India Pakistan Standoff: Assessment & Forecast
The airstrikes targeting the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a Pakistan backed militant group, preceded the suicide Vehicle borne IED (SVBIED) attack targeting a CRPF convoy on February 14. The attack was immediately claimed by the militant group. Around 44 security personnel were reportedly killed in the attack. It also happens to be a notable incident not only for the high casualties sustained in a single attack but also because of the modus operandi (an SVBIED attack), which remains highly uncommon for this region.
Owing to the public fervor and a demand for retaliation, the Indian Air Force (IAF) reportedly launched precision strikes targeting an alleged training base belonging to the JeM in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s Balakot region in north- central Pakistan. The casualties inflicted as a result of these strikes vary. However, the Indian government justified the strikes as based on ‘credible intelligence’ hinting towards the facility being used for launching additional strikes inside Indian territory in the near future. The Pakistani establishment perceived it as a violation of its sovereignty. This was followed by a limited ingress into Indian airspace by the Pakistani Air Force in Kashmir’s Nowshera sector in India ultimately leading to shooting down of an Indian and a Pakistani aircraft over Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).
The Pakistani authorities also announced arrest of the downed pilot who was later scheduled to be released on March 1 as a gesture of goodwill. The incident briefly raised the tensions resulting in complete closure of the Pakistani airspace which was partially opened along specific routes on March 1. The Indian airspace north of Delhi, including Amritsar, Pathankot, Srinagar, Jammu, Shimla, Dharamshala, Kullu and Leh - were shut briefly on February 27. Operations later resumed in all the aforementioned airports.
In the meanwhile, major disruptions were recorded across international air traffic operating in and over this region resulting in airlines like Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, Air Canada, Qatar Airways suspending or rerouting their carriers scheduled to fly over the ‘affected’ region’.
While air travel across Pakistan was greatly hampered between early afternoon hours of February 27 to afternoon hours of March 1, absence of hostilities has enabled partial opening of certain critical sections of the Pakistani airspace, albeit with restrictions as on March 1. This Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) by the Pakistani Civil Aviation Authority has been announced to be in effect until March 4.
The disruptions to air travel in India remained stipulated only to certain parts of northern India with the Indian civil aviation authority announcing Business as Usual (BAU) status after a brief closure on February 27.
While heightened security measures remained prominent across major Indian cities as well as along the border areas and across the state of Jammu and Kashmir, including visible military deployments and intensified security checks in case of the latter, no major disruptions to traffic were recorded in the region.
Finally, with the exception of Malaysia and Singapore, there were no major changes in the travel advisories typically issued by US, UK, Australia, France and Canada to its entities operating or traveling in India and Pakistan. Overall the travel advisories were stipulated to avoiding non-essential travel to the state of Jammu and Kashmir which remains the flash-point of the brief skirmish over the preceding days.
While the heightened security measures continues to be recorded over the contentious state of Jammu and Kashmir, the scheduled release of the captured Indian pilot by Pakistan on March 1 coupled with limited opening of the Pakistani airspace indicates the likelihood of normalization of the previously imposed travel restrictions in the region. The official border transit route along the Wagah-Attari border in Punjab province also remains open for transit, albeit with stringent checks on either sides. That being said, the rail service between the two countries- Samjhauta express, continues to remain suspended at the time of writing.
The airstrikes by India targeting the JeM facility is likely to work significantly in favor of the PM Narendra Modi led government which is heading to elections in April this year. Lack of precedence of such incidents in recent decades and conformity of the action to the popular demands of the electorate to ‘act tough’ on Pakistan for its alleged support to terrorist groups like JeM also is likely to sway voters in favor of the current BJP government. Additionally, the ability to secure the immediate release of the downed Indian pilot coupled with the announced support by US, UK and France in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) demanding sanctions on JeM and its chief Maulana Masood Azhar also remains likely to be perceived as a diplomatic ‘victory’ for the BJP government.
