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Balakot airstrikes and aftermath: Strange to see Pakistan's obfuscations given more credence than IAF evidence

It may very well lend itself to a racy fiction entitled The Mysterious Case Of The Missing F16. Bollywood may pick it up. Or it could be Netflix, turning the 27 February dogfight between the Indian Air Force and Pakistan Air Force into an original. There’s enough masala to run multiple seasons. It would be interesting to see which version of the truth comes out in these mediums, because right now there are as many versions of it as the number of analysts willing to comment on the subject.

That’s a shame, because one clear, unequivocal truth underlies the Balakot airstrikes and the resulting dogfight: India managed to achieve its objectives. What were these objectives? One, imposing costs on Pakistan to discourage it from using terror as a tool to achieve revