When I was in U.S. Army Intel School decades ago, preparing to be assigned to the Pershing Nuclear Brigade, one of our instructors asked us if we thought the world would see nuclear weapons used over the next fifty years. We mostly said yes. After all, you can’t disinvent a weapons technology and sooner or later somebody was going to employ it. Then he asked, who?
It came down to one geopolitical grudge match: India vs Pakistan.
Thankfully the clock is winding down on our prediction with no mushroom clouds in their past. Their future? That’s up for grabs and Tuesday didn’t make the situation any better. Why?
Yesterday, India launched an airstrike into a Pakistani-controlled area in disputed Kashmir that India claims housed a terrorist training camp. This was in retaliation for an early February terrorist attack against the Indian Army in Kashmir that killed over forty troops. A Pakistani militant group claimed responsibility for the earlier incident.
India said the sortie on Tuesday hit various JeM terrorist targets in the town of Balakot and lost one jet from a crash, killing two of their pilots. Pakistan claimed the raid hit a wooded area with no casualties on their end. They also say they downed two warplanes and captured two Indian pilots after Pakistani Air Force jets were scrambled due to the Indian incursion. They claim one pilot in custody and the other in the hospital.
Throughout Tuesday night and into Wednesday, fire was exchanged between both forces on the frontier of the disputed area. Pakistanis on their side of Kashmir are evacuating border towns. India has shut down her airport in Kashmir. Pakistan has shut her airspace to all commercial flights.
That is not a good sign.
Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of this regional history remembers there have been three wars between the two now nuclear powers since their bloody partition by the Brits in 1947. Combine that with regular terrorist forays by Pakistani groups against the Indians, the religious nature of the conflict, the Kashmir question, and that both nations loathe the other with a passion and this is a pot with a plausible chance of boiling over. China, geographically close to both, would not sit on the sidelines. She could counsel restraint. She could also ally with Pakistan.
As Islamabad has come to be known in Washington as an unreliable friend, but still officially a friend, and Dehli has shed its non-aligned status to become a virtual U.S. ally, we too may be able to put some brakes on this train. If the escalation ladder is still climbed and there is a Sarajevo moment brought on by another incident, things could get very sporty post-haste. Millions would die in a general conflict.
This morning the region lies on the precipice of war. Pakistani airspace may be closed to prepare for a retaliatory mission against India.
Brinksmanship is thus needed, soon, to avert what could grow into a fire consuming both nations.