India & Pakistan

The ‘enemy’ factor

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives to attend a military parade to mark Pakistan National Day in Islamabad on March 23. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP

A banner put up near the BJP headquarters in Lucknow on March 5 by a former party MP claiming that the Pulwama attack had been avenged. In his election speeches, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that no Indian government had given such a befitting reply to Pakistan. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A madarasa situated at Jaba village near Balakot close to the site where the Indian military aircraft struck on February 26, according to Pakistani officials. This picture was taken during a trip organised by the Pakistan government on April 10. Photo: REUTERS

India’s retaliatory air raid after the Pulwama suicide attack gives a fillip to the BJP’s election campaign, but Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s responses win appreciation from the international community and weakens the BJP’s plans to build a nationalist narrative around the episode.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) faltering campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha election received a major fillip in the wake of the suicide bombing of a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, in the last week of February. Forty CRPF personnel were killed in the attack for which the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility. India retaliated by launching an air strike inside Pakistani territory, for the first time since the 1971 Bangladesh war. The Indian government claimed that the strike by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on the night of February 26 had wrought significant damage on a terrorist training camp in Balakot, located in the province of Khyber Paktunkhwa of Pakistan.

Senior Indian officials and BJP leaders claimed that a “large number” of terrorists were killed in the attack. The Indian Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said “very large numbers” of terrorists were killed in the action. The majority of the Indian media, obviously basing their information on high-level background briefings, put the number of those killed in the Balakot attack at over 300.

Islamabad was quick to deny these assertions. It said that the bombs and missiles from the Indian planes targeted an uninhabited forest area near the madrasa in Balakot, which the IAF said it had destroyed. The “madrasa” in question was known for its links with extremist groupings such as the JeM and the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Indian officials were careful to claim that the air strikes were “pre-emptive” and “non-military” in nature. In retrospect, if the initial claim of the Indian military and the top BJP leadership about the results of the air raid had turned out to be true, the consequences for the subcontinent would have been catastrophic. According to the Pakistani authorities, more than 150 children aged between 12 and 13 were staying in the madrasa which the IAF said it had targeted. If the bombs had struck the building, the collateral damage would have been significant and could have sucked the two countries into a spiral of war.

More than a month after the IAF’s bombing raid, the Pakistan Army took diplomats and foreign journalists based in Islamabad and New Delhi to visit the alleged site of the attack. The mosque and the madrasa did not show any signs of significant structural damage although repairs could have been made in a month’s time. But the claims of the IAF spokesman that the structures were devastated by the Israeli smart bombs seemed to have been significantly off the mark. The Director General of Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, told the military attaches and foreign mediapersons that India’s claims were false and did not correspond with the “ground realities”. The visitors, according to the ISPR, were allowed to interact freely with the children studying at the madrasa and visit the wooded area where the IAF had dropped its payload.

Islamabad has also gone to great lengths to undermine the claim of the IAF on the shooting down of an F-16 in aerial combat. The Pakistani authorities vehemently denied that F-16s were ever engaged in the brief dogfight in the skies above the Line of Control (LoC) though there are reasons to doubt the claim. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched a retaliatory strike on the Indian-administered side of Kashmir within hours of the IAF attack on Balakot. The PAF dropped bombs on an uninhabited area on the morning of February 27. The PAF claimed that the planes used in the operation were JF-17s. These fighter planes of Chinese origin are manufactured in Pakistan.

For the night-time attack on February 26, the IAF scrambled its fighter jets, which included MiG-21 Bisons. One of the MiG-21s crashed on the Pakistani side of the LoC. The IAF claims that the pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, bailed out after his plane ran out of fuel but not before shooting down a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan has also claimed the downing of a second MiG-21. The IAF has maintained that the plane in question had crashed while on a training mission a few hours before the aerial combat between the two air forces took place. The IAF also lost a Mi-17 helicopter with its crew of six in “friendly fire” when the IAF and the PAF were having their brief aerial skirmish.

Military experts and United States defence officials have rebutted the IAF’s version of the events. An article in the Foreign Policy (FP) Journal quotes two U.S. Defence Department officials with “direct knowledge of the situation” that the Indian government’s version seems to be wrong. They say that in the heat of the combat, Varthaman got a lock on the F-16 and fired. But, according to the U.S. officials, no F-16 was brought down. The MiG-21 Bison, although updated, is basically a Soviet-era aircraft. Its avionics are no match for the F-16, an aircraft that the U.S. is desperately trying to sell to India.

