India’s bold Counter-Terrorist Air-Strike deep within Pakistan marks a paradigm shift in its security strategy
The military response that had been anticipated in the EFSAS Article, ‘Pulwama terrorist attack: By overplaying its terrorist-card, Pakistan has invited strong Indian retribution’ as part of India’s comprehensive strategy to address the plague of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism directed against India took the form of telling air strikes in the wee hours of 26 February that obliterated a major Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) terrorist camp in Balakot in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A startled, dazed and embarrassed Pakistan, after initially denying that any such incident had occurred, subsequently reluctantly acknowledged that Indian fighter aircraft had indeed penetrated deep into Pakistani territory undetected and had dropped bombs near Balakot. Pakistan’s botched attempt at retaliation through an airstrike targeting Indian military installations on the morning of 27 February were repulsed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) near the Line of Control (LoC) that separates the two countries across a major part of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The IAF shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter, but also lost one of its MIG-21 fighters whose pilot, who had ejected before impact, drifted across the LoC and was picked up by Pakistani forces there. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has since appealed to India for de-escalation, and under pressure from the United States (US) announced on 28 February that Pakistan would return the pilot to India on 1 March as a "peace gesture". He has, however, not articulated any commitment to clamp down demonstrably on the terrorist proxies of the Pakistani military establishment. Anything short of that is not likely to appease the infuriated Indian government. The situation between the two countries, therefore, remains highly tense and volatile.
Shortly after the Indian aircraft returned back unchallenged and unscathed after their successful foray 80 km into Pakistani territory, India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, briefed the international media in New Delhi and elucidated the rationale, nature, aims and efficacy of the IAF operation. He underlined that despite repeated requests by India “Pakistan has taken no concrete actions to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil”, which, he contended, “could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistan authorities”. Referring to the JeM attack in Pulwama in which over 40 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed, Gokhale asserted that “Credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country, and the fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose. In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary. In an intelligence led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups 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”.
Gokhale put the nature of the IAF operation in clear perspective when he described it as a “non-military preemptive action specifically targeted at the JeM camp”, adding that “The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties”. These carefully chosen words conveyed that what India had undertaken was essentially a counter-terrorist operation aimed at neutralizing terrorist attacks against India that specific intelligence had indicated was imminent. It was not directed against the Pakistani State or the Pakistani Army but at terrorists, and great care had been taken to avoid civilian casualties. The core message to Pakistan was that India was willing and capable of acting against anti-India terrorist groups being harboured by Pakistan, and while it was not inclined to provoke Pakistan militarily, it was now seriously intent on protecting itself no matter what the potential response from Pakistan would be.
As Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a seasoned and perceptive observer of the region succinctly put it, “India has been a perpetual prisoner of its own self-restraint… I think Indians are now simply tired of being the punching bag for Pakistani terrorism. What they decided to do was send a signal that conspicuous attacks would not go unanswered (and that) Pakistani territory would not remain immune from Indian retaliation”. Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed Tellis’ views, “There’s a real exhaustion and fatigue with Pakistan in India, the same fatigue that is felt by nations around the world. There’s been a real hardening on whether talks can provide any benefits and whether Pakistan is genuine in its calls for dialogue”.
India had made it fairly clear after the Pulwama attacks of 14 February that a military response was in the works. The only mystery was over the form it would take. The Balakot strike therefore led to serious questions in Pakistan about the inability of the Pakistani forces to even detect the IAF jets, let alone engage them, which made a mockery of statements such as those of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi that, “the defenders of the nation are awake, and the nation has nothing to worry about”. Defense Minister Pervez Khatak’s contention that Pakistani forces were ready to repel the Indian attack but "it was dark" generated even greater incredulity. The vacillating statements on whether or not and exactly where the strike took place, and with what impact, which were intermittently emanating from the spokesman of the Pakistan Army, did not help matters. The fact that India chose a target deep in the Pakistani heartland and not on contiguous Pakistan Administered J&K that India claims as legally belonging to it amped up the jitters felt in Pakistan.
