On 14 February, a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into an Indian security convoy in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir. At least 40 Indian security personnel were killed and dozens injured in the attack. Jaish-e-Mohamed (JeM), a group which wants the disputed Kashmir region to secede from India and join Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest in the region in the past three decades.
JeM allegedly has long-standing links to the Pakistani intelligence services, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Given this perception, many in India accuse the Pakistani authorities of being directly involved in the attack, raising concerns that the JeM attack will be a precursor to a higher-impact conflict between the two nuclear-armed countries. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi accuses Pakistan of trying to destabilise India. On 28 February, he told supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “Indians will stand as a wall as the enemy [Pakistan] seeks to destabilise India.”
On 26 February, the Indian air force carried out a series of strikes on suspected JeM camps near Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, located on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC). Indian authorities say the strikes killed numerous JeM militants. However, the Pakistani government said there were no casualties. The following day, on 27 February, the Pakistani air force carried out a series of strikes on Indian military positions in Kashmir. It also shot down two Indian fighter jets, capturing one pilot. The Indian government demanded that the pilot be returned unharmed, and local media speculated that the pilot’s release and well-being will play an important role in either escalating or de-escalating the current conflict. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s 1 March decision to release the pilot, therefore, bodes well for a return to normalcy.
Fighting over Kashmir
The Kashmir dispute stems from the 1947 partition of British India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Both claimed Kashmir, a Muslim-majority area ruled by a Hindu maharaja, who ultimately pledged the region to India. Since then, India and Pakistan have gone to war over Kashmir on three separate occasions in 1947, 1965 and 1999.
The current crisis is, therefore, an intensification of the long-standing conflict near Kashmir’s LoC. Further tit-for-tat violence is possible near the LoC, but is unlikely to spread to other parts of either country. Going forward, the border conflict will likely involve a combination of the following:
- Artillery strikes. Pakistani authorities announced that four civilians had been killed, and at least seven injured, when Indian artillery strikes hit Kotli, Azad Kashmir on 26 February. Meanwhile, on 27 February, an Indian military spokesperson said that Pakistani artillery had targeted Indian military positions for five consecutive days, injuring five soldiers.
- Air strikes. Airstrikes by both sides resulted in the bombing of a suspected JeM camp in Pakistan, as well as several Indian military assets in Kashmir. The Indian air force reported on 28 February that over 20 Pakistani military aircraft had breached Indian airspace in the preceding 24 hours.
- Cross-border raids and skirmishes. Cross border raids and skirmishes are common, and will likely continue in the long term. On 1 March, Pakistan announced it had evacuated hundreds of families from the border region in expectation of further skirmishes.
- Continued security operations against Kashmiri separatists. Aside from heightened tensions with Pakistan, Indian security forces have intensified the campaign against JeM and other militant groups, killing Abdul Rashid Gazi, the alleged mastermind behind the Pulwama attack. They have also arrested over 150 non-militant separatist activists in a crackdown on political dissent. The crackdown on militants and non-militants alike will continue to fuel Kashmiri resentment. The number of fatalities linked to Indian security operations has increased in recent years, and this trend is expected to continue.
Will they go to war?
Tensions are high, and the militaries of both countries remain prepared for an intensification of the current crisis. While both governments are under significant domestic pressure to appear strong in the face of apparent aggression by the other side, neither wants to engage in a catastrophic inter-state war, reducing the likelihood of war being declared. Prime Minister Imran Khan has publicly stated that he “doesn’t want war with India,” adding that neither side can afford a “miscalculation” given that both countries have nuclear arsenals. The release of the captured pilot is expected to decrease tensions, as it lets India’s ruling BJP claim a symbolic victory and shore up support ahead of the May 2019 general election.
Both sides have also begun removing restrictions over their respective airspaces, indicating they expect the hostilities to decrease. Pakistani authorities announced late on 28 February that they would reopen the country’s airspace for commercial aviation after restrictions caused severe worldwide travel delays. India did likewise regarding flights over its northern regions in the preceding days.
Despite these efforts to de-escalate the crisis, the situation is fluid and could be subject to rapid change. Commercial entities operating in both India and Pakistan are advised to closely monitor events in case of re-escalation.
PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR TRAVELLERS AND BUSINESSES
When faced with potentially volatile security conditions, the need to evacuate personnel safely and effectively can often occur quickly with limited or no warning. It is therefore imperative to have a robust and agile evacuation plan in place that is designed to keep you safe as you exit the country. In order to mitigate against the risk of being caught up in a deteriorating security environment, some useful indicators to watch out for include travel warnings and advisories issued by foreign governments, signs of foreign embassies closing operations, or increasing volumes of individuals leaving the country.
S-RM’s Global Crisis Response Team is strategically positioned to provide 24/7/365 access to our Crisis Response experts, whose guidance, detailed planning and understanding of the situation will navigate you through the incident and back to safety.
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