India and Pakistan account for almost 5.0 million b/d of crude oil imports, most headed to India. As a result, any conflict or potential for military escalation is relevant to the global oil market. Last week’s exchange of air strikes between India and Pakistan is a stark reminder of how vulnerable the region is to military confrontation.
Last week, the two nuclear-armed states of India and Pakistan exchanged air strikes and continued artillery and small arms fire across the Line of Control in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. The air strikes are a new component of the clashes between the two South Asian rivals. This latest exchange began when a Kashmiri-born terrorist conducted a suicide car-bomb attack on a bus convoy of Indian security forces, killing over forty. The Pakistani-based terrorist organization, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), claimed responsibility for the attack. In response, India conducted an air strike on a JeM headquarters and training camp. Pakistan retaliated with its own air strike on targets in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, and somewhere between one and three jets were downed in dogfights over Jammu and Kashmir. As with all previous terrorist attacks and military exchanges since the May 1998 nuclear tests and declarations by India and Pakistan, there is a concern about escalation to a broader conventional war with the further risk of nuclear use. This particular clash increased risks of escalation, which remain as of this report, and they also raised the chances for more violent exchanges in the future. The closure of Pakistani airspace for over a day also demonstrated how Indo-Pak clashes do and could disrupt international commerce going forward.
A similar pattern of terrorist attack and response occurred in 2016. In that case, India’s response was a series of “surgical strikes” using army special forces that only went a few kilometers into Pakistani-administrated Kashmir. Pakistan denied that the raids took place, and each side increased its shelling and shooting across the Line of Control. This time around, the exchange has a number of new elements. First, India struck using close to a dozen fighters dropping 1,000 kg bombs. The target was a larger JeM headquarters and camp, and it was located in Pakistan proper over thirty miles from the Line of Control. This puts India’s retaliation beyond the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. As strikes reach beyond what has been an accepted battleground of Jammu and Kashmir, risks increase for misunderstanding, mistakes, and escalation. Key military and civilian targets are within minutes of the border and Line of Control by air. Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, is only forty miles south of where India struck at the JeM targets this time around. Depending on the route the aircraft took, they could have come within miles of Pakistan’s seat of government and military headquarters. Pakistan also chose to strike back in similar fashion, although it claimed that its air strikes were purposely targeted to limit casualties and damage.
The use of combat aircraft also led to a closure of Pakistani airspace to commercial aviation for close to two days. If India chooses to involve its Navy in retaliation the next time around, shipping could be disrupted as territorial waters could be closed or India’s Navy could notify commercial mariners of a maritime exclusion zone. Broader use of military retaliation of this sort could engender concerns about economic strangulation, a Pakistani concern during the 1971 war between these two states and one of Pakistan’s potential “red lines” for nuclear use, according to a retired general who headed Pakistan’s nuclear forces.The military and political tensions between the two states play heavily in domestic politics. In this instance, elections in India are slated for late April or early May, and Prime Minister Modi and his governing party, the BJP, have a made a point of showing their toughness with regard to Pakistan and terrorism. In addition to the military security pressure to retaliate, the domestic political pressure to be seen as tough could lean towards escalation versus stepping back at this point.