Above: Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman (right) at the Wagah border during a handover ceremony on March 1, 2019/Photo: UNI
Pakistan releasing the downed IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman has clearly put the ball in India’s court. But Imran Khan, too, will have to de-escalate the situation by dismantling terrorist camps
By Col R Hariharan
With IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman back home from Pakistan and receiving a hero’s welcome, tempers have cooled down somewhat between India and its neighbour which were on the brink of a confrontation. These relations entered a potential conflict zone after 12 IAF Mirage 2000s carried out a carefully crafted mission to destroy the largest Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training centre in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. Apart from this, camps were destroyed in Muzaffarabad and Chakothi in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) on February 26. India’s muscular response was to avenge JeM’s suicide bomb attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in J&K, killing 40 jawans.
Though India’s response came 12 days after the Pulwama attack, it was well-planned to cover political, diplomatic and military aspects. This was evident in the way the Air Force had meticulously planned to ensure total surprise. The IAF strike was supported by airborne early warning and control radar systems designed to detect and track aircraft, missiles and ships, and air defence cover by Sukhoi 30MKI aircraft, while Heron drones conducted surveillance of the LoC. In order to achieve total surprise, the Mirages were inducted directly into operation from Gwalior with Ilyushin (Il-78) aircraft providing mid-air fuelling facility. It was a demonstration of the IAF’s capability to carry out a complex air operation. Both Pakistan and China would have taken note of this to factor it in their strategic matrix.
India has made it clear that the operation was not against the Pakistan military or its people. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, in an official statement, called the operation “an intelligence-led operation” carried out in the early hours of the day. He said: “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.”
He added that Pakistan had taken no concrete action to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism, though India had been repeatedly urging it to act against the JeM. Justifying the action, he said that “credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country”. He described the action as a “non-military pre-emptive action” and emphasised that “the selection of 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”.
Pakistan was in a tizzy after the Indian air strike. It closed its air space for civilian air traffic. Provincial governments were put on security alert. According to an IAF spokesman, over the next two days, Pakistan aircraft had violated Indian air space in J&K 32 times. Pakistan’s retaliatory strike came a day after the Balakot attack when three PAF fighters, out of a formation of 10 PAF war planes including F-16s, JF-17s and Mirage 5s, crossed the LoC and intruded seven km into Indian airspace in Nowshera area to strike at three military targets. According to media reports, Pakistan’s targets included a brigade headquarters in Krishna Ghati (Poonch), a battalion headquarters (near Nangi Tehri) and a supply dump and ammunition point in Nyari. However, two MiG-21 interceptors scrambled to drive away the Pakistani aircraft, which dumped their bombs in open ground.
In the dogfight that followed, a MiG-21 (Bison) of ’80s vintage piloted by Wing Commander Varthaman fired a missile to bring down the F-16 plane in classic World War II style. It is learnt that the MiG-21 was hit by a splinter from the F-16 and not by air defence fire as reported in the media. Wing Commander Varthaman parachuted to the ground in PoK and was taken prisoner. It is a tribute to the Indian officer’s skill that he came out on top using an obsolete fighter in combat with an F-16, a far superior jet. At the same time, it is also an example of the human cost the services have continued to pay for decades of indifference of successive governments who failed to equip the armed forces with modern weaponry though the security environment has become more dynamic.
Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan initially put up a brave face when he addressed the joint session of his parliament to discuss the increasing tension. He said that despite his multiple overtures for peace, the response from New Delhi was not encouraging. He said: “We realised that it was because of upcoming elections in India.” So the government decided to wait until the polls in India were over before making another offer for talks. However, he “feared they would do something”.
He said he had a meeting with Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa after the Indian aircraft violated Pakistani air space. At this meeting, it was decided that Pakistan would not respond straightaway. “We realised that Pakistani people might get upset that we did not respond, but we decided that since we did not know if there were any casualties, in case of an immediate response, there will be escalation.”
His explanation that the only purpose of Pakistan’s strike was to demonstrate its capability, and not to inflict any casualty on India, is unbelievable. It is doubtful if any country would use its valuable air assets merely to demonstrate its capability, particularly in an operationally critical situation.
However, the capture of its pilot skewed India’s priorities for a while as the air strike in Balakot and PoK was carried out to fulfill PM Narendra Modi’s promise to avenge the Pulwama killings and put a stop to JeM terrorist activity in J&K. However, after Pulwama, Imran Khan promised to take action if India produced evidence of the alleged involvement of Pakistan-based JeM terrorists. This has been Pakistan’s standard ploy to delay action on India’s complaints. After the dastardly 26/11 attack in Mumbai, India had produced dossiers of evidence, but there was no follow-up action.
However, after the air strike on Balakot, India made available the dossier of the evidence to Pakistan. Earlier, India had given the dossier to the US, China and other powers too. Modi’s action was in tune with the public opinion in India, which applauded the IAF’s successful strike. But a day later, public opinion rallied to demand the release of the pilot, turning it into the first priority.
