The dubious report in Foreign Policy magazine claimed that no F-16 fighter jet from Pakistan was shot down by India. Magazine said the US audit found all F-16s intact with Pakistan. This suspicious Foreign Policy report fell flat on its face when Pentagon flatly denied that it was not aware of any such audit that was carried out to determine the number of F-16s in Pakistan.
Founded in 1970, Foreign Policy (FP) is a prestigious American news publication with an impressive record of national and international awards for professional excellence to its credit. That’s why there was jubilation both in Islamabad and Rawalpindi when FP reported that two unnamed “senior US defence officials with direct knowledge of situation” had confirmed that after carrying out a count of F-16 fighter jets sold by Washington to Pakistan it was found that none of them were missing. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan lost no time in using this news report to tweet a profound philosophical message that “The truth always prevails and is the best policy.” He even went on to add that “BJP’s attempt to win elections through whipping up war hysteria and false claims of downing a Pak F-16 has backfired with US Defence officials also confirming that no F-16 was missing from Pakistan’s fleet.”
Whereas Islamabad is going gaga over the FP report as it vindicates its stand that the PAF didn’t lose any F-16 fighter jet in a dogfight with IAF (Indian Air Force) on February 27, but suspicions that India’s claim to the contrary may be true still persists due to certain major inconsistencies in Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) narrative. Even though the versions given by India and Pakistan regarding what happened on February 27 appear to be in complete variation, there is complete unanimity on the issue that two fighter aircrafts were shot down on that day. India has claimed that the IAF shot down one F-16 and accepted losing a MIG 21. Similarly, even though Director General (DG) ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor denied that the PAF had lost any aircraft, he too tweeted that two IAF aircrafts were shot down on February 27. So, although there may be a controversy regarding the identity of one downed aircraft, both the Indian and Pakistani accounts accept that two fighter jets were shot down in the dogfight on the day after the Balakot airstrike by IAF.
The second common issue in both versions is that three pilots had bailed out. India has claimed that after an F-16 of PAF was hit, two parachutes were seen descending in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) airspace. It also accepted that IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman had parachuted and landed in PoK after his MIG 21 was hit (making it a total of three bailouts). Maj Gen Ghafoor also tweeted that while one IAF pilot who had ejected was in the custody of Pakistan Army, two others were “in the area” (PoK). An hour later, DG ISPR confirmed to the media that the pilot of the second IAF aircraft ‘shot down’ who had bailed out was also in Pakistan Army’s custody but couldn’t be presented before the media since he was being treated in a Combined Military Hospital (CMH) for injuries sustained during ejection. So, Maj Gen Ghafoor also confirmed that three pilots had bailed out and landed in PoK. But hours later, he surprised everyone by announcing that Pakistan had only one IAF pilot in its custody. Why ISPR hasn’t revealed the identity of the second pilot who it claimed belonged to IAF and was admitted on February 27 in an army hospital for treatment of injuries sustained while ejecting from an aircraft is indeed intriguing!
It is from here that the ISPR version of February 27 events start falling apart. Luckily, Foreign Policy journalist Lara Seligman’s claim that “A US count of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet has found that all the jets are present and accounted for, a direct contradiction to India’s claim that it shot down one of the fighter jets during a February clash” comes as a big relief for ISPR. Seligman has also mentioned that it was Pakistan that had invited the US to physically count its fleet of F-16 planes after the incident as part of an end-user agreement of this sale. By requesting the US to carry out a count of F-16s does indicate that Islamabad is telling the truth as it has nothing to hide. But just like the ambiguity surrounding the hospitalised second pilot who vanished into thin air without any trace, by shifting his stand on use of F-16s in the February 27 dogfight, DG ISPR has once again attracted suspicion.
Readers would recall that immediately after the February dogfight, Maj Gen Ghafoor promptly dismissed India’s claim of having shot down an F-16 by saying that since this type of aircraft wasn’t employed in this particular action, the Indian claim was ludicrous. Instead, he specifically clarified that the two IAF fighter aircrafts were shot down by Chinese made J-17 jets. Even when India produced fragments of AIM-120 C-5 AMRAAM missile that can only be fired from F-16s, ISPR continued to maintain that these aircrafts weren’t used on that day. But just a month later, ISPR suddenly changed track by saying, “Even if F-16s have been used as at that point in time complete PAF (Pakistan Air Force) was airborne including F-16s, the fact remains that PAF shot down two Indian jets in self-defence.” The ISPR statement also went on to state that “Whether it was F-16 or JF-17 which shot down two Indian aircraft is immaterial” and this belated volte face has rekindled the controversy as it’s a clear admission that F-16s of PAF were indeed employed against the IAF on February 27.
Pakistan Prime Minister’s tweet that Indian government’s “false claims of downing a Pak F-16 has backfired with US Defence officials also confirming that no F-16 was missing from Pakistan’s fleet” has been contradicted by US Defence Department clarification that it was “not aware” of any such investigation. So how could Khan go so wrong? Experts maintain that since diplomatic protocol makes it incumbent on the US to approach Islamabad for permission to allow counting F-16s in the Pakistan Air Force, Khan would certainly have been aware if the US had done so as mentioned in the Foreign Policy report. So the only plausible reason is that in a bid to conceal the downing of an F-16, the ISPR persuaded the PM to send a tweet citing a report that lacked requisite credibility since it was based on inputs of two anonymous US defence officials.
Tailpiece- There’s an old saying that ‘what goes around, comes around’ and this seems to be true for Prime Minister Imran Khan as his sagacious advice that “The truth always prevails and is the best policy” has ultimately come back to haunt him!