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Last Updated : Mar 18, 2019 07:27 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Podcast| Pick of the day - IAF’s airstrikes on Balakot and the unfolding aftermath

India described its action as a “non-military pre-emptive strike" against JeM, a UN-proscribed terrorist group. This marks a transition in anti-terrorism in India from a defensive posture to an offensive one.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom

HARISH PUPPALA | RAKESH SHARMA

Moneycontrol Contributors


This much is certain now - a dozen planes of the Indian Air Force flew over Pakistani airspace all the way to Balakot in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of our neighbour and dropped bombs on terrorist camps. The government’s official statement said, “In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of (26 February), India struck the biggest training camp of JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammed) 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.”

J-e-M was, of course, the militant outfit that claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Pulwama in Jammu & Kashmir that killed over 40 CRPF soldiers on February 14.

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Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, who presented the statement, further said, “The Government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism. Hence this non-military preemptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp. The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties. The facility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence.”

India’s war against terrorism goes airborne

It’s an tiresome cliche now, one we could laugh away if the cost of human lives wasn’t already so high. The India-Pakistan conflict is one that sees a solider or two succumb to violence in the Kashmir region every few days. Given the duration of this war-by-proxy that is conducted by Islamic radicals, we in India are now inured to such losses as a price we pay for our country’s tenuous hold on the Kashmir valley. I’m not going to get into the Pulwama bombing by the Masood Azhar-led Jaish-e-Mohammed - it has been discussed ad nauseam, and threadbare, by every Indian with a mobile phone. The public wanted vengeance for such an act, with some even crying war. Well, it’s beginning to look like they may have got the war they wanted.

The 26 February airstrike penetrated deep into Pakistani territory, well into KPK. That province lies beyond the LoC (which separates the two Kashmirs) and the International Border that marks Pakistan proper. An India Today report claims, “The pre-dawn airstrike that India carried out )was)...in the works for 11 days, sources say...the government cleared Air Force chief BS Dhanoa's presentation the day after the (Pulwama) bombing…”

Sometime after 3AM on Tuesday, twelve Mirage 2000 fighter jets belonging to the IAF took off from Ambala airbase in Punjab and struck joint training camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The terror camp is said to be located some 20 kilometres from Balakot town.

A Livemint report noted that hundreds of Fidayeen (an Arabic word for a soldier who gives his life for a chosen cause)  and their trainers were shifted from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to a five-star, resort style camp in a hilltop forest in Balakot after the Pulwama attack, providing Indian forces with "a sitting duck…”. That  report mentions that up to 350 terrorists were eliminated - at least 325 terrorists and 25 to 27 trainers.

Fighter and other aircraft took off from several air bases across Western and Central IAF commands around the same time, which could have left Pakistani defence officials confused as to their heading. A small group of aircraft broke away from the swarm and headed to Balakot where “the sleeping terrorists were sitting ducks…”

According to official claims, the strike completely destroyed the camps by shelling 1,000 kg bombs. The entire operation lasted 19 minutes. According to a report in The Economic Times, the Mirages hit Balakot at 3:45 AM and the strike went on till 3:53 AM. Hitting Balakot is seen as a big change for the IAF  - it had not only crossed the LoC (Line of Control), but also flew across all of PoK, or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and to target terrorist camps inside Khyber Pakhtukhwa. Some reports claim that it was also the biggest J-e-M camp, while the official claim is that around 300 people were killed in the aerial bombardment. The IAF reportedly deployed an elaborate support system for this operation. Surveillance was heightened, and drones as well as early-warning systems were used to keep an eye on any action emanating from Pakistan. Interestingly, mid-air refuellers were also deployed in case of an emergency.

Some Pakistani aircraft did attempt to retaliate but, according to an ANI report, turned back due to the unexpected size of the Indian formation. The Indian Air Force claimed that all Indian aircraft returned safely after dropping bombs on three locations - Balakot in KPK, and Chakothi and Muzaffarabad in PoK. As Elizabeth Roche wrote in Livemint, “The Balakot air strike illustrated a new will on the part of India to shed its reservations and target terrorist camps wherever they may be.” What’s interesting is that Indian fighter jets crossed into Pakistani territory despite a large number of radars deployed on Pakistan’s eastern border to thwart any such action.

Pakistan confirmed that Indian fighter jets had indeed flown into their country saying "four bombs" were dropped during an operation on Tuesday but downplayed its significance, claiming the Indian planes were repulsed. The spokesperson said that the fleeing Indian aircraft "jettisoned their payload."

While India described its action as a “non-military pre-emptive strike" against JeM, a UN-proscribed terrorist group. This marks a transition in anti-terrorism in India from a defensive posture to an offensive one.

Pakistan Army spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor also said that Pakistan will "surprise" India with its response that will be in all domains including "diplomatic, political and military." He asserted that there was no strike but only the payload fell. Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, after chairing an emergency meeting at the Pakistan foreign office, suggested that escalation could be on the cards. He said, “India has violated the Line of Control and committed grave aggression against Pakistan. We reserve the right of a suitable response and right of self defence.”

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic analyst with the think tank, Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, tweeted, “...a chilling message for Pakistan’s terrorism sponsors: the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) headquarters in Islamabad and GHQ (general headquarters) in Rawalpindi are much closer than Balakot to the Ambala airbase, from where Indian warplanes carried out the air strikes with impunity.”

