Briefing: India-Pakistan Conflict – An Inflection Point?

The crisis which unfolded between India and Pakistan in Kashmir at the end of last month captured the top of global news headlines, pushing aside the failed US-North Korean nuclear summit, the unfolding crisis in Venezuela and the never-ending Brexit. India and Pakistan carried out air raids inside each other's countries for the first time since the 1971 war and raised fears of a major military escalation between the two nuclear-armed nations. New Delhi and Islamabad also engaged in a battle of conflicting military claims, obscuring many of the facts around what actually happened for the domestic and global public. What is known is that the conflict was triggered by a terrorist attack on Indian paramilitary forces in Kashmir which killed 40 soldiers on February 14th. Jaish-e-Mohammed (“JeM”), an Islamist group which operates out of Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack. This attack triggered a vigorous response by India, which launched an airstrike into Pakistan, allegedly on a large JeM terrorist training camp. While the narrative around events begins to diverge here, it appears that the Pakistani air force retaliated by sending aircraft of its own against targets across the Line of Control with the aim of targeting military installations, with the resulting engagement leading to the shooting down of one Pakistani and at least one Indian jet over Pakistani airspace, taking the pilot prisoner.

While the return of the captured pilot by the Pakistani government appears to have de-escalated the situation for the time being, the military forces of both countries remain on high alert and are still exchanging intermittent conventional arms fire across the Line of Control. Tensions between the two countries, which have clashed over Kashmir and other matters too for over 70 years (see inset) appeared to be at their highest point since the 1999 Kargil War, a conflict which left thousands dead, and hardliners in both countries continue to call for further escalation.This current conflict sits Pakistani occupation of territories across the line of control within a larger context of course, of Indian and Pakistani historical rivalry and wars, overlapping territorial claims (also with China), India’s changing relationships with the Muslim world and the Middle East in particular, Pakistan’s relationship with Islamist terrorism, the withdrawal of US interests in the broader region being potentially replaced by China and more broadly India’s longer term rise to global superpower status. This crisis has shed some light on the importance of these issues and early signs indicate a potentially fundamental shift in the status quo, which would not have come to light without the current crisis. This Month’s Sign of the Times lays out the pieces of the puzzle of the ongoing conflict, its context, its geopolitical relevance and its potential implications for the two countries, the region and the world, as well as the opportunity the crisis provides for both parties to reset their relationship to resolve their differences going forward. Given the plethora of good analysis of the situation, the Sign will draw on some of these to provide a briefing rather than create a wholly new piece on the issue.

The Pieces of the Puzzle

Piece One: India and Pakistan’s Challenging Relationship: Terrorism and The Kashmir Question

This new crisis—and the terrorist attack that provoked it—should come as no surprise. There is a long history of Pakistan fomenting insurgency in Kashmir, through militant proxies, as part of its long-standing goal of wresting the region away from India, and a strong belief in India and elsewhere that Pakistan is unwilling to change its methods (Pakistan Will Not Change ).

India, including the Modi government, has not helped the situation by embracing a Kashmir policy that promises development in the region but for whatever their reasons might be, ends up focusing predominantly on exerting tight control, thereby alienating Kashmir’s Muslims and making them more susceptible to subversion by militants. (We Should Have Seen This India-Pakistan Crisis Coming ).

However, the US experience in Pakistan before and after the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALs on Pakistani soil and the fact that bin Laden had been living next to a military encampment led to a more explicit and vocal condemnation of Pakistan’s provision of safe haven to terrorist groups. It also placed international focus on Pakistan. The US reported in its assessment of global threats the role of Pakistan in terrorism and the potential for any incident in the lead up to Indian elections as a dangerous flashpoint (Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community 2019 ).


Piece Two: The Players and the Complexity of Uneven Power and Divergent Objectives

International Players – A Potential Theatre of World Conflict. Pakistan has long defined its role in the world based on its strategic geographic position next to India and China (The Strategic Chain: Linking Pakistan, India, China and the United States ). America also saw value in this position and during the Cold War, as Russia courted India, Pakistan was a beneficiary of US attention, including weapons. Therefore, the immediate protagonists of any conflict between India and Pakistan, continue to be China, the US and Russia (The Emerging China, Pakistan, and Russia Strategic Triangle: India’s New Gordian Knot ).

