Forget Body Count, After Balakot, the Game Has Already Changed

Whether or not the air strikes killed terrorists, India changed the game by hitting undisputed Pakistani territory.

5 min read
Hindi Female

As tempers recede, it’s a good time to look at the new strategic situation between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. What has changed?

One thing's for sure: The self-imposed restriction (like in Kargil) not to cross LoC with the IAF has been broken. Future governments will not be able to reinstate it in a similar future crisis for fear of seeming weak. And a future Pakistani government will now have no choice but to respond to any such retaliatory action by India, for exactly the same reason.

This represents an unmistakable escalation; a new, more unstable equilibrium that increases risks of nuclear war for both countries.

No More Complacency

This new situation, and the rapid escalation, should spur a rethink of the almost complacent idea of the Stability-Instability Paradox (SIP), that comes into play when the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) – where two (or more) powers have the ability to totally destroy each other – is in effect.

Whether or not the air strikes killed terrorists, India changed the game by hitting undisputed Pakistani territory.

One of the reasons SIP should not be considered to hold in India-Pakistan is that Pakistan's stated nuclear red lines are deliberately kept vague, to force India to err on the side of caution.

But at the same time, Pakistan is also the adventurist/revisionist side – this means that Pakistan takes actions (through terrorists/non-state actors) to change the status quo and gain territory, and then uses its nuclear umbrella to prevent any retaliation to these acts by India's conventional forces.


This is the exact opposite situation as in the Cold War, after which SIP was articulated. In that conflict, it was the conventionally stronger Warsaw Pact countries who were the ones trying to gain territory, with NATO forces trying to repel these attempts with nuclear threats.

But the situation with India and Pakistan is an untenable and inherently unstable one, the likes of which hasn’t been seen before – which is why India has had a hard time deterring Pakistan-sponsored attacks.

Pakistan's Lt Gen (retd) Khalid Kidwai had articulated, in 2001, that four vague red lines seemed to threaten a Pakistani nuke only in response to Indian actions that Pakistan judged as threatening its very survival; Pakistani military officers since then have suggested that ANY Indian action across the LoC would invite a nuclear response.

That threat was what had curtailed Indian actions in Kargil – but after Balakot, this bluff has now been called.

Pros & Cons

1. We are now closer in the ladder to nuclear war; instability increases.

2. With one bluff called, there may be the temptation to call other perceived bluffs in the future, increasing the risk of accidentally actually triggering Pakistan’s red lines.

1. Increased costs for Pakistani terror adventurism leading to (hopefully) increased deterrence.

Previously, the costs for Pakistan utilising terror against India were minimal. It would wind up some terrorists and let them loose in India's direction... if anything went wrong, only the terrorists died, while the Pakistani Army remained unscathed. Now, at the very least, there is a cost in terms of national prestige that Pakistan can expect to suffer... and if it goes too far, it's now conceivable that India might not limit itself to terrorist training camps next time.


What Has Pakistan Lost?

Materially? Not much. The jury is still out on whether terrorists were killed, with conflicting reports – the IAF says they were killed, but that they cannot estimate the numbers, promising the government would reveal them soon; PM Modi’s right-hand man Amit Shah says 250 JeM terrorists were killed; and the Pakistani Army and civilian government both claim none were killed at all. There hasn’t been confirmation of a downed Pakistani F-16 either, though India claims it shot one down.

But even if JeM terrorists were killed, the material harm to the Pakistani state would not be high – despite Pakistani Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi’s BBC interview in which he let slip that the Pakistani state was in close contact with JeM chief Masood Azhar. Ultimately, it loses only expendable terrorists.

But material harm may not have been the point of the Balakot air strikes – the point may instead have been simply to send a clear warning, ‘We can strike you within your territory, and your nuclear umbrella won’t stop us’. That alone is a valid message to send.

What Pakistan has lost, is face. The international community has united behind India, calling on Pakistan to act against terrorists on its soil. Importantly, there has been no condemnation of India's violation of Pakistan sovereignty, not even from China beyond a lukewarm statement calling for nations to ‘respect each other's sovereignty’.

What Has India Lost?

Soldiers, and also, face... sort of.

Obviously the 40 CRPF jawans killed in Pulwama was the major cost India bore here. But the capturing of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was a hit to prestige – it seems that Pakistan got in both the first and the last blow (from Pulwama to the aerial dogfight) in this fight, only slightly mitigated by how it was made to hand the Wing Commander back without any public concession from India to deescalate.

It is to Imran Khan’s credit that he was able to convincingly spin his weak position into one of magnanimity and that a not-insignificant number of Indians (and of course, Pakistanis) bought it.

At the same time, India's own public messaging has been a mess, making Khan seem statesmanlike in comparison. From the first press conference that claimed India had inflicted massive JeM casualties, to the PM's long silence, to the blatant politicking over the near-war situation before (and after!) Abhinandan came home, India’s government has not covered itself in glory despite being in the right, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

With the roller-coaster ride of first being 'Guest of Honour' at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to Pakistan's irritation, to the snub of the OIC ultimately condemning India for "terrorism in Kashmir", there has been an attempt to make India and Pakistan both seem in the wrong, just in different ways. And with India now having attended, the OIC has emerged with a just little more legitimacy thanks to our presence.


Here are key facts that must be kept in mind going forward:

1. The acknowledgement of India’s restraint over all these decades of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is what has allowed the international community to cut it so much slack as it violated a neighbouring country's territorial integrity – that license is unlikely to last forever.

2. It is Pakistan's well-known reputation as a sponsor of terror and bad-faith actor in all of its neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Iran) and ostensible ‘allies’ (like the US) that has led to the lack of sympathy from the rest of the world.

Were any of these to change, the next spar could turn out very differently.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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