And major world powers may have been in the know. Asked about India’s right to self-defence, American President Donald Trump told the media last week, “India is looking at something very strong. And, I mean, India just lost almost 50 people and... with an attack, so I can understand that also.” US national security adviser John Bolton had also told reporters that he had conveyed to his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval during a phone call “that we support India’s right to self-defence”. Reuters reported that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spoken with the foreign ministers of both countries and urged them to avoid “further military activity” following Tuesday’s air strike. He said, “I expressed to both ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost.” Pompeo added, “I also encouraged both ministers to prioritize direct communication and avoid further military activity.”

France and Australia released statements asking Pakistan to essentially curb terrorism that emanates from its territory while, surprisingly, China, an all-weather friend of Pakistan, urged restraint from both countries.

Then, of course, social media took over and it was a meme war on Twitter and Facebook. Day one of this new direction in the India-Pakistan saga belonged to India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi played it cool, taking a ride in the Delhi Metro, then speaking at an ISCKON temple. Many opposition luminaries congratulated the Indian Air Force for the attacks, including Mamata Bannerjee! It was news to the rest of the country, of course, that the Indian Air Force had decided to attack J-e-M camps of its own accord. Was there a policy shift we weren’t told about?

Pakistan retaliates

On day two of the conflict, Pakistan kept its word on retaliation. Pakistan Air Force jets flew across the LoC into Kashmir and dropped four bombs in remote locations in the Nowshera sector of Jammu and Kashmir's Rajouri district. Pakistan also claimed to have shot down two Indian jets as well as having arrested two IAF pilots.

Pakistan claimed it launched its own strikes to demonstrate its “capability, will and resolve to respond to Indian strikes on its territory a day earlier.” The Pakistani action, according to its  foreign office statement, “was not a retaliation to continued Indian belligerence. Pakistan has therefore, taken strikes at non military target, avoiding human loss and collateral damage.”

Asif Ghafoor said Pakistani jets were chased by Indian Air Force aircraft and when they violated Pakistan space, two aircraft were shot down. Wreckage of one of the aircraft fell on the Pakistani side and local authorities arrested one of the pilots while another, who was injured, was admitted to a hospital. Ghafoor produced photographs of weapons and identity documents he said were carried by Indian pilots.

Reuters reported that the Pakistan government’s official Twitter account released a video of what it claimed was one of the Indian pilots who had been shot down. The man, whose face is bloodied and blindfolded, identified himself as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, and also revealed his service number and, curiously, his religion, before telling a man questioning him: “I’m sorry sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you.”

Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, told a news briefing that Pakistan’s airstrikes on military targets had been “foiled”. He said India had shot down one Pakistani plane that landed in Pakistani territory, and that it had lost one of its own planes, not two, with the pilot “missing in action.” Kumar said, “One Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft was shot down by Indian Air Force. In this engagement, we have lost one MiG 21. The pilot is missing in action. Pakistan claims he is in their custody. We are ascertaining the facts..”

India shut down nine airports in the morning in anticipation of just such an attack. Srinagar, Jammu, Leh, Pathankot, Amritsar, Shimla, Kangra, Kullu Manali and Pithoragarh airports were closed to civilian air traffic amid the escalating tension after Pakistani jets violated Indian airspace and bombed the Poonch and Rajouri sectors along the Line of Control (LoC).

In Srinagar, the Airports Authority of India said, “Civilian air traffic has been suspended temporarily in view of the emergency." However, as of 330 pm, India reversed the shutdown hours after airports and airspace north of New Delhi.

Political fallout

Well, this one’s easy. With a show of intent via the airstrike, Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks to be on very solid ground as far as the May 2019 elections are concerned. Domestically, the Indian action, coming before the elections, helps Modi. He was under immense pressure to act given India’s stated position that talks and terrorism can’t go together. The IAF air strikes seemed to unite the opposition behind the government, albeit temporarily. An all-party meeting in New Delhi was briefed by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.

Fresh inputs

The Indian stock market was down around 0.5 percent, but the nervousness was evident in Mumbai, according to a Reuters report. There was a visible increase in security levels in India’s financial capital, which has suffered numerous militant attacks in the past.

Meanwhile, a small-scale war of words has erupted between the two governments. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on threatened to boycott a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) scheduled for this week in the UAE if India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj participates in the event. India has been invited to the event by the UAE, with Swaraj as the guest of honour. He said, “I have no reservations with the OIC or any other Islamic country. My reservations are with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj's attendance at the OIC meeting. If Swaraj attends the meeting then I will not participate in it.” The OIC on Tuesday "condemned" India's "incursion and aerial violation" in Pakistan. Earlier today, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a televised speech, "History tells us that wars are full of miscalculation. My question is that given the weapons we have can we afford miscalculation. We should sit down and talk.” There was also the attendant bluster of India-Pak altercations. Khan said, “I ask India: with the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation? If this (situation) escalates, it will no longer be in my control or in (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi's...where do we go from here?”

As of 7PM, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement that said, “It was made clear that Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return.” ANI reported that India also strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention.

With India reiterating its right to go after terrorists, the conflict could see more escalation before it winds down. In such a scenario, unless, you are a keyboard warrior and meme wars are your thing, might I suggest sticking to reports from official sources, and not paying too much attention to hysterical forwards on WhatsApp family groups? After all, we may be on the brink of a major conflict.

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First Published on Feb 28, 2019 01:32 pm
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