BALAKOT EPISODE AND AFTERMATH: PAKISTAN – INDIA BILATERAL RELATIONS

Imran behaved like a Statesman

 

When India successfully conducted night air strikes deep into Pakistan on February 26, 2019 to demolish a major training facility of the Pak-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) at Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan as also two terrorist camps in the POK (Pak Occupied Kashmir) at Muzaffarabad and Chakhoti, respectively, Pakistan was stunned by this unexpected retaliation of Pulwama attack.

 

Pakistan expected India to exercise strategic restraint as it has been exhibiting in the past, despite being subjected to extremely provocative cross-border terrorist activities by Pakistan.  Pakistan was ardently following ‘Death by thousand cuts’ as an instrument of state policy.  The attacks carried out by IAF Mirage 2000 aircraft using the state of art precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and AGM-142 (Popeye-2) missilesleft Pakistan with a feeling of shock and awe.  Special operations conducted by Army across the LoC (Line of Control) in PoK post-Uri terrorist attack was the first time India displayed its resolve of taking the fight to the enemy camp and carrying out punitive attacks without hesitation.

First ‘Surgical Strike’ was restricted to a short distance of the LoC. In the ‘Surgical Strike-II’, India 

demonstrated annihilating any doubt that it would not think twice before conducting terror operations even deep inside, including Pakistan’s sovereign territory.  Aerial strikes against a nuclear-armed adversary were indeed unprecedented.  Pre-emptive self-defense has hitherto been the exclusive prerogative of the Western powers.  The spectacular air strikes by India were not a mere razzmatazz but a symbolic assertion of its right to exercise pre-emptive self-defense.  The delusion of Pak that its army and intelligence services could continue to wage a low-cost proxy war against Indian military targets in Kashmir had been broken.  Delhi also conveyed in no uncertain terms to Islamabad that India can and will impinge unpredictable damage as a consequence to its state-sponsored terror attacks against India.

A peep into the past to unravel the genesis of events

According to the Zia doctrine of 1977, Pakistan could not fight India at the conventional battlefield.  A ‘Smart Warfare’ exploiting India’s vulnerabilities including her demographic fault lines owing to ethnic, religious, caste and linguistic diversities was considered more appropriate.  In Pakistan’s calculus, military and economic asymmetry with India will be more than offset by a hidden threat of deviating the conflict and providing it a nuclear dimension.  An adequate diplomatic focus would enable it to arouse Islamic empathy.  Advantage of the geo-strategic location of Pakistan would also play in its favor.  Pakistan has been meticulously following this doctrine with some modifications.   It had decided to play this game with patience and perseverance.  It has a strong belief and confidence that it can ignite a people’s struggle by proxy with the help of a limited infusion of military wherewithal.  It intends to brainwash people and attract them to Pakistan’s puritanical Islam.

The genesis of Pulwama terror attack lies in the frustration set in Jihadi minds of Pakistan owing to the military success of India.

Although the terrorist losses had been made up by them largely by local recruitment in South Kashmir and some infiltration into North Kashmir.  Ironically the Jaish e Muhammad (JeM) once banned within Pakistan for its attempts to assassinate former President Parvez Musharraf, is trying to make its presence felt in its reincarnation employing local recruits also into its fold in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s so-called Deep State is ardently following a policy of

(a)  Trigger a cycle of terror

(b)  Wait and watch Indian reaction

(c)  Absorb manageable Indian retribution

(d)  Await next opportunity

Options with India under the then Prevailing Circumstances

The Government of India was under tremendous pressure to do something and give a befitting reply to Pakistan having had conducted surgical strike around 30 months ago.  The options available were:

(a)  Another surgical ground strike in 2016 manner. It was ruled out as Pakistan in all probability must have prepared for this eventuality. Moreover deeper ground strikes beyond LoC had the risk of loss of lives or capture of own personnel.

(b)  Missile strikes against identified terrorist facilities were an option which will render Pakistan perplexed as there are no matching targets in India.

(c)  Air Strike was the third possible course of action with surgical precision hits only on terrorist facilities.

(d)  Air Strikes to hit a Pakistan military facility or infrastructure. This option though may not have instigated a   conventional all-out war but the possibility of escalation to a very high level was not ruled out.

(e)  Only J&K option which consisted of conducting offensive operations across the LoC to capture and integrate a     number of crucial Pakistani posts.

All the above options were to be weighed against the yardsticks and factors of proportionality, higher escalation risk, a necessity for calibration and exhibition of an appropriate resolution.  Under the gamut of things and kaleidoscope of possible international reactions, the surgical air strike was the most appropriate choice.  Applying 12 aircraft in unison was really audacious.  Balakot surgical air strike was perhaps a greater political gamble than a military one.  While success would deliver a political dividend, a failure would have translated into a catastrophe for the ruling party of India.  Considering the stakes involved the decision to go for air strikes was extremely audacious.  Pakistan in an adrenalin rush had already publicly announced that there would be a response to any Indian military action.  However, keeping in view its precarious economic situation, Pakistan probably did not want any escalation but desperately needed a face saver.  A demonstration of a shallow air strike without causing damage to the target could meet the desired objectives if supported by adequate information warfare.  The F-16 charade was enacted to build the perception that Pakistan defense establishment is up and about to thwart any Indian military overtures.   The aftermath of these events saw a de-escalation which was fait-accompli under the international pressure.  Pulwama and Balakot displayed a paradigm shift in India’s ability to deliver responses under such situation.