National Players – A Potential Conflict of Interests. An additional complication for the two leaders of the countries is that one is the leader of a democracy, India, whose hierarchy is pretty much the same as other democracies across the world. While the other, Pakistan has a hybrid political system, with both civilian democratic and military-intelligence authoritarian leadership (Military Governments, the ISI and Political Hybridity in Contemporary Pakistan ). In India, no matter how strong a personality the defense minister or the national security advisor might be (and the current officeholder, Ajit Doval, is recognised as a force to be reckoned with both in India and the international community), the prime minister is the decision maker. In Pakistan, the ISI and the military are the arbiter of all key decisions concerning military, security (both internal and external) and defense. This relegates the prime minister to the status of interior minister concerned with home affairs, the economy and domestic and international public communications and relations. This opens up scope for a conflict of objectives and interests between popular will in the hands of an elected official and a continuity of power politics in the hands of the military and intelligence agencies, the latter being the primary managing agent of any terrorist forces. (The Challenge of Civilian Control Over Intelligence Agencies in Pakistan ).

In any engagement, PM Modi knew he was playing against the power behind PM Khan, who could eloquently state a position but could not decide on how to play the game at hand, and therefore was minded to ignore Khan’s position when it suited him.


Piece Three: The Complex Escalation/De-escalation Considerations Underlying the Current Conflict

India’s response to the Pulwama terrorist attack, Pakistan’s response to the air strike on the JeM training camp, and India’s response to Pakistan’s own air strike and the subsequent capture of its downed pilot were all subject to complex escalation/de-escalation drivers. For India, the crisis unfolded in the run-up to the national election, allowing Indian Prime Minister Modi to project strength, decisive leadership, and play to the national popular patriotic sentiment (Battling for Re-election, Modi Takes the Fight to Pakistan ).

Fundamental to any conflict between India and Pakistan is both countries’ status as a nuclear power, with both countries holding in excess of 100 nuclear warheads underwriting deterrence strategies based on mutually assured destruction. Nuclear deterrence has traditionally provided a strong incentive for the de-escalation of issues and the careful management of the bilateral relationship. However, throughout the crisis both countries faced domestic pressures, political and security related, that made backing down in the face of hardliners demanding tougher action. This raised the stakes and seemed to place both leaders onto a higher risk path (The India-Pakistan Crisis ).

Popular opinion in both countries whipped up into a frenzy quickly, and social media in particular created the now familiar dangerous echo chamber of commentators on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp leveraging emotions and distorting facts to shape popular opinion (India-Pakistan Crisis Social Media ).

Traditional media in both countries unsurprisingly was also calling for escalation, each pointing the finger at the other country as an ultimate aggressor launching attacks, with Pakistani news highlighting India’s shelling across the Line of Control (LOC Attacks, and The Human Cost of Indian Shelling Across the LoC ), and India pointing to what it saw as serial Pakistan-orchestrated terrorist attacks on its homeland (We must keep the pressure up on Pakistan ). As a result of all these pressures, both sides effectively escalated to the point where they tested each other’s nuclear red lines. And while the repatriation of the Indian pilot provided a welcome opening for de-escalation for both parties, it is conceivable that had the pilot’s plane never been shot down both would have tested the red lines further (e.g. by repositioning their fleets or massing troops on the border) in a dangerous display of nuclear brinkmanship.

However, even in the absence of nuclear risk, neither country could afford risking further escalation: while Pakistan would have been sure to lose in the long-run in a ground war (which would risk escalating beyond that), a drawn-out conflict would have made India, a country many orders of magnitude more powerful than Pakistan, look weak (Indian Response a Dilemma for Modi ). Accordingly, both leaders continuously signaled their good faith efforts to de-escalate throughout the crisis (New Delhi and Islamabad Don’t Want Fire and Fury ).