That being said, the retaliatory strikes aimed at signaling the capabilities of the Pakistani security personnel; and the subsequent downing and arrest of the Indian pilot provided a notable political victory for the Pakistani government led by PM Imran Khan. The continued media releases indicating 'chivalrous' treatment of the captured Indian pilot by Pakistani security personnel not only serves as a major media propaganda for the latter but the slated release of the pilot as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ is expected to accelerate the de-escalation process. While the slated release was contested by certain political party members like Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, chief of the Awami Muslim League, it remains likely that such opposition is unlikely to have any major political reprisals at least in the short run on the political front for the Imran Khan government. Overall the politico-diplomatic-military maneuvering served as a face saver and political win-win for both the governments.
The de-escalation measures remains likely to continue over the coming days. Moreover, the dossier submitted by India to Pakistan detailing the role of JeM in the Pulwama attack is expected to have negligible impact. Parallely, the alleged use of F 16 fighters (as opposed to the JF 17 as claimed by the Pakistani authorities), if proved, will be a blatant violation of the end user agreement signed with the US, which had handed over these potent platforms to Islamabad for its extensive counter-militancy operations. New Delhi thus remains likely to work towards gathering evidence towards this end user violation by Pakistan with the aim of further pressurizing the Pakistani government. The likelihood of any significant impact of the same however remains limited at the time of writing.
In the immediate aftermath of the Indian airstrikes in Balakot, skirmishes including cross-border artillery strikes though continued to be recorded during the overnight hours of February 26-27, these remained localized. The ensuing standoff of February 27 resulting in shooting down of an aircraft on either side led to resumption of these cross-border exchanges.
While there has been a notable surge in overall militant attacks and cross-border ceasefire violations in Kashmir, the Indian response indicates towards an established phased escalation mechanism as well as a ‘threshold’ which determines the type of response. This view is further bolstered by the fact that not all the militant attacks following the ‘surgical strikes’ resulted in a cross-border attack by the Indian side and this response remains contingent upon a host of factors including - severity of attack, the number of casualties sustained, the political impact, the potential to influence the tactical and or strategic operational status quo etc.
With both the governments seeking to exercise restraint, a major high casualty attack like the one recorded in Pulwama though remains unlikely over the coming weeks, however, localised attacks in the militancy affected regions of the state remains likely to continue. In terms of the Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities in India, there remains no major change in the threat levels and the security preparedness continues to remain elevated in the lead-up to the general elections. Notwithstanding, the possibility of the militant attack in central locales though remains relatively less likely, but cannot be completely ruled out.
Localised instances of attacks targeting Kashmiri locals across other parts of India in the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama attack were recorded. The attacks were recorded in Bhopal, Ambala, Roorkee, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Dehradun. Some of these attacks were carried out by the right-wing vigilante groups like Bajrang Dal for allegedly voicing support for the Pulwama attacker, who also happened to be a Kashmiri local. While most of these attacks remained localised, no major cases were recorded since February 26 as the public sentiments acquired an “anti-Pakistan” as opposed to an “anti- Kashmiri” stance.
In an instance involving a major attack on the security personnel by a Kashmiri local, likelihood of such instances reemerging, especially by the politically motivated right wing vigilante groups like the Bajrang Dal remains highly likely.
The temporary closures of the Pakistani airspace (which continues to remain partially operational) has not only hampered flights coming into the country but also those coming into India via the northern route. This in turn will have additional financial implications for not only the businesses operating in Pakistan but also India, albeit to a limited degree in case of the latter. Given the aforementioned immediate economic implications coupled with calls for restraint by the international community as well as higher echelons in both India and Pakistan, a de-escalation mechanism remains to hold ground.
With this in mind, restrictions imposed on Pakistan, including the withdrawal of the ‘Most Favored Nation’ status by India which was primarily aimed at boosting bilateral trade remains likely to continue over the coming months thus impacting businesses which were contingent upon this mechanism.
Moreover, while heightened security measures that were imposed in the preceding days though did not directly hamper business continuity per se in India, this impact remains likely to be further diluted in the event of the successful implementation of the de-escalation measures between the two countries. This, however remains likely to be contingent upon the assumption that the existing status-quo, devoid of hostilities continues to persist.