If you followed certain Indian media outlets in the early hours of Tuesday, you probably heard that Indian Air Force jets swooped into Pakistani airspace and carried out devastating strikes on militant camps, killing roughly 300 fighters. If you were watching in Pakistan, you saw news of a cowardly incursion in which Indian warplanes dropped their payloads over uninhabited countryside and then scurried home, harming nothing save for an empty stretch of forest.
“The strike took place near the town of Balakot, just inside the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and not in the disputed Kashmir region,” my Washington Post colleagues reported. “Initial reports from local police officials and residents who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that a strike took place in a mountainous area a few miles outside town, but they said they saw no signs of mass casualties.”
Despite the dueling accounts, one thing was certain: For the first time in almost half a century, Indian aircraft ventured beyond the Line of Control separating the two countries to hit targets on Pakistani soil. The act marked a potentially grave escalation of tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors. In a statement, the Pakistani government said on Tuesday that it would “respond at the time and place of its choosing.”
By the evening, there were reports that mortar fire had been exchanged between Indian and Pakistani troops across the disputed boundary line in Kashmir. And on Wednesday, a fuller response came: Pakistan said it had shot down two Indian aircraft over its territory. Though initial accounts were conflicting, India confirmed that one of its planes was shot down by Pakistani planes and said a pilot is missing. The Pakistani military soon circulated video of a captured Indian pilot in their custody.
“Our action was only intended to convey that if you can come into our country, we can do the same,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, warning of the risks of further escalation. “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation?”
The impetus for the Indian airstrikes was a Feb. 14 terrorist attack that killed 40 members of India’s paramilitary police force in Kashmir. Jaish-e-Muhammad, an extremist militant group based in Pakistan, asserted responsibility for what was the deadliest single attack in the insurgency-ridden state in more than three decades. Though designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the group is allowed to operate within Pakistan’s borders and is believed to receive support from elements within Pakistan’s military establishment, which has long cultivated Islamist proxies to advance its interests in the region.
For India, which has weathered a succession of Pakistani-linked terrorist attacks on its soil, the attack in Kashmir seemed to cross a red line. And with national elections around the corner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sensed an opportunity to burnish his hawkish image and satisfy widespread demands for vengeance aired on social media and the country’s oft-overheated cable news channels. “Today, I sense a fervor in the crowd,” he told a rally on Tuesday afternoon. “The country is in safe hands.”
For a time, there was still hope that tensions would die down. Indian officials claimed their “preemptive” strike on the militants was a success, while Pakistani authorities insisted that no real damage was done. Ikram Sehgal, a defense analyst with ties to Pakistan’s military, told the New York Times that the Pakistani response would be “measured.” He stressed that the “only question is will India’s leadership be able to stomach it and whether we will go into a dangerous territory of further escalation.”
But it’s hard to see how India may back down now, especially as jingoism consumes popular opinion on both sides of the contested border. On Wednesday, Pakistani cable media indulged in a fit of triumphalism. “War songs were played, commentators praised the Pakistan military, and shouts of ‘God is greatest’ could be heard,” my colleagues reported. “Images of an Indian plane with burning debris were broadcast repeatedly.”
The Indian Air Force’s ability to venture deep into Pakistan was a symbolic blow to the Pakistani military, which exercises outsize influence over the country’s politics and commands significant support from the Pakistani public. The strike also laid down a new precedent: “This new template for Indian response is going to create a public clamor in India after every terror incident to punish Pakistan,” wrote Sushant Singh, deputy editor of the Indian Express. That clamor could be heard once more on Wednesday.
But as tensions rise, it’s Pakistan that is facing the most scrutiny. As the world woke up to news of an Indian transgression of Pakistani sovereignty, few governments rushed to Islamabad’s defense. Though preoccupied with President Trump’s summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, senior U.S. officials had already signaled their impatience with Pakistan. After the Feb. 14 attack, national security adviser John Bolton said he supported “India’s right to self-defense.” A statement from the European Union urged de-escalation but did not condemn India’s action. Even China, a supposedly firm ally of Pakistan, mustered only an appeal for “restraint.”
“This must greatly disappoint Pakistan because it would have expected its most trusted all-weather friend to make a straight condemnation of India,” wrote veteran Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta. “But it’s a new world with no patience for terror as an instrument of policy.”
“It is striking how few are willing to buy the Pakistani argument, condemn India, or take a ‘both sides’ approach anymore,” wrote Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution in an email to Today’s WorldView. She noted that the Pakistanis “might have expected that the ongoing Afghanistan peace talks would have limited U.S. criticism or resulted in U.S. calls for Indian restraint over the last week” – the kind of reactions that have occasionally come from Washington in the past during similar periods of tension. This time, though, “neither of those things happened,” Madan wrote.
Still, Madan said she was “skeptical” that the present state of play “will lead to fundamental change.” That requires a far deeper reckoning within Pakistan over the outlook of its military, a reckoning that would probably take place only if Islamabad is subject to a sustained international pressure campaign. Given Pakistan’s strategic importance to a host of major powers – from Washington to Riyadh to Beijing – true diplomatic isolation is not in the cards.
The attack in Kashmir was “clearly intended” to goad Modi into action with elections looming, wrote Christine Fair, an expert on South Asian geopolitics at Georgetown University. “Make no mistake: the interest of Pakistan’s deep state is best served by a Modi victory, which is now uncertain,” she added. The animosities of the moment may present a path to victory for Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, whose divisive politics, Fair argued, have “provided Pakistan’s various Islamist proxies with bountiful recruitment opportunities.”
Other experts suggested that India, too, needs to reexamine its own policies. Bloomberg View’s Nisid Hajari pointed to the Modi government’s “heavy-handed” response to growing unrest in Kashmir, where a generation of Muslim men have been brutalized by security forces. “Treating those Indian citizens – and anyone who speaks up for them – as national-security threats only increases the scope for Pakistan-based militants to meddle in the state,” Hajari wrote.