Piece Four: A Shift in International Responses to the Crisis, Alignment Behind India

International voices were quick in their response to each of the major events of the crisis – and these voices came down on India’s side. Also, interestingly, the international community did not relativise events, e.g. by conflating Pakistan’s support of terrorism with Indian support of Balochi seperatists in Pakistan (India Plays the Balochistan Card with China ), and so did not imply that both countries were equally culpable and equally responsible for the crisis. While all countries called on India and Pakistan equally to exercise restraint in the conflict, there was an explicit condemnation of Pakistan for not doing enough to combat terrorism and many voices went further by explicitly recognising India’s right to self-defense against terrorism (see government statements from France, Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo). China, in particular, made a strong statement which came as close as has ever been heard on the subject, which seemed pointed to check Pakistan and signal its stand to the world, issuing a joint communique with Russia and India that “those committing, orchestrating, inciting or supporting terrorist acts must be brought to justice” and that “terrorist groups cannot be supported and used in political and geopolitical goals.”

The circumstances surrounding the meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Countries, which coincided with the crisis, were also highly significant, given certain members states’ (such as Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s) ability to exert influence on Pakistan. The organisation had invited India’s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, to attend the conference. Pakistan’s appeal to cancel the invitation to India (which is not a member) was rejected, and Pakistan’s foreign minister withdrew from the meeting as a result, leaving the stage to Swaraj, where she was treated with respect and offered a platform. (Irked By Special Honour for Sushma Swaraj, Pakistan Won’t Attend OIC Meeting ). The OIC did subsequently issue a critical release regarding India’s actions in Kashmir.


Piece Five: De-escalation and a Vacuum Among Self-Congratulation

Without US and Chinese support and facing an aggressive India, Pakistan seemed to quickly assess that it held fewer cards than its opponent and stood to gain little - and most likely lose everything - from continued brinksmanship (Pakistan Blinked – and Stood-down ). The return of the downed Indian pilot provided a face-saving way for both leaders to de-escalate while continuing to play tough to their respective audiences. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan walks a fine line balancing military, Islamist, tribal and local political interests, even in the absence of an external crisis, with any decision likely to go against one or more of these groups. In India, Pakistan’s peace offering was nevertheless derided as a hollow gesture (Doctored Video of Abhinandan Exposes Pakistan's 'Peace Gesture' ).

Unsurprisingly, both leaders have sought to cast themselves as the winners of the stand-off, Imran Khan positioning himself as a peacemaker who can overrule the country’s military and Narendra Modi burnishing his patriotic hardman credentials (Modi and Imran bask after 'good' Kashmir crisis. ).

Stepping back, however, it is unclear that Pakistan has a clear path ahead for its modus operandi. India feels its position is vindicated. This might be precipitous given the dust had not settled on the conflict.


Piece Six: This Crisis Begins to Reveal Role of Nuclear Weapons in a Future War

The crisis revealed important issues regarding nuclear security. Both countries have traditionally followed nuclear game theory in the form of possessing credible deterrence to threats by the other party (Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons and the Indian Nuclear Doctrine ).

By successfully conducting airstrikes against Pakistan’s territory without eliciting a nuclear response, India has called the initial bluff on Pakistan’s doctrine (Nuclear Emulation: Pakistan’s Nuclear Trajectory ), which does not exclude ‘first-use’ of nuclear weapons as a tactical weapon (Pakistan’s Nasr Missile: ‘Cold Water’ Over India’s ‘Cold Start’ ), opening the door to a reassessment of the usefulness of nuclear deterrence and the use of conventional arms in the region.


Piece Seven: Long-term Solution Requires Resolving Both Pakistan’s Role and Territorial Disputes, and Seems Unlikely

There are three key elements to a long-term solution. The first is the role of Pakistan in the region and the world and this goes to the core of whether it can move beyond its position as an intermediary between great and rising powers, its modus operandi aside (What will Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Look Like Under Imran Khan )? The second is Kashmir (Why India and Pakistan Are Fighting Over Kashmir Again ). And the third is Balochistan, in Pakistan (India and Pakistan’s Balochistan Problems ).

