The February 2019 Balakot episode in South Asia started with a familiar predicate: an attack in Indian Kashmir, purportedly claimed by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), that killed scores of Indian security personnel. In the following days, amidst the typical overheated political rhetoric compounded by proximity to Indian general elections, India conducted a limited cross-border air strike on what it called a JeM training facility. Pakistan then carried out its own cross-border air strikes “in open space,” which begat an aerial duel that downed an Indian jet and led to Pakistan’s capture of the pilot. And, in the heat of the moment, Pakistan convened a meeting of its nuclear commanders amidst rumors of Indian threats to escalate with a missile attack. As the dust has settled in the weeks since, analysts are debating whether the limited escalations witnessed during the Balakot episode have meaning for future crises and the risk that they may, as Balakot did not, escalate to use of nuclear weapons. This analysis focuses narrowly on two relevant questions: First, does the Balakot episode change views in Delhi and Islamabad about what is required to generate deterrence and about thresholds for conflict escalation? And second, what does the limited nuclear dimension of the episode indicate about catalytic signaling?

Toby Dalton
Dalton is the co-director and a senior fellow of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. An expert on nonproliferation and nuclear energy, his work addresses regional security challenges and the evolution of the global nuclear order.
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The regularity of Pakistan-sourced or abetted attacks on Indian military and police forces in Indian Kashmir over decades demonstrates clearly that India is not able to exercise deterrence by denial at a sub-conventional level of conflict. Partly this reflects certain geographic challenges that limit the effectiveness of border management. But in the last five years in particular, the Indian government’s repressive policies against the Kashmiri population and the increased indigenization of Kashmiri militancy also contributed to this problem. It is also clear from numerous episodes since the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that coercive threats by India do not have a decisive effect on Pakistan’s tolerance or support of non-state groups that carry out attacks in India. Neither Indian military actions, such as the Balakot air attack or the 2016 “surgical strikes,” nor economic pressure or other measures such as withholding water from the Indus River, have led Pakistan to change behavior. 

India has not lacked for rhetorical effort to compel Pakistani leaders to restrain cross-border terrorism. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi threatened “a fitting response” for the Pulwama attack, stating “This is an India of new convention and policy,” a posture which Indian analysts subsequently branded the “new normal.” Previously, following the 2016 terror attack in Uri, Modi had declared, “blood and water cannot flow together” in relation to Pakistan’s share of water from the Indus River. Former Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar even suggested in 2018 that India should “remove a thorn with a thorn,” widely interpreted as a threat to sponsor terrorism in Pakistan. But such statements, to the extent they were intended for external signaling, have not really changed Pakistani’s calculus regarding India. Until Balakot, Pakistanis tended to believe both that India would not engage in diplomatic compromise over Kashmir or risk military escalation from the sub-conventional level because the potential costs outweigh the stakes involved. Modi and his Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, are seeking to change this image of India, but can increasingly cavalier threats shift the needle on Pakistani perceptions of India’s propensity to escalate? Robert Jervis once observed of this predicament, “More important in politics is the belief that the other’s signals … have no value in predicting his later behavior. His signals cannot change his image.” In sum, Modi’s threats are not universally interpreted in Pakistan as signals of fundamentally different behavior either in diplomacy or in a future crisis.

If Indian deterrent threats are bluster not backed by military commitment, then the established pattern of past crises is likely to continue, with neither side prepared to escalate much beyond limited retaliatory strikes that meet minimal political objectives to demonstrate resolve. But if Pakistan has misinterpreted Indian signals—if India were actually willing to, for instance, put boots on Pakistani soil in response to a future large-scale terror attack—then military escalation approaching the threshold that might see use of nuclear weapons is possible. There is real risk that, in a future crisis, signals intended to generate deterrence will be misinterpreted or downplayed, ensnaring civilian and military leaders in both states into commitment traps from which they will have a difficult time extricating themselves.

In this regard, media reporting after the Balakot episode about possible India missile threats is highly relevant. The missile claims appear to originate with intelligence from Pakistan and shared with the P-5, purporting that Indian officials had threatened to launch missiles at a half-dozen or more sites in Pakistan. (Indian government officials rejected this reporting at the time, though on the campaign trail Prime Minister Modi has given it some credence. The reporting remains incomplete at best.) As a potential signal of military commitment for deterrence purposes, unleashing missiles would be a major deviation from the pattern of past crises. Notwithstanding the facts of the case, however, there seems to be a shared view among some prominent thinkers in both countries that neither should cross the missile threshold because of dangers deriving from conventional/nuclear ambiguity. For instance, the Pakistani strategic affairs analyst Ejaz Haider argues an exchange of missiles would have “remarkable escalation potential.” “Missilery between nuclear powers is a big no,” he concludes. Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta agrees, contending that, “Both sides know the implications of launching even one ballistic missile…. That is why all ballistic missiles, in both countries, have been taken away from conventional forces and put under the charge of their respective strategic forces commands.”

Aside from the purported missile threats, one other signal during the Balakot episode deserves scrutiny. On February 27, the day it carried out retaliatory air strikes across the Line of Control resulting in the aerial dogfight and downing of the Indian MiG-21, Pakistan convened a meeting of the National Command Authority (NCA), its nuclear decision-making body. Pakistani media reported that the meeting would take place, but as noted in a Dawn article, this was the first publicly announced meeting of the NCA in its 19-year history to conclude without a corresponding press release. The only official statement about the meeting came from the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations, who alluded to the nuclear angle with the not-so-cryptic suggestion, “I hope you know what the National Command Authority means...” The signaling effect of publicizing the fact of the meeting but not releasing any statement of conclusions is unclear. The Dawn report speculated, presumably based on whispers from official sources, “It is believed that the silence after the NCA meeting was also a signal to the Western audience that time is running out for an intervention for de-escalation of the situation.”

Do Pakistani nuclear signals still serve catalytic purposes during crises to increase concern and draw attention from external powers? Clearly some in Pakistan believe so, notwithstanding a broad sentiment in the international community that India is in its right to retaliate against terrorist groups. In the past, Pakistan used nuclear signals to encourage Washington to intervene, perhaps also to rehyphenate Indo-Pak as a policy problem in important capitals. But with the United States more clearly siding with India in recent years, such nuclear signaling seems unlikely to produce the same result. Here, too, evidence of effective catalysis during the Balakot episode is lacking, though more information may yet emerge. In the end, de-escalation after the events on February 27 looks to have occurred less because of outside intervention, and more due to a political calculus that left both Indian and Pakistani leaderships sufficiently satisfied with the status quo.

Will the next South Asia episode follow a similar arc? On the basis of current evidence, probably. Yet changing politics and attitudes in India in favor of more muscular regional policies, and evolving military technologies in both India and Pakistan mean the South Asian conflict space is far from static. The propensity is high for signals to be misinterpreted and risks miscalculated. Before the next crisis, policy analysts, scholars,and officials from the region and beyond should assess in particular how signals were conveyed during this episode, what the senders intended, how the receivers interpreted them, and what that implies for escalation management. Leaders in India and Pakistan must also evaluate critically the potential for their rhetoric during this episode to exacerbate commitment traps. Neither Delhi nor Islamabad should count on accurate signaling or outside intervention to arrest a future crisis that escalates beyond existing thresholds.

This article was originally published by the Nuclear Crisis Group.