The Airstrikes Had Three Targets, But Hit Bullseye in Just One

Previous governments refrained from using the air force against terrorist targets in Pakistan not because they were scared of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or lacked the political will, but because they knew the threat of terrorism would not be neutralised in this fashion.

The Indian foreign secretary may have had his eye on international law when he spoke of “pre-emptive action” against the imminent threat of suicide attacks but any honest analysis of the military, diplomatic and political consequences of India’s airstrike at what it said was a terrorist training camp in Balakot, Pakistan must begin by acknowledging what it really was: an act of revenge intended to send a message to three different audiences.

Its military objective was to tell the Jaish-e-Muhammad and other Pakistan-based terrorist groups in the wake of the terrorist attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir, that the safe havens provided to them by the Pakistani military are not so safe after all.  The diplomatic objective was to get the the world at large to see that they cannot afford a business-as-usual approach to Pakistan’s support for terrorism. And the political objective was to send a message to the domestic audience on the eve of a general election – that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a leader who has the “political will” to set everything right and make India great again.

Of these, it is only the political objective which Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be confident of having achieved.

The Indian Air Force was tasked with executing a difficult and risky mission and the government has declared the operation a success – though without sharing any verifiable information. Perhaps the official readout is muted because the greater the noise that is made, the greater the likelihood that Pakistan’s military leadership will feel compelled to retaliate. However, the unverifiable and seemingly exaggerated accounts of the airstrike making their way to the Indian media will make it very difficult for the Pakistani side to do nothing.

Also read: After Air Strikes, Pakistan Calls for ‘Re-evaluation’ of India’s OIC Invite

Both in September 2016, when the Indian army said it conducted surgical strikes along the Line of Control, and now, the Pakistani army has flatly denied any damage has been inflicted by India. This time, however, both the political and military establishments have said there will be a military response. There is no reason for the threat to be taken lightly.

While the capabilities of the Indian Air Force have never been in doubt, much is being made about Narendra Modi’s willingness to “call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff” and cross the rubicon of air power, something India has not done since 1971.

It is true that previous governments have refrained from using the air force against terrorist targets across the Line of Control or deeper inside Pakistan. But they have done so not because they were scared of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or lacked the political will to act decisively but because they understood that the threat of terrorism from across the border would not be neutralised in this fashion.

To understand the basis for that understanding, one need go back no further than the September 2016 surgical strikes.

As a means of deterring further terrorist attacks from Pakistan-based groups, the surgical strikes were an utter failure. They may even have incentivised the Jaish and Lashkar to escalate their attacks, as their strikes on army installations at Nagrota and Sunjuwan showed. And what does one make of the fact that the deadliest attack on Indian security forces since the Kashmir insurgency began in 1989 – Pulwama – came not before but after the loudly tom-tommed surgical strikes?

Just as the 2016 surgical strikes proved ineffective in preventing a Pulwama, the Balakot airstrike will not protect India from future terrorist attacks. Jubilation over the unofficial claim of India having killed 300 Jaish terrorists – even if true – is based on the misplaced notion that terrorists fight like a regular army and require large formations in order to wreak havoc.

Modi is not the first prime minister to have thought of hitting terrorist targets in Pakistan. Two of his predecessors – Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee – sat with their commanders to explore kinetic options in the wake of the 2001 parliament attack and the 2008 terror strike on Mumbai  before realising that the solution they sought would not come through that route. ‘Talks and terror cannot go hand in hand’ is the new mantra but both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had much greater success tackling terror when they found creative ways of engaging with Pakistan and building confidence within the Valley than when they shut the door on engagement.

Also read: Has Kashmir’s Militancy Entered its Most Lethal Phase Yet?

When the dust from Balakot settles – and there is no telling when that will happen – it will be evident that Prime Minister Modi has no coherent or consistent strategy to deal with Pakistan and the problem of terrorism.

From his 2014 inauguration to the Ufa meeting with Nawaz Sharif, his bizarre Lahore-Raiwind visit, the Pathankot terror attack and the flagging of the Balochistan ‘card’ that year, the 2016 surgical strikes, the first-scheduled-and-then-aborted meeting between Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mahmood Qureshi and now Balakot, each of his diplomatic and military initiatives have lacked the kind of rigorous internal preparation, analysis and audit that are the hallmark of serious policymaking. What these initiatives have in common is domestic politics as the common denominator for determining his next course of action.

The problem post-Balakot is that the Pakistani military and its hand-pickped prime minister, Imran Khan, will also be driven by domestic political considerations. Indian journalists do not have a monopoly on hysteria and jingoism. The first question Major General Asif Ghafoor was asked at his press conference on Tuesday evening was this: “Indians are behaving like drunk monkeys and they are jumping all over the media … isn’t it high time that we shut these monkeys up?”

Of course, one obstacle Pakistan will have to overcome in figuring out how to retaliate is the lack of a plausible story line for any military act across the Line of Control.

While it accuses India of interfering in Balochistan, it has never claimed there are anti-Pakistani terror camps in India. Thus, a Balakot-type target is not available for it to hit. It could target an Indian military installation but that would amount to a serious escalation as India has been careful not to target Pakistani military facilities or personnel. This would also be a risky venture for the Pakistani military. Pakistan could intensify shelling along the LoC or it could seek to hit back using proxies in Jammu and Kashmir or elsewhere, striking either a military target or even a civilian one. Either way, India would find it impossible not to respond in some fashion. Perhaps that is what Pakistan’s military spokesperson meant when he warned India last week that his country would seek to go up the escalatory ladder.

Since the Jaish would not have executed such a provocative act on its own initiative, it is worth asking what Pakistan’s military hoped to gain by underwriting an attack of Pulwama’s magnitude so close to the Indian general elections. Did it aim to provoke a military confrontation that would help it draw international attention to Kashmir? Did it aim to postpone the Indian elections? Or drive its outcome in a particular direction, as the terrorism expert C. Christine Fair has argued.

Modi has taken a gamble by playing the military card at this time but the dynamics of ‘non-military’ nationalism are such that even a robust Pakistani response will probably further strengthen his hands. The media is today not interested in debating the utility of the course he has chosen in Pakistan and Kashmir.  But there will come a time, probably sooner than most imagine, when ordinary Indians realise the problem of terrorism has not only not ended but has even become more complex and intractable.