Hailed by India as a successful demonstration of Indian resolve, India’s “non-military pre-emptive strike” against the Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot is not without its associated risks. With events rapidly unfolding, the fog of war makes it unclear what precise response Pakistan has taken. In the absence of clear information, the choice presented to Prime Minister Khan is difficult — to back down and risk appearing weak in the eyes of the Pakistani military and India, or retaliate using conventional force. If Prime Minister Khan chooses the latter in order to re-establish Pakistan’s sense of deterrence, he risks creating an escalation pathway with India that neither nations can confidently control. But if he chooses the former and engages with the the global leadership community, Pakistan will score some valuable points in exhibiting restraint. This would demonstrate responsible behaviour, it will also signal a willingness on Pakistan’s part to manage risk effectively and without hasty resort to conventional reprisal. This option represents the best course of action for Pakistan as it is one of many things that Pakistan can do to restore its tarnished image and regain a strong diplomatic foothold.
Should Prime Minister Khan favour the military route, then his options remain limited — assuming he is looking for a measured ‘like-for-like’ response, this will be very difficult to achieve because India has exercised strategic consideration and careful planning in targeting an alleged JeM training camp. This is to say, in deploying Israeli laser guided ‘Spice Smart’ bombs, India crossed the Line of Control and claims to have targeted a specific non-state actor. Given that Pakistani forces and civilians emerged unscathed, Prime Minister Khan will find it difficult to justify retaliating against Indian forces.
In the immediate aftermath of their strikes, Indian policy officials were quick to coordinate their response and label the mission a “non-military pre-emptive strike.” This implies two things. First, that India does not construe the incursion as an attack on the state of Pakistan. And second, that India was expecting the JeM to perpetrate a second attack against India, which would also suggest that India believes Pakistan to be complicit in not attempting to thwart it.
One of the biggest problems that Prime Minister Khan has had to grapple with is accusations that Pakistan has maintained a “direct hand” in suboptimal warfare against India. Despite a recent offer Khan made to discuss this issue with India, Prime Minister Modi also appears reluctant to engage with Pakistan at a meaningful level. Commentators have suggested that any communication would cut across Modi’s desire to appear tough on Pakistan ahead of India’s elections. The lack of communication between the two embittered rivals fuels mistrust and is symptomatic of deteriorating security concerns.
Whilst this was no doubt a risky operation for India, the air force appears to have carried out the strike with a precision that hints at a deeper Indian objective to bolster its conventional forces’ deterrent effect. It is often held in India that Pakistan’s asymmetric nuclear escalation posture has deterred India’s conventional military power and emboldened some within Pakistan to aggressively “bleed India with a thousand cuts” with little fear of significant retaliation. The Balakot air strikes turns this assumption on its head by demonstrating resolve and willingness to pursue bold adventurism using hard assets to combat ‘sub-conventional’ terrorist warfare. In crossing the Line of Control using Mirage jets, India now appears ready to take the fight into Pakistan’s territory. It was this that meant Pakistan, for its credibility, was under equal pressure to respond militarily to re-establish its own deterrence.
This shift in India’s strategy is inherently destabilising to the region because true Pakistani ‘red lines’ are difficult to identify. Whilst on this occasion India’s incursion into Pakistani territory was brief and shallow, a future incursion might be identified by Pakistan’s early warning capabilities and misinterpreted by decision-makers as a more significant direct attack on Pakistan’s sovereign territory. On the 27th Pakistan claimed to have shot down Indian fighter jets from within its own territory. Although vehemently denied by India, claiming all “pilots are accounted for,” if true this escalatory step does very little to alleviate growing concerns that South Asia is a nuclear flashpoint.
Pakistan’s inability to match India’s conventional superiority leads to a belief that Pakistan has a low nuclear threshold, and that this is the raison d’être for Pakistan’s capability to rapidly deploy short range tactical nuclear weapons. Thus, any conventional military action that threatens Pakistan’s territorial integrity is highly destabilising because Pakistan has few conventional options for a credible flexible response short of nuclear use. This is to say, in deciding to use nuclear weapons, Pakistan has set a very low bar.
Clear and precise signaling between India and Pakistan is of critical importance because the two rivals will be searching for room to de-escalate. At the public level, however, Prime Minister Khan appears reluctant to back down and has convened for the 27th a special meeting of the National Command Authority — the body that oversees Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Whilst it is highly unlikely that nuclear use is being considered, it does raise concerns that Pakistan is signaling an intention to pursue escalatory steps.