In the wee hours of February 26, 2019, Indian Air Force carried out an act of aggression against Pakistan. It crossed the Line of Control, and eventually its aggressive act violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. Fleeing Indian Mirage Indian Air Force jets hastily released bombs which landed in open ground in a small village Jaba situated at the outskirts of Balakot, Mansehra. To top this misadventure, Indian government made a premature claim of having killed nearly 300 terrorists. This irresponsible statement marked the first casualty of truth. India failed to offer any credible evidence of substantiating such claim. In a highly connected world where information flows unhindered on social media any such eventuality on the ground would have come to the fore. However, reporting from various international media groups revealed that there were no terrorist or civilian casualties (except for one wounded local) resulting from the strikes. The first most cogent takeaway provokes a question for strategists in South Asia. The first aspect deserves confrontation with a serious question – in an unbiased manner – “Is South Asian nuclear environment involving Pakistan and India identical of any other parallel security environment in the world?” This question deserves a candid introspection, particularly in midst of a crisis like this. A question that demands making a choice between a popular opinion and a qualified one – in order to save this region from a dangerous nuclear crisis. And it deserves a discerning approach to address this point. 

Before the emergence of this crisis, a segment of society in India following a popular opinion misperceives and equates nuclear South Asian environment with that of Middle East. In this regard, this popular perspective equates India to that of Israel’s position in the Middle East. This opinion in its inherent approach is faulty at best, extremely risk-seeking, and perilous. Israel is the sole country in the Middle Eastern which is also believed to be an opaque nuclear weapons country. And no other country in the region matches Israel’s superior conventional military power let alone possesses nuclear weapons capability. To begin with Israel’s adversaries, Syria barely holds a struggling military force, its other adversaries Hezbollah and Hamas are non-state militant entities. Israel, thus, reserves the upper hand in undertaking limited military action to full scale war sans of fear of massive use of force from its adversaries. Israel is also capable of defending and thwarting itself against use of short range rockets by either Hezbollah or Hamas. Therefore, as the sole, undeclared opaque nuclear power in the region it doesn’t have to fear threat of symmetrical military retaliation in the region. As a result it holds the incentive to carry out offensive military action. This construct of Israel’s use of limited military has gained popular traction among news anchors, vloggers, and social media users in India. This one size fits for all approach is not relevant to South Asia’s nuclear dominated security environment.         

In South Asia, India and Pakistan both are declared nuclear weapons countries. On February 26, 2019, India took the most unprecedented step in nuclear history of the world. Its radical action involved carrying out aerial raid on Pakistan’s territory. In cold-war and post-cold war world order, never did erstwhile Soviet Union or present day Russia and United States (or its European allies United Kingdom and France) ever compromise the extended deterrence let alone compromise each other’s broad deterrence by attacking each other’s soil. This was an irresponsible behaviour demonstrated by India as a nuclear weapons country to have used military action against Pakistan which too possesses nuclear weapons.  Particularly, when Pakistan commits itself to Full Spectrum Deterrence primed towards India. This qualified perspective appears to be missing in favor of the foregoing popular opinion discussed earlier.  

On February 27, 2019 Pakistan retaliated to respond to Indian aggression and to restore deterrence vis-à-vis India. In its retaliation Pakistan claimed to shoot down two Indian Air Force aircraft. One Mig 21-Bison fell inside Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman after ejecting from his crashing aircraft was rescued from a group of mob and taken into custody by Pakistan Army. After Pakistan’s swift action, Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation and demonstrated statesmanship like approach by offering Prime Minister Narendra Modi to de-escalate as the conflict between the two countries will be catastrophic due to presence of nuclear weapons. He also empathized with India on the Pulwama attack and urged India to share evidence with Pakistan. The following day while addressing the full session of Parliament PM Imran Khan announced the release of the captured Indian pilot as a gesture of peace, and once again offered India to de-escalate tensions, share credible evidence with Pakistan and undertake dialogue with Pakistan. India has reportedly shared a dossier with Pakistan; however, it has yet to come to the fore if it contains prosecutable evidence.

In midst of this crisis, the most disturbing element has been the handling of public opinion. Some prominent anchors in India have found it hard to discontinue war-mongering rhetoric. Knowing the fact that escalation and outright war will be detrimental for both countries and the region. The other caustic aspect in media was element of fake news or false information. One anchor Rahul Kanwal tried hard to prove part of debris of a MIG-21 as that of a PAF F-16 only to fail in such a claim by a defence analyst on that show. Similarly barrage of information without any substantive evidence only underscores presence of fake news and susceptibility to act on misinformation by the two countries. Misinformation is one of diciest factor (which different researchers and policy makers have warned against) which can lead leadership in India and Pakistan to aggravate their crisis or worsen war conditions in looming threat of nuclear weapons. 

The question stands how future miscalculation and misadventure be avoided and where should Pakistan and India move from here. The common intellect and logical aspect demands that both India and Pakistan avoid escalation of crisis in future and engage in comprehensive dialogue. The two countries should talk everything ranging from Kashmir, bilateral disputes, trade, and economics to terrorism.  Strategic coercion by India cannot be applied from chapters of a book, it is rather wise to heed to Clausewitz’s counsel because friction of war is acutely divergent than war on paper. Thus, there is need for reviving uninterrupted and continuous process of dialogue. But most importantly, it requires divorcing such dialogue from populist sentiments and electoral politics. Durable peace between India and Pakistan demands this approach, if the region is to achieve goals of integration and mutual prosperity.