Avoiding such a high-risk exchange in the future will require addressing the root causes of India-Pakistan’s conflict, which will need to consider the role of terrorism but ultimately extend to the Kashmir question itself. The latter will certainly not be solved before the former is, and the former will require a concentrated effort by the international community (India and Pakistan at the Brink ). The degree of difficulty suggests that both countries may need to prepare themselves for a perpetual conflict, interspersed with the occasional battle and maybe a conventional war, and the risk of a fatal nuclear exchange. The alternative of a negotiated peace with clear lines (not excluding intermittent violence), would require both countries to agree a truce, for example ‘trading’ Balochistan for Kashmir, trade and investment for terrorism and dialogue for invective.

In the blast of political statements, news reports, social media and popular sentiment that accompanied the drama of the last two weeks, risks were exacerbated by a number of key, very human factors, namely false equivalency, emotions and patriotism (rather than analysis), echo chambers of fake news from social media and the resulting miscalculation of the right course of action driven by the previous three factors. While a vulgar and irrational jingoism seemed to be the province of the right, false (moral) equivalency in particular, was a particularly potent weakness of the left. This led good people to equate the actions and objectives of both actors and thereby to advocate the weakening of their nation’s defense. For example, the argument goes, since both India and Pakistan interfere with each other’s countries, they are in some sense the same and their objectives equally valid. This misses the point that one is widely credited with prosecuting its political aims through the use or support of terrorist groups targeting civilians, like the Mumbai massacres of 26/11 in 2008, and the other does not. While both also have intelligence agencies that conduct operations that may be abhorrent albeit (within the widely accepted remits of such agencies worldwide), they are not the same particularly since one is accountable to its democracy and its institutions and the other is not.


Shifting Power Dynamics Indicate Potential Reset in the India-Pakistan Equation

At one level, this conflict, like many between India and Pakistan, may be seen as a high-stakes tit-for-tat. On the other hand, there are several firsts in this last crisis that point to the possibility of a different equation emerging between India, Pakistan and the three major world powers with stakes in the outcome, China, Russia and the US.

Whether a point has been irreversibly passed for a meaningful change to the status quo remains tentative in nature, particularly given that, while de-escalation is in process, the current conflict is not yet over and event risks that could trigger re-escalation still persist. In terms of key points to note, the following may be the strategic take-aways:

