Kashmir ignites a thousand passions. Ever since the
British left India in 1947 and communal passions divided the country into
two—Pakistan fought three full-blown wars and one half-war in 1947-48,
1965, 1971 and 1999, respectively, in
failed attempts to settle the fate of Kashmir by force. In February 1962, in a
secret note, Colonel Deewan Singh, defence attaché at the High Commission of
India in Kabul wrote to the home government that “Afghanistan was the only
country to vote against the admission of Pakistan into United Nations” because
“ever since the partition of this sub-continent and the birth of a newly born
baby in the guise of Pakistan, with her first breath, claimed she was the most
powerful and advanced Islamic country in the world.”
Pakistan’s self-proclaimed power and ownership of Islam forced the country to induce the cycle of conflict with India at regular intervals. The Pulwama attack and aftermath are the latest instalments in this war of a thousand cuts. Whether and to what extent this has an impact on Pakistan’s future conduct remains to be seen.
For the past three decades, Kashmir and its people have suffered for no fault of theirs, as they are the collateral damage in Pakistan’s ill-conceived agenda to wrest control of the state. In a comment on Kashmir’s character Kalhana, in his 12th century epic Rajatarangini, wrote “that country may be conquered by the force of spiritual merit, but not by forces of soldiers. Its inhabitants are afraid only of the world beyond.” (Book I, Verse 39). In the quest for Kashmir, Pakistan lost half its territory in the form of Bangladesh in 1971. The lesson was never learned and after the decade-long Afghan war in 1989, when Pakistan claimed ownership of the Islamic jihadi groups, it resurrected the Kashmir bogey.
he Pulwama terror attack was part of a Zia-ul-Haq era strategy to “bleed India with a thousand cuts”. The target was decidedly provocative—a convoy of 78 vehicles transporting 2,547 Central Reserve Police Force personnel from Jammu to Srinagar, barely a few weeks ahead of the general election. It was a virtual invitation for a retaliatory strike. A cursory look at the various persuasions behind the attacks confirms that the primary aim of Pulwama was to tell the divided cadres of Pakistan-friendly militants that its military had their backs. The second was to give consent to the assessment of Pakistan-based militant leaders that the push for victory in Afghanistan was about to begin and that Kashmir would be the next battlefield where hard work would be needed as the Indian army was not about to give an inch.
The most important aim, however, was to sabotage India’s participation for the first time in deliberations of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The modus operandi was a devastating terror attack in Kashmir, get quick global attention and use the mayhem to influence OIC members to refuse India’s admission as an observer at the 2019 edition of its gathering. There was also a plan to raise the issue of Muslims in India who preferred to die as a human bomb rather than live a life of slavery.
That was why Maulana Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group took ownership of the attack so quickly, using Kashmiri militant Adil Ahmed Dar as the suicide bomber. The fourth reason for Pulwama was to show the Pakistani civilian leadership who was boss and emphasise that all important decision-making was confined to the army establishment in Rawalpindi.
The perception that the security situation was better in Jammu and Kashmir led to the Indian authorities lowering their guard. Although precautions like sanitisation of the travel route for IEDs, possible grenade attacks or firing were taken seriously, the standard operating procedure was found to be wanting during the February 14 convoy movement. Terrorists always enjoy the advantage of timing of attack, method to be adopted and choice of instrumentalities. They adopt innovative means to cause maximum damage to their target. While the security forces have to be successful every time, the terrorist needs to succeed once.
Therefore, in the battle between security forces and terrorists, humane considerations are usually at a discount since the latter take maximum advantage of such sentiments. With the intention of lessening civilian hardship during the movement of forces, civilian vehicles were allowed on the same highway when forces were being moved. On February 14, the CRPF convoy started its journey at 3.30 am from Jammu and after a tense 12-hour journey, at 3.15 pm it was passing Latoomode in Awantipoora, a mere 30 km from Srinagar, when the explosive-laden SUV, which was waiting for the convoy, appeared from a side road, rammed one of the buses and detonated more than 90 kg of RDX. The resultant impact was so big that the bus was reduced to scrap metal, killing all the passengers—a total of 40 paramilitary personnel of the CRPF from the 76th Battalion.
Immediately after, Bahawalpur-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility, forcing the Narendra Modi government to respond with far greater intensity. The governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik admitted to intelligence failure and confessed that Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber, arrested half a dozen times, was on the security force radar but managed to dodge law enforcement agencies to carry out the attack, the deadliest on many counts and the single worst strike since 1989 at the security forces.
