By Jon Dougherty

As most of the world remains focused on the second meeting between POTUS Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, this time in Hanoi, Vietnam, two of the world’s declared nuclear powers have once again moved to the brink of all-out war.

Overnight, Indian warplanes struck targets inside archrival neighbor Pakistan, in the contested Kashmir region both countries ‘administer.’ Indian jets struck in retaliation for one of the deadliest terror attacks in the history of the long-standing Kashmiri insurgency, which took place earlier this month when a Muslim ‘mujahadin’ drove a car full of explosives into a bus carrying Indian paramilitary troops, killing more than 40 of them.

Indian fighters carried a strike against out what the government in New Delhi said was a training camp for militants associated with the group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The strike reportedly killed some 300 militants will infuriating Pakistani government leaders in Islamabad, who condemned the attack and hinted that they could launch a counterstrike of their own.

In fact, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned his nation of 200 million people that its military forces “remain prepared for all eventualities.”

Both sides have competing versions of what happened, as reported by al Jazeera:

Indian fighter jets on Tuesday crossed into Pakistani territory, conducting what the foreign ministry in New Delhi termed a “non-military pre-emptive action” against armed group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), dramatically escalating tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours weeks after a suicide attack in the disputed Kashmir region.

Pakistan reported the Indian airspace incursion, with military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor saying its air force jets were scrambling to respond, forcing the Indian aircraft to “release [their] payload in haste while escaping”.

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, however, asserted that the jets had hit their target, and that “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated”.

“The government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism,” he told reporters in New Delhi. “Hence this non-military pre-emptive action was specifically targeted at the Jaish-e-Mohammed camp.”

What makes this exchange extremely dangerous is the potential for a nuclear weapons exchange.

Said one professor, noting that this marked the first time the Indian air force crossed the “line of control” in more than 45 years:

“The last time the Indian Air Force crossed the line of control intentionally and publicly to conduct air strikes was 1971,” Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT said via email, referring to the last Indo-Pakistan war.

C Uday Bhaskar, the director of the Society for Policy Studies based in New Delhi, said that India has sent Pakistan “a firm signal” — namely that it will not stand idly by while “terrorist” forces are allowed to operate freely inside Pakistan to strike Indian interests and forces.

“The fact that air power has been used for the first time against a terrorist target to my mind signaled to Pakistan that India is demonstrating resolve in terms of using military power, particularly air power,” he said.

The Washington Post also noted that the Indian strike — a counterstrike, really — marked the most serious exchange between the two powers in decades, raising tensions to a level not seen between the historic enemies since 1999:

Jaish-e-Muhammad claimed responsibility for an attack on Feb. 14 that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir. The attack was the deadliest in three decades of insurgency against Indian rule, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had vowed to respond.

In the wake of Tuesday’s strike, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called an emergency meeting of top security and government officials. “India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing,” the group said in a statement released after the meeting. 

The strike took place near the town of Balakot, just inside the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and not in the disputed Kashmir region. 

India’s use of air power and choice of target outside the Kashmir region marked an escalation of retaliatory action, experts said. The two countries often trade artillery fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir, the Himalayan region they both claim. India also says that it has launched commando raids just over the frontier, most recently in 2016. 

But India has not sent fighter jets across the Line of Control since 1971, experts said. The last time tensions were this high between the two countries was in 1999, when they fought a brief but intense conflict in the Kargil area of Kashmir.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi accused India of violating the line of control during a televised press conference. India has committed aggression against Pakistan today - I will call it a grave aggression,” Qureshi said.

Al Jazeera has produced a history of the conflict between the two countries:

What makes any military exchange between Pakistan and India so dangerous is the potential for the conflict to go nuclear.

Analyst Eric Margolis notes:

Outnumbered and outgunned six to one by India, Pakistan has developed a potent arsenal of nuclear weapons that can be delivered by aircraft, short and medium-ranged missiles and artillery. Pakistan says it will riposte almost immediately with tactical nuclear weapons to a major Indian attack. Both sides’ nuclear forces are on a hair-trigger alert, greatly increasing the risks of an accidental nuclear exchange.

More detail on this threat scenario may be found in my ground-breaking book on the region’s many dangers, ‘War at the Top of the World.’ Rand Corp estimated a decade ago that an Indo-Pak nuclear exchange would kill two million immediately and 100 million in ensuing weeks. India’s and Pakistan’s major water sources would be contaminated. Clouds of radioactive dust would blow around the globe.

While POTUS Trump is in Hanoi trying to prevent a nuclear war in Asia, exchanges between India and Pakistan are moving the region closer to one.

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