Amid Re-Election Campaign, Modi Takes the Fight to Pakistan

India’s apparently done tolerating terrorist havens across the Pakistani border—but the showdown risks a nuclear escalation.

Sarees bearing the image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a shop in Mumbai on Feb. 19. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
Sarees bearing the image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a shop in Mumbai on Feb. 19. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigns for another term in office, New Delhi escalated tensions with Islamabad to levels not seen since the 1971 showdown that killed 10,000 people in less than two weeks.

The Indian Air Force on Tuesday launched airstrikes inside Pakistan for the first time in nearly five  decades, targeting a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp inside Pakistani territory. Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing attack in India-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14 that killed more than 40 Indian security officers. Experts and Pakistani officials say the move was designed in part to shore up political support just weeks ahead of Indian general elections in April.

Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that the crisis offers Modi an opportunity to show strength on the world stage.

“With general elections just weeks away, the conflict gives Modi and the [Bharatiya Janata Party] a clear advantage,” said Vaishnav. “Modi’s calling card is projecting strength, decisive leadership, and nationalism. This crisis allows him to tap into all three.”

The Indian government “is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism,” said Shri Vijay Gokhale, India’s Foreign Secretary, in a statement.

Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Asad Majeed Khan, meanwhile, told a group of reporters Feb. 27 in Washington that Modi’s government is “using this incident to draw political mileage at home.”

“It’s a very serious situation, and any further escalation can be dangerous,” he added.

Khan urged the United States to play a greater role in de-escalating the crisis.

“We would certainly like to have more, and would certainly like to see more active involvement of the United States,” he told reporters. “There is perhaps no other country better placed than the United States to be able to play some role,” he added, and also called on the international community to help address the tensions.

The strike highlights a drastic shift in New Delhi’s stance toward Islamabad’s continued harboring of terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, said Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“India has been a perpetual prisoner of its own self-restraint, so the fact that is has now changed the playbook is the story,” Tellis said. “I think Indians are now simply tired of being the punching bag for Pakistani terrorism.”

New Delhi has been dealing with Pakistan-based terrorist groups attacking targets both in India-held Kashmir or India itself since at least the 1990s. Modi’s government came into power in 2014 promising “a much more muscular response,” Tellis said.

Now, it seems, the Indian government is making good on that promise. The backdrop of heated elections, where the government is being forced to answer tough questions about its policy toward Pakistan, made a robust response to the Jaish-e-Mohammed attack “absolutely inevitable,” Tellis said.

“What they decided to do was send a signal that conspicuous attacks … would not go unanswered [and that] Pakistani territory would not remain immune from Indian retaliation,” he noted.

The airstrikes, according to Pakistani officials, did little damage and caused no casualties. India said it killed hundreds of suspected terrorists. But it seems to have satisfied the Indian people. “The press in India seems extremely jubilant that India undertook the attack at all,” Tellis said.

India’s attack was relatively restrained, striking militant targets in a remote area, rather than civilians or Pakistani authorities. Gokhale said in a statement that the strike was “preemptive,” and that the selection of the target was driven by “our desire to avoid civilian casualties.” 

“While India blames Pakistan for providing cover for jihadi groups, it went to great lengths to demonstrate that its response was aimed at JeM targets that were not official Pakistani government military or civilian positions,” Vaishnav said, referring to Jaish-e-Mohammed. “There’s a careful balancing act here.”

Still, the conflict has escalated, with both sides trading artillery fire along the so-called Line of Control, the de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Jammu and Kashmir. A second wave of Indian planes entered Pakistani airspace on Wednesday, and Pakistan shot down two jets, according to Pakistan’s military. One aircraft landed on India’s side of Kashmir, while the second went down in Pakistani territory, and the pilot was captured, Khan confirmed.

The Pakistani ambassador insisted the Indian pilot is “being treated very nicely” after authorities gained custody. (Videos circulated on the internet purportedly showed the the Indian pilot being pulled from the wreckage of his plane and beaten by a crowd; a later video showed him drinking tea and saying he was being treated fairly by his Pakistani captors.)

In a surprise move on Thursday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan announced that his country would release the captured pilot as a way to de-escalate tensions.

Even so, experts worry that the conflict between two nuclear-armed powers risks stumbling into a full-blown crisis.

“My biggest worry is not a command order from either side’s leadership to escalate the conflict, but a miscalculation or miscue down the respective chains of command,” said James Schwemlein, a former U.S. diplomat who worked in the region. “These two massive, nuclear-armed military forces are operating in very close proximity, and anytime tensions are high the risk of a disastrous miscalculation grows.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, currently in Vietnam with President Donald Trump for North Korean nuclear talks, said in a statement on Tuesday he spoke to both his Indian and Pakistani counterparts and urged both sides to “prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity.” He also called on Pakistan to take “meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil.”

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also spoke to his Pakistani counterpart, Pakistani Chief of Defense Zubair Mahmood Hayat, on Tuesday.

A Pentagon spokesperson said acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has been in contact with top American national security officials about India-Pakistan tensions. His focus “is on de-escalating tensions and urging both of the nations to avoid further military action.”

But the Pentagon declined to say if Shanahan has communicated directly with his Indian or Pakistani counterparts. That would be a departure from the tenure of former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who was often on the phone with counterparts from both countries, noted Alyssa Ayres, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. diplomat.

Some experts and former officials worry the Trump administration is stretched too thin or simply doesn’t have any interest in dispatching senior officials to play a more active mediating role. There is still no U.S. ambassador at the United Nations (though Trump has nominated one), no U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, and no U.S. diplomat to oversee South and Central Asian affairs—all are filled by acting envoys.

“When you don’t have all your players on the team in the field, you’re at a disadvantage,” Ayres said.

The lack of U.S. leadership to help defuse the crisis makes some experts pine for the George W. Bush administration’s hands-on response to a similar India-Pakistan showdown in 2002, which was resolved peacefully.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Schwemlein, the former diplomat. “We are in a position where no power appears right now in a position to step up to serve that intermediary role to negotiate a face-saving solution.”

Update, Feb. 27, 2019: This story has been updated to clarify Milan Vaishnav’s comments, as well as to include a statement by India’s foreign secretary.

Update, Feb. 28, 2019: This story has been updated with news that Pakistan is planning to release the captured Indian pilot. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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