The 40 dead CRPF jawans belonged to all parts of India, from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu-Kerala in the south and Assam in the east to Rajasthan-Maharashtra in the West covering 16 states. In the age of social media, it took just minutes to circulate news about the attacks, the gory details and threadbare analysis that raised public passion exponentially. With funeral pyres in 16 states aired live by 24x7 TV channels, the man on the street wanted retaliation. With the public clamouring for strong medicine the government had to depart from its default position of strategic restraint.
n the past, encouraged by the success of 9/11 in New York, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Maulana Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Toiba (also known as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a non-profit) attacked the Jammu & Kashmir assembly building on October 1, 2001 and Parliament in New Delhi a couple of months later, December 13. The Parliament attack led to a huge public uproar forcing the Vajpayee government to launch “Operation Parakram” on December 18. It mobilised 500,000 troops along the LoC and international border. Through most of 2001 and 2002, the Indian and Pakistani armies were locked in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, but the objective of the operation was unclear.
In 2016, when terrorists struck at Poonch and Uri on September 11 and 18, the army carried out a surgical strike on September 29 at across the border to ensure that “terrorists do not succeed in their design".
External affairs minister Jaswant Singh tried to inform the cabinet committee on security about the purpose of the deployment. On a scrap of paper, he wrote that the aim of Operation Parakram was “to defeat cross-border infiltration/terrorism without conflict; to contain the national mood of ‘teach Pak a lesson’; and in the event of war, to destroy and degrade Pakistan’s fighting capabilities”. None of the objectives had been achieved by the time troops returned to peace position at the end of 2002.
When the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008, devastated the city, “strategic restraint” and conflict aversion again dominated government policy. The inability of Indian leadership to take firm action in the event of successive terror strikes both demoralised the public and emboldened terrorist groups.
In 2016, when terrorists struck at Poonch and Uri on September 11 and 18, the response of the Narendra Modi government was different. The army carried out a surgical strike on September 29 at so-called terrorist launch pads across the border to ensure that “terrorists do not succeed in their design of infiltration and carrying out destruction and endangering the lives of Indian citizens”.
The strike sent a strong message to terrorists and placed the Pakistani army on notice. The change in India’s response mechanism was expected to make Pakistan think twice before abetting similar operations. Not long after Uri, however, Pulwama disturbed the delicate calm in Kashmir. That shows the surgical strike was never a deterrent either to the militants or to the Pakistani military.
he boastful chest-thumping by JeM post-Pulwama, public fury in India and the upcoming general election combined to make the Modi government contemplate hard responses. When the cabinet committee on security met on the morning of February 15 at the Prime Minister’s residence, the deliberations were mostly about options available. A precision, pin-point airstrike, although it would violate Pakistani airspace and carried a risk of full-fledged escalation into war, was considered viable.
An air strike was identified as the preferred vehicle of retribution. India’s message to the world was that it had adopted strategic restraint. It gave an ambiguous free hand to the military on action. The military does not act on its own so this was misleading, to say the least.
To reduce the chances of escalation, India tried its best to build international opinion against Pakistan. This step was part of a broader strategy of apprising the international community about Pakistan’s culpability in Pulwama to get general support for India’s right to self-defence. It was believed in the Indian war room that once the international community came on board, Pakistan’s retaliatory intent would be degraded. Within 48 hours of the attack, 58 countries including all the UN’s permanent five (P-5) condemned the attack and offered support to India in the fight against terrorism.
The options were limited as dropping special force components into Pakistani territory was not possible. We lack super special force groups like the US Navy SEALS, Britain’s SAS, Russia’s Spetsnaz or French COS that have a wide experience of operating in hostile regions across the world. The National Security Guard was raised for domestic rather than international operations. Other than that, surgical strikes by the defence forces, as in 2016, although announced to the international media by India’s Director-General Military Operations, lack verifiability especially in the face of vociferous denials from Pakistan. In 2016, the area shown to the international press in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by its army was different from the area where Indian forces conducted the surgical strike.
