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Balakote – Missing the Wood for the Trees

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By Sudhir K Arora

A lot of hue and cry is being raised about the outcome of
the Indian Air Force strike against Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror camps in Balakote (in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province) and Muzzafarabad and Chakothi (in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) post the unspeakable horror of Pulwama. A veritable war of words has erupted with “compulsive contrarians” (as Arun Jaitley terms them) calling upon the government to provide ‘proof’ of the strikes. In the process, the ones calling for ‘proof’ are missing the wood for the trees.
The Operation
First, an overview of what happened in the early morning hours of that fateful 26 of February, 2019. According to what has come out in the press by experts, the strikes were carried out by 12 Mirage-2000 aircraft of the IAF, guided by the indigenous ‘Netra’ Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) (probably its baptism by fire). In support were fighters (Sukhoi-30?) and, given the range the aircraft had to cover, mid-flight refuelling tankers. The whole operation was carried out under cover of darkness and demonstrated a very high level of professional competence and meticulous planning. All the aircraft that participated in the strike returned safely, further testimony to the professionalism of the IAF. Retired Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy and others have given detailed accounts from the information so far in the public domain. From all accounts, and also as per the Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa’s statement, the strikes were successful and the designated targets were hit. The official press briefing held by the Foreign Secretary understandably did not go into great detail, but stressed on the ‘pre-emptive, non-military’ aspect insofar as the strikes did not target either civilians or military targets but only terror camps. Further details, presumably, would emerge in the days to come.
The Reactions
The strike caught, both, Pakistan and the world unawares. Never having faced such an action, Pakistan’s reactions were fumbling. Having bumbled through the initial period with the usual bluster, Pakistan reacted with, as is emerging from reports, a daylight sweep into J&K by Pakistan Air Force fighters on 27 February ostensibly targeting military installations in J&K, which was intercepted by Indian fighters promptly scrambled to drive them back. In the dogfight that ensued, a Pakistani F-16 was downed by an IAF Mig-21, which in turn came down in PoK. The brave pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, bailed out and was captured. The rest of the PAF aircraft were pushed back from Indian airspace. Again, the initial reactions from Pakistan were confusing – they initially claimed having captured two Indian pilots, only to backtrack and say they had one. It is very likely, as unconfirmed media reports suggest, that the other was the luckless downed PAF F-16 pilot who was injured and died in hospital. Wg Cdr Abhinandan was very soon released on 1 March, and returned to a hero’s welcome amidst high drama.
What is Different?
The strike against Balakote and other terror camps marks a tectonic shift in India’s response to Pakistan’s decades-old strategy of bleeding India through proxies nurtured, trained and armed by Pakistan, and then pushed into India to cause mayhem. There have been major attacks on India, earlier, but this Indian response was like never before. India has suffered grievously earlier too – the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, masterminded from Pakistan, saw India mounting diplomatic pressure on the terror-haven in an effort to isolate it. Given Pakistan’s perceived role in America’s ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan, this did not lead to discernible results. The attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 led to the months-long Indian mobilisation – ‘Op Parakram’ – that ultimately was wound down with little to show. Even at the height of the Kargil War foisted on India, the LoC was deemed to be a ‘Lakshman Rekha’, not to be crossed, and the intruders had to be eliminated/ejected by our bravehearts from peak after peak. The Pathankot attack again was sought to be handled diplomatically. It was Uri which led to the first perceptible strategy shift – the commando operation, carried out with surgical precision against staging camps/launch pads of terrorists in PoK was the first time a coordinated, well planned riposte was struck by India within Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Over the past seven decades, India has chosen the path of ‘strategic restraint’ coupled with diplomatic pressure, a policy that, arguably, has neither coerced nor compelled Pakistan to mend its ways. Its strategy of bleeding India by a thousand cuts continues unabated, so does its nuclear sabre-rattling. The Kashmir valley remains in a state of ferment, matters not helped by some very questionable moves by Indian political parties.
It has not been recognised that we have been in a near perpetual state of war in J&K ever since 1947. A state of war needs appropriate responses that span the gamut of options. Of all the elements of national power – diplomatic, economic and military – only the diplomatic moves have been made in the global community insofar as Kashmir is concerned. These moves are hamstrung by the fact that Pakistan is a major player in the possible resolution of the Afghanistan imbroglio, given the United States’ desire to pull out of the Afghan quicksand.
The economic option too has not been exercised till very lately with the withdrawal of ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status to Pakistan. In any case, the volume of trade between the two countries is not materially significant (from one account, less than 0.5% of our exports Vs 2% of theirs) to cause perceptible pain.
There then remains the muscular option, which to date has been boots on the ground and a war of attrition, which has steadily sucked in troops of both the Army and the Para Military Forces in huge numbers. Given the political flip-flops in J&K, these numbers have been of little avail. The valley continues to boil and the terrorists emboldened enough to carry out a Pulwama.
Paradigm Shift
The Balakote strike represents a paradigm shift for two reasons. Firstly – India has traditionally shied away from using offensive air power. Even in 1962, at the height of Chinese ingress into India, offensive air power even in support of ground troops was not used. Air power is a viable option in sub-conventional/counter-terror operations – as can be seen by Israeli and US actions in Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan – and has the capacity to significantly degrade terror infrastructure. The strikes on Balakote, Muzaffarbad and Chakothi have demonstrated that well-planned, professionally executed air strikes can yield results, and that the IAF is perfectly capable of carrying out such complex operations. Thus, the military option is no longer limited to manpower-intensive ground operations. Secondly – and more importantly – that India exercised its right of self defence by no longer treating the International Border (IB) as sacrosanct is the tectonic shift. India has given sufficient evidence to Pakistan about the involvement of a host of terror outfits operating from its soil and time to Pakistan– LeT, JeM among them – as also enough time, yet that country has chosen to nurture these outfits instead of going after them. India acted. She was forced to act. The muted response from world powers should be enough of a signal to Pakistan that it too needs a major shift in its approach to these outfits that have the potential to trigger catastrophe in the sub-continent, an outcome which the two countries can ill afford, especially Pakistan which is teetering on the brink of economic and social collapse.
The Aftermath
The political class in India has not covered itself in glory with all the cries of ‘show proof’ or ‘we will get more seats in the coming elections’. This is most distressing to the populace. In this cacophony and moves of one-upmanship, the sheer symbolism of the Balakote strike has been over-shadowed. It may well mark a new era in our approach to security and has implications for the entire establishment. That the strike took place, and the manner in which it was executed, should be the real issue. How many were killed or who exactly died is something that may never come to light as it is in Pakistan’s interest to minimise/contain the damage/fallout of the air strikes. The disinformation/misinformation campaign has already commenced.
The Indian government, too, by terming it not as retaliation or vengeance but a ‘pre-emptive non-military operation’ which did not have civilian or military targets but only terror infrastructure, has sought to cool down the situation. And Pakistan’s gesture to release Wg Cdr Abhinandan, whether due to intense diplomatic pressure/coercion or a genuine desire to de-escalate, has also helped.
This shift – both in India’s more muscular approach and Pakistan’s conciliatory one – is the real game-changer for the sub-continent, which the doubting Thomas’ are refusing to focus on – thus missing the wood from the trees.