By Ashok K. Mehta
While New Delhi may have breached a 50-year old red line, it cannot claim air raids as the new normal or a game-changer.
Now that the dust has settled over the pines around Jaba top in Balakot, it is instructive to draw operational and strategic lessons and flag history-making events from the Indian air raid inside Pakistan and its retaliation.
Firstly, India has executed a classic counter-terrorism operation with the use of air power, the first for it and routine for a country like Israel which lives in an equally troubled but non-nuclear neighbourhood.
Secondly, India’s air raids constitute for the first time, not a tit-for-tat operation but a one-step-up the escalation ladder by using its air power.
Thirdly, it is the first time air combat has taken place between two nuclear-armed countries.
Fourthly, the 26/27 February armed air action is the briefest in the history of India-Pakistan conflicts or inter-state hostilities anywhere. Interestingly neither side declared war, so civilised is the history of armed conflicts between India and Pakistan. In none of the four wars fought between them were population centres and nuclear installations targeted.
Additionally, unlike in the past, neither side mentioned the N-word to threaten each other. Equally, the service chiefs of both countries maintained a discreet silence. Since the 1990s, Jammu and Kashmir has been called a nuclear flashpoint and now the India-Pakistan region is being given that label by Western media.
Fifthly, India and Pakistan have undergone a number of crises that ended without turning into armed conflict – The 1984 and 1986 crises when India allegedly planned to destroy (with the help of Israel) Pakistan’s nascent nuclear capacity, 1986 Operation Brass Tacks; 1990 Kashmir uprising, 1999 Kargil intrusions, 2001-02 Operation Parakram and 2008 Mumbai. In each of these crises, US intervention pre-empted either country from initiating hostilities and transforming crisis into conflict.
Sixthly, this time around, US under President Trump let India start retributive action (he said three days before the air raids: ‘India is planning something big’ after the terrorist attack in Pulwama) but ensured it did not escalate when he said: ‘we will soon have decent news’ referring to the release of the captured Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan. In a sense, the US was also strictly monitoring and even controlling escalation. India was allowed to release IAF’s payload as well as the country’s cumulative angst on Balakot. This became the first time an India-Pakistan crisis got escalated into limited conflict.
Seventhly, the captivity of Abhinandan of around 60 hours was the shortest in the history of pilots brought down in enemy territory. His release became the central issue shifting the focus from air hostilities and fear of escalation to just the pilot’s rescue and release.
Eighthly, the political leadership on both sides behaved relatively maturely. Pakistan’s peace gesture – which India hawks (who wanted war) thought was a ruse never to be accepted – became the defining point of the conflict. While Pakistan sought de-escalation, talks and no war, India wanted to keep the pressure on a winning wicket.
The choice before India was needless escalation or exiting honourably. The US would not have permitted India to carry out offensive action inside Pakistan a second time. As it is India had bombed targets not in disputed PoK but in Pakistan. The statement by an India general during the tri-service briefing on February 27 was clear: we will react if Pakistan takes offensive action.
Ninthly, India for the first time, struck at the source of terrorism and not the terrorist launch pads as it had done during the surgical strikes in 2016.
Tenthly, India describing the air strikes as ‘non-military preemptive action…’ was a tad disingenuous. There was everything military about the elimination of the Jaish training facility at Balakot.
Lastly, distinguishing between Pakistani terrorist assets and their masters, the military, does not result in any hurt and pain to the military who deserve to be punished. Heads need to be put together to achieve killing two birds with one stone. Covert capability which has never been tested inside Pakistan recently is an idea whose time had come a long time ago (and may even have crossed the expiry date) but India has shied away.
In 1997, an effective network of clandestine capacities inside Pakistan was dismantled as a goodwill gesture to Pakistan. Former defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s famous one-liner to use a terrorist to kill a terrorist has been hanging in the air. Why should India expend its conventional forces for what some dirty tricks can do?
The messaging is clear: just like the cross LoC surgical strikes, the cross border air raids now establish that India has abandoned its high moral value policy of strategic restraint. It will retaliate with strategic resolve. India carried out a limited counter-terrorism operation not intended to escalate but with the potential to escalate and got away with the loss of one aircraft.
Pakistan’s reaction was swift, signalling: ‘you can do it, we can hit you back’. The big strategic take-away is that while India may have breached a 50-year old red line, it cannot claim air raids as the new normal or a game-changer. In a fit of jubilation, military experts have rushed to the conclusion that this is a paradigm shift. Given the flexibility and versatility of air power, airstrikes may be replicable but fraught with cost and risk of escalation. So another mass-casualty terrorist attack in India/J&K will present a decision-making dilemma for the government.
Gen Ashok K. Mehta is founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently revamped as the Integrated Defence Staff.