February 28, 2019

Longstanding tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated significantly since Feb. 14, triggering serious transport and business disruptions in both countries and in the wider Asia-Pacific region.


Flight Disruptions

Pakistani authorities closed their nation's airspace to civilian flights as a precautionary measure Feb. 27 following intrusions by Indian and Pakistani air forces over the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed Kashmir region. Pakistan claims to have shot down two Indian Air Force (IAF) jets that violated Pakistani airspace; one Pakistani Air Force (PAF) aircraft was also apparently destroyed during aerial combat. The Pakistani military has captured one IAF pilot. However, no additional airspace violations have been confirmed as of Feb. 28. The Feb. 27 incidents were the first confirmed aerial combat between the IAF and PAF since 1971. 

The closure of Pakistani airspace prompted significant regional flight disruptions. Thousands of passengers were stranded Feb. 27 when Thai Airways (TG) suspended all flights between Thailand and Europe. Air Canada (AC) canceled flights connecting India and Canada. Air Astana (KC) suspended flights from Delhi to Almaty. Hundreds of international flights were forced to avoid Pakistani airspace by rerouting over western China and the Persian Gulf. 


Why Clashes Happened

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since their independence and partition in 1947. The two countries continue to claim rightful sovereignty over the entirety of the mountainous Jammu and Kashmir region. Bilateral tension between the two nuclear-armed states was significantly exacerbated by an attack on a military convoy in Pulwama District, Jammu and Kashmir State, India, Feb. 14 that killed over 40 Indian security personnel. The attack was claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant group. Indian authorities have accused Pakistan of supporting JeM and retaliated by carrying out strikes against alleged JeM targets near Balakot, Chakoti, and Muzaffarabad early Feb. 26. Pakistan, which has denied responsibility for the Feb. 14 blasts, responded with air strikes on Indian-controlled territory across the LoC in Kashmir, Feb. 27. 


Future Forecast of Unrest

The possibility of an all-out war remains low. Additional clashes and shelling will likely be confined to areas along the LoC in the disputed Kashmir region to prevent wider conflict. Air strikes by either country cannot be ruled out and could result in further airspace closures. Pakistani authorities plan to repatriate their captured Indian pilot on March 1; the move will likely reduce bilateral tensions. Diplomats from concerned global powers, including the US and China, have been in touch with both sides to urge military restraint. 

However, the fundamental dispute over Kashmir will almost certainly remain unresolved. Neither India nor Pakistan wants to give up their claim to the entirety of the region due to Kashmir's strategic importance and water resources. Kashmir's symbolic significance combined with domestic political factors in both countries exacerbates the dispute. Militant and political groups in the Kashmir Valley will remain opposed to the "occupation" by Indian forces, and the insurgency, which has been waged to various degrees since 1989, is likely to continue. Various Kashmiri separatist groups employ methods ranging from street protests to armed attacks to undermine the official Indian presence in the area.

Whether Pakistan will significantly reassess its support for Kashmiri insurgents following the confrontation with India remains unclear. India maintains over 200,000 military personnel in Kashmir, and over 100,000 additional paramilitary forces are also in the region. These numbers would likely be lower without an insurgency in Kashmir. Backing Kashmiri insurgents gives the Pakistani military, which is outnumbered by its Indian rival, a degree of strategic leverage. However, even if Pakistan did not back Kashmiri insurgents, at least some level of insurgency would likely remain in the region. Ethnic insurgencies in northeast India and a Maoist insurgency in parts of southeast India have continued for decades without significant foreign backing.

Indian officials have pledged to continue targeting "terror camps" in Pakistan so long as the Pakistani government continues to support anti-India insurgents in Kashmir. Additional air strikes and shelling are possible in Kashmir, essentially at any time. Despite these longstanding and intractable differences, neither side wants to escalate their dispute to the point where nuclear warfare becomes a distinct possibility. Clashes are highly likely to remain contained to the disputed Kashmir region. If clashes were to extend to areas outside the disputed Kashmir region to areas along the mutually recognized international border (along Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Sindh), individuals and organizations operating in the India and Pakistan would need to reconsider their operational stances.


Advice for Operating in the Area 

Nationalist protests are likely to continue in both countries in the coming days. These demonstrations should gradually abate if tensions decrease; protests could become larger and more disruptive if combat becomes more intense or extends to new areas. Demonstrators may march on roadways and cause localized ground transport disruptions. 

Those operating in the region should continue to closely monitor India-Pakistan tensions and plan for related disruptions. Travelers should confirm all flights in Pakistan and all international services to and from India through at least early March; lingering disruptions are likely even after airspace is reopened as airlines will need to clear passenger backlogs. Avoid nationalist protests in both India and Pakistan due to the potential for security disturbances.


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