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Situation Update - India & Pakistan Conflict

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INDIA & PAKISTAN CLOSE AIRSPACE TO COMMERCIAL FLIGHTS AMID ESCALATING TENSION

Kashmir

  • Pakistan CAA confirms all airspace closed countrywide until further notice

  • Indian airspace also experiencing restrictions across northern air traffic control sectors

  • Airspace closures and restrictions in response to military air incursions over disputed Kashmir border region which resulted in the claimed downing of both IAF and PAF fighters

  • International flights forced to divert or return to origin due to airspace restrictions

  • Pilots of downed IAF fighters reportedly detained by Pakistan

  • Indian Railways issues security alert; increases measures on trains operating in border areas

  • Exchanges of mortars and small arms fire reported along the LoC overnight 26 February

  • Karachi stock exchange plummets amid escalating tension


Situation

The Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan has confirmed that its airspace has been closed until further notice following an escalation of tensions between Pakistan and India in the disputed Kashmir border region. India also implemented restrictions across its northern airspace amid military operations by both the Indian and Pakistan air forces. 

The airspace closures and restrictions follow the claimed downing of both IAF and PAF fighter jets, which is being widely reported in the press, yet disputed by both nations. India claims its air defence forces shot down a PAF F-16 fighter jet flying close to the LoC, which subsequently crash landed three kilometres in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. 

The Pakistan Air Force has also claimed it shot down two IAF fighter jets inside Pakistani airspace, both said to be MiG 21 ‘Bison’ aircraft. Pakistani authorities later alleged the pilot of one of the downed fighters had been captured and detained, and subsequently released video footage showing a blindfolded pilot. This video footage, in which the pilot identifies himself as Wing-Commander Abhinandan of the IAF, has since been removed. Although India has denied any pilots are detained, they have confirmed a pilot is missing in action. 

The latest escalation follows a military air incursion across the Line of Control inside Pakistan on Tuesday 26 February, in what the Indian government claim is in response to credible intelligence the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist organisation was attempting to carry out another suicide terrorist attack. India confirmed twelve Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter jets were tasked on 26 February with targeting training camps allegedly belonging to JeM and LeT across the Line of Control inside Pakistan. 

On 14 February, a terrorist attack on a convoy of Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in Pulwama district resulted in 40 fatalities and after being claimed by Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, India accused Pakistan of being involved in orchestrating the attack, the deadliest terror attack on India's state security personnel in Kashmir since 1989. 

The Indian Foreign Minister released a statement on Wednesday 27 February indicating that its air strikes were not intended to be a military operation, but instead “The limited objective of the pre-emptive strike was to act decisively against the terrorist infrastructure of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in order to pre-empt another terror attack in India.” Pakistan continues to refute India’s claims that Pakistani security agencies played a role in the 14 February attack. 

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan has also addressed the nation stating airstrikes by the PAF were only designed to show Pakistan's "capability" in defending itself. This follows a briefing by Pakistan’s Major General Ghafoor in which he insists his forces had no alternative but to respond in light of Tuesday’s air strikes over the LoC into Pakistani administered territory. 

Aside from the airstrikes, heavy shelling has been reported along the LoC as Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged fire. Cross-border mortar fire is said to have resulted in both military and civilian casualties in Rajouri and Poonch districts on Tuesday 26 February. Whilst these clashes are not uncommon, reports do indicate an uptick in military activity along the LoC.

Analysis

Despite this alarming escalation in tensions, both India and Pakistan have indicated neither country is seeking any further escalation, with diplomatic steps seemingly underway supported by other major powers internationally. 

Pakistan’s PM has said "Better sense should prevail. We should sit down and talk" following his address to the nation on Wednesday afternoon; similarly, India’s government has reiterated its actions were not a military operation, adding "India does not wish to see further escalation of this situation. India will continue to act with responsibility and restraint." 

