On February 26, 2019, the Indian Air Force conducted airstrikes on terrorist camps located inside Pakistan. This was the first time India bombed Pakistan since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. How did the events unfold, and what did India gain from the airstrikes? This article analyzes this event, which offers many contemporary lessons on the use of military force. (Coincidentally, when the airstrikes occurred, the author was in the country, and this report includes first-hand information.)
1. Summary of Events
What actually happened? Currently, both parties are issuing competing messages in the media, and some reports include “fake news,” so it is difficult to grasp a complete and accurate picture of the facts. However, the broad course of events can be summarized as the following.
The situation began with a terrorist suicide bombing on February 14, 2019 that killed forty security-forces personnel. The terrorist organization responsible was Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is based in Pakistan and supported by the Pakistani government. This organization has a long history of penetrating the Indian border and conducting terrorist attacks.
About two weeks later, on February 26, the Indian Air Force responded by sending twelve aircraft to strike three “terrorist training camps” inside Pakistan and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. India called this attack a “non-military operation” against terrorist organizations and argued for its legitimacy.
The next day, Pakistan’s air force bombed three Indian military facilities with twenty-four aircraft. India scrambled fighter jets and intercepted Pakistan’s fleet; each side shot down one aircraft in the aerial fight. Pakistan held the downed Indian pilot captive.
On the twenty-eighth, Pakistan announced its intent to release the captured Indian pilot, and did so on March 1. Competitive action continued as both parties used the media for strategic messaging and issued missile-launch warnings. The two sides also exchanged cross-border artillery fire, and Pakistani flight bans prohibited Indian-registered aircraft and international flights (including civilian) from entering its airspace. India shot down Pakistani drones and deployed large-scale naval assets in the northern Arabian Sea. However, since the pilot’s release, the situation has not escalated.
2. What India Gained
Despite the heightened tension that followed, India benefited from the airstrikes, which is apparent from military, domestic, and diplomatic perspectives. The following analysis explores those gains.
One possible assessment is that the airstrikes are India’s most successful application of military pressure on Pakistan ever. This is significant, considering Pakistan’s history of supporting terrorism in India.
Pakistan started supporting terrorist organizations after its defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War and has continued to do so for nearly fifty years. This support grew intensely in Kashmir since the 1990s. In face of the growing threat, India had considered attacking terrorist training camps in Pakistan multiple times. In 1990, 1999, 2001, 2002, and 2008, the Indian Air Force seemed to make preparations for striking Pakistani territory. Nevertheless, India did not act on those plans.
There are multiple possibilities for India’s restraint. In the first place, India is known to be reluctant to use of force, given its history of gaining independence through nonviolent resistance. However, there are other factors as well, including India’s lack of confidence in its military capabilities. India’s military strategy after the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War was called the Sundarji Doctrine, which came into fruition in the 1980s. This doctrine assumes a scenario in which Pakistan and China attack India in coordination. India would defeat Pakistan in a quick, decisive campaign and defend against China in a long, protracted war. To defeat Pakistan, India planned a strategy to split Pakistan in two by using massive armored units.
However, this vast strategy had three major flaws and was difficult to implement. First, it could not rapidly respond to terrorist attacks because the strategy took too much time to prepare. Second, because it took time, it could allow for greater pressure from the international community and intervention in the conflict, which would restrain India’s military action. Third, after Pakistan succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, the strategy had the risk of escalating into nuclear war because of its large-scale nature. As a result, after the 2001 Indian Parliament attack, India did not attack Pakistan, despite initiating preparatory actions to do so.
Since then, India has studied ways to address these issues and developed four new methods for responding to terrorist activity: (1) limited attacks using armored forces supported by air force units (a component of the Cold Start doctrine ), (2) raids using special forces, (3) naval blockades, and (4) airstrikes. Based on the studies, India reorganized its military, procured necessary equipment, and improved its capabilities through training. In 2016, Indian special forces raided seven terrorist training camps inside Pakistan, and most recently, in 2019, it conducted airstrikes. India proved to Pakistan that it is now able to take actions that it had previously been unable to do.
The 2019 airstrikes may have been especially effective in pressuring Pakistan. This is because airstrikes enable attacks deep within Pakistan, compared with special forces raids. When special forces enter Pakistan and conduct raids, they must be able to return to India once they complete the operations. Therefore, they are not able to attack terrorist camps located deep inside Pakistan. On the other hand, the recent airstrikes allowed India to attack camps over eighty kilometers beyond the Indo-Pakistani Line of Control. Because they used long-range guided bombs, Indian fighters were able to return relatively safely, penetrating only a short distance into Pakistani-controlled airspace to release their bombs.