The inability of India to put an end to Pakistan’s cross border sponsored proxy war has been criticized by many to the hilt.  Expecting such surgical strikes (ground or air) to have a deterrent effect on Pakistan’s designs would be erroneous. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s perception that India would not retaliate and do little precious except resorting to increased rhetoric and condemnation of such acts, has changed forever.

 

International Reactions and Diplomatic Pressure

In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of February 26, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot.  In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainer, senior commanders and group of Jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated.  This facility at Balakot was headed by MAULANA YOUSUF AZHAR (alias USTAD GHOURI), the brother-in-law of MASOOD AZHAR, Chief of JeM.

          The Government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism.  Hence this non-military pre-emptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp.  The facility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence.  As the strike has taken place only a short while ago, we are awaiting further details.

          The Government of Pakistan had made a solemn commitment in January 2004 not to allow its soil or territory under its control to be used for terrorism against India.  We expect that Pakistan lives up to its public commitment and takes follow up actions to dismantle all JeM and other camps and hold the terrorist accountable for the actions.

The Acting High Commissioner of Pakistan was summoned on February 27, 2019, by Ministry of External Affairs, India to lodge a strong protest at the unprovoked act of aggression by Pakistan against India, including by violation of the Indian air space by Pakistan Air Force and targeting of Indian military posts.

It is evident from tone and tenor of this statement that words chosen were extremely balanced, responsible and well calibrated.  Pakistan’s geostrategic position and nuisance potential if deflects towards instability tended to prevent the big powers from clearly supporting India openly.  Nevertheless, the US and western powers were supportive to India to a large extent as were smaller countries.  US, UK, and France reportedly have served an ultimatum to China until April 23, 2019, to lift its “technical hold” on designating Pakistan based JeM Chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.  China assured the world on April 17, by stating that the vexed issue was “moving towards a settlement”.

After the Pulwama attack, a fresh proposal to designate Azhar under the 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council was moved by France, the UK, and the US.  However, China blocked the bid by putting a “technical hold” on the proposal.  Following this, the US backed by the UK and France moved directly to the UN Security Council (UNSC) to blacklist Azhar.  China, a veto-wielding member of the UNSC, had opposed the move, saying the issue should be resolved at the 1267 Committee itself, which also functions under the top UN body.

China seems to have put its all eggs into the Pakistani basket.  It considers this an investment for the expansion of its future economic empire.  The West Indian Ocean region is a crucial area for China’s strategic interests.  It would therefore not allow India a major diplomatic victory through complete international isolation of Pakistan. 

Absence of any major support from Russia to India had actually been intriguing.  However, the reason for this could be attributed to Russia’s defense interests in China following the dictum ‘A friend’s friend’ notwithstanding India’s Rs 39,000 crore S-400 deal.

Further Developments

On February 27 Pakistan launched an air attack into Indian Territory which nonetheless was effectively thwarted by Indian Air Force.  During the skirmish, both sides lost an aircraft each.  A Mig-21 Bison (Bis upgrade) and an F-16.  Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman who was flying Mig-21 reported the radar lock on an enemy aircraft and fired an R-73 Russian origin missile just as he himself was hit.  Pakistani social media reported another aircraft downed with two pilots parachuting.  Later the report was found to be false propaganda.

The debris of an AMRAAM missile was recovered on the Indian side.  It was presumed that this advanced missile made by Raytheon company belonged to an F-16, for which it was officially sold to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).  What was notable was the fact that despite the Indian incursion and the dogfight, both the sides issued measured official statements not to escalate the tension, while at the same time continuing to maintain their forces on a high state of alert. 

Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale went out of the way to emphasize that while both the sides lost an aircraft each, the IAF incursion was non-military and that IAF aircraft had been directed to hit only the terror sanctuaries of Jaish-e-Muhammad, the terror group that claims repeated attacks on India. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan also called for peace and announced that pilot of the Indian Mig-21 who had parachuted into the Pakistani side and was captured, would be returned to India as a goodwill gesture.  He made this announcement despite tremendous pressure and advice from Muslim clerics to the contrary.  PM Imran Khan also stated that Pakistan did not want war.

In a rare gesture, arguably for the first time, an Indian military officer was returned to India safe and unharmed.  India had returned 93,000 Pakistani Prisoners of War (POWs) after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and there was no complaint ever of harm to a single POW.  The Pakistani army has actually behaved as barbarians whenever they had a chance to lay their hands on an Indian soldier.  It is a rare gesture, and the credit for this should indeed go to civilian Prime Minister, Imran Khan, who has envisioned a New Pakistan, ‘Naya Pakistan’, devoid of violence and terrorism.  Though it is yet to be seen how much of his vision can be implemented despite the pressure from Army and Muslim clerics yet his gesture is to be considered and appreciated. 

New Delhi has already indicated that it wants peace for both for Indians and Pakistanis.  However, it reserves the right to hit the terrorists irrespective of where they attack India from.  If Imran Khan can handle his army and ISI well, towards peace in the future, the absence of terrorism will ensure peace, stability, and development for all in the region.

25 Apr 19/Thursday                                       Written by Naphisa