February came to a close with two major nuclear powers, Pakistan and India, nearly going to war after New Delhi staged an airstrike within undisputed territory in ‘retaliation’ for an attack in India-Occupied Kashmir, claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group.
On Feb. 14, a suicide bomber—Kashmiri Adil Dar—targeted Indian security forces in India-Occupied Kashmir’s Pulwama sector, killing 40 paramilitaries. Claimed by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, the deadliest attack in India-Occupied Kashmir in three decades provoked outrage and demands for reprisal as New Delhi swiftly, and without any evidence or investigation, accused Islamabad of failing to prevent it. With elections looming, and the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party facing domestic pressure over its flawed policies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a ‘jaw-breaking’ response to the bombing. Nearly two weeks later, on Feb. 26, he appeared to deliver on that vow with Indian warplanes crossing the Line of Control—the de facto border dividing Kashmir between Pakistan and India—into Pakistani airspace, dropping bombs on an alleged Jaish camp and killing “over 300” militants. Trumpeted by a jingoistic Indian media that failed to verify or cross-examine any of its government’s claims, this proved hogwash.
Independent reporting and onsite visits proved the Indian bombs had landed on a largely empty field, damaging little more than dozens of pine trees and injuring a civilian who lived nearby. Confirming the strike, Islamabad vowed retaliation to India’s first use of air power on undisputed Pakistani soil since 1971. A day later, on Feb. 27, Pakistani jets targeted Indian installations from within its territory but hit open spaces in a “show of strength.” What could have ended with the tit-for-tat response unfortunately escalated to a worrisome level when Indian fighters tried to engage the Pakistani warplanes, resulting in both sides claiming to have shot down each other’s aircraft.
This, once again, proved false. While Pakistan had clearly shot down an Indian aircraft—and captured a pilot who crashed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir—New Delhi was unable to prove it had downed any Pakistani planes, a claim also vehemently denied by Islamabad. The captured pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, became the fresh face of Indian anger after a video was released of him being questioned by the Pakistani military following his crash.
The spiraling situation prompted Pakistan to shut down its airspace, grounding thousands of travelers across the world as flights that crisscrossed over Pakistan were forced to seek alternative routes or were cancelled outright. The closure, which lasted nearly a week, also ground all domestic and international air travel within Pakistan, as concerns mounted that India might try further incursions to stage strikes on Pakistani soil.
As New Delhi’s demands for the “immediate” release of its pilot gained ground, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, took to the airwaves to clear the air and urged India to step back, de-escalate and pursue dialogue. Once again promising to investigate any claims by India that Pakistan-based militants had been involved in the Pulwama attack, he urged his Indian counterpart to seek peace rather than war, warning that the nuclear weapons available to both nations made conflict a worrying proposition that could have unintended consequences. A day later, during an address to a joint sitting of Parliament, he delivered on his pledge to seek peace by announcing that Abhinandan would be released the next day as a “peace gesture.” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on the urging of Parliament, decided to skip the Organization of Islamic Conference where India’s foreign minister had been invited as a ‘guest of honor.’ The move was seen as a misstep by analysts who worried Pakistan had given up a chance to air grievances with India’s treatment of Kashmiris at a global stage.
Global powers, including the United States, China, the U.K., meanwhile stepped in to urge restraint and advise both sides to de-escalate tensions to avoid all-out war. In Pakistan, both the military spokesman and the prime minister reiterated claims that Islamabad merely wanted peace and India was the aggressor—a narrative that gathered steam in international coverage of the standoff with many observers noting that Narendra Modi appeared to be trying to stoke anger among his constituents in a bid to secure votes in upcoming general elections.
On March 1, Abhinandan was returned to India. Indian media trumpeted this “peace gesture” as “surrender” by Pakistan, attracting little support for this description outside of India. However, as conditions started to return to “normal,” both sides ramped up shelling along the Line of Control, with casualties on both sides among civilians and military personnel alike.
The war of narratives continued, playing out largely on TV channels and in newspapers on both sides of the Line of Control. India claimed to have shot down a Pakistani drone, while the Pakistan Navy said it had prevented an Indian submarine from entering its territorial waters. Reports also emerged of Indians taking out their anger on religious minorities, with Muslims and Kashmiris especially being exhorted to “leave India.”
Amidst all this, Islamabad took action. The PTI-led government announced a new crackdown on terror groups listed by the United Nations, and took into custody several militant leaders, including members of Jaish-e-Mohammad. The assets and bank accounts of several alleged militants were also seized by the government. Perhaps fearing backlash from within, lawmakers were quick to point out that the action was not being taken under any international pressure and was merely in line with Pakistan’s internal policy of denying the use of its soil to any terror outfit.
The threat of war, Pakistan’s willingness to talk peace, international pressure have all appeared to leave little impact on India’s prime minister. Modi has continued to beat the drums of war, saying his “new India” would “fight as one” even as Khan urges peace. But while Islamabad and New Delhi continue to circle each other, the real victims of this standoff remain, as always, the people of Kashmir. Mortar shelling, gunfire and missile attacks have forced thousands to flee their homes or seek shelter in bunkers. This cannot continue.
The world is watching; Pakistan and India must mutually step back and work to restore a semblance of peace. Islamabad has taken the first step; will New Delhi reciprocate?
From our March 9 – 23, 2019 issue