Therefore, as the need to respond became rapidly inevitable, an air strike was identified as the preferred vehicle of retribution. After a meeting of the cabinet committee on security, India’s message to the world was that it had adopted strategic restraint. It made a loud noise about the withdrawal of Most Favoured Nation Status, breach of the Indus Water Treaty and gave an ambiguous free hand to the military on action to be taken. The military does not act on its own so this was misleading, to say the least, as it prepared for an airstrike
Immediate retaliation was the intention but Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan on February 17, when its fighters were roaming the airspace made it risky. Late in the evening, as BBC reported, when prince Salman visited Islamabad, Pakistani fighters escorted his entourage from the time he entered their airspace till he landed at Chaklala airfield.
hen the strike on the Balakot camp of JeM was mounted on the night of February 25, the Indian Air Force avoided detection by Pakistani jets as well as the radar system. Some 28 IAF fighters took off from various air force bases, refuelled in mid-air and entered Pakistani airspace, bound for Balakot in Mansehra district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The exact number of jets is still a matter of conjecture but that the Pakistani Air Force could not find or intercept any is an indication of India’s planning and coordination on a grand scale. The sheer size of the strike upended Pakistani calculations. It was caught them flat-footed and the Indians did their jobs and were gone well before their adversary could respond.
The defence establishment breathed easy when all the jets and support hardware returned to base undamaged. Within hours, the Pakistani military’s media wing, Inter Services Public Relations reported the violation of Pakistani airspace by Indian fighters, release of missiles in an uninhabited area and purported hasty retreat.
As for the damage inflicted, the two sides have different versions, with IAF saying the targets were hit and JeM’s Balakot facility was destroyed, while the Pakistanis claim the bombs killed a few trees. But Pakistan has barred journalists and others from the Balakot site. A few days later, contrasting reports were published by reputed international media. Reuters reported on March 6 that “Satellite images show madrasa buildings still standing at scene of Indian bombing” while the same news agency admitted on March 9 that “Citing security concerns, Pakistani security officials barred a Reuters team from climbing a hill in north-eastern Pakistan to the site of a madrasa, or religious school, and a group of surrounding buildings targeted by Indian warplanes’.
The Times of India, citing National Technical Research Organisation intelligence, reported on March 12 that 263 JeM recruits were stationed at the Balakot camp when the IAF struck. The report quoted the tracking of active mobile phones in the camp as evidence before the strike while after the bombing mobile signals from all phones vanished without a trace. What lends credence to the report was the names of JeM veterans missing after the attacks, including Mufti Umar, Maulana Javed, Maulana Aslam, Maulana Ajmal, Maulana Zubair, Maulana Abdul Gafur Kashmiri, Maulana Qudratullah, Maulana Qasim and Maulana Junaid.
The new trend in India’s response paradigm is that the militants should not think that they are safe once inside Pakistan. India can and will strike deep inside Pakistan. The surgical strike of 2016 and Balakot 2019 are evidence of this new approach.
Balakot is a picturesque small town of 35,000 in the
Kaghan Valley, about 65 km from Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden was holed up.
After the release of Masood Azhar from an Indian jail on December 31, 1999 in
exchange for Indian Airlines IC-814, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence
(ISI) sent him to Bahawalpur, headquarters of the newly formed Jaish-e-Mohammad
and used him to address Friday prayers at army-backed mosques across Pakistan.
Masood, then a member of Harkat-ul-Ansar, had been held in an Indian jail since
1994. On December 24, 1999, members of Harkat-ul-Ansar supported by ISI
hijacked IC-814 from Kathmandu and took the commercial plane with 168
passengers to Kandahar via Amritsar, Lahore, and Dubai.
Doval revealed that he and his colleagues ‘hear[d] the voices of ISI guys, telling them what to do, what to answer, how to handle the situation'.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in Patna when India squandered a golden opportunity to rescue the plane during its refuelling attempt in Amritsar. Brajesh Mishra, then Principal Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office and National Security Adviser, told the Fox History Channel that he issued instructions to stop the plane in Amritsar. But it was never stopped and the reasons were never conveyed to him.
An agreement was reached as a humiliated Indian government sent foreign minister Jaswant Singh to deliver three dreaded terrorists, Masood Azhar, Saeed Omar Sheikh, and Mustaq Ahmed Zargar personally to the terrorists at Kandahar airport in exchange for the safety of the airlines’ passengers. Three high-ranking ISI officers were present in Kandahar to strike a deal when on December 31, 1999, India freed them. Ajit Kumar Doval, then an Intelligence Bureau officer negotiating the deal reported that during the swap the hijackers forget to turn off their receivers.
Doval revealed that he and his colleagues ‘hear[d] the voices of the ISI guys, telling them what to do, what to answer, and how to handle the situation. When we finally reach an agreement and we bring Azhar, Omar and Zargar to the plane to proceed with the exchange, its [sic] not the hijackers, it is the ISI guys who, as it were, on their own account, come to check their identities’.
