Early Tuesday morning, Indian aircraft attacked an alleged terrorist training camp near Balakot, Pakistan. According to Indian authorities, the raid targeted a facility used by Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based terrorist group that claimed responsibility for a Feb. 14 suicide attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police officers in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. After the attack, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised that “every tear that has been shed will be avenged,” a public stance given added weight by looming Indian parliamentary elections expected in April or May.
With the new airstrikes, Modi appears to have kept that promise. This is not the first time Modi has authorized limited strikes in retaliation for militant attacks on Indian forces. In 2016, Modi oversaw shallow “surgical strikes” by ground forces against Pakistani targets across the Line of Control that divides Indian-administered Kashmir from Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
Yet Tuesday’s air raid represents a significant escalation between the two nuclear-armed powers. While there have been ground clashes in the past between nuclear-armed states, this is the first use of airpower by one nuclear power to target another’s territory.
Moreover, for almost fifty years, India and Pakistan have avoided intentional hostilities across agreed borders. The Balakot camp appears to have been just outside Kashmir in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While India was careful to argue the attack was aimed solely at the terrorist group responsible for the Feb. 14 attack, and not against Pakistani civilians or its military, India’s decision to strike a target in undisputed Pakistani territory effectively signals that there are no longer clear territorial constraints if future retaliatory strikes become necessary.
This places the Pakistani government in a predicament. Before Tuesday’s raid, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, had warned India that if it carried out “any kind of attack on Pakistan, Pakistan will not just think about retaliating. We will retaliate.” Pakistan’s military was even more authoritative: “Don’t mess with Pakistan,” the official military spokesperson told India on Friday.
The political ramifications of Tuesday’s raid are complicated by a disagreement about what took place. Indian media claim that up to 350 militants were killed in the flawlessly executed strike, while Pakistan’s government proclaims that the Pakistan Air Force repelled the attack, forcing the Indian aircraft to jettison their payload prematurely with no serious damage to anything but trees. Similarly, incompatible accounts of the 2016 “surgical strikes” — which Pakistan also downplayed — permitted India and Pakistan to exit the crisis with no additional escalation.
If the Indian account does turn out to be true, it is profoundly embarrassing for the Pakistani military. The ability to reach a target so far within Pakistan evokes the raid by U.S. forces on a compound housing Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Abbottabad, less than a two-hour road journey from Balakot. Some Pakistani commentators have already questioned what the Pakistani military was doing if it couldn’t defend Pakistan’s borders from foreign intrusion. What good is it to spend a quarter of the Pakistani state budget on a military if it cannot defend Pakistan’s borders?
Now the world waits. Will Pakistan be content to deny that anything of consequence took place Tuesday night and minimize the consequences on the ground? If it does strike back, will it limit its retaliation to the heavily militarized Line of Control that separates Kashmir? On Tuesday evening, Indian media reported that the Pakistan Army had launched artillery and mortar attacks in 55 areas in Kashmir — a counter-escalation, for sure, but one consistent with past periods of tension.
What seems clear is that these two nuclear powers, each estimated to possess more than 100 nuclear weapons, will have to negotiate this crisis without meaningful international involvement. President Trump, along with his senior-most national security aides, is focused on his summit in Hanoi with Kim Jong Un. Even when Trump is not participating in such a spectacle, the Trump administration’s limited foreign policy bandwidth is consumed by fights with Venezuela, Iran and China. Trump’s South Asia team lacks a permanent ambassador to Pakistan and a permanent assistant secretary for South Asian affairs, and much of the administration’s South Asia expertise has focused on attempting to extricate the United States from its 18-year war in Afghanistan. Pakistan was supposed to help in that effort, but just last week it threatened its cooperation if India “resort[ed] to violence against Pakistan.”
With China viewed as being too pro-Pakistan, Russia as too pro-India and the European Union as too irrelevant, no outside power has the influence to intervene. Without shuttling foreign diplomats, India and Pakistan will use the diplomacy of violence to try to show strength, even as they seek to avoid an escalation that threatens nuclear catastrophe.
After seven decades of hostility and four wars, this current crisis will not be a wake-up call in either country. Instead, it will reinforce the most dangerous tendencies in both capitals, making the next crisis just a matter of time.