On the 14th February, 40 Indian reserve police officers were killed in a suicide bombing which blew up their convoy in Kashmir. Jaish-e-Mohammed, a jihadist group well known in the province and linked to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility. Kashmir is a disputed area, with the south eastern part controlled by India, and the north western part controlled by Pakistan. The makeshift border which separates the two controlled areas is known as the ‘Line of Control’ or the ‘LoC’. It is one of the most tribal, and dangerous, areas in the world.
India retaliated on the 26th February with a series of airstrikes at Balakot, an area in Pakistan itself. It was initially reported that the strikes hit a Jaish-e-Muhammed facility or camp, and that dozens of militants were killed. However, subsequent media investigations and reports from local civilians claimed to show that the strikes had actually done very little damage. From this point onwards, the two countries began fighting across the Line of Control with artillery and small arms fire, with cross border raids also conducted.
The next day, on the 27th February, a major dogfight occurred between Pakistani and Indian jets, and even a week later the full details surrounding this event are not known. What is clear is that at least one Indian jet was shot down, and one Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured alive. The same night, Pakistan closed its airspace to civilian traffic, and tension between the two countries grew to a level not seen since 1971. It is clear that India was planning some kind of retaliation for the loss of its jet, but at around 3am local time called off such a move after international pressure. Considering both countries have nuclear weapons, it is understandable that the international powers persuaded Indian Prime Minister Modi not to retaliate too severely.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released on March 1st, and despite people hoping this act would draw a line, the exact opposite happened. Border clashes renewed across the Line of Control in Kashmir immediately afterwards, and jets once again began conducting defensive patrols in the local airspace. It is difficult to see at this point how the tension will subside. Indian Prime Minister Modi, facing a general election soon, is under a lot of pressure to avenge the jet that was shot down, but at the same time is facing international pressure to negotiate some kind of ceasefire.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, the shooting down of India’s jet has sparked wild celebrations and national pride, and have emboldened the various Islamist and Jihadist factions covertly aligned with the government in the border provinces. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, a former cricketer with strong links to the West, has remained resolute but at the same time open to ending the hostilities. However his moderate tone should not be taken as entirely genuine. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, has connections with numerous Islamist terrorist organisations, including Hizbul Mujahideen, Al-Badr, the Haqqani Network and Al-Qaeda. It is easy to forget, but Osama Bin Laden himself was living in a fortified compound less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy.