Rectify or Retaliate: Indiaâ€™s Strike Leaves Ball in Pakistani Court
Twelve Indian Force Mirage-2000 jets crossed the Line of Control (LoC) early on Tuesday morning and destroyed terror camps of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot.
Photo of a Mirage jet from the Tuesday strike in Balakot, Pakistan.
India has to convince the international community that the Indian Air Force (IAF) foray into Pakistani territory in the pre-dawn hours of February 26 to drop bombs on a reported training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) is not an act of political symbolism but a strategic act that came at the end of years of extreme provocation in the form of sponsored terrorism on Indian territory that spawned the Pulwama attack less than a fortnight ago.
Of course, the attack provides much-needed succour to a section of war-mongering citizenry post-Pulwama. The clamour has certainly died down instantly, turning into a celebration of the proof of Indian might.
Pakistan, on the face of it, has limited options: it can realise that India is quite serious this time and try to wind up the terror outfits. Or, it can remain cussed and retaliate. Either way, its bluff stands called. Formally. That is the biggest import of Indiaâ€™s strike-back, notwithstanding the various issues involved.
What Pakistan does is yet unknown. But what are its limitations?
Pakistan denied the 2016 surgical strikes. Today it comes up with a slightly better response: give photographic evidence of IAF payload which it claims was â€œdroppedâ€ by the IAF in their â€œhasteâ€.
Pakistan has four options. One, retaliate. The question is, what kind/level/degree of retaliation and penetration into India? India had surprise on its side; Pakistan will not have that.
Two, play the victim to Indiaâ€™s â€œaggressionâ€ in front of the international community. How will anyone believe it without evidence? What evidence? Evidence in terms of those killed by the attack. That will mean accepting there were casualties. But that, too, is not enough. Because there will be questions: Who are these dead people? Are they civilian Pakistanis? Are they not? Are they terrorists? Are they residents of a terror camp? After all, the IAF did precision bombing, not a general attack.
That means there was something going on at the camp, isnâ€™t it? So many questions. For the record, Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations, Major General Asif Ghafoor, in a series of tweets said the "Indian aircrafts intruded from Muzaffarabad sector in Azad Jammu and Kashmir", which falls across the Line of Control. He also downplayed the losses, saying no infrastructure was hit.
Three, reach out to its current benefactor China, which has strenuously thwarted Indiaâ€™s attempts to declare Masood Azhar a global terrorist. It can reach out also to Saudi Arabia, but India, through the meeting between Modi and the visiting Crown Prince, may have come to an understanding about the options before India to avenge Pulwama. It can reach out also to the US, but President Donald Trump has of late not been in any mood to tolerate Pakistan on the issue of harbouring terrorists.
In 2018, he had cut American aid worth $1.3 billion. On top of it all, India has got an invite to the next OIC meeting which represents the whoâ€™s who of the Islamic nations of the world. In such a situation, who can Pakistan really turn to, to get moral support?
Four, take action against JeM and give evidence to the international community.
Five, it can do nothing and carry on as if nothing happened.
India, on the other hand, has to ensure that nothing happens that erodes the credibility of the military action. (Thatâ€™s what happened with the surgical strikes of 2016 which were belittled by the political class in India for various reasons.)
How can that happen?
One, India will have to provide concrete evidence of the existence of the camp at Balakot. The New York Times in an early report is already saying: â€œAnalysts and diplomats in New Delhi said the targets of the Indian airstrikes were unclear, as any terrorist groups operating along the border would have cleared out in recent days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India vowed retaliation over the Kashmir attack.â€ Does it mean that the Americans are sceptical?
Two, the Indian response has escalated since 2016. The surgical strikes were a tactical response across the LoC; recall how the DGMO briefed the media at that time. But the IAF strike is a strategic one. The foreign secretary briefed the media. The NSA oversaw the strike plan. The Prime Minister gave the formal green signal for the operation. During the 2016 strikes, India crossed the LoC. What about this time? Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale says the JeM camp was in Balakot.
If Pakistanâ€™s reaction is to retaliate, Indian reaction can only escalate further. What is the next step? And where will this stand-off end or lead to? India should have an answer. Primarily because, India, like Pakistan, is a nuclear-weapons state.
The Indian foreign secretaryâ€™s statement does not say the IAF entered Pakistani territory. It merely says they entered Balakot. Which means, in actuality, India crossed not just the LoC, but the international border, and struck the â€˜campâ€™ inside Pakistani territory. Balakot is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Will that be the new normal? Will the attack be portrayed as an â€œattack on JeM campâ€ instead of saying the IAF entered Pak territory? Will it wash?
The carefully worded Indian foreign secretaryâ€™s statement does not qualify Balakotâ€™s demographic address. Is it inside PoK or Pakistan? Pakistan, on the other hand, does not say the IAF entered Pakistani territory, claiming instead that the intrusion was in PoK. Are both sides not really getting into the territory angle because of the obvious implications? Does it look like a measure of non-escalation?
What else can it be, if India appears to be gallant in refraining from saying where Balakot really is and if Pakistan appears to be downplaying the incident by claiming it did â€˜notâ€™ happen in Pak territory but in PoK? Did India come up with a fantastic strategy which helped it hit two birds with one shot: The strike douses public war clamour and at the same time it is a â€˜cheekilyâ€™ daring attack that may not result in a major military reprisal by Pakistan.
Three, India will be ready to answer when asked: What is the overall objective? Is it against Pakistan supporting/sponsoring terrorist action in India? Or is it to target the heads of terror outfits hiding in Pakistan and plotting against India? Because, one is different from other â€“ even though they are linked â€“ in terms of operational strategies and bilateral and international ramifications.
Four, India should come out with evidence as early as possible to nip in the bud any attempt to politicise the attack for electoral gains.
Five, Indiaâ€™s response to the international community post-strike will depend on one question: Does India need to justify its action, given that the international community, including the US and China, till date, have done really nothing to force Pakistan to remove terror outfits from its soil and refrain from sponsoring attacks on India. Even Indiaâ€™s â€˜friendsâ€™, like Japan, Germany, France and UK, have not even provided lip service.
Six, on the eve of the IAF strike, the growing pressure to remove Article 35(A) and 370 (SC is hearing the 35A question) made former JK chief minister Mehbooba Mufti take a strident line of warning that such a decision will alienate the Kashmiris from the mainland. Another former CM, Omar Abdullah, happened to support her, saying it was the reality on the ground in Kashmir. Now, after the IAF strike, how India straddles the two â€“ the frosted bilaterals with Pakistan and internal rancour on Kashmir â€“ will have far-reaching implications. Any incautious step or action can precipitate matters, internally in the Kashmir Valley. As it is, the anti-Kashmiri sentiment is being fomented by a fringe section in India.
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