The pilot’s capture gave a breather to Imran Khan as tremendous international pressure was building up on Pakistan to take action to curb JeM terrorist activities. The US stand was unambiguously in favour of India, with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo describing the Indian air strike as “counter terrorism actions”. After speaking to the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, he asked both countries to “exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost”. Almost all UNSC members also appealed to both countries to exercise restraint. No country condemned India’s air strike inside Pakistan.
Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to Washington and currently with Hudson Institute, aptly summed up the situation in his tweet: “International community including China have advised both sides to ‘exercise restraint.’ So far, no country has supported Pakistan against ‘violation of sovereignty’ or ‘Indian aggression’.” Well-known scholar Christian Fair was more forthright. She tweeted: “Pakistan attacks India incessantly using terror proxies which the army, ISI and navy arm, resource, train, and launch on missions they design all over India outside Kashmir. So Pakistanis should literally shut up and take it as the punishment their state deserves.”
Pakistan must have been disappointed with China cautiously wording its comments after the situation worsened between India and Pakistan. China will be caught in an anomalous situation if confrontation breaks out into a full-fledged war. Though China and Pakistan enjoy a multifaceted relationship and have a strategic security agreement, the former’s relations with India are also growing, but on a different plane. China enjoys a trade surplus of over $73 billion with India; India had been clocking over seven percent growth on an average for the last five years and presents a huge, attractive market for Chinese goods. Moreover, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the infrastructure development project in which China is investing over $40 billion, passes through PoK and any military confrontation will affect the progress of the project.
In addition, India has become an essential partner in China-sponsored multilateral forums such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. China is also strengthening trilateral cooperation with India and Russia. Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi said the three countries had agreed to firmly uphold multilateralism and the international system with the UN as the core, as well as the basic norms of international relations, including the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.
So it is not surprising to see Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang saying: “We are indeed worried about the current tension between Pakistan and India.” Wang Yi has repeatedly expressed China’s concerns in his talks with his counterparts in India and Pakistan. The spokesperson said: “We urge both Pakistan and India to exercise the utmost restraint and conduct dialogue as soon as possible. Control the situation and jointly safeguard peace and stability.”
According to Reuters, the US, UK and France have proposed that the UN Security Council blacklist Masood Azhar, the head of JeM. They asked the 15-member UN Security Council sanctions committee to subject him to an arms embargo, global travel ban and assets freeze. However, the proposal will only be finalised on March 13 after consensus. China as the lone supporter of Pakistan had delayed the action in the committee on “technical grounds”.
Last, but not least, is Pakistan’s precarious economic situation which makes going to war the least favourable option. Pakistan is beholden to China and Saudi Arabia for financial support to tide through the crisis as its foreign reserves are in single-digit.
Hemmed in by these constraints, Imran took everyone by surprise when he announced in parliament on February 28 that “in our desire for peace” and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan would be releasing the IAF officer. He added that Pakistan’s efforts for de-escalation should not be construed as “weakness”.
Imran’s move to release the prisoner has clearly put the ball in Modi’s court. Though the Indian PM has said that India will pursue its objective to eradicate the terrorist threat, on the eve of elections, public opinion could be divided over continuing with operations across the LoC, particularly after Imran’s goodwill gesture. This was evident from the welcome his announcement received from many leaders in India and abroad.
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said: “I’m very happy, I had demanded his (the pilot’s) release earlier too. This is going to be a step towards goodwill and I hope this will be lasting.” Former J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, too, complimented Imran, saying he had “exhibited real statesmanship today”. She hoped that “our leadership will reciprocate and try to de-escalate the situation”. She also hoped that Imran would act upon the evidence provided to Pakistan “so that tension between the two countries ends”.
Apparently, Imran has used his bowling skills to bowl a googly to use the confrontation from the core issue of bleeding India using terrorists. In this mind-game, Imran has the advantage of not having the Damocles’ sword of elections hanging over him like Modi. Moreover, Imran has Gen Bajwa behind him in decision-making as he himself has acknowledged.
Imran’s dramatic and “generous” gesture in releasing the pilot and inviting Modi for talks meets the immediate needs of international powers. Some of them, friendly to both countries, would appreciate such a gesture as it saves them from an embarrassing situation. We can expect China to persuade India to reciprocate Pakistan’s gesture by de-escalating the military situation.
But Imran would probably not bargain for Modi digging his heels in and fighting for his beliefs. So to lend credibility, it’s not only India, but Imran too who has to de-escalate the situation by taking substantive action by dismantling terrorist camps and deny the fidayeen the freedom to operate against India from Pakistan’s soil. Can he do it? Will the army allow it? Only time can tell.
Modi faces a more complex task as he has to balance his strategic response to take it to the logical conclusion and at the same time, gain the approval of his people so that they will vote him back to power. We can expect him to continue with his holistic narrative internally in J&K and continue the pressure game on Pakistan. But it could be muted to accommodate international partners.
India must factor in all these questions before responding to Pakistan.
—The writer is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute