Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

Pakistan claims to have shot down two Indian aircraft as tensions flare

Both countries shut down large swaths of their airspace

by Iain Marlow and Kamran Haider

AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

Pakistan said it shot down two Indian aircraft in the disputed region of Kashmir on Wednesday and arrested the pilots, prompting both countries to shut down large swaths of airspace as tensions between them reached their highest point since a 1971 war.

One Indian aircraft fell inside Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and the other crashed on India’s side of the Line of Control, said military spokesman Asif Ghafoor. One pilot was injured and receiving medical treatment and the other was in custody, he said at a news conference in Islamabad.

“Both are under arrest, and we are treating them with dignity,” Ghafoor said.

Videos circulated on social media that claim to show the arrested Indian pilots in Pakistan’s custody. In one, the pilot states his name, service number and religion. In a separate clip, an injured pilot is being transported in a vehicle. Ghafoor said that man was under treatment at the Combined Military Hospital.

India’s ANI news agency reported that a Pakistan F-16 that had violated Indian airspace was shot down 3 kilometers within Pakistan territory in Lam Valley. Ghafoor said Pakistan didn’t use F-16 planes in the operation.

Anit Mukherjee, a former Indian Army major and assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said: “This is unprecedented territory — we haven’t had tit-for-tat airstrikes between India and Pakistan since the 1971 war. We don’t know what will come from this. But it seems like Pakistan has given a response. And there have been casualties — captures, deaths.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the foreign ministers of both countries on Wednesday. He said, “We encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost” and noted Pakistan’s priority was to avoid military action and take “meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil.”Earlier Wednesday, it appeared the bitter rivals were looking to lower the temperature with renewed diplomatic outreach.

Pakistan has sought help from the United Nations to de-escalate the situation, while India — which is facing national elections in a few weeks — reached out to countries including U.S., U.K., China, France and Russia and urged the government in Islamabad to take action against terrorist groups based in the country.

The diplomatic back-and-forth came after India’s Air Force said its jets bombed targets inside Pakistan, which scrambled its own jets in response, for the first time in nearly 50 years. The target was a camp run by Jaish-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing in Kashmir that killed 40 members of India’s security forces.

“They will not allow things to go out of control because both countries are facing tremendous pressure from global powers including China and the U.S.,” said Rashid Ahmed Khan, head of politics and international relations department at University of Central Punjab, Lahore. “There will be a controlled and managed escalation.”

Meanwhile, security forces clashed with militants in Indian-administered Kashmir early Wednesday, killing two insurgents, according to a security spokesman.

Prior to Tuesday’s attack, which India said killed more than 300 people in a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp inside Pakistan, New Delhi had detained more than 150 people mainly linked to a local separatist group and boosted its military presence in the region, according to news reports.

On Wednesday, Pakistan announced that Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had sought out United Nations assistance to help de-escalate tensions with India.

Tuesday’s strikes represent the worst escalation since 2001, when Pakistan and India moved ballistic missiles and troops to their border following an attack on parliament in New Delhi that was also blamed on Jaish-e-Mohammad. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars since partition and independence in 1947.

The latest escalation marks a test for the leaders of both nations, with one seeking re-election in a few months and the other facing his first real challenge on foreign policy.

With a bitterly contested national election just weeks away in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to exploit his military’s airstrikes Tuesday. Speaking on Tuesday to a huge, cheering crowd at an election rally in the state of Rajasthan, Modi twice stated that India was “in safe hands” and declared it a “glorious day,” without explicitly mentioning the attack.

Both India and the U.S. see Pakistan as providing safe haven for terrorist groups and point to the fact that the leadership of groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the Mumbai attacks in 2008, still live freely in Pakistan.

Facing the first major geopolitical challenge of his term, Khan directed the country’s armed forces and the public to “remain prepared for all eventualities.”

Facing a general election due by May, Modi is under substantial pressure after blaming Pakistan for the worst attack on security forces in Kashmir in several decades earlier this month. Tuesday’s airstrikes show he is “willing to take on risk to respond to Pakistan’s terrorist provocations,” said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. state department South Asia.

“It does appear to strengthen Modi’s hand heading into elections,” Ayres said. “Now the international diplomatic community should exert maximum pressure on Pakistan so this situation does not spiral.”

Uzair Younus, a South Asia director at the Washington-based consultancy Albright Stonebridge Group LLC, said: “While details of the attack remain murky, we are already seeing India claiming a massive success, while Pakistan is downplaying the true extent of the damages. The upside is that it’s likely that neither side will go up the escalation ladder following this attack.”

There is no doubt Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party will use the airstrikes as an illustration of his forceful leadership, said Eswaran Sridharan, academic director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India. “Modi comes out looking strong.”