Cognizance Of The 2019 India-Pakistan Escalation: From Airstrikes To Nuclear Perils

by Abdul Basit
On the night of February 26, 2019, India executed an airstrike targeting what it claimed was a Jaish-e-Mohammed base in Balakot, Northern Pakistan, in retaliation for the Pulwama attack, which resulted in the deaths of 40 Indian military personnel. This action significantly escalated tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, raising concerns about the potential for a nuclear crisis. India portrayed the airstrikes as part of a new counter-terrorism strategy, establishing what it termed a “new normal,” while Pakistan perceived them as a violation of its sovereignty, entwined with India’s domestic politics.
The situation escalated further when Pakistan’s Air Force carried out an airstrike on an Indian military base in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. This operation deliberately avoided critical targets but resulted in the downing of an Indian MiG-21 and the capture of an Indian pilot. International efforts played a crucial role in managing the de-escalation process amid the volatile circumstances, highlighting the delicate nature of conflicts in the region and the necessity for diplomatic interventions to prevent further escalation. The unprecedented escalation between India and Pakistan signaled a shift in the role of the United States. Washington’s perceived support for India compromised its traditional role as a neutral mediator, impacting regional stability. Over the past decade, the alignment between the US and India, evident in various strategic and nuclear agreements, fueled concerns in Pakistan regarding the impartiality of the US as a crisis manager. Statements made by Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, implying US recognition of India’s right to self-defense, further raised doubts about the US’s neutrality as a mediator. The heightened hostilities posed a significant threat to regional stability, supported by empirical evidence indicating the tangible risks involved. Reports from former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua revealed alarming details, including Pakistan’s awareness of nine missiles aimed at its territory by India. In response, Pakistan signaled its readiness to retaliate significantly, indicating a dangerous escalation in the conflict dynamics. Such exchanges underscored the palpable threat perception shared between the two nations, highlighting the precarious nature of the regional landscape. During the 2019 Indian election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized the critical importance of the release of Wing Commander Varthaman. Modi’s statements, including references to a potential “night of murder” if Varthaman remained in captivity, hinted at the grave consequences of a prolonged conflict, possibly escalating to nuclear proportions. Parallel developments in Pakistan, including proposals for preemptive missile strikes, further underscored the nuclear dimension of the crisis. Urgent diplomatic interventions, as evidenced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s engagement with Indian and Pakistani officials, played a pivotal role in mitigating the immediate nuclear risks. The crisis highlighted the diminishing role of international mediation in India-Pakistan conflicts. Traditional mediators like the US appeared preoccupied with broader global power dynamics, leaving scant room for meaningful engagement with Pakistan. The absence of a neutral mediator capable of garnering mutual trust further complicated the de-escalation process. With competing alignments among global powers, effective international mediation became increasingly elusive, exacerbating the risks of military escalation in the absence of diplomatic resolutions.
The 2019 India-Pakistan crisis served as a stark reminder of the precarious nature of conflicts in South Asia, particularly in the context of nuclear-armed adversaries. The incident underscored the imperative of robust diplomatic interventions to avert catastrophic escalations, emphasizing the critical need for effective international mediation mechanisms in a region characterized by complex geopolitical dynamics and historical animosities. To navigate the intricate web of geopolitical tensions and nuclear brinkmanship between India and Pakistan, it becomes imperative to dissect the events of the 2019 Balakot airstrikes and their aftermath with a nuanced understanding of the underlying political, military, and diplomatic intricacies. The Balakot airstrikes, touted by India as a preemptive strike against terrorist threats emanating from Pakistani soil, marked a significant departure from conventional escalation patterns in the volatile South Asian region. India’s decision to carry out airstrikes deep within Pakistani territory signaled a shift in its strategic posture, emphasizing a proactive approach to counter-terrorism operations. However, the airstrike’s timing, just months before the Indian general elections, raised questions about the political motivations behind the military action. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, strategically leveraged the Balakot airstrikes as a demonstration of strength and resolve against terrorism, aiming to bolster its electoral prospects by projecting a tough stance on national security. In the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes, Pakistan’s retaliatory airstrike on Indian military installations in Kashmir further heightened tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, pushing the region to the brink of a full-blown military confrontation. The capture of an Indian pilot by Pakistani forces added another layer of complexity to the crisis, fueling fears of an escalation spiral with potentially catastrophic consequences. Amid escalating hostilities, international efforts to defuse the crisis and prevent a descent into all-out war played a crucial role. Diplomatic engagements between key stakeholders, including the United States, China, and various regional actors, aimed at facilitating dialogue and de-escalation, underscored the importance of multilateral diplomacy in managing crises in the South Asian context. However, underlying the immediate security concerns and geopolitical maneuvering lie deeper structural issues that continue to fuel tensions between India and Pakistan. Decades-old unresolved territorial disputes, cross-border terrorism, and competing national narratives have perpetuated a cycle of mistrust and hostility, hindering efforts to achieve lasting peace and stability in the region. It becomes evident that sustainable peace in South Asia hinges on addressing the root causes of conflict and fostering constructive dialogue and cooperation between India and Pakistan. Only through genuine efforts to build mutual trust, promote confidence-building measures, and engage in meaningful conflict resolution initiatives can the two nuclear-armed neighbors chart a path towards lasting peace and prosperity for their people and the wider region. The Balakot airstrikes of 2019 serve as a sobering reminder of the fragility of peace in South Asia and the imperative of pursuing diplomatic solutions to address longstanding conflicts and security challenges. By learning from the lessons of history and embracing dialogue and cooperation, India and Pakistan can overcome their differences and build a shared future based on peace, stability, and mutual prosperity.

Abdul Basit Khan

Abdul Basit Khan is an Associate Research Officer at Strategic Stability Desk, Center for International Strategic Studies, AJK. A NESA Alumnus and a graduate student of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Stay Connected

Follow and subscribe

Contact CISS

CISS (Centre for international strategic studies)