Rediff.com
Print this article

What changed for India after Balakot airstrike?

March 05, 2020 10:39 IST

A realistic assessment will tell us that not much has changed between India and Pakistan; the relationship remains as fraught as before with little prospect of reconciliation, notes Ajai Shukla.

 

A year has passed since Indian Air Force fighter aircraft bombed a compound near the town of Balakot in Pakistan, which had been identified as a training camp run by the Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The JeM is a Pakistani Punjabi terrorist group that focuses its activities on India and had brought the two countries to the brink of war after its fighters attacked the Parliament building in New Delhi on December 13, 2001.

Balakot was struck in the early morning hours of February 26, 2019, in retaliation for the killing of 40 Central Reserve Police Force jawans in a suicide car-bomb attack near Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir.

Located about 80 kilometres across the Line of Control, in the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Balakot strike was the first by India on a target in mainland Pakistan since the 1971 war.

All fighting since then, including the Siachen and Kargil conflicts, has been confined to the disputed J&K state.

New Delhi declared the attack a major success. Then foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale announced that 'a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis' were eliminated.

The same day, the Indian media cited 'government sources' to claim that 300 terrorists were in the camp when it was struck.

A few days later, Amit Anilchandra Shah, then the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, claimed at an election rally that 'more than 250' terrorists died in Balakot.

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi declared: 'India will no longer be helpless in the face of terror.'

All this while, the IAF declined to put a figure on the casualties inflicted in the attack, stating merely that it had accurately struck the designated target.

Pakistan repeatedly denied any casualties and took foreign journalists to Balakot, but kept them some distance from the camp.

A similar game of claims and counter-claims ensued the next day when the Pakistan air force launched its own cross-LoC strikes on Indian military targets.

India claims it 'thwarted their plans' and shot down a PAF F-16 fighter while losing one IAF MiG-21, whose pilot bailed out and was captured by Pakistani ground troops and subsequently repatriated to India.

The PAF denies losing any aircraft while claiming that it shot down two Indian fighters.

A year later, beyond the rhetoric, what are the key changes for each side?

A new normal?

First, there is the contention that, with the Balakot strike, India has established a 'new normal' that would govern its future reactions to Pakistan-backed, cross-border terrorist provocations.

Previously, New Delhi had reacted to such incidents with remonstrations, empty threats or demonstrative military mobilisation, such as after the 2001 terror strike on India's Parliament.

After the 26/11 Mumbai terror strikes in 2008, as also after the Mumbai train bombings in 2006, New Delhi had confined its reaction to mere diplomatic condemnation.

In contrast, the cross-LoC 'surgical strikes' of September 2016, stated to retaliate against the killing of 17 Indian soldiers in Uri demonstrated that India would retaliate militarily.

The Balakot air strike was an even stronger message, since the target is located in what New Delhi recognises as Pakistani territory, not in disputed J&K.

Further, in the unwritten code that governs the use of armed force on the LOC, air strikes -- especially across the international border -- constitute a significant escalation over cross-border firing, or a limited crossing of the LOC by ground forces, which are regarded as less inflammatory options.

The Balakot strike, therefore, constitutes a message that New Delhi would have no choice but to retaliate strongly against future terrorist outrages, with cross-IB or -LoC air and ground attacks, but not necessarily restricted to those.

India's deterrence posture has unquestionably hardened and its efficacy is evident from the absence of seriously damaging cross-border terrorist attacks since then.

Even so, the LoC continues to witness ceasefire violations and infiltration. This suggests that, in the long term, strikes on non-military targets like the JeM camp in Balakot have only a limited and transient ability to compel the Pakistan army to fundamentally alter its patterns of behaviour.

With the Indian military unable, or unwilling, to present concrete and unquestionable proof of having struck the terrorist infrastructure it targeted, of having killed hundreds of terrorists and of having shot down a PAF F-16 fighter with an obsolescent MiG-21, Pakistan's military has succeeded in selling its public an alternative narrative in which the Pakistani David successfully gave a black eye to the Indian Goliath.

Calling 'Pakistan's bluff'

Not to be outdone, a host of Indian strategists, analysts and retired military officers appeared on news television to claim that India had abandoned strategic restraint and had 'called Pakistan's nuclear bluff'.

They argued that India's nuclear deterrent and second strike capability had preventing Pakistan from rattling its nuclear sabre, thus allowing India to strike targets inside Pakistan.

Even Modi, while campaigning in the run-up to the May 2019 general election, claimed that Pakistan had been deterred from using nuclear weapons by the certain knowledge that India's nuclear weapons would not be saved up for Diwali.