After returning to Pakistan, Masood established himself in
Bahawalpur. But far from the public glare, Balakot was sanctioned by ISI in
2000. Graduates in terror courses from this campus participate in jihad against
the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan but their primary area of operations is
Kashmir. JeM constructed the camp with generous funding from al-Qaeda and
donations by friendly businessmen from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab
Emirates. The facilities include a shooting range, explosive training
laboratory, artillery fire centre and bomb-making factory. Normal buildings like
mosques, common kitchen, playground, prayer area and dormitories are part of
this camp. Balakot offered advanced training.
The trainees are mostly from Punjab and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) with a small sprinkling from Sindh. The mullahs and maulavis of JeM on the payroll of ISI exploit worsening poverty in these regions to recruit children into the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith network of jihadis. The primary task of the maulvis is to indoctrinate the boys into the jihadi stream, send them to training centres and finally infiltrate them into Kashmir and Afghanistan.
The one undoubted gain from Balakot was that it called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. On February 26, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale informed the world that ‘India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot”. He described the strike as “non-military pre-emptive action”.
They target families with multiple children, facing
economic hardship. They get close to such families through agents or linkmen
and convince them that their hardship is linked to the family’s adherence to
the Barelvi school, idolatrous worship and deviation from the path of true
Islam. Their economic pain can be removed quickly if they donate one son to
Islam. The recruiters offer cash down (around 6 lakh Pakistani rupees) and
provide a lesson on martyrdom where both the martyr and his family go to
heaven. After initial training, these children were sent to Balakot for
The madrasa of the Balakot campus was in an isolated area where recruits between 8-12 years were indoctrinated and then arms training for recruits 12 and above starts. The Balakot recruits are removed from the outside world and their only window of contact outside the campus is through recruits on home visits. Older ones like Adil Ahmed Dar (who rammed the suicide car into the CRPF convoy) are accepted as jihadi based on their ability and willingness to engage in violence and acceptance of jihadi culture. Preliminary indoctrination is held at the JeM campus on the outskirts of Dera Ghazi Khan town as well. After months of training they are sent to Balakot.
he one undoubted gain from the Balakot operation was that it called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. During the pre-noon briefing on February 26, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale informed the world that ‘India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot”. He described the strike as “non-military pre-emptive action”, “specifically targeted at the JeM camp”.
The Indian calculation that preceded the strike was that strong countermeasures were unlikely. The reasons provided were many—extremely low foreign currency reserves with Pakistan, enough for just nine days, US, UK, French and Russian antipathy and China’s perceived neutrality in the aftermath of Pulwama. The Chinese leadership departed from the usual formula in this instance. China had informed Pakistan that in a time of peace, the tilt in its favour would be total. So on March 13, when the proposal to designate Masood Azhar a global terrorist came up at the UNSC, China was the lone holdout among the 15 UNSC members and as part of P-5 placed a technical hold, the fourth such action. But confronted by a threat of military escalation between India and Pakistan, the Chinese changed their tune and tried to reduce tensions by refraining from blanket support for Pakistan.
It was a hollow claim, with no clarity about the definition of success because “despite the high state of readiness”, IAF failed to intercept the attackers nor was the ground missile system able to fire at the invader.
Although a section of Indian strategic thinkers believed there would be no retaliatory strike by Pakistan as that might lead to a full-scale war, immediate Pakistani retaliation was all but certain, no matter the internal situation. After the Indian strike, Pakistan immediately dialled the P-5 and informed them that their airspace had been violated. The firing of missiles inside Pakistani territory was portrayed as an act of war. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Pakistan to maintain restraint while counselling possible peace talks.
All hell broke loose on February 27 when Pakistani fighters entered Indian airspace in Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch and Nowshera sectors, fired missiles at Lam, Jhangar, Pukerni, Kerri, Rajouri and Bimber Gali and returned safely to their bases in Pakistan. This was a reprisal for the Balakot provocation within 36 hours.
The entire Indian defence system was on high alert and it was broad daylight, but Pakistani jets nevertheless entered Indian airspace, fired on targets and went back without damage. It made the Modi government’s chest-thumping jingoism look a little premature. What it says about defence preparedness is not comforting. That an unknown number of Pakistani jets crossed the LoC and according to Pakistan “taken strikes at non-military targets, avoiding human loss and collateral damage” showed a demonstrable capability to enter Indian airspace when the Indian defence system was expecting retaliation. Pakistan “undertook the action with clear warning and in broad daylight”.