  • India has laid the ground for a new modus operandi in dealing with Pakistan. India has proven willing and capable of retaliating against terrorist attacks that it believes originate in Pakistan, and Pakistan has proven that it will respond to any retaliation with conventional rather than nuclear means (Pulwama Attack: Pakistan Has Miscalculated India’s Resolve Yet Again ) And while one instance of retaliation, subsequent skirmishes and a prisoner exchange are insufficient to establish new rules of engagement between the countries, it can provide a template that will guide the actions and expectations of the parties in the next crisis (Revenge is for Morons. Can Modi Switch to Deterrence, Less Sexy But Way More Diabolical ).
  • This new modus operandi might actually increase the likelihood of armed conflict between the two countries. With neither country having explicitly threatened falling back on their nuclear arsenals during the past crisis (despite Pakistan having battlefield tactical nuclear arms and a declared intention to use them), the door has been opened to the possibility of a conventional war that does not trigger a nuclear response, making such a war much more likely (Be Prepared for Limited War Between India and Pakistan ). With nuclear deterrence gone, the rationale for limited but bloody ground war becomes stronger, particularly for India, which has five times the military budget, nearly four times the soldiers and twice as many aircraft as Pakistan (India vs. Pakistan: Who Wins in a War ). The crisis will also likely lead to a re-examination and reform of conventional capabilities on both sides as the air engagements have highlighted severe weaknesses: India allowed a large force of attackers into its airspace and found itself outgunned, while Pakistan had one of its modern jets shot down by a 50-year old Indian fighter plane. These challenges aside, India has repeatedly demonstrated that it can win conventional armed conflicts against its opponent, albeit at potentially high costs.
  • Pakistan’s continued hosting, sponsoring or enabling cross-border terrorism is rapidly becoming unsustainable for the country. The US late last year cut aid and arms exports to Pakistan over its continued lack of action against terrorist groups within its borders, leading the country to become even closer to China, its strongest ally (The China-Pakistan Axis ). However, China too has sent a warning shot across Pakistan’s bow, publicly reminding its ally that the time has come for it to put an end to its support of terrorist organisations for political goals. With international voices, even in the Muslim world, overwhelmingly condemning Pakistan’s terror links and either supporting, ignoring or equivocating India’s military response, the tramlines of international opinions have clearly been laid out. Without international cover, Pakistan may well be forced to quickly rethink its ‘strategy’ regarding the use of terrorism.
  • Pakistan’s role in the world is diminished in the current guise. Pakistan has historically been important because it was needed: an ally for US action in Afghanistan, the “enemy of its enemy”, as the saying goes, and more recently as a node on the One Belt One Road (OBOR) providing China with access to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. Pakistan has played its role as a keystone well, punching above it weight internationally as its ability to secure and hold on to nuclear weapons demonstrates (The Nuclear Game Theory of the India-Pakistan Crisis ), using, some would say abusing, its position vis-a-vis its neighbours. As the West withdraws from Afghanistan, Pakistan becomes less relevant to the US, whose influence in Pakistan is already waning (How the India-Pakistan Conflict Leaves Great Powers Powerless ). As the OBOR grows further and further afield, whether by way of maritime initiatives or overland across central Asia, Pakistan’s relevance for the strategy declines. And as India rises further and further to superpower status in its own right, its relationship with China will become increasingly bilateral, diminishing (if not eliminating) China’s need for a Pakistani counterweight (China, India, Pakistan and a stable regional order ). While Pakistan, with its 200m people and nuclear capabilities, is clearly a potentially important country in its own right in the future it will likely need to work harder for the support and friendship of superpowers it has long taken for granted. In addition, at some point, the Arab Spring will come to Pakistan and its people will demand opportunity and development.
  • India’s role in the world is expanding and with it its soft power.The public perception of India is also changing as the country seeks to redefine its role in the world. Since taking office, Mr. Modi has embarked on a foreign policy push combining an active wooing of partners abroad with the willingness to take on bigger and more visible roles in the region and the world, ranging from regional development (India’s Answer to the Belt and Road: A Road Map for South Asia ), to maritime security (The Quad and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific ). As a result of this broader engagement, along with growing trading and investment links, India is expanding its global soft power, an area where the country has always had significant potential but has failed to have a significant impact (India’s Rising Soft Power and The World’s Largest Democracy ). The strong support given to India by the international community, particularly by countries with which it has been actively strengthening ties such as Australia and Saudi Arabia, are evidence that this situation is now changing. More importantly, India’s rise now seems set to grow due to fundamental drivers beyond just government policy with its GDP having taken over 50 years to reach US$1 trillion, seven years to reach US$2 trillion, five years to reach US$3 trillion and set to add another trillion over two to three years going forward.


Conclusion: Preliminary Indicators of the Direction of Travel

The fate of both countries may well be perpetual conflict. However, from the death of 40 Indian soldiers the seeds of a solution may well be emerging. Several pieces of the puzzle seem to have fallen into place in this crisis, namely:

