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The recent spike in tensions between India and Pakistan, explained

Pakistan has released the Indian pilot it captured earlier this week in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Members of an Indian political party in Noida, India, celebrating after the airstrike on Balakot on Tuesday, February 26, 2019.
Supporters of the youth wing of India’s governing party in Noida, India, celebrating after the airstrike on Balakot on February 26, 2019.
Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Tensions between two nuclear-armed countries, India and Pakistan, are at one of the highest points in decades. On Friday, though, the situation seemed to improve somewhat when Pakistan released an Indian combat pilot that they had captured earlier that week.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s plane was shot down during an air skirmish between the two countries on Wednesday. After parachuting into Pakistani territory, he was reportedly beaten by a mob of people before the military took him into custody. In one video that emerged, Varthaman is shown blindfolded and bloody, and in another, he is drinking tea and saying that he’s been treated well.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to release the pilot comes amid public pressure on the two leaders to back down from the brink of war, after a number of recent tit for tat attacks.

Earlier this month, a militant group based in Pakistan carried out a suicide bomb attack that killed dozens of Indian troops in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, a disputed border region. Then, on Tuesday, India launched an airstrike on Pakistani territory, reportedly targeting the militant group’s training facility — the first time India has sent warplanes into Pakistani territory since the 1970s.

The next day, Pakistan’s military said that it had conducted airstrikes within Indian-controlled Kashmir and had shot down two Indian planes that had entered Pakistani airspace. A spokesperson for the Pakistani military also confirmed on Twitter that they had captured the Indian Air Force pilot.

Meanwhile, India’s foreign ministry said that they had shot down a Pakistani plane, and confirmed that one of their own planes had been lost.

On Tuesday, Khan scheduled a special session of the National Command Authority, the government arm that oversees the country’s nuclear weapons. The situation remains tense, and some fear that things could escalate out of control, potentially even ending in the unthinkable: the use of nuclear weapons.

Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project, tweeted that both sides needed to take immediate steps to improve the situation. “Why do both Pakistan and Indian heads of state signal that they have no control over rapidly evolving military escalation?” he wrote. “They need to rein in their generals and make decisions to de-escalate the crisis.”

And Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert and associate professor of political science at MIT, warned that while neither side wants war, the conflict was starting to spiral out of control. “This is getting ugly quickly,” he wrote on Twitter. “Need off-ramps and now.”

India and Pakistan have been engaged in simmering conflict for decades

India and Pakistan are neighbors who have been engaged in varying levels of conflict for decades. As Tom Hundley wrote for Vox last year:

India and Pakistan have gone to war four times since 1947, when Britain partitioned what had been a single colony into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. They have been in a state of constant hostility ever since, and for the past two decades, they have been locked in a frightening nuclear arms race on land.

The main source of conflict at the moment is Kashmir, a disputed border region between the two countries.

On February 14, a massive suicide attack killed dozens of Indian soldiers who were traveling in a convoy to the city of Srinagar, in a part of Kashmir that’s under India’s control.

Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), an Islamist militant group that wants the disputed border region to become part of Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group is designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department, as well as the United Nations, the United Kingdom, and India.

Since its founding in 2000, JeM has carried out numerous high-profile terror attacks in India, and is believed to responsible for the kidnapping and beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

That same year, Pakistan officially banned JeM. Yet today, some 17 years later, the group continues to exist in the country and is still capable of carrying out deadly attacks outside of it.

That’s the reason India blamed Pakistan’s government for the February 14 terror attack. India says Pakistan’s government allows JeM to operate in the country freely and is demanding that the government take action to prevent further attacks from being carried out.

India also retaliated by launching an airstrike against what it says was a major JeM training camp. In doing so, India’s planes appear to have crossed the Line of Control, or LoC, an extremely sensitive dividing line between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, which the country had been careful to avoid in the past.

It was a major provocation, and one that dramatically ratcheted up tensions between the two nuclear powers.

After the flurry of subsequent airstrikes on Wednesday, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert with the Wilson Center, told Vox that the situation had reached a pivotal point.

“Now that New Delhi and Islamabad have both demonstrated their resolve and muscle by staging limited military strikes, will each side now claim victory and agree to deescalate? Or will political and public pressure prompt the two to double down and consider additional escalatory measures?” he said.

Despite the news of the pilot’s release, it’s not yet clear which route they’ll choose.

Alex Ward and Jennifer Williams contributed reporting to this article.

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