Three defence and foreign-policy experts discuss the Balakot strikes and Indo-Pak relations

The Indian Air Force's attack in Balakot led news anchors in India to heap praise on Narendra Modi, but defence and foreign-policy experts have also been critical of circumstances surrounding the air strikes. Manish Swarup / AP
02 March, 2019

On 14 February, a suicide bomber drove a car filled with explosives into a Central Reserve Police Force convoy at Pulwama, on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, leading to the deaths of at least forty jawans. Soon after, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack. In the days that followed, social-media users and news channels in India led vociferous demands for retaliation against Pakistan. Twelve days after the Pulwama attack, the Indian Air Force conducted strikes in Jabba, a village near the Balakot town of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province—marking India’s first attack in Pakistan territory since the war in 1971, and leading news anchors to heap praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Indian government termed the strikes a “non-military preemptive action” against a JeM training camp in the area, based on intelligence that indicated future attacks by the militant organisation. But subsequent ground reports challenged the veracity of India’s claims about the air strikes. On 27 February, tensions between the nations escalated when a dogfight between the two air forces resulted in India losing a fighter jet, MiG 21 Bison, and in the capture of its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, across the border. The next day, Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, announced that Varthaman would be released on 1 March as a “peace gesture”—an assurance that was adhered to on the following day. Shortly after the announcement, senior officials of the Indian Air Force, Indian Army and Indian Navy addressed a joint press conference stating, among other things, that the aerial confrontation between the two nations was a result of Pakistan violating Indian airspace.

It remains to be seen whether the release of Varthaman will lead to a de-escalation of the conflict. The Caravan spoke to three defence and foreign-policy experts—Happymon Jacob, an associate professor of disarmament studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s school of international studies; Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor at the same school; and VK Singh, a retired major general of the Indian Army who formerly served in the Research and Analysis Wing—about the circumstances and strategy surrounding India’s response to the Pulwama attack, the public clamour for war, and what lies ahead for the two nations. Edited extracts from these responses are below.

“I am not sure what strategic objective has been achieved”: JNU associate professor Happymon Jacob

We have no conclusive proof about whether the targets the Indian Air Force wanted to hit in Balakot were actually hit. At the armed forces’ press conference on 28 February, when the air force was asked for evidence of the Balakot strikes, they did not really say anything much about it. So, as far as the declared aim of the particular attack is concerned, the government needs to give conclusive evidence as far as that is concerned. That is as far as the tactical aim is concerned.

From a strategic point of view, given the fact that India seems to have ceased the operations at this point of time, after Pakistan struck back at India, I am not sure what strategic objective has been achieved. There has been a back and forth of strikes—nothing has come out of this. Nobody has emerged a victor, and Pakistan has not promised that it will act against terrorists. If the objective was to tell Pakistan that if there is another attack, we will come inside your territory and attack you, then the very fact that Pakistan responded to that with equal measure shows that that message has not been received.

On the diplomatic front, India did what it could and I must say that is praiseworthy that India reached out to the Americans, to the Saudis, and to China. India also reached out to the United Nations via France, so I think on the diplomatic front it has been pretty strong and robust. Going by the tri-services press conference, the feeling that I am getting is that they are de-escalating without actually saying so. There is probably going to be some diplomatic back and forth, but other than that, I doubt there is going to be any activity happening from today or tomorrow onwards. By returning the pilot, Pakistan has to some extent achieved a certain moral gain in the international community. Though India might say that Pakistan did it under pressure, I doubt that was the case, unless the Americans negotiated some sort of a back-channel deal with the Pakistani side.

At the military level, I would say it was a 50-50, neither here nor there, because India did not really definitively achieve anything militarily at the end. Effectively, India spent its diplomatic, military and political energy in an attack that does not seem to have achieved any larger strategic purpose.

As told to Mehak Mahajan.

The Modi government wants maximum electoral benefits: JNU professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy

The main question is how to get talks going, because so far, the government has not said anything about that. It is possible that the government is biding its time to be in a stronger position, with the Lok Sabha elections coming. They want to get the maximum benefit in the coming elections.

There are two levels of discussion in this kind of situation. One level is the social-media celebration about the strikes, and the information that the government discloses or leaks to the press. The other level is based on back-channel discussions, which are secret. So we should wait for that.

We should be happy that Abhinandan is coming back. They have not demanded that we do any damage payment for what we did to them in Balakot, so we should just systematically continue with back-channel discussions to get the world community on our side. India cannot dare retaliate because the world has now decided that the Pakistan has done what it could do and let bygones be bygones. The Pakistanis sent him back to India. So, as far as the international community is concerned, it is equal on either side and people should build on it.

As told to Amrita Singh.

The Pulwama attack was a “major intelligence failure”: Retired major general VK Singh

Why did the Pulwama attack occur? It was a major intelligence failure. How is it that nobody came to know that such a major attack is going to take place? Have you investigated whether it was an intelligence failure, whether the CRPF convoy followed all the drills, whether road opening was done, where were the commanding officers of the three battalions? The government needs to investigate where the failure occurred and take action against the people responsible. It is the job of intelligence agencies to infiltrate these organisations. We must investigate whether some intelligence was given and whether it was specific. That another attack will happen is no intelligence. The whole country can’t take precautions. Intelligence has to be specific.

After the Pulwama attack, something like this was bound to happen. It is a good thing that India has taken some steps to tell Pakistan that all this must stop. If you are giving shelter to terrorists, this is bound to happen. They had to take some step. I think India has done a smart thing by attacking the terror camp. It demonstrated our capability that we can do this. But there should be no further escalation.

The public clamour for war now is much more than it was during the Kargil days. In those days, there was no WhatsApp and social media. The public came to know whatever they read in newspapers. Today, everybody has got a smart phone. Suddenly, there is public clamouring, and there are processions and all sorts of things going on. This has to be kept in check.

People who shout that we must go to war, they do not realise that it is ultimately the soldier who dies. The person raising a slogan in Mumbai or Chennai is not going to die. It is soldiers who are going to lose their lives on both sides. War is never a sensible option, it always the last resort. If you feel anything is going to escalate and turn into war, you must avoid it. That is why you must explore other avenues—economic pressure, diplomatic pressure. There should be no escalation. We must try diplomatic channels, and using friendly countries that we feel may have a say in Pakistan.

As told to Tusha Mittal.