On Tuesday, India was awash with triumphalism after it announced that it had attacked a Jaish-e-Mohammad terror camp on Pakistani soil. But the mood turned to trepidation the next day as Pakistan said it hadcaptured one Indian fighter pilot following combat between jets over Kashmir. If Tuesday’s action made it seem like India had managed to alter the dynamic between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours, the next day made it clear that any such effort would invoke both retaliation and bring with it a genuine human cost.
The dangers of the situation becoming even more fraught, with no real advantage to India, cannot be overstated. Revenge is not a military objective and payback cannot be a strategic goal.
India has made its point. It has attacked Pakistani territory, proving that the heinous tragedy of Pulwama, in which 40 paramilitary jawans were killed by a suicide bomber, would not go unanswered. New Delhi made sure to explain its actions in careful terminology, aimed at assuring Pakistan and the world that it only sought to strike a terror camp to prevent further attacks and had no intention of targeting the Pakistani state or its people.
Pakistan has made its point. It has demonstrated that it has the nerve to retaliate in the case of what it sees as a violation of its sovereignty, and taken down an Indian fighter jet in the process. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan insisted that escalation is not desirable for either country, and the military has assured India that the captured pilot will be treated in accordance with “military ethics”.
Both countries have internal constituencies, particularly news anchors sitting in TV studios, who believe that their nation has lost face and needs retribution. For these people, war itself is an end – to teach the other side a lesson – rather than a means of achieving a more lasting peace or another strategic objective. In this world view, dialogue is equivalent to backing down, rather than one of the many ways, along with military action, to achieve the same goals.
India and Pakistan need to ignore these bellicose studio warriors and focus on credible de-escalation rather than hurrying headlong into more conflict with no clarity on what the strategic aims are.
Pakistan must treat the captured pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, according to the Geneva Convention. He must be returned to India as soon as possible. It also needs to do more to dismantle the infrastructure of terror on its soil. It is commonly said that war between the neighbours would hurt India more, as the bigger, more economically successful neighbour. But it would also be debilitating for Pakistan, which is already on the brink economic disaster.
India must talk to Pakistan, secure the return of its pilot and work with the global community to put further pressure on Islamabad to crack down on terror. New Delhi has nothing to gain from intensifying an armed conflict that could easily escalate into a war that will bring with it terrible costs. Political success for one party is not a strategic goal for the nation.