  • Event risk and unexpected consequences play important roles in such high sensitivity risk zones; not only is the current conflict not over and still holds out the possibility of escalation, the conflict has also boosted PM Modi’s position at home in the lead up to a major election
  • A new modus operandi is developing between the two, India will retaliate for terrorist attacks that it believes originate in Pakistan and has demonstrated it is effective in doing so (notwithstanding the occasional loss of fighter aircraft, something that the other side faced as well)
  • International diplomacy tramlines are beginning to become clear and the US, China, Russia, the UN, a host of democracies and Middle East nations are willing to fall behind India as a rising power and, in particular if the issue is terrorism
  • The role of nations in hosting, sponsoring or enabling cross-border terrorism is a global issue and a far bigger issue than Pakistan had expected. Rejected on this front by the US, and its ally, China, laying out its perspective on the matter so clearly provides the impetus for a rethink on whether terrorism is as an effective tool of policy
  • India’s ‘pre-emptive’ strikes, counter-terrorism and intelligence activities (even if they stray into fomenting unrest, short of major loss of civilian life) on foreign soil are unlikely to be condemned given the large number of precedents for these types of interventions by other countries (US, Israel, NATO)
  • Pakistan’s longstanding definition of itself - as an important ally holding a geographic strategic position between India and China – is in question, and even if that definition is not defunct, it is clear that its position is declining in importance and this has the potential to force a rethink of its role at home
  • The rules of engagement, and particularly regarding de-escalation, have not yet been established; the current mode established during this crisis can be seen as a one-off that needs a formal codification
  • Limited, but bloody, ground war is possible in the future, which India has demonstrated it can win
  • A nuclear exchange is also possible, if under exceptional circumstances, and given the increasing international linkages of both countries the world would need to be prepared for a conflict with global dimensions, where an initial exchange of Pakistan and India draws in China, Russia and eventually the US

Given the above, a reset of the relationship between the two countries appears overdue. One school of thought in India believes that engagement is not required: the already sizable gap in military power, economic strength (and now international influence) between the two countries is set to widen further. India already outspends Pakistan five to one on defense spending and given the divergent growth of their economies over the next decade this imbalance will grow further. This will force Pakistan (in the absence of a revitalised and credible nuclear deterrence strategy) to either cede the field to India or engage in a ruinous arms race like the one that accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Under this school of thought, time is on India’s side and all it needs to do is wait. This view though ignores the sizeable event risk that India will continue to face as well as the accompanying nuclear escalation risk, which will grow as the gap in conventional capabilities widens. Taking these risks into account, mutual engagement appears to be in both countries’ interests.

When they do engage, the two will clearly have a lot to discuss: regional security, counter-terrorism, escalation/de-escalation protocols in times of conflict, and nuclear non-proliferation, and the future of Kashmir among others. Given that neither side has lost face with their own publics during the current crisis, its resolution has opened a window within which to start a constructive dialogue. Imran Khan has the opportunity to set a new tone for the nation and win back the lost support of former allies and in the process make history. This is also true for Mr. Modi: the crisis appears to have strengthened his position in the upcoming general elections and given strong domestic support, he is uniquely placed to create the conditions for negotiation. Securing a meaningful agreement with Pakistan during his next term could be a legacy defining event for Mr. Modi, and one that would be wise not to let pass. From conflict, peace beckons.


1.    Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

2.    Foreign Policy

3.    United States Director of National Intelligence

4.    Brookings

5.    Jadavpur Journal of International Relations

6.    Journal of Intelligence History (Abstract free to read, the hybridity of political power also described in recent NYT article: Military’s Influence Casts a Shadow Over Pakistan’s Election)

7.    Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

8.    Foreign Policy

9.    Brookings (Podcast)

10.    CNN

11.    Dawn

12.    Hindustan Times

13.    The Diplomat

14.    Foreign Policy

15.    The Lowy Institute

16.    India Today

17.    National Interest

18.    FirstPost 

19.    Channel News Asia

20.    ISDA

21.    Washington Quarterly

22.    The Diplomat

23.    United States Institute for Peace

24.    Council on Foreign Relations

25.    The Diplomat

26.    Council on Foreign Relations

27.    Being “the claim that two radically different ethical actors are really doing the same thing and that they should be judged and treated the same way. For example, if two schoolchildren are scuffling and hitting each other in the playground, a judgment of "moral equivalence" by the teacher may result in separating the two and (perhaps) punishing them both equally (for "fighting")…If one of the children in our example was a notorious school bully, and the other child was fighting back in self-defense, then it would clearly be wrong to punish them both equally.” (Source:

28.    The Diplomat

29.    The Print

30.    The Diplomat

31.    The National Interest

32.    Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

33.    The Atlantic

34.    Foreign Policy

35.    European Council on Foreign Relations

36.    Carnegie India

37.    Council on Foreign Relations

38.    Brookings

39.    See appendix for definitions and sources