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Balakot Airstrike Rhetoric and Reality

Raman Swamy

When the drums of war start beating, the noise of hysteria and counter-propaganda can be deafening.  Even before the pre-dawn surgical strike by the Indian Air Force on February 26 on a terrorist camp in Balakot, the air was with thick with the sound of rhetorical claims.

Just hours before 12 IAF Mirage jets carried out their mission, a statement had been put out by the official spokesman of the Pakistan Armed Forces, Maj-Gen Asif Ghafoor that the Pak army chief had “expressed satisfaction on the state of preparations and readiness” along the Line of Actual Contact and Working Boundary - which are the terms Pakistan uses to describe the Line of Control between the two countries.

The chief Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed “complete satisfaction” on the “readiness, coordination and preparedness” of the Pak Armed Forces who he said were “fully prepared for a befitting response to any Indian aggression or misadventure”. 

Incidentally, there were reports of bizarre rumours of sonic booms heard in the vicinity of the border areas a week earlier.   On February 21, seven days after the Pulwama car bomb in which 40 CRPF jawans were killed,  the Pakistan media reported a battle of booms -  it was stated that IAF fighter jets had “broken the sound barrier”  close to border area of Zafarwal sector.   According to the Pak claim, “timely response by PAF thwarted any IAF attempt to violate Pakistan Air space”.

That the reports were not entirely fictitious was borne out by a twitter post from the Indian side which read:  “Pakistan is in panic for sure. Two PAF fighter aircrafts broke the sound barrier today causing a sonic boom which created a loud bang on the ground in Sialkot which caused unnecessary or may be deliberate alarm”.

This was immediately countered by a statement that “PAF broke the sound barrier intentionally to let India realize that Pakistan was ever-alert and would retaliate heavily in case of an air attack”.

As it turned out, in the early hours of February 26, the IAF planes did enter Pakistan airspace and return to base safely.  There was no “heavy retaliation”.   

In the words of Foreign Secretary Vijay K. Gokhale IAF’s Mirage-2000 jets had carried out the strike across the Line of Control at Jaish-e-Mohammed’s terror camp in Balakot.

But, typical of statements made in times of military conflict, Pakistan’s version is quite different.  According to army spokesman Ghafoor, the Indian aircraft had “tried to violate the LoC but had been chased away by PAF jets”.  

Such denials are customary when two countries take up arms against each other.  But the mention of Balakot in the Pakistani statement has raised alarm bells even in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Ghaffor said that because they were being chased away by PAF planes, the Indian jets were forced to “hurriedly drop their payloads near Balakot”.  This caused confusion and panic in Pakistan because there are two Balakots. One Balakot is in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan and another is a Balakot village on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.

Just for an understanding of the geography of the area, the main Balakot is a town in Mansehra District in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, very much inside Pakistan.  The town was destroyed during the devastating 2005 earthquake, but was later rebuilt with the assistance from a Saudi Arabian relief organisation.   The other Balakot is just a spot in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, within a few miles of the LoC. 

It makes a big difference.   If IAF had reached as far as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province it means something much more significant than just crossing the airspace above the LoC.   It would effectively mean that PAF had been caught off guard and had been unable to intercept the Indian Mirages even in legitimate Pakistani airspace or to prevent their safe return after completing the mission.

Foreign media reports have settled the issue.  BBC’s Urdu Service has interviewed local residents saying they were woken by loud explosions. The Balakot on which bombs were dropped is the one in Pakistan's north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.  It was not just a case of aircraft straying across the LoC and being chased away.  It was a strike deep inside the Pakistan homeland. It signals the start of hostilities, which if it escalates into retaliatory counter-strikes, could plunge the sub-continent into full-scale war.   The time for high rhetoric and false propaganda is over.

However, it is equally likely that there will be no escalation.  Here is the reconstruction of how the news of the Indian air strike unfolded: 
At 5.12 a.m. on Tuesday morning the PAF spokesperson claims airspace violation in a tweet. 

At 7.06 am PAF spokesperson again talks of a "hasty release of a payload" by IAF fighter planes after being intercepted by PAF planes. 

According to Indian news agency reports IAF sources claimed at 9.00 am that there was an airstrike at 3.30 am. Still it was not official confirmation yet.

It was only by 9.30 am the official confirmation came from the Indian government through a tweet from Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekawat.  

But the details of the airstrike were not out and many thought it may have been just a dry run - especially after reports in the Pakistan media at around 11.45 am about PAF chasing away IAF fighters.

More authentic confirmation came at 11.30 am when Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale claimed killing of large number of Jaish "Fidayeen".  But his statement also carried a message of declaration of India's position of non-escalation when he described it as a "non-military premptive strike". This was flashed in the media only after 12.00 pm.

Only by 12.22 pm Pak Foreign Minister Qureshi called it an "act of aggression" and "LoC violation" which is one step below calling it an “act of war”.  He only asserted that Pakistan has a right to respond in "self-defense" at the place and time of its choosing. This is not the same as declaring that “we have been attacked,  we are in a state of war and we will retaliate”.

By 2.30 pm China called for restraint from both sides. It maintained "neutrality'" of sorts by not criticising the Indian airstrike. Till evening there was no clear response from the USA, Russia or European powers or from other SAARC countries for that matter.  

It was almost as if all countries had anticipated that Pakistan would be rapped on the knuckles by India for its adventurism of backing anti-India terror.

Also, informed observers are of the opinion that if Pakistan displays any sign of disproportionate large-scale retaliation, India has the capability to adopt the Israeli model to cripple PAF.  (Israel did it to Syria – 96 per cent of Syrian Air Force fighter planes were destroyed in a single coordinated strike).

Likewise, at the first sign of nuclear adventurism by a desperate Pak Army establishment, it is expected that the USA would intervene.  It already has aircraft and full arsenal in Afghanistan.  The aim would be to de-nuclearise Pakistan.

Well aware of this both China as well as Saudis would also advise restraint and ensure that hawks in the Pakistan army are contained. Unless there is some other immediate provocation, India too will not go for escalation. 

It is quite possible that large-scale Jaish casualties claimed by India could be an exaggeration.  

However, Pak's claim of the "payload falling in the open" and causing no casualties at all certainly rings hollow.  It is nothing but a face-saving position -   the "payloads" are Israeli precision missiles which can be fired from afar and need not be physically dropped from an altitude just above the Jaish camp.    

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Frontier
Feb 27, 2019


Raman Swamy raman.swamy@gmail.com

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