Pakistan’s capital is located within one hundred kilometers of India. The fact that India was able to attack targets eighty kilometers inside Pakistan proved that India was not only capable of bombing terrorist camps, but also important facilities around the capital.
Therefore, the airstrikes demonstrated that India could both militarily respond to Pakistan’s support of terrorism and attack targets deep within the country. This show of force may cause Pakistan to reconsider whether it will continue to support terrorist organizations.
B. Domestic Politics
An alternative analysis of these events would be that India’s domestic political situation determined the course of events. At the time the decision was made, it was perceived that the Indian national election would be held in May 2019. (The actual schedule was announced after the bombings, and it was decided that voting would be held during a one-month period starting April 11 and then counted on May 23.) Although the current Narendra Modi administration had received high support in the previous election, its popularity was trending downward. Even in states where Modi was popular, called the “Hindu Belt,” support for the ruling party was dropping, and there was the possibility of it losing a substantial number of seats unless some policy was enacted to revive its popularity.
Military action has the potential to increase political support. If the populace acknowledges the imminent threat of an adversary, it has the effect of enhancing unity among the nation. Even opposition parties tend to focus criticism on the external adversary and refrain from attacking the administration.
However, if the administration were going to take military action, it had a limited timeframe in which to operate. The elections were to be held in May 2019, so the Indian Election Commission would announce its schedule in March. Once the schedule is decided, it becomes difficult to implement policies that could be interpreted as blatant attempts to regain support. (In India, after election schedules are announced, the Election Commission assumes significant authority and may intervene in policies.) Therefore, the administration would have to conduct military operations prior to March. The end of February, when India launched its airstrikes, was an ideal period.
Looking at the election results on May 23, Modi’s ruling coalition overcame its declining support and won an overwhelming victory. One factor for this success was its ability to place the focus on national security issues in conjunction with the airstrikes. The bombings seem to have politically benefitted the administration.
In the sequence of events, from the terrorist attack to the airstrikes, the main concern regarding the international political arena was how the US and China would react to India’s airstrikes. The two countries’ statements had commonalities, such as criticism of the terrorists and condolences for India’s victims of the suicide bombings. However, when analyzing US and Chinese attitudes towards the Indo-Pakistani conflict, including the airstrikes, each takes an unprecedented step further.
When looking at US responses, they clearly side with India, instead of maintaining neutrality, as shown below:
- Right after the terrorist attacks, the White House released a statement explicitly condemning Pakistan by name and called on the country to crack down on the terrorist organizations. (Japan, Australia, and France subsequently released similar statements.)
- Furthermore, US National Security Advisor John Bolton held a telephone conference with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval, and stated that India has the right of self-defense.
- After the bombings commenced, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Central Command commander, Joseph Votel, strongly encouraged Pakistan to return the captive pilot to India.
- Also, the US, based on India’s request, began an investigation into whether Pakistan used US-made F-16 fighters to attack India. It is believed that when the US sold its F-16s to Pakistan, there were unofficial restrictions stipulating that Pakistan could only use the fighters for counterterrorism operations and not for transgressing the Indian border. The investigation of Pakistan’s possible violation is underway.
As shown above, the US response sided with India.
On the other hand, China endeavored to align itself with Pakistan. A clear example of this occurred when China exercised its United Nations Security Council veto power to prevent Masood Azhar, the leader behind the February 2019 suicide bombing, from being designated a “global terrorist.” India requested the designation, and the Security Council held multiple rounds of talks. Although every other country voted for the designation, only China repeatedly vetoed the decision, which is thought to be a move to protect its ally Pakistan. However, this changed after the recent airstrikes. Following the bombings, the issue of designating Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist” was brought up again for discussion at the request of the US, Britain, and France. Initially, China sought to veto the designation once again, but finally conceded, and the UN Security Council officially recognized Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist” on May 1, 2019.
From this point of view, not only did India’s airstrikes reveal Japanese, US, Australian, and French support for the country, but also made China concede the issue of labeling Masood Azhar a “global terrorist.”
3. Achievements of the Airstrikes
India’s airstrikes achieved victories in several key areas. Militarily, India seized the opportunity to apply stronger pressure on Pakistan. In terms of domestic politics, it yielded a great success for the current administration. Diplomatically, it garnered support from Japan, the US, Australia, and France, in addition to drawing concessions from China. As a result, the operation turned out to be very effective.