Balakot Airstrike: Focus on the Broad Picture

Fighter jets of the Indian Air Force intercepted Pakistan Air Force planes that had intruded into the Indian air space on February 27. Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman intercepted Pakistani F16 and shot it down in aerial combat.

While speaking to a news channel during January last year on the issue of any military misadventure attempted by India, Director General of Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had said, “Well, it’s their choice. Should they wish to test our resolve, they may try and see it for themselves!” A year and one month later, just after the horrific Pulwama suicide terror attack on a CRPF convoy orchestrated by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa once again spoke of how “Any (Indian) aggression or misadventure shall be paid back in same coin.”

After this dastardly attack, Prime Minister Narender Modi had vowed that “every Pulwama teardrop would be avenged.” But when over a week went by and nothing happened, it seemed that the Pakistan Army Chief’s stern warning had dissuaded New Delhi from ‘doing an Uri’. But just four days later, the Indian Air Force (IAF) struck Pakistan and it struck really hard and deep! Using Mirage 2000 fighter jets equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, the IAF successfully took out three suspected JeM facilities and returned to base safe and sound. Within hours Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched a retaliatory strike but its fighter aircrafts were forced to prematurely drop their bombs after being intercepted by the IAF. In the ensuing dogfight, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman of the IAF flying a MIG 21 Bison chased and shot down a PAF F16 fighter jet before his aircraft was hit by an AMRAAM 120 C missile fired by Pakistan’s F16 jet.

After Pakistan army posted raw videos of Wg Cdr Abhinandan being mercilessly roughed up by locals while Pakistan Army soldiers behaved like mute spectators, public temper ran high in India. But luckily, good sense seems to have prevailed as Islamabad decided to repatriate him without any preconditions and did not attempt to violate Indian air space thereafter. This did help to reduce tensions but by escalating ceasefire violations and intentionally targeting Indian villagers residing in close proximity of the Line of Control (LoC), Pakistan Army, which is still smarting under the humiliation of the 2016 surgical strikes, has made it clear that it is in no mood to de-escalate.  

The air strikes against JeM assets mark a paradigm shift in India’s response to terrorist attacks that are being masterminded and facilitated from across the LoC. After the 2016 Uri Attack, India defended its right to attack terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) on the grounds that since PoK was Indian territory under illegal occupation of Pakistan, its army hadn’t violated the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan by crossing the LoC. But by using the IAF to destroy the Balakot JeM facility situated in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, New Delhi has raised the bar by making it clear that henceforth taking military action against terrorist infrastructure would take precedence over the territorial sovereignty rights of complicit nations.  

Despite facing international criticism and severe embarrassment of being put on the ‘grey list’ by Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for not clamping down on terror funding, the Pakistan Army continues to patronise various terrorist groups. Therefore, it is obvious that sporadic military actions like the post-Uri surgical strikes and the Balakot airstrike will not end the flow of terrorists into J&K and other parts of India. Nevertheless, this action indicates an assertive national will to take on terrorism by its horns through the combination of a sustained diplomatic offensive to expose and isolate Pakistan for aiding and abetting terror related activities in J&K. This along with the capability to ‘punish’ Pakistan militarily and economically can certainly keep things under control.

Regrettably, the nation has lost a lot due to the politicisation of these airstrikes and political parties across the board are equally to be blamed for this. The Prime Minister deserves credit for taking this bold and unprecedented decision in national interest, which would have won him public appreciation. Therefore there was just no reason for members of the ruling party to display crass opportunism and a perverse appetite for seeking glory by hyping this action.  Similarly, in trying to discredit the government by questioning the veracity of the airstrikes, opposition parties have literally cut the nose of IAF just to spite the government’s face. Hence all political parties owe the armed forces an unqualified apology for trivialising their valour and casting unfounded aspersions on the professional capability and integrity of men in uniform, which has only helped the beleaguered Pakistan Army to save face.

Thanks to our netas and their shameful attempts to serve their own vested interests, the wood has been lost for the trees because instead of realising the tremendous advantages of the Balakot airstrike and capitalising upon the same, they are busy debating the number of terrorists killed and publically lamenting our outdated aircrafts. Anyway, while politicians squabble over petty things, let’s celebrate the Balakot airstrike because–

  • It has completely shattered the myth about the invincibility of the Pakistan armed forces. This is the second time that India has struck across the LoC.  Though Prime Minister Imran Khan defiantly announced that he had authorised Pakistan armed forces to “respond decisively and comprehensively to any aggression or misadventure by India,” as per DG ISPR’s own admission, all PAF did in retaliation to the Balakot air strike was that it “locked all targets with accuracy” but “carried out strikes in open air” (This may sound amusing but it’s true!)
  • Whereas India’s “pre-emptive, non military” strike against terrorist infrastructure on foreign soil has been internationally accepted, Pakistan’s patronage of terrorist groups has once again come under heavy flak and Islamabad has been forced to act against proscribed terrorist groups. Even if this is just eyewash, the fact is that it buttresses India’s claim of cross border terrorism emanating from Pakistan which has once again severely embarrassed Islamabad.  
  • It has once again exposed Islamabad’s proclivity for being economical with the truth. DG ISPR originally claimed that two IAF aircrafts had been shot down by PAF and that out of the three Indian pilots who had bailed out and landed in Pakistani territory, one was being treated for injuries at the combined military hospital. But within hours he had to admit that Pakistan had only one pilot in its custody. His claim that non F16 fighters were used on February 27 was also disproved when the IAF displayed remnants of an AMRAAM 120 C missile that can only be fired from an F16 which was recovered from Indian territory.
  • With Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi confirming that JeM chief Masood Azar was present in Pakistan and Maj Gen Ghafoor subsequently denying it, the duplicity of Pakistan Army’s much hyped war against terror has once again been exposed.
  • Due to the fear of similar strikes in future, Government of Pakistan, which is near bankruptcy, will be forced make additional budgetary allocations in its defence budget thereby further aggravating its already very fragile financial condition. It has already granted nearly Rs 8 billion to meet PAF’s immediate requirements and would have to increase this amount several times over in order to match Indian armed forces. Since this money will have to be diverted from infrastructure development and subsidy related programmes, this ‘economic pain’ inflicted on Islamabad could lead to more serious in-house introspection on the issue of using terrorism as state policy.

The best part about the Balakot airstrike is that it has firmly institutionalised the long overdue policy of punitive military response against those who target Indians. The biggest takeaway is that hereafter every government that comes to power will have to follow this doctrine of retaliation. Resultantly, those wanting to mess around with India cannot do so with impunity any longer as now onwards they will have to factor-in the heavy ‘cost’ of any misadventure.

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