The foreign ministry said “due to our high state of readiness and alertness, Pakistan’s attempts were foiled successfully”. But it was a hollow claim, with no clarity or elaboration about the definition of success because “despite the high state of readiness and alertness”, the IAF failed to intercept the attackers nor was the ground missile system able to fire at the invader. The MEA statement further says, “The Pakistan Air Force was detected and the Indian Air Force responded instantly”.
So if the response was instant, there should have been an immediate outcome. But such is not known to the Indian public. It was claimed that IAF radar recorded the signature of F-16s crossing into Indian airspace. Curiously, there has been no proven damage to the invading jets despite the detection of intrusion into Indian territory.
The foreign ministry claimed that “In that aerial engagement, one Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft was shot down by a MiG 21 Bison of the Indian Air Force.”’ There was a calibrated media campaign and misinformation that an Indian MiG 21 Bison had downed an F-16. But the MEA statement does not claim that an F-16 was ever shot. The actual expression is “one Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft”. The MEA further stated that “the Pakistani aircraft was seen by ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side.” This is a statement that should be taken with a pinch of salt. From their positions it would be hard to estimate where Pakistani territory starts and it is virtually impossible to say from a distance that the falling aircraft belonged to Pakistan. The IAF issued two statements later. The first claimed that a PAF F-16 was shot down by an Indian fighter. The second statement, two days later, officially attributed the F-16 kill to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. What is beyond doubt is that footage exists of three canopies going down in PoK, and also the fact that for an entire day Pakistan claimed two Indian fighters were captured, a statement that was later modified to one without giving any reason. In fact, based on the three canopies Paksitan Radio had run a story saying three Indian aviators were captured by the Pakistan Army.
As of now, this is what can be said with certainty. The IAF—not the government or the MEA—has claimed and attributed the F-16 kill. It should also be noted that IAF has no history of lying about casualty or kills. We know PAF F-16s were used—undeniable proof exists—and that IAF claims the F-16 kill, of which there is no other evidence provided. [Editor's note: Since the magazine went to press, a Foreign Policy report quoting unnamed sources said all PAF F-16s were accounted for in a count by the United States officials, a claim later officially denied by the Pentagon. The Indian Air Force in a subsequent press briefing produced redacted radar images-- in which in two images separated by eight seconds, one PAF F-16 had gone off the grid--and transcripts of chatter in Pakistani army posts which claimed of multiple ejections across the LoC. The IAF called this "irrefutable proof" of the F-16 kill, however most security analysts are of the opinion that this is at best circumstantial evidence.]
he worst moment of the engagement was undoubtedly the admission that “In this engagement, we have unfortunately lost one MiG 21. The pilot is missing in action. Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts.” This statement changed the contour of India’s confrontational stand. Public shock and fear was palpable after hearing about the shooting down and capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan.
The Balakot bounce vanished in an instant at the news. The Pakistan Air Force’s quality was again on display. An entire hero-hungry nation started portraying Wing Commander Abhinandan’s capture and his resolution to maintain calm in combat as the highest form of bravery and daredevilry. But it was scant consolation for the dissipation of the gains of Balakot. India thus had no answer to the question what next.
A few things became clearer; the strike at Balakot terror camp was a solitary act of bravado and also an excellent demonstration of political leadership. But in return they lost a MiG-21 and a pilot was captured, six military installations were nearly hit by Pakistani fighters. India fell short of a response. While Balakot was a brilliant success, the aftermath showed a lack of preparedness on all counts. Nothing happened for 36 hours after Pakistani retaliation and then Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan stole the thunder when he announced in parliament that his government would release the captured Indian pilot as a “peace gesture”.
He informed the world that he had tried to contact his counterpart Narendra Modi thrice on February 28 but received no positive response. This is a replay of what Modi claimed in London on April 18, 2018 in an interview with Prasoon Joshi. He said that after the 2016 surgical strike India tried to inform Pakistan but nobody from that side picked up the phone or took the message. It is the prime minister’s prerogative to decide whether to take a call but when the war clouds are gathering and the rival country’s prime minister is trying to establish contact, it is unbecoming of a leader not to respond to three calls.
