Revisiting Balakot Lessons

Author Name: Sitara Noor      08 Mar 2021     Regional security/Region

The air skirmish between Pakistan and India on February 26-27, 2019 following a suicide attack on India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Pulwama two weeks earlier was a watershed moment in an already chequered history of two nuclear-armed neighbours. Although the Pulwama attack was carried out by a young Kashmiri man, India tried to implicate Pakistan and upped the ante by carrying out airstrikes on mainland Pakistan across the Line of Control (LoC). The Indian missiles attack was neutralised as it missed the target due to timely intervention by the Pakistan Air Force, nonetheless, the unprecedented nature of the aggression itself set in motion what turned out to be the most serious crisis between India and Pakistan since their overt nuclearization. Before India could pronounce its missile strike as a “new normal”, Pakistan Air Force’s swift retort the next day resulted in downing two Indian fighter aircraft; an Su-30 and a MiG-21 and capturing a pilot alive, thereby restoring the status quo.

The crisis de-escalated shortly after Pakistan announced it would return Wing Commander Abhinandan - the detained Indian pilot unconditionally. However, the entire series of events exposed the fragility of the security balance in South Asia, alluded to the changing pattern of future crises, and brought to surface the widening difference in perception of risks. It was hoped that the potential risk of unintended escalation would lead to some introspection on the Indian side leading to some peace overtures. On the contrary, the situation over the past two years has been anything but stable. Prime Minister Modi had launched the attack against Pakistan primarily for a political victory in the upcoming elections and any softened attitude towards Pakistan would have reversed that gain. Therefore, during the following two years, the negative trends became consolidated and the regional security situation continued to move from bad to worse.

India’s growing atrocities in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) and imposition of the longest lockdown after the abrogation of article 270 and 35A on August 5, 2019, have led to a very tense security environment. India’s political and military leadership has been constantly threatening to attack mainland Pakistan and capture Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. This growing belligerence is directly proportional to India’s increased military prowess after the current and prospective acquisition of advanced weapons such as Rafale jets from France and the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. These new weapons systems, once fully inducted, will provide India with a technological edge over Pakistan and fuel a false sense of security. Any misadventure in such an environment would increase the possibility of vertical escalation. In view of its growing domestic challenges such as the ongoing farmers’ protests in Punjab and ever-increasing religious disharmony due to the prevailing Hindutva mindset of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, there is a serious concern that India may stage another crisis to deflect that negative attention.

India’s ongoing conflict with China has added a new layer to the already complex situation in the region. The crisis dynamics in the China-India standoff at the Himalayas are altogether different from the India-Pakistan crisis. Against China, India had to make various compromises on long-held territorial claims and political positioning. India’s inability to stand up to the Chinese has badly affected the morale of its forces. Ongoing disengagement essentially on the Chinese terms with the formation of buffer zones in Pangong Tso and Galwan areas in eastern Ladakh is largely being viewed as a “surrender of Indian interests.”

Notwithstanding India’s inability to contain China in its backyard, Indo-US strategic cooperation has further consolidated and continued to increase manifold in the past two years. Particularly after the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial cooperation with the United States in October 2020, India has essentially become part of the US’ regional alignment. BECA is the third foundational agreement to be signed between India and the US after the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) signed in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

Aimed at preparing India as a bulwark against China in the Asia Pacific, these security agreements have consolidated the Indian position as a strategic partner of the US. Their significance and impact, however, go beyond the sphere of US-China competition. In any future crisis between India and Pakistan, they would have a great bearing on the conflict spiral, and may provide India a strategic edge over Pakistan through the availability of real-time intelligence information. These developments are also likely to impact the role of China in the future – country which has traditionally stayed neutral during the past India-Pakistan crises. Most importantly, this would also impact the US’ role as a reliable and neutral third-party mediator. While the US is likely to stay in that role, the quality and effectiveness of the mediation process may not be as efficient in yielding the required results to defuse escalating tensions.

Finally, the announcement of ceasefire on the border by India and Pakistan is the first positive development in recent times and a huge one given the unrelenting Indian position on all matters concerning regional stability. Nonetheless, this is not going to serve as a breakthrough for peace or a stepping stone for further developments. The larger picture is likely to stay the same at least for the foreseeable future.

 

Sitara Noor is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies. She tweets @noorsitara. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.

 

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