Tensions between regional archrivals India and Pakistan have rapidly escalated after the deadliest militant attack on Indian forces in decades.
Leaders of the South Asian neighbors have warned each other about potential military strikes after the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Muhammad militant group claimed responsibility for the February 14 attack that killed more than 40 soldiers in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned Islamabad of a "befitting reply” after the attack, the worst during the three-decade-long insurgency in Kashmir. But Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said his country “will not think of retaliating; we will retaliate” if attacked.
Such retaliatory strikes could eventually escalate into a full-fledged war. The two nuclear-armed countries have already fought three wars and spend a large part of their national resources on maintaining two of the world’s largest militaries.
While experts say a conflict is likely, whether it would escalate into a war remains a question. A conventional war has the potential to morph into a nuclear nightmare, one that could not only ruin the lives of some 1.6 billion people in India and Pakistan but have grave consequences for South Asia and beyond.
Shashank Joshi, The Economist's defense editor in London, says the likelihood of an Indian military response is high given the severity of the attack and its timing months ahead of a hotly contested parliamentary election.
“The risk of an Indian retaliation and a Pakistani reprisal that causes some sort of spiral, I think, is reasonably high,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “We are in one of the most dangerous situations since 2008 -- possibly even since the major standoff that occurred after the parliament attack in 2001.”
Tensions between India and Pakistan skyrocketed after New Delhi accused Pakistan-based Lashkar-e Taiba of orchestrating coordinated attacks on luxury hotels, a Jewish center, and the central train station in India’s commercial hub, Mumbai. At least 166 people were killed in the November 2008 attacks.
Earlier in 2002, India and Pakistan mobilized close to 1 million troops after New Delhi accused Jaish-e Muhammad of carrying out attacks on the state assembly building in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, and the Indian Parliament in 2001.
“The probability of military conflict is quite high,” said Christopher Clary, a South Asia expert at the University at Albany, State University of New York. “There is probably the greatest risk of such an outcome since 2001-2002.”
He says the more likely scenario is one of “limited strikes” similar to the “surgical strikes” in 2016 that Modi claimed were conducted to avenge the killing of some 20 Indian soldiers in Uri, a town in Indian-administered Kashmir. Officials in Islamabad, however, denied New Delhi’s claim.
Given India’s larger size, population, and economy, its forces appear bigger than those of Pakistan. India’s estimated 2.1 million active duty and reservist troops are twice those of Pakistan’s 1.1 million. The countries have a similar disparity in terms of tanks and artillery vehicles. Both countries have missiles and nuclear weapons. The Indian Air Force is larger, but many of its aircraft are aging Russian jets such as the MiG 21, while the Pakistani Air Force has modernized some of its inventory. Given India’s vast coastline, the country has a much bigger Navy compared with that of Pakistan.
Joshi, however, says New Delhi will struggle to mobilize its conventional superiority on the battlefield.
“It can take India weeks to bring its forces to the border to use against Pakistan, and Pakistan is in some respects more agile and move its forces to the [eastern] border with India more quickly,” Joshi noted. “The two sides are still more evenly matched than you might think from the major discrepancy in the sizes of their economy and the respective defense budgets.”
Clary says that in the absence of a full-scale war between the two rivals since 1971, it is not clear whether India could easily defeat Pakistan in a major conflict.
“War has changed a lot since 1971,” he said. “And the limited war in Kargil, where Pakistan had difficulty reinforcing its troops, tells us very little about the fighting ability of either country in a full-scale war.”
According to Kyle Mizokami, a defense and national security writer, New Delhi envisions a major offensive against Pakistan under a doctrine called Cold Start. In January, however, Pakistan launched a short-range, nuclear-capable rocket that can hit targets within a 70-kilometer range to deter a surprise conventional attack.
Clary, however, says it is improbable that a full-scale war would escalate to the nuclear level because the weapons were not deployed in two previous conflicts between the Soviet Union and China in 1969 and India and Pakistan during the limited war in Kashmir’s remote Kargil region in 1999. “In 1999, we are still debating whether India or Pakistan put nuclear forces on alert,” he told Gandhara.
Joshi says the use of nuclear weapons, even low-yield tactical ones, would have a devastating impact on millions of people in northwest India and Pakistan’s eastern province of Punjab, which borders it.
“The India-Pakistan border area is a fairly small place, and the fallout from any nuclear use -- given prevailing winds and climatic conditions -- would have devastating impact on both the Indian and Pakistani sides,” he said.
International diplomacy has successfully prevented such scenarios. But unlike the crises in 2008 and 2001, Washington now seem less keen on de-escalating tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi.
China, a neighbor and close ally of Pakistan, however, is advocating restraint. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told journalists that Beijing hopes “Pakistan and India can exercise restraint, engage in dialogues, and realize an early ‘soft landing’ of this issue.”
Clary, however, sees a limited clash on the horizon because he says that, unlike his predecessor, Modi seems to believe that re-establishing deterrence with Pakistan may be part of what a new India needs over the long run to grow and prosper.
“Over the medium term, India probably can build up pressure to further isolate Pakistan economically, especially given Pakistan's likely need for international lending institutions to help it with its foreign currency situation,” he said.