Balakot, Deterrence, and Risk: How This India-Pakistan Crisis Will Shape the Next

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The India-Pakistan crisis seems to have peaked. The two sides continue to trade intermittent small-arms and artillery fire across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir. Skirmishes have occurred elsewhere near their border and at sea, but the situation is no longer escalating. Pakistani airspace is reopening, and even the cross-border passenger train has resumed operations.

For nearly two weeks after the Feb. 14 suicide car-bomb attack in Pulwama, analysts speculated about India’s likely response. Another special forces incursion across the Line of Control, of the type that India launched after the 2016 terrorist attack in Uri, would have been too predictable — terrorist staging bases would probably have been vacated in anticipation — and would exact no operational cost or psychological shock on the Pakistani establishment. Instead, in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 26, the Indian Air Force launched an air strike against a Jaish-e Muhammad training facility near Balakot, Pakistan. This was a significant escalation — India traditionally averred from air strikes in Pakistani territory, even during the 1999 Kargil war, because it considered such strikes too escalatory. Pakistan responded the next day by launching an even larger number of aircraft towards Indian airspace, shooting down one Indian MiG-21 and capturing its pilot. The two countries seemed to be on the precipice. They mobilized forces and moved tanks to front-line positions.

But then, almost as suddenly as the crisis began, Pakistan quickly announced the release of the pilot, handing him over at the Wagah border crossing in a made-for-TV gesture of de-escalation. The provocative air combat phase of the crisis seems to be over, replaced by more familiar cross-Line of Control artillery duels.

To a large degree, India’s crisis behavior was an effort to placate a swelling domestic thirst for revenge, fueled by a manic news media, especially with Prime Minister Narendra Modi facing re-election beginning in April. But of course, India’s strike at Balakot was also designed to deter future Pakistani attacks. To do that, India demonstrated a new appetite for imposing costs on Pakistan, and especially for crossing thresholds and accepting risk. Its actions probably still won’t deter Pakistan, though they will make the next crisis more dangerous. India may now assess that henceforth it can strike its neighbor, absorb a proportionate Pakistani retaliation, and safely de-escalate later in a crisis. But with Pakistan now more concerned about its own deterrent, this crisis may induce both sides to take riskier action next time.

Attempting Deterrence Three Ways

The Balakot strike and ensuing crisis could have established general deterrence in three possible ways. The first and most obvious was by India imposing costs through punishment. By destroying an important Jaish-e Muhammad facility, India would inflict costs on Pakistan and its proxies, hoping that would force them to rethink their campaign of irregular conflict against India. For punishment to work, however, India would need to impose unacceptable, possibly existential costs — only then would the adversary revise its cost-benefit calculus and change policy. Minor, easily absorbed costs would only feed the revisionist narrative of the ‘perfidious Indian.’

A single air strike was always highly unlikely to impose the necessary costs. This is especially true if the marauding aircraft failed to destroy the target, as some open-source analysts claim. In the past, even massive, operationally successful ground offensives did not deter Pakistan. In 1965, India responded to a Pakistani invasion of Kashmir by hurling two corps of infantry and armor into Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland, fighting the biggest tank battles since World War II. In 1971, India cleaved Pakistan in two, creating the new state of Bangladesh, taking 90,000 prisoners of war, and humiliating Pakistan’s army. Over subsequent decades, India fought a Pakistan-backed insurgency in Kashmir and repelled the 1999 Kargil invasion. Through it all, Pakistan’s ideological revisionism only hardened. Now shielded by nuclear weapons, its irregular campaign against India is the core of its national security strategy. Losing four buildings — or maybe not — at a terrorist camp in the wilderness will not shift Pakistani preferences.

The second way India’s strike could have helped to establish deterrence was by deliberately crossing thresholds, signaling India’s resolve to punish Pakistan with escalatory and unpredictable action. In recent decades, India has taken military action, from artillery duels to special-forces raids, in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir — disputed territory marked by varying levels of continuing violence. This time, with an air strike in Balakot, India escalated both vertically and horizontally — it showed it was willing not only to use air strikes, but also to attack a target in Khyber Pakhtunkwa, undisputed Pakistani territory, not Kashmir.

This was a significant threshold to cross. It sets a precedent that Indian military strikes are no longer geographically confined. As one astute journalist observed, “If it is Balakot today, it could be Bahawalpur or Muridke tomorrow” — referring to cities in Punjab that host the headquarters of Jaish-e Muhammad and Lashkar-e Taiba, respectively. This was a significant escalation from the 2016 post-Uri raid, which itself crossed a threshold after years of military inaction against terrorism. But India still framed escalation as being measured. India’s foreign secretary, in announcing the strike, made clear it occurred in an unpopulated area to avoid civilian casualties, was undertaken against a non-military target and therefore not against the Pakistani state, and was a pre-emptive action against an imminent threat and therefore legal. There were some thresholds, in other words, which India did not cross, at least not this time.

The third possible way the crisis might have helped to establish deterrence was by elevating risk for both sides. The quick cycle of attack and counter-attack on Feb. 26 and 27 raised the specter of general – even nuclear – war, which convinced both sides to de-escalate. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan pointedly warned, “with the weapons you have and we have, can we afford a miscalculation?” He called for bilateral talks and unilaterally released the captured Indian pilot. Both sides reverted to cross-Line of Control firings.

