Are India and Pakistan on the brink of nuclear war?

Nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan stare each other down, sparking fears of a war that no one can win, writes Reem Wasay.

Tensions are mounting between India and Pakistan after both countries launched consecutive airstrikes against one another.

What is the situation?

On February 19, India launched a surgical strike inside Pakistani territory, allegedly targeting a training camp of the jihadi terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The strike was a response to claims the group killed 44 Indian Central Reserve Peace Force personnel in a suicide bombing on February 14 in the disputed Himalayan border region of Kashmir.

India has pointed the finger of blame at Pakistan for allowing JeM to plan and operate within its borders, a claim Pakistan denies. In response, Pakistan’s government and armed forces took to social media with purported pictorial evidence that no casualties had resulted from the airstrikes, as there were no terror camps. Pakistan’s military spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, then called for India to ready itself for a “surprise”.
On February 27, Pakistan shot down two Indian jets in its airspace after aerial skirmishes along the Line of Control, a de-facto control line established between the militaries of both countries in Kashmir. One of those planes landed in Pakistani territory and the pilot was taken into Pakistan’s custody. An executive order was issued by the government of Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, to seal off Pakistan’s airspace, which remains closed to all commercial flights.

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Why is this happening now?

The long-standing hostility between both countries can be traced back to Kashmir, a border territory both seek dominion over and where an insurgency for control has been raging since 1989. India and Pakistan brokered a fragile peace in 2003, with Pakistan promising to de-activate its use of proxy forces (such as the JeM) in Kashmir to fight Indian brutalities in the region. But skirmishes have continued and escalated since the election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hardline Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014. Modi has taken a tough stance on holding peace dialogues with Pakistan, even during this recent heightened series of events.

Suspicions are rife in both Pakistan and India that Modi is whipping up pro-war, anti-Pakistan sentiment with impending elections in April. And the distrust remains that Modi will continue to stall dialogue to serve his election rhetoric. There has also been an onslaught of hyper-nationalistic sentiment in the media on both sides.

The situation remains tense with heightened fears that a single misstep could trigger a war from which there would be no going back for both nuclear-armed nations. There exists a three-minute window in case of a nuclear strike between India and Pakistan with first move advantage making all the difference – it would take three minutes for a nuclear bomb to make it to a major urban centre in either country. This is the real-time terror being felt in every home on both sides of the border.

How has Pakistan responded?

It is this fear of a “miscalculation” that saw Imran Khan address the nation on Wednesday night after the downing of the Indian planes. In a short but pointed speech, Khan reiterated that, while Pakistan had to show its strength to an overtly aggressive India, any escalation of tensions would result in a situation that neither he nor Modi would be able to control.

He appealed to his Indian counterpart for “better sense to prevail” and for dialogue to replace the drama of the last few days. As of Thursday, he also announced that the captured Indian pilot would be released as a “peace gesture” by Pakistan.
Pakistan claims to crack down on banned terror outfits, but the fact remains that it has used radical elements (like the JeM) as proxy forces in the past – such as during the Cold War against the Soviets in Afghanistan - and has, allegedly, used the same formula in Kashmir since 1989. The country is painfully realising that this has been a misdirected tactic.

What has been the international response?

The international community has started taking notice of the rapidly developing situation, with China urging against an “expansion” of tensions, the UK calling for a “diplomatic” solution and New Zealand’s foreign affairs minister, Winston Peters, voicing his concern over the rising tensions and the country’s “support” for both parties to seek a peaceful solution to the Kashmir standoff through “diplomacy and dialogue”. President Donald Trump has hinted the tension may end soon, with the help of the US.
While Prime Minister Khan’s call for two-state dialogue to dial down the war-heavy hyperbole is a big step in the right direction, both countries will need to step back from tit-for-tat escalations and realise that any conflict between them comes with a real possibility of nuclear war.

- Asia Media Centre