Desperate for a face-saving option that would becalm an agitated opposition and a confused and rattled nation, Imran Khan chaired an emergency meeting on 26 February, after which he averred that "India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing". He also called a meeting of the National Command Authority that is tasked with overseeing Pakistan's nuclear weapons, the intention being to yet again flaunt Pakistan’s nuclear capability as a deterrent. In the end, Pakistan could only muster the courage to attempt a token rushed retaliatory raid on Indian military installations along the LoC, but even this was repelled.
Amidst calls for de-escalation of tensions, the international community stressed on Pakistan that it must deny safe haven to terrorist outfits operating from its soil. The diplomatic clout that Pakistan, riding on its symbiotic relationship with the US, had once wielded in the heyday of the Cold War has eroded as the country’s true calling has become increasingly apparent and its relationship with the US has withered away to one of mutual suspicion. Pakistan was powerful enough in 1975 to defeat a much larger India to secure a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The country’s standing, thereafter, went so far downhill that it barely managed to scrape through in 2011, when it contested against a much weaker Kyrgyzstan. Pakistan’s sponsorship of, and support to, terrorists of myriad hues has been a major factor that has contributed to the country’s slide.
India’s international standing, in contrast, has grown exponentially as its credentials as a responsible, principled member of the international community has merged with its growing economic clout. It was no surprise, therefore, that countries such as the US, the United Kingdom (UK), France, Australia and Japan, among others, called for Pakistan to act against the terrorist groups it was harbouring. The US, the UK and France, meanwhile, once again asked the UNSC sanctions committee to subject JeM leader Masood Azhar to an arms embargo, global travel ban and asset freeze.
After India on 27 February handed over a dossier to Pakistan containing specific details of involvement of the JeM in the Pulwama terror attack, a US State Department spokesperson said, "Cross-border terrorism, such as the recent attack on India's CRPF on February 14, poses a grave threat to the security of the region. We reiterate our call for Pakistan to abide by its United Nations Security Council commitments to deny terrorists safe haven and block their access to funds". US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a statement issued after the IAF strike on Balakot on 26 February not only seconded India’s stand that it was a counter-terrorism action, but put the onus of de-escalating tensions on Pakistan. He stated, “Following Indian counter-terrorism actions on February 26, I spoke with Indian Minister of External Affairs Swaraj to emphasize our close security partnership and shared goal of maintaining peace and security in the region. I also spoke to Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi to underscore the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action, and the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil”.
It is not only with western countries that India’s standing has improved. India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, has been invited as the Guest of Honour at the plenary of the 46th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Abu Dhabi on 1 and 2 March, despite Foreign Minister Qureshi’s threat that Pakistan would boycott the OIC meeting if Swaraj participated.
Opinion among experts on the direction the tensions between India and Pakistan will now take is divided. India has described Pakistan’s foiled 27 February air attack as an act of aggression. It has also made it clear that only immediate and verifiable action by Pakistan against terrorists and terror groups operating from territories under its control was acceptable to it, not talks on terror as Imran Khan has suggested as a ruse to secure de-escalation without any significant concessions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have given a hint of what lies ahead when just minutes after Imran Khan had announced that the IAF pilot in Pakistani custody would be repatriated to India on 1 March, Modi said to scientists at a function in New Delhi, “You people spend your lives in laboratories. It is a custom to first carry out a ‘pilot project’. Scalability is done after that. Just now one pilot project has been completed. Now we have to make it real, earlier it was just practice”.
Whichever turn the current situation takes, one fact on which there is little ambiguity is that India has definitively changed the rules of the game as far as its response to Pakistan-backed terrorism is concerned. Pakistan’s calculation that a low-cost asymmetrical war fought by terrorist proxies would keep India tied down and its assumption that the threat of nuclear war will inhibit India from retaliating in a conventional manner can now be consigned to history. India has finally discarded its policy of strategic restraint and unveiled a new security doctrine in which Pakistan can no longer export terror to India without paying a heavy price for it.
It is Pakistan which will now have to decide whether it has the appetite or resources to stand up to the escalation that future terrorist attacks on India will invariably invite.