Kashmir has long been a sensitive region for India and Pakistan and stems back to underlying issues following the British withdrawal from India in 1947, after which Jammu and Kashmir was left to decide which country it would join. This sparked war between the two nations and Kashmir’s status has been in dispute ever since. Consequently both nations continue to lay claim to Kashmir, which has been bitterly fought over ever since with two wars and countless skirmishes. 

However, the airstrikes by the IAF on Tuesday 26 February were the first to cross the Line of Control, the de facto border between the Indian- and Pakistani-held areas of Kashmir, since 1971. Irrespective of whether the IAF air strikes on Tuesday did indeed destroy JeM training camps in disputed Kashmir, what is clear is that the offensive is a very strong deterrent message from India to Pakistan, in that it’s air force can cross the LoC and deliver a significant payload of laser guided bombs, while it can also reach other cities inside Pakistan. It is likely this is what forced Pakistan to respond using its own air force, and the rhetoric coming from official channels does indeed corroborate this following Imran Khan’s televised address to the nation.

Nevertheless the Pakistan government will have to tread cautiously given the IAF did not initially target Pakistani military or its infrastructure during Tuesday’s air strikes, instead aiming to limit the capability of a known terrorist organisation in what India claims it perceived as an imminent threat. This could prove to be a key catalyst to limiting the fallout as it would be very difficult for Pakistan to justify any further military action as a counter-offensive into Indian controlled Kashmir without targeting military installations or the civilian population. 

An act of aggression from either country would almost certainly bring strong condemnation globally, and possibly even retribution economically, which neither India nor Pakistan can ill afford. Additionally, despite both nations having been to war four times previously, the latest in 1999, a new war in 2019 would prove mutually disastrous, depleting already fragile economies, isolating international partners and potentially drawing in other global powers, further destabilising the entire region. 

Both countries are nuclear super powers in their own right; however, they have similar challenges internally to contend with, which are likely to influence the outcome of this latest escalation. A fifth of India’s population and a third of Pakistan’s live in extreme poverty. The political landscape is fractious on both sides, with Pakistan’s PM newly sworn in last August, and India facing a closely fought general election in May. Whether these issues are used to play down the rhetoric and diffuse the escalation, or exploited for political gains, remains to be seen.

 
Implications

An outright outbreak of war between the two nations remains a last resort for both; however, we do expect Indian and Pakistani forces to remain on high alert along the Line of Control separating the Indian- and Pakistan-administered areas, with sporadic LoC violations likely to continue, garnering greater than normal media attention. 

Moreover, additional rhetoric is expected along with the possibility of further security incidents in restive areas of Kashmir. The incident could also potentially result in protests/civil unrest over the coming days, both within the region and across both countries. Additional security alerts could be issued for other areas of India, as is common during periods of heightened tensions and during key political periods, owing to the prevailing terrorist threats. 

External rhetoric and pressure from the international community will likely originate from the US, UK, and China, all of which continue to hold significant interests in the region, and to some degree from neighbouring Nepal. 

In the longer-term, how the crisis is ultimately resolved will heavily affect the domestic popularity of both leaders; threatening political upheaval in either nation, should there be a perception of weakness concerning national security.

Flight operations to/from and between India/Pakistan, as well as international flight corridors that use the affected airspaces will remain at risk of short notice disruptions/cancellations in the coming days.

Advice

  • The entire area either side of the Line of Control is assessed as Extreme Risk and we advise against all travel at this time. Should business critical travel be necessary, ensure robust protective security measures are in place to meet specific threats and to minimise vulnerability and risk.

  • Both India and Pakistan are assessed as High Risk countries; assess, evaluate and take appropriate action to ensure your safety and security. If travel is deemed essential in light of the current escalation in tension, ensure that additional protective security measures are in place.

  • Closely monitor the situation. Due to the closure of airspace, if you are currently within either country, the best option is likely to remain in situ until flight operations resume and a decision can be made on whether to leave via commercial means or continue with your trip.

  • If you have flights booked into either country, you should contact your airline to ascertain the latest situation regarding flight operations.

  • Be aware that this latest escalation could trigger outpours of nationalism on both sides, which could spark civil unrest given the sensitive nature of the dispute.