Pakistan also de-escalated in 2016, by not even acknowledging an Indian special-forces raid that would have required a riposte. In both 2016 and 2019, Pakistan was apparently responding to the risk of an uncontrolled gallop towards nuclear war, rather than any direct tactical costs imposed by India. In both cases, it was Indian action that initiated that gallop — “India’s leader was the unpredictable one.” This manipulation of risk may moderate Pakistani behavior in ways that cost-imposition never has.

Still, concern over these risks is unlikely to force an end to Pakistan’s irregular warfare strategy. Pakistan has made a show of detaining Jaish-e Muhammad personnel, and harsher anti-militant action may come – the February war scare seems to have convinced various other countries to tighten the screws on Pakistan. But its publicized crackdowns against militants are usually cosmetic and fleeting. All the same, concern over risk did keep the crisis from escalating further and likely altered Pakistan’s expectations of Indian responses in the next crisis.

The Fire Next Time: A New Crisis Escalation Paradox

Assuming this crisis has now peaked, Pakistan will emerge from it largely undeterred. Another terrorist attack by Jaish-e Muhammad or Lashkar-e Taiba — possibly larger than the last — is inevitable. The costs India imposed at Balakot will not dissuade the Pakistani establishment. If and when India responds next time, it will again be incentivized to cross some notable threshold, to get the Pakistanis’ attention once and for all. But Pakistan will equally be incentivized to answer the provocation in kind — as it did with Balakot — lest its own deterrent be discredited.

Just as significant as the lack of deterrence in this crisis is how these events will shape the escalation dynamics of the next crisis. Analysts have long considered that the key decision point in India-Pakistan crises is India’s move two – whether, in its response to the terrorists’ move one, India would shrug off the provocation or “opt-in” to the crisis. Any Indian military action was almost presumed to unleash an unstoppable cycle of escalation. In the past, India has been exceedingly restrained, opting not to retaliate after successive crises, including the devastating “26/11” attacks in Mumbai. In contrast, this latest crisis has shown that there are key decision points at every step of the crisis. India did retaliate at move two, with Balakot, and Pakistan did respond at move three, with air combat at the Line of Control. Both India and Pakistan then paused – in particular, Pakistan broadcasted conciliatory gestures, and India chose not to escalate with move four. They both had strong incentives to de-escalate after their point had been made — to each other and to domestic audiences — with demonstration attacks.

This presents a new crisis escalation paradox, not unlike the stability-instability paradox, which predicts low-level conflict between nuclear powers. Here, India and Pakistan have tested and proven that viable off-ramps exist at subsequent steps in the crisis, which may incentivize India to opt in to future crises with military action. India may deliberately introduce more risk, no longer fettered by fears of inevitable escalation, and confident — or over-confident — in its ability to pause and de-escalate at move four. The great danger is that if India miscalculates Pakistan’s expected reactions, it may find itself boxed in, compelled to escalate rather than de-escalate — its clever risk-generating plans foiled.

With the current crisis now cooling, India may believe it has found space for limited conventional strikes without triggering Pakistan’s trump card, tactical nuclear weapons. Indian proponents of Cold Start — the erstwhile doctrine of rapid mobilization and quick, shallow ground incursions — may become newly energized. If India undertakes credible preparations for Cold Start, it may present these as a signal of its increasing appetite to generate risk in a crisis; and in the next crisis, a move to demonstrate new mobilization processes may ratchet up that risk to an unprecedented level.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s generals also have a well-honed appreciation for risk. One retired Corps Commander argued in the midst of this crisis that Pakistan must escalate sharply in order to show that any conflict would not remain limited at low levels — that any Indian attack could risk nuclear war. If the Pakistan Army laments that India called its nuclear bluff, the lesson it learns may be to escalate more boldly. Next time, Pakistan’s actions may not allow India to calmly de-escalate at move four.

India has shown itself to be more and more militarily aggressive after the 2016 and 2019 responses. Unlike the deniable 2016 raid, India’s 2019 strike at Balakot compelled Pakistan to retaliate. Next time, with each side facing incentives to show even more resolve, they may accept even more risk. Indian hawks may celebrate this evolution. But with dubious and shrinking claims of India’s achievements, the military response seems now to have accomplished little except generating risk. Risk can be productive, if managed deftly – India has certainly shown that risk can moderate Pakistani behavior. But an India with few other viable options for deterrence, increasingly enamored by military swashbuckling and encouraged by the United States, may become seduced by competitive risk-taking. Its adversary hinges its entire national defense on brandishing nuclear risks, so a more dangerous spiral is waiting to happen – and a rising India has a lot to lose.

CORRECTION: A previous of this article erroneously referred to Imran Khan as the president of Pakistan. He is the prime minister. 


Arzan Tarapore is a nonresident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) in Washington, DC. The views in this piece do not reflect the official position of NBR. He previously served for 13 years in the Australian Department of Defence and holds a PhD in war studies from King’s College London. He tweets @arzandc.

Image: Wikimedia Commons