Until yesterday’s extraordinary handover of the Indian pilot shot down over Pakistan, who crossed the border at Wagah to receive a hero’s welcome, the clash between the two countries threatened to match previous bouts of aggression, with both nations stirred into a frenzy of warring rhetoric.
In the aftermath of the February 14 Pulwama attack, in which more than 40 soldiers were killed in India-administered Kashmir, India retaliated by blaming Pakistani state complicity and revoked Most Favoured Nation trading status for Pakistan. Both countries recalled their envoys; India in protest against what it saw as Pakistan’s role in the attack and Pakistan to refute India’s unproven allegations.
Yet on Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would be returning home as a "peace gesture". "Let sanity prevail," Mr Khan urged. "All wars in the world have been started on miscalculations on the time and the human cost of war."
A benevolent gesture, certainly, but will it be enough to stave off hostilities? It should be remembered that India and Pakistan have previously fought three wars, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir. There was also a controversial brief high-altitude fight in the Kargil mountains of Kashmir in 1999, shortly after both countries tested nuclear weapons.
High political stakes underlie the hostilities. Mr Khan has been in office only a few months, while Mr Modi is seeking to get re-elected this spring. Both risked losing face on domestic soil by backing down. A compromise was needed, particularly after world powers urged restraint from both sides, and Mr Khan has shown willing in taking the first step. But it will take more than a gesture to end the long-standing conflict between two nuclear-armed neighbours.
The heightened tension between the two countries is fraught with perils, since politicians on both sides of the divide have sought to use it to bolster their own constituencies by a show of strength. Some Pakistani commentators have even claimed that the Pulwama attack was a trap set for Pakistan by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many Indian policy analysts on the other hand, hailed Mr Modi's initial response to Pulwama, when he threatened "crushing" action and launched airstrikes on Pakistan, as a show of strength.
This tit-for-tat pattern of strikes and firepower across the Line of Control, Kashmir’s de facto border between the two countries, has served a certain purpose, however, and might be sufficient to de-escalate tensions. Both nations have responded to each other’s incursions over the line, and thus both can state that they have fulfilled their obligations to national security, and then better sense can prevail.
Intervention by foreign powers, including the US and the UAE, might also have been helpful. US President Donald Trump has no doubt realised (or been warned by his foreign policy hawks) that what might have started as mere posturing had reached a near-war crisis that could have easily spilled into real combat. There was a danger that the US could have been called upon to play the same role in defusing the crisis that it did during the Kargil clash, when a rebuke from Bill Clinton led Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister, to pull back his soldiers.
The escalation in the hostile relationship between two neighbours is particularly disheartening, as it comes at a time when Pakistan is showing real initiative in transitioning into an economic reform paradigm and distancing itself from its perception as a sponsor of terrorism.
Indeed, terrorist incidents are at their lowest level since 2007. Pakistan has asserted greater authority over the troubled former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the north-western region and revamped its strategy to deal with extremism with the National Counter Terrorism Authority. In 2014, Pakistan also instigated a national internal security policy, acknowledging for the first time that it needed to do something about indigenous extremism.
At the same time, it is trying to overcome challenges in the form of sluggish economic growth, coupled with crippling current account and fiscal deficit, as it looks to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. Pakistan is also looking to increase its presence on the global stage by strengthening its economic ties with Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, as well as China.
However, all of this has melded into the background as the Kashmiri crisis looms large.
Conversely, for India, Kashmir has always been a manifestation of Pakistan’s proxy war. For India, the tensions are perpetuated by Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence but a deeper analysis reveals fracture lines in the valley that are hard to ignore.
Significantly, the young suicide bomber in the Pulwama attack was clearly a native of India-controlled Kashmir. His family said his beatings at the hands of Indian security forces were the driving force for his radicalisation.
This, and the much-touted waving of ISIS or Pakistani flags by youth in Kashmir, are not just symptoms of discontent but also of a number of factors driving young people to extremism in the valley.
Pulwama district has been in the limelight for some months because of reported Indian security force brutalities. The latest escalation has exposed Kashmir's fracture lines to the world, with Amnesty International and human rights groups citing widespread abuses throughout the area.
Shooting at, and blinding, unarmed youth taking part in street protests with pellet guns has been an Indian paramilitary tactic without comparison in the civilised world. A recent United Nations report stated that more than 6,000 people had been injured in a one-year period and more than 700 suffered damage to their eyesight as a result; among the victims was an 18-month-old toddler in November last year. Radicalisation has become a real issue for Indian policymakers. Regardless of the connotations of independence or what the eventual status of Kashmir will be, it is a deeply problematic area for India, with policymakers clearly at a loss as to how to prevent violence from spreading, even after using brute force.
It is also an indoctrinating factor for more violence. Nisid Hajari from Bloomberg has pointed out that the Indian perception of Kashmiri youth as a national security threat only increases the scope for them to become substrates for extremism.
Both states must now exercise restraint. With considerable nuclear stockpiles, the military concept of mutual assured destruction remains as strong as ever, and any escalation could spiral out of control to the point where Pakistan, asymmetrical to India in terms of conventional military power, is backed into a corner. So far, there are positive signs that Pakistan recognises this is not an option and has been asking India to revert back to talks to de-escalate tensions. This might be accepted, as jingoism on both sides slowly subsides in the wake of the pilot's handover and both states can rest assured that they have been seen to flex their muscles and that it is time now to go back to the table.
However, the damage has been done in terms of regressing India-Pakistan relations back to a state of outright hostility. It remains problematic to envision how these two neighbours can break the spiral of one step forward, two steps back, unless deeply entrenched mindsets are somehow changed. As Mr Khan warned ominously: “With our weapons capability on both sides, can we afford a miscalculation? It will neither be in my control or Modi’s.” That is a gamble neither leader can afford to take.
Khawaja Khalid Farooq is the former head of Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority and a retired inspector general for Pakistan Police