India and Pakistan are in the throes of the most serious military standoff between them since 2002. After years of absorbing terror attacks conceived by non-state groups based on Pakistani soil, India decided enough was enough after a February 14 vehicle-borne improvised explosive device killed forty paramilitary personnel. It’s response? An airstrike on what it claimed was a camp run by Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group that claimed the attack, on Pakistani soil.
That retaliation was immediately celebrated in India, where it was seen as a show of muscular resolve—a message that New Delhi wouldn’t simply allow Pakistan’s tolerance and covert encouragement of the non-state groups to go unpunished. But the strike humiliated Pakistan’s defense establishment, which was perceived to have been caught off-guard.
India described the strike as preemptive and driven by highly specific intelligence about a credible imminent threat. Critically, New Delhi underscored that the targets were “non-military”—that it wasn’t looking to start a war. In any case, Pakistan’s version of events was sharply divergent, with its military claiming that India had struck nothing more than foliage.
There was some recent precedence to make sense of the initial Indian strike and Pakistan’s response. New Delhi had retaliated to a lower-casualty attack in Kashmir in September 2016 by conducting what it called “surgical strikes” into Pakistan-administered Kashmir, taking out facilities used by terrorists. Pakistan simply wrote off that action and took the public position that nothing had happened, offering a face-saving off-ramp for both sides that prevented a crisis like the one we’re seeing today from bubbling up.
After this week’s Indian strikes, however, Pakistan did not feel it had the same out. In a press conference after the Indian attack, Pakistan’s top military spokesperson strongly refuted the idea that it had been caught off-guard and promised India a befitting response at a time and place of its choosing. With that, we had the assurance of escalation: Pakistan had boxed itself in.