What embarrassed the Indian government further after the capture of Abhinandan was Imran Khan telling Parliament that his government was trying to reach out to India through third party channels to de-escalate the situation. As that was achieved rather quickly it seems both sides agreed to the third party’s suggestion while refusing to talk to each other. During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, a 13-day political and military standoff, when the US and USSR were on the brink of a nuclear war, both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev spoke constantly. The hotline was working round the clock. That helped reduce the tension and avoided a nuclear war. A no-talk approach during a crisis situation is fraught with the possibility of a far worse eventual outcome.
Imran Khan’s hotline to Narendra Modi was ignored deliberately as there was a search for a way to seize the initiative again.
On March 3, at the India Today conclave, the Prime
Minister said, “There is a voice growing in the country that had we possessed
Rafale fighter jet, the result would have been far better than what it is
today”. On March 6, attorney-general K.K. Venugopal lamented in the Supreme
Court of India that a CBI probe into Rafale deal would do immense damage to
India’s national security. “Recent incidents have shown how vulnerable we are.
When others have superior aircraft, should we also not buy better aircraft?”
It is no secret that Pakistan is in possession of 77 F-16 fighters. Pakistan regularly sends its pilots to US training centres to remain updated. The induction of the fighter way back in 1983 was a game changer for Pakistan. The knowledge it gained from the defence cooperation with the US has been developed into a regular item of trade with the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, who get Pakistani expertise for a price. In other words, Pakistan’s defence establishment is far more enterprising than India’s suffocating defence environment which is further stifled by political indecision, bureaucratic delay and strategic inertia.
On February 28, the tri-service press briefing at South Block, New Delhi mostly focused on how Pakistan crossed into India and fired AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) from an F-16. It proved that India had been under air attack from Pakistan, and the recovery of AMRAAM fragments means Pakistan will have to answer tough questions from Washington. The F-16 is supposed to be deployed only in defensive, not offensive operations.
It also meant that the proclaimed superiority and valour of Indian defence forces was replaced by an unambiguous admission that they had been found wanting during an act of aggression. The Modi government was probably guided by military advisers who may have thought complaining to America about the inappropriate use of F-16s was more important. The difference between Pakistan’s response mechanism and India was never more obvious. While Pakistan refused to acknowledge India’s precision strike at Balakot, India acknowledged that Pakistan successfully entered Indian territory and fired an AMRAAM missile. Indian strategists are fixated on the strict US conditions on deployment of F-16s but forgot to recognise that they can be used at the hour of need. Pakistan could well argue that the deployment was defensive in that it was aimed at discouraging further incursions. It is also perhaps naive to think that the US will punish Pakistan.
hotographs of materials seized by the Pakistani military from the Indian pilot were displayed in the media. They include archaic manuals, outdated avionics materials and a survival pistol. In the 21st century when America and Russia direct military targets from pilotless drones and other superior combat jets to Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Philippines and Niger, India sends pilots in Soviet-era aircraft to initiate air combat against F-16s. The capture of Abhinandan and display of his survival materials showed that IAF is still in the Stone Age.
The combat with Pakistan exposed India’s eroding fighting capacity and dire need for technological upgrades. Pakistan’s precision strike was superior as pilot manoeuvrability and weapon systems’ generational advancement showed during the daytime air combat. It was reported that the Awantipoora radar detected the intrusion in real time though the daytime attack kept the element of surprise intact. Indian journalists never asked the hard questions at the tri-service briefing. Questions like why the best aircraft was not employed in hot pursuit and why ground-based missiles failed to shoot Pakistani aircraft. Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa said the best aircraft was in the air, but the decision to employ whatever was available was taken immediately.
Meanwhile, before the evening of February 28, US President Donald Trump tweeted about de-escalation. It was Trump, who first tweeted on February 22 about the dangers in Indo-Pak conflict. Probably he had intelligence about India’s Balakot strike in advance. This means the US was informed about de-escalation before the official pronouncement by the Indian leadership.
In the final analysis, limits to Indian capacity distracted the Prime Minister from a more muscular response after the shooting of the MiG-21. The Modi government refused to take further action as another misstep could have had a calamitous impact on the country.
But there have been gains at the diplomatic level, including the singular success of attempts to isolate Pakistan even from China’s security umbrella and high support from the US, UK and France. It is also likely that the present of cycle of violence beginning with the suicide bombing has ended with no winner, much to the chagrin of keyboard and media warriors.
Against that it must be said that the avoidance of full-scale war provoked by Pakistan’s terror apparatus is itself something of a victory.