Last week, two nuclear-armed nations escalated tense relations into a risky military exchange. On Feb. 25, the Indian Air Force targeted a seminary of the United Nations-banned militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad in the Pakistani town of Balakot. Jaish-e-Muhammad claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 terrorist attack on Indian paramilitary forces in the disputed region of Kashmir.
The Indian airstrike, which seems to have missed its target, was a response to this attack. Pakistan retaliated on Feb. 26, firing near Indian military positions with multiple fighter jets. It also shot down an Indian Air Force plane and captured its pilot.
How did South Asia get to this tense stage? And what risks remain? Here is what you need to know.
1. The road to escalation is paved with politics
As Caitlin Talmadge argues, nuclear-armed rivals can have reasons to use military means below the nuclear-war threshold to pursue limited political aims. So what was India’s motivation in initiating the latest round of hostilities — despite the risk of nuclear war?
Indian domestic politics remains a key driver of the escalation. Indian politicians have long sought to end Pakistan’s covert support for the separatist insurgency in Kashmir — whose violence has regularly spilled into mainland India. Since the 2008 terrorist attack by a Pakistan-based group in Mumbai, Indian leaders have faced serious domestic political pressure to respond to such attacks militarily. Before becoming prime minister, Narendra Modi championed a muscular approach against Pakistan for supporting Islamist militant groups in Kashmir.
In addition, as Christopher Clary argues, the upcoming Indian national election upped pressure on Modi to hit back — his base expected a strong response. After a 2016 attack on a military camp in the India-controlled Kashmir, he ordered a small military raid on Pakistani positions close to the border. In 2019, his response had to be stronger.
Indian security officials feed into this domestic politics narrative, believing that Pakistani military capability is overstated. Last year, the Indian army chief stated that Pakistan’s threat of retaliation against an Indian attack was a bluff. This assessment appears to have emboldened Indian strategists to reach for a target in mainland Pakistan.
But the Indian calculus proved wrong. Contrary to expectation, Pakistan struck back with its air force.
Why did Pakistan retaliate? One possible explanation is that Pakistan faced a strategic dilemma following the initial Indian attack: If it did not respond, India might have attacked again without fearing meaningful consequence.
Pakistan’s leaders have their own domestic political pressures. Prime Minister Imran Khan was embarrassed by the Indian aircraft’s ability to reach mainland Pakistan — and return home unscathed. The chief of Pakistan’s powerful army, Qamar Bajwa, risked a backlash from his officer corps. With Pakistan’s military’s organizational culture heavily focused on the rivalry with India, Bajwa couldn’t afford inaction.
2. Has India turned back from the precipice?
After Pakistan hit back at India, India had the option to go to the next step of the escalation ladder with a major attack.
Three factors seem to have prevented India from doing so. First, the international community stepped in. Following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, President Trump stated that the United States was trying to mediate a de-escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also worked to mitigate the crisis.
Second, Pakistan seemed to send multiple signals that it was preparing its nuclear weapons, in case the crisis exacerbated. In a news conference following the Indian raid, a Pakistani military spokesman said that the government was activating the body responsible for deploying and using nuclear weapons. Anonymous leaks claimed Pakistan also sent a private message to India that its response to an Indian attack would push the region to a “point of no return” — a hint at the possibility of escalation to a nuclear war.
A third factor was the Pakistani prime minister’s release of the captured Indian pilot. This introduced a humanizing moment in a tense standoff between the nuclear-armed nations, cooling temperatures for a while.
3. But South Asia remains at risk of conflict.
South Asia remains tense. A number of specific risks threaten a return to hostilities — and further escalation.
The current postures of Indian and Pakistani military forces put this conflict at risk of re-escalating. The two sides continue to exchange heavy artillery fire in the disputed region of Kashmir. Both militaries have intensified aerial and naval patrolling along their territorial borders, which can lead to escalation by accident.
And the Indian government hasn’t signaled a clear intent to de-escalate the crisis — in contrast to Pakistan’s repeated calls for de-escalation. Modi continues to raise his base’s expectations on acting against Pakistan. This leaves the possibility that India may be flirting with options of another military action.
A major terrorist attack in India would also prompt conflict. Such an attack can come from the deeply alienated Kashmiri youth — some of whom are turning to Islamist militant groups to take on the Indian government. Indian policies fueling resentment in the region seem unlikely to change anytime soon.
Pakistan-based Islamist militant groups also remain committed to attacks in India. Pakistan has announced a new crackdown against such groups but it has a track record of secretly backing the Kashmiri insurgency even after such pronouncements. It remains to be seen if Pakistan will genuinely pull support from the militant groups.
And there’s an added challenge: misinformation related to the crisis, often through social media. In the week since the military exchange, rumors about military and civilian deaths, imminent military actions and incorrectly attributed attacks have become common.
Such misinformation has added to war hysteria in a deeply polarized subcontinent. It also risks influencing civilian and military decision-makers in the two countries.