Grace LiuBeyond Posturing and Rhetoric: Analyzing the Standoff in Kashmir

This post was authored by Russell Williams, a graduate research assistant at CNS.

Misinformation abounds as nuclear rivals India and Pakistan face off once again in Kashmir. Both nations have exploited the conflict for domestic political gain, making a stream of false claims about their successes over the enemy, and engaging in nuclear posturing. The quick escalation of events during this skirmish illustrate how quickly a small skirmish could eventually evolve into a nuclear war.
What actually happened during the standoff in Kashmir and which facts can we corroborate with open-source information?

India Retaliates in Pakistani Territory

On February 14, a militant Jihadi terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) staged a suicide bombing against Indian paramilitary forces in the Pulwama district of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, killing 40. The attack was reportedly carried out using the high-explosive RDX, a common military ordinance used by the Pakistani military, which led to India quickly accusing Pakistan of staging the attack. India also alleged that Pakistan has been providing safe haven for terrorist groups within its territory.

On February 26, the Indian Air Force (IAF) launched cross-border airstrikes inside Pakistan’s borders, claiming to destroy a JeM training camp outside the town of Balakot and killing “a very large number” of JeM members. However, satellite imagery of the site does not corroborate India’s claim. Images from March 6, 2019 do not show damage to the site when compared to images taken in 2017. This lack of visible destruction suggests that the IAF could have missed its intended target.

The Pakistani government disputed India’s account of the bombing’s impact, declaring that the strikes inflicted no casualties at all. Pakistani Armed Forces spokesperson Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor released ground photos via Twitter depicting damaged trees, bomb fragments, and impact craters, with the message, “payload of hastily escaping Indian aircrafts fell in (the) open”, implying the bombs had missed their intended target. Maj. Gen. Ghafoor’s photo (below) appears to depict the location of the airstrikes. The view shown in his photo can be located using Google Earth. The photo and satellite imagery of the surrounding area suggest that the bombs likely struck the hillside adjacent to the camp, supporting Pakistan’s assertions that the IAF did not inflict significant damage.

Counterattack by the Pakistani Air Force

In response to Indian cross-border incursion and airstrikes Pakistan scrambled fighters and engaged Indian aircraft on the morning of February 27. Pakistan claimed to have shot down two IAF MiG-21 Bison fighter jets in the Kashmir region, one purportedly crashing in Pakistani territory, and the other in Indian territory. The Indian government denies the downing of an IAF jet on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC), acknowledging only one MiG-21 was lost on Pakistani territory, along with its pilot. No open-source evidence thus far indicates that a second Indian jet was shot down.

The MiG-21 acknowledged by India was piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and was shot down in the Bhimber District of Pakistan Administered Kashmir on the LoC. Abhinandan ejected from the aircraft and landed by parachute in the area of Horran village where he was taken into custody by the Pakistani military.

Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson for the Indian Minister of External Affairs reported in a statement that “one Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft was shot down by Indian Air Force;” no evidence supports this claim. Many media reports and the Indian government insist that the downed aircraft was an F-16 which fell in Pakistani territory. Video of such events tend to spread quickly on social media, but as of yet no ground photos, videos, or satellite imagery have surfaced to verify such reports.

F-16: A Case of Mistaken Identity?

Early reports of a downed PAF F-16 in Pakistani territory likely misattributed IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan’s MiG-21 to the PAF. Indian media, such as CNN affiliate News18, reported that a Pakistani F-16 was shot down over the Naushera Sector, referring to the Rajouri District of Indian Jammu and Kashmir.

Rajouri district lies directly across the LoC from the location in which IAF pilot Abhinandan’s MiG-21crashed only a short distance from the location where he ejected and was captured, near Horran village in Pakistani territory.

Indian locals that reported seeing an ejecting pilot and crashing Pakistani F-16 may have actually witnessed the crashing of the IAF’s MiG-21.

Satellite imagery appears to show a faint plume of smoke emanating from the location of the MiG-21 wreckage on the morning of February 27, roughly half an hour after the dogfight.  It is entirely plausible that Indian eyewitnesses in the vicinity of the ejection area of pilot Abhinandan and to the crash site mistakenly identified the IAF MiG-21 for a PAF F-16, especially given the lack of any other concrete evidence that an F-16 was downed.

Media Inaccuracy Around the Mi-17

The same morning of the battle between IAF and PAF fighter jets, an Indian Mi-17 helicopter crashed in Budgam District of Indian Kashmir, although the crash was unrelated to the dogfight. The downing of the Mi-17 was not claimed by Pakistan: the helicopter was on a “routine mission” when the accident occurred. Many international news outlets incorrectly used video footage of this crash in their reports regarding the downing of the IAF MiG-21 in Pakistan. The footage shows a helicopter blade protruding from a wreckage, with Indian military and paramilitary guards at the scene, not Pakistani. The media coverage of the incident further muddied the waters around the timeline of events on the LoC and contributed to the confusion surrounding the skirmish.

Sabre-Rattling: A Dangerous Game

In a calculated gesture of peace, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the captured pilot Abhinandan would be returned to India. Just before his release, Pakistani officials took a last-minute opportunity to produce a propaganda piece, forcing the pilot to appear in a heavily edited video showing him praising the Pakistani Army and their treatment of him during his captivity. Many in India believe his statements were made under duress.

In a video address, Prime Minister Khan chastised India for its “miscalculations” and made a veiled threat that such decisions could result in the use of nuclear weapons. These types of threats have been used with disturbing regularity by both nuclear-capable states as they attempt to convince the other that each is ready to use these weapons. Recent reports contend that the two states threatened one another with missile strikes during the conflict. India allegedly threatened to use six missiles on targets inside Pakistan”, prompting Pakistan to declare that for each Indian missile launched, it would respond “three times over”.

With a rapidly approaching general election in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scoring political points by taking a strong stance toward Pakistan. The Pulwama bombing has lent Modi an opportunity to drum up support for his party’s leadership through military action against the nation’s most bitter rival at a time when Indian voters’ overwhelming support for the party has begun to falter.

The posturing on both sides is especially disturbing considering the nuclear capabilities of the two countries. Pakistan possesses an estimated 145 nuclear warheads, and India 135. Both countries possess tactical, short, and medium-range ballistic missiles, giving them the ability to strike any location in their respective rival’s territory.

The true danger of nuclear posturing and threats between the two rivals is that they may lose their lustre over time. The more frequently such threats are used, the more likely the leaders of the two nations may be seen as ‘all bark and no bite’ by their respective constituencies. This reputation is not particularly advantageous for winning elections, and could drive leaders to follow through on their threats to use nuclear weapons – with disastrous results.

This most recent engagement between India and Pakistan shows how the dynamics between India and Pakistan can quickly escalate as a result of misinformation and inaccurate media reporting.

Prime Minister Khan crafted an image of Pakistan as an arbiter of peace in the region by releasing the Indian pilot at a crucial time, while Prime Minister Modi portrayed himself heroically as a hardliner against Pakistani aggression – an image that may help him in the upcoming election. At times, the two countries’ desire to control their narrative seemed to overshadow their desire to avoid escalating the conflict – a conflict that inevitably raised the nuclear specter.

While the arms control community cannot prevent political posturing or the media’s rush to judgment, tools such as commercially-available satellite imagery allow analysts in the open-source to fact-check claims. This provides another level of transparency that can hopefully help stakeholders in the region to better manage escalation between these two nuclear-armed countries.