The Indian government announced today that it has conducted an airstrike – or “surgical strike” – in Pakistan, targeting terrorist training camps. This move marks the first time in five decades that the Indian air force has crossed Pakistan-controlled air space. New Delhi claims the attacks targeted the biggest training camp of the terrorist group Jaish-e Mohammed (JeM) in Balakot, killing a “very large number” of fighters, according to The Times of India. Pakistan, on the other hand, has announced there were no casualties.
According to residents close to the site, the choice of location made no sense. “There are only mud-brick homes here. There is no madrassas. There isn’t even a concrete house,” said Noor Shah, a 55-year-old resident who lived close to the site, speaking to the Associated Press.
The move signals a dramatic shift in policy regarding Pakistan by the Indian government. Not since the 1971 India-Pakistan war have such tactics been used, with the Indian air force typically focusing strikes on the Line of Control (LoC), or the military border that delineates Indian and Pakistani controlled areas of Jammu and Kashmir. Balakot is located roughly 50 miles past the LoC, well into accepted Pakistani territory, setting a troubling new precedent.
“It changes the game significantly by raising the costs for Pakistan,” said Khalid Shah, a research fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, speaking to The Guardian. The raid is also an embarrassment to the Pakistani government, revealing a weakness in the country’s ability to protect its air space, less than a week after it claimed such attempts would be fruitless.
The raid comes in the aftermath of a suicide car bomb explosion in Kashmir that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police, one of the deadliest attacks seen in the contested region in several decades. The group that claimed responsibility was the JeM, which the air strike claimed to target as a move of retribution for the attack. Indeed, the incident in Kashmir has provoked a lot of backlash in the region. Several days after the initial car bomb, nine people in Kashmir were involved in a gun battle as a result of widespread police manhunts for those associated with the bombing.
The JeM, a group whose name literally means the “Army of Mohammed,” is a Pakistani-based terrorist organization aimed at uniting Kashmir with Pakistan. The group, which is also linked to Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for various attacks across India and Kashmir. The organization has been active since its formation in 1999. In 2001, it claimed responsibility for an attack on Parliament in New Delhi, prompting the Pakistani government to officially ban the group. Although the Indian government has continued to claim that the country aids in harboring the group, JeM has targeted Pakistani military officials in the past as well.
Immediately after the announcement of the airstrike, celebrations erupted in India. “I want to assure you our country is in safe hands,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated amidst a rally hours after the raid, “I won’t let the country down.” Other Indian officials have also lauded the raid, with Prakash Javadekar, the Human Resources Development Minister, calling the move an “extreme act of valor.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has largely dismissed the Indian government’s claims, calling the move a political ploy. It is election year for Modi’s government, and the strikes have been seen by many as a play to curry domestic support. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Khan called on the Pakistani military to “respond decisively and comprehensively to any aggression or misadventure” by India. In direct response to the raid, Khan has also called a joint session of Parliament and a meeting of the National Command Authority, a committee tasked with overseeing the country’s nuclear arsenal, both moves signaling the growing tensions between the countries.
The events of this month have again caused worry among observers. Muhammad Umar Rana, a security analyst at the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, urges the international community to respond quickly. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement after the raid urging both countries to practice restraint. China, a close ally of Pakistan, has also echoed a message of de-escalation.
The region of Kashmir is a very explicit symbol of the long-standing tension between India and Pakistan, both nuclear countries. Tensions have not risen to these levels in decades, and although several analysts have said it is highly unlikely to reach threats of nuclear war, it would be unwise to ignore these recent events and the significance of policy in a region with a long and complicated history of violence.
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