An F-16 being shot down by an antiquated MiG-21 would have been bad publicity for the U.S. military industrial complex. For that matter, even Russia has not backed the claim that a MiG-21 shot down an F-16. The Pentagon has done a count of the F-16s in Pakistan’s inventory and found them all to be intact and in good shape. Pakistan invited U.S. officials to do a physical count of the F-16s as part of the end-user agreement signed with it. The U.S. was also looking into allegations by India that the F-16s were deployed for the raid across the LoC. Under the sale agreement, Pakistan is supposed to use the F-16s only for defensive purposes.

The FP article suggested “that Indian authorities may have misled the international community about what happened that day” in Balakot. As the perceptive Pakistani commentator and peace activist Pervez Hoodbhoy observed in a recent article, pilot skills are secondary in contemporary warfare. “These days air platforms matter relatively little; in the Bison case one set of avionics and air-to-air missiles had clearly worked as intended.” According to Hoodbhoy, they were, however, not good enough to down the stealthier and more advanced F-16s or the JF-17s with their superior avionics.

Evidently, the IAF had not deployed its best planes in the recent dogfight over the LoC. All the same, according to defence and strategic experts worldwide, the outcome has not reflected well on the preparedness of the IAF. “Any which way you spin it, Pakistan’s attack took India by surprise,” the military historian Srinath Raghavan said.

Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told FP that as more and more details of the Balakot air raid and its aftermath came out, “it looks increasingly like India failed to impose significant costs on Pakistan, but lost a plane and a helicopter on its own in the process”.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the BJP of whipping up war hysteria and falsely claiming the downing of an F-16. “The truth always prevails and is always the best policy,” Imran tweeted after the publication of the FP article. The IAF, however, continues to reiterate that it did indeed shoot down an F-16. “The Indian Force have confirmed sighting ejections at two different places that day. The two sightings were at places separated by at least 8-10 km. One was a MiG-21 Bison and the other a PAF aircraft. Electronic signatures gathered by us indicate that it was an F-16,” the IAF said in a statement issued after the publication of the FP article. The BJP government has been trying to label all those questioning the authenticity of the F-16 downing as unpatriotic.

At the same time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah have declared the military response to the Pulwama massacre a great military success. In his recent speeches, Modi claimed that no Indian government had given such a befitting military reply to Pakistan. After Balakot, Modi said India had “deflated” Pakistan’s nuclear threats. Imran Khan had warned India to desist from escalating the conflict “because of the weapons we have”. The international community had to engage in diplomatic firefighting to restrain the two nuclear-armed neighbours who were seemingly at daggers drawn after the events in Pulwama and Balakot.

Appreciation for Imran Khan

Imran Khan earned the appreciation of the international community for his handling of the crisis. His decision to immediately release the captured Indian pilot won praise and went a long way in clearing the war clouds. His repeated offer of talks with India have further enhanced his reputation. There are signs that Imran Khan may be emerging out of the shadow of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. He recently stated that the government “will not allow armed militant groups”, including those involved in Kashmir, to operate from Pakistani soil. He said they had lost their relevance as most of these groups were formed during the “jehad” against the Soviet-supported government in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Imran Khan also observed that the action of the militants in Kashmir resulted in more repression of the people in the Kashmir Valley. He also announced that the 30,000 madrasas across Pakistan would be brought under government control, and subjects such as mathematics and science would be part of the curriculum.

During an interaction with the international media in Islamabad in the first week of April, Imran Khan, to the apparent discomfiture of the BJP, said that a BJP victory in the general election could prove beneficial for bilateral relations. This line of thinking has been popular in Pakistan’s ruling circles since the late 1990s. The first National Democratic Alliance government was on the verge of signing a historic deal with Pakistan. “Perhaps if the BJP—a right-wing party wins, some kind of settlement on Kashmir could be reached,” Imran Khan said. The Congress, he said, came under tremendous pressure from nationalist groups and security hawks when it tried for a peace deal. During the election campaign in Pakistan in 2018, Imran Khan had caricatured former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as Modi’s “dost” (friend). Imran Khan had also compared Modi’s election campaign with that of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader, who is battling serious corruption charges, won the recent election by demonising the minority Palestinians and exploiting national security issues for partisan ends.

The Pakistani establishment wants to forestall any precipitate move by the politically beleaguered Modi against its country before the Indian elections are over. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the media of a possible military attack being planned by India in the third week of April and that Pakistan had passed on “reliable information” to the United Nations Security Council members about its fears. The Indian Foreign Office has rejected Qureshi’s “irresponsible and preposterous statement”.