The airstrikes carried out by the Indian Air force on February 26, 2019, at Jaba Top, a Jaish-e-Mohammed facility in Balakot, has injected a new dynamic in Indo-Pak relations. India demonstrated willingness to utilise conventional hard power to contain and combat terror orchestrated by the Pakistani state against India from 1979 onwards.
Pakistan retaliated the next day by bombing Indian military installations in Nowshera. The bombs fell in the vicinity of these establishments without causing any damage. Pakistan claimed that it had deliberately targeted open spaces around the military bases to demonstrate its capacity to retaliate. The Indian operation raises germane questions having long-term implications.
First, did the operation achieve its intended objective? Indian Air Force’s chief, Air Vice-Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor, in response to a question, stated: “It would be premature to say what is the number of casualties that we have been able to inflict on those camps and what is the number of deaths.” This factual statement belies the source-based “plants” in pliable and jingoistic media outlets that 300 terrorists, trainers, indoctrinators and their handlers had been eliminated in the airstrike.
Credible Western media outlets with access to the region like the New York Times reported, “The view that little had been damaged was supported by military analysts and two western security officials, who said that any militant training areas at the site in the Pakistani province of (KPK, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), had long since packed up or dispersed.” Washington Post stated: “Initial reports from local police officials and residents who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that a strike took place in a mountainous area a few miles outside town, but they said they saw no signs of mass casualties.” Daily Telegraph wrote: “Villagers in the area told Reuters they heard four loud bangs in the early hours of Tuesday but reported only one person wounded by shrapnel.”
“We saw trees fallen down and one house damaged and four craters where the bombs had fallen,” the Guardian said. “The attack was celebrated in India, but it was unclear on Tuesday whether anything significant had been struck by the fighter jets, or whether the operation had been carefully calibrated to ease popular anger over the February 14 suicide bombing without drawing a major Pakistani reprisal.” Gulf News recounted: “From what villagers could see, the Indian attack had missed its target as the bombs dropped exploded about a kilometre away from the madrasa. Fida Hussain Shah, a 46-year-old farmer, said he and other villagers had found pieces of Indian ordnance that had splintered pine trees on the hill but the only casualty was a man sleeping in his house when shrapnel broke the windows.”
An analysis by the Digital Forensics Lab of a leading US think tank led with the headline —”Surgical Strike in Pakistan a Botched Operation.” It pronounced: “Using open-source evidence and satellite imagery, @DFRLab was able to confirm the location of the Indian airstrike to be near Balakot, rather than inside it, and firmly within Pakistani territory. The target was supposedly a JeM-led madrasa, but @DFRLab was unable to confirm that any bombs reached buildings associated with it. The SPICE-2000 is a precision-guided bomb that should not miss its target by the approximately 100 metres that the impact craters were from the nearest structures. The autonomous nature of the SPICE-2000 adds mystery to why the bombs seemed to miss. Satellite imagery did not suggest that any damage was inflicted to nearby buildings. Vegetation and low imagery resolution could hypothetically obscure structural damage, but this remains highly improbably. Something appears to have gone wrong in the targeting process?” In a nutshell, influential sections of the international media and strategic community are of the view that the operation did not achieve its purported objective.
Even if we were to give latitude for imperfect targeting, the second question is, would the airstrikes help in changing the behaviour of the Pakistani deep state qua sponsorship of terror? The answer, unfortunately, is no. Pakistan believes that the utilisation of semi-state actors has furthered its strategic objectives in the broader South Asian region. Despite all its treacheries, the United States still have to sup with Pakistan because the ISI-military combine substantively controls the most potent semi-state actor in South West Asia — the Taliban. A modus vivendi with the Taliban is the sine qua non for an honourable US exit from Afghanistan without making it look like a Vietnam moment. For a nation that believes that the use of terrorists is key to its strategic and tactical policy in the region, a hundred-odd foot soldiers and a “knocked-out camp” is really expandable. They will easily be replenished and the games will go on.
That brings you to the third question: What happens when the next big terror attack takes place? For it would happen as it is not the end yet. Having responded to Pulwama with conventional hard power and “raised temperatures”, the nation will expect an even more pointed response. What would that be since even airstrikes have their limitations? Would next step be war then?
That brings us to the fourth question: Is there space for a limited war under a nuclear overhang between India and Pakistan? The 600-pound gorilla in this equation is China that has huge investments in Pakistan courtesy CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). Is India really prepared for a two-front situation given that our defence expenditure last year was the lowest since 1962?
Fifth, if a conventional response to terror in addition to being escalatory is inefficacious, where do we go from here? The only answer is to redevelop, expand and deploy lethal covert capacity that allegedly former Prime Minister IK Gujral dismantled in the late 1990s. For ghost wars can only be fought using ghosts, not conventional means. The Indian state must surmount its dilemmas about outsourced responses to terror.
Finally, why did Pakistan de-escalate? It perhaps concluded that the Balakot strike had not hurt it morally or materially, it had demonstrated its retaliatory capacity in broad daylight and it had downed an Indian asset and had a pilot in its custody. It was the perfect moment to show the world that while India was the belligerent one, it was the responsible state wanting peace. For Pakistan, this provided an opportunity to whitewash the stain of being the Somalia of South Asia. It was not the United States, the Chinese or Saudi-UAE pressure, as some would like to believe. Strategic calculations have to be based on hardheaded realism, not jingoistic hyper-nationalism....