More than 48 hours since India's Special Forces moved across the LoC, neutralised some terror facilities and killed over 50 operatives in four sectors of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and then owned up the covert operation, Islamabad and Rawalpindi have sent confusing signals. Mostly, though, Pakistan army and administration have remained in stout and fierce denial.
This has understandably caused bafflement and even mirth in India.
Apart from a small section of the media which still appears to be skeptical about the Wednesday night surgical strikes, the overwhelming feeling is that Pakistan's denial is an extension of its self-delusion. Pakistan's critics have pointed out that nothing more could be expected of a revisionist nation which still deludes itself into believing that it won in 1965 and denied the presence of terror masterminds Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar inside its territory till the US came and took them down.
Maybe. But I would argue here that in this case, Pakistan's denial isn't an example of its illusion, rather a laudable step in a difficult situation. So long as the Pakistan Army does not carry out any retaliatory misadventures and stays within the confines of rhetoric and even ridicule, India would do well to give Pakistan the legroom it needs and even indulge in some of its false bravados. A bit of banter never harmed anyone. Nobody, absolutely nobody wants a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed nations.
For the doubters in India who think that the entire operation is a figment of Narendra Modi and Indian Army's imagination, well, nothing can be said because to this date some people still choose to believe that Nasa faked the moon landing. Besides, even if for argument's sake we consider that India faked it, the purpose has been solved. So doubters have the permission to doubt in peace and perpetuity.
Shock and alarm in Pakistan
For a more realistic understanding of Pakistan's response, consider the series of steps that Islamabad and Rawalpindi have undertaken since the strikes "which never happened". After vociferously claiming that India had carried out nothing more than cross-border artillery shelling which was an "existential phenomenon" Pakistan moved unusually quickly on the political, diplomatic and military fronts.
Reports have emerged out of Pakistan recalling its battalions employed for Operation Zarb-e-Azb (counter-terrorism operations), cancelling all leaves and putting the army in an emergency alert. India Today, quoting sources, reports that Islamabad has begun mobilising troops, reserves and mechanised infantry along the Indian borders. Intelligence agencies have confirmed enlistment of Pakistani troops, says the report.
On the political front, Suhasini Haidar reveals in The Hindu that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has convened a series of urgent high-level meetings to discuss the situation at LoC. The government has also "convened a special joint session of the Pakistani Parliament on Wednesday, which will follow the National Security Committee meeting, where Nawaz Sharif has extended a special invitation to all the chief ministers to speak about the LoC situation".
On the diplomatic front, Pakistan's permanent UN ambassador Maleeha Lodhi met New Zealand's UN envoy Gerard van Bohemen, who is president of the 15-member Security Council for September, and "brought to his attention the dangerous situation that is building up in our region as a result of Indian provocation", according to a Reuters report.
Taken together, these represent a rather unusual response for "regular artillery shelling across the border" from India.
Livemint notes that Nawaz has called "Indian aggression" a threat to the entire region and even "warned that Pakistan is also capable of executing surgical strikes and will not allow anyone to cast an evil eye on it.
And finally, a senior Pakistani journalist has told Dawn that "It would be more accurate to say that there was an incursion, which means Indian troops may have crossed the Line of Control (LoC), but it cannot be called a "surgical strike".
Why the denial
Now let's come to the question at the centre of it all. Why is Pakistan denying the operation and taking reactionary steps at the same time? The answer is multi-layered and incumbent on various factors. The first among these is a conundrum. If Pakistan were to admit that the strike indeed has taken place, it would be forced to concede two crucial points.
One, that well-laid out terror infrastructure exists in Pok, a position that it has flatly and consistently denied in the past. That would be a telling blow to its Kashmir narrative because the fulcrum of its complaint is that the "Kashmir rebellion is home-grown" and all Indian accusation of cross-border incitement is false. Pakistan Army cannot afford to confirm its own lies.
Two, any admission of Indian surgical strikes would be a humiliating kick in the face of its supposedly "invincible" army led by the larger-than-life macho General Raheel Sharif. That would be a bigger existential crisis, more critical than point No.1.
Consider the improbability of an admission. India says that it carried out a cross-LoC incursion and brought "significant damage" to Pakistan's terror factories. And all of this supposedly happened when Pakistan Army was at an advanced stage of battle-readiness with regular reports of "thundering F-16s landing on civilian airstrips".
India's action, therefore, would be especially galling for General Raheel Sharif who is so close to retirement and angling for an extension. Only a few days back, the general had bragged that Pakistan Army "has now become invincible", and "knows all covert and overt intrigues and intentions of the enemies" while addressing a gathering in connection with Defence Day at GHQ, Rawalpindi, according to a report in The Indian Express.
“I want to make it clear to all enemies of Pakistan that Pakistan has always been strong and today it is invincible,” The Express Tribune quoted Sharif as saying, elaborates the report. The egg on his face would be difficult to wash off.
But there is a third reason why Pakistan is denying the strike. And this is by far the most important motivation. If it admits to the surgical strike, Rawalpindi has absolutely no option other than to retaliate against India. And it cannot be a proxy intervention. The army, the only institution that enjoys a modicum of respect in a failed state, cannot afford to be publicly humiliated by its greatest enemy and keep quiet. That would rob Rawalpindi of its halo and forever cripple its hold over Islamabad. While that would be a good thing, in the long run, it is certainly not part of 'Pindi khakis' plan.
And if a military intervention does take place, India will have no option but to retaliate and it could soon escalate into a full-blown war between nuclear-armed rivals with potentially devastating consequences. Which is why Pakistan's denial is actually a laudable attempt to defuse the tension. It is telling its awaam that "nothing happened", so they are under no obligation to take revenge.
And that is exactly why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been mysteriously silent about one of the most professional surgical operations carried out by the Indian Army.
Explaining Modi's radio silence
Consider the very controlled and restrained statement released by the Indian Army, which was careful to stress that this was "merely a counter-terrorism operation" aimed at "preventing terror modules from infiltrating into Indian border" and that "operation has ended and no such action will take place." DGMO Lt Gen Ranbir Singh said, among other things, that: "The operations aimed at neutralizing terrorists have since ceased. We do not have any plans for further continuation. However, the Indian Armed Forces are fully prepared for any contingency that may arise… I have been in touch with Pakistan Army DGMO and have informed him of our actions. It is India’s intention to maintain peace and tranquillity in the region… We expect the Pakistani army to cooperate with us to erase the menace of terrorism from the region."
This is Indian Army telling Pakistan Army that 'look, we have no intention of intruding your airspace or violating your sovereignty, and we merely did what we did because we were acting in self-defence."
This was accompanied by complete silence from Modi who reportedly personally monitored the operation. There was not even one laudatory message for the army from the PM. His silence can be interpreted as total reluctance to aggravate the situation with rhetorical bombast. He clearly does not wish to heap more humiliation on Pakistan. The surgical strike itself would have conveyed what needed to be conveyed.
The final piece in the Pakistan's denial jigsaw falls in place when we consider that post the surgical strike, all major global powers have either backed Indian stand asking Pakistan to remove terror infrastructure from within the area it controls (US and Russia), gave sermons on the need for exercising restraint (China), or complete silence about the strike despite Pakistan's outrage. This means a resounding diplomatic defeat for Pakistan. But more than that, it also means that the world is telling Pakistan to take the strike on its chin and move on. And nobody minds giving Pakistan some space to carry on with its bluster provided there is no escalation. Denial is the least we should allow.