In fact, at no stage did India come anywhere near transgressing Pakistan's nuclear red lines. That military believes its conventional forces capable of holding off an Indian offensive long enough to allow international pressure to end the fighting.

Pakistan plans to invoke the use of nuclear weapons only if its survival was threatened by crippling military losses, or if India was poised to capture a large part of that country.

Given the highly limited scope of the Balakot strike, and Gokhale's unequivocal assertion that the operation was completed and that it targeted only terrorists, Pakistan's existence was never threatened.

It would be dangerous for New Delhi to believe it had successfully called Islamabad's nuclear bluff and could henceforth disregard Pakistan's nuclear options.

If that country's media is anything to go by, the lesson drawn by Pakistani generals is that, in the event of India using force in a future crisis, they must escalate more rapidly to the nuclear brink.

Diplomatic isolation

On the diplomatic plane, contact between the two capitals remains broken with both sides having withdrawn their envoys after New Delhi read down J&K's special status on August 5 and split the state into two Union territories.

India has strenuously attempted to isolate Pakistan internationally, but with mixed results. China continues its support to its 'all weather ally' and, after New Delhi's intervention in J&K, Turkey and Malaysia also back Pakistan.

India has had greater success in putting Pakistan under pressure from the Financial Action Task Force, a 39-member international body, for failing to block fund flows to terrorist organisations designated by the United Nations security council, which include the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and the JeM.

Pakistan, having complied so far with only four of the 27 action points demanded by the FATF, remains on the list of 'Other Monitored Jurisdictions' or grey list, until the next review on June 2020.

India seeks to get Pakistan placed on the list of 'Non-Cooperative Countries or Territories' or black list, which will curb financial flows and aid to Islamabad, placing Pakistan under even greater economic stress.

Under dire economic stress, Pakistan arrested LeT chief Muhammad Saeed in July, who was sentenced to five years in prison for terrorist finance violations in February.

On May 1, sustained Indian pressure paid off when China lifted its veto and the UN designated JeM chief Masood Azhar an international terrorist and placed him on the 1267 Sanctions List.

While Pakistan is likely to minimise the actual impact of this measure, it theoretically means the shutdown of the JeM and its activities.

Yet, Islamabad continues to extract support, including from Washington, by virtue of its control over the Taliban at a time when America seeks to negotiate a face-saving withdrawal after 19 years of war in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, New Delhi's August crackdown in J&K, which in many respects still continues, has brought an unwelcome international spotlight onto India's human rights record.

In the United States congress, traditional bipartisan support for India is giving way to criticism, including from Indian-origin representatives such as Pramila Jayapal, who has tabled a resolution in the House of Representatives that criticises India's heavy-handedness in Kashmir.

While that has received support from only 29 members in the 435-member House, a growing chorus of anti-India criticism from American civil society and the powerful liberal media could complicate the problem.

So far, the US administration has remained silent with US President Donald J Trump stating during his visit to New Delhi that India should resolve its own internal problems.

However, a senior administration official noted pithily: 'What the US congress says today is usually what the administration will say tomorrow.'

Trade relations 

In the wake of the Pulwama attack, India withdrew Pakistan's 'most favoured nation' trade status and imposed punitive tariffs on that country.

With retaliatory tariffs imposed by Islamabad on Indian exports, the two biggest victims are Indian exporters; and consumers in Pakistan who are being denied access to cheap Indian exports.

Yet, given that most Indian exports to Pakistan are routed through West Asia, it is only direct India-Pakistan trade that is suffering consequences.

Water sharing

A week after the Pulwama attack, New Delhi threatened Pakistan it would get tough on water sharing.

Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari tweeted: 'Our government has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.'

This was not a threat to abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, but rather a reiteration of earlier commitments to prevent the flow of water into Pakistan from the three rivers that fall in India's share under the IWT: Sutlej, Ravi and Beas.

While Gadkari's tweet sounded menacing, Pakistan would continue getting the water in the three western rivers: Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers. India fails to harness all the water from the eastern rivers largely because of its own unresolved inter-state water disputes.

Were these disagreements to be resolved, it would still take years to build the dams and canals needed to divert all the water it is entitled to under the IWT.

A year after Balakot, India and Pakistan remain locked in hostility, with little prospect of reconciliation in the offing.

New Delhi's unrelenting pressure on Islamabad continues, but that has only made Pakistan more determined than ever to confront and criticise India in every possible forum.

Pakistan believes India has been rendered vulnerable to criticism by its crackdown in J&K, and New Delhi's liberal credentials further tarnished by the sustained protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, which is internationally seen as anti-Muslim.

With Trump offering mediation on resolving the J&K dispute, Pakistan believes the Kashmir game is not yet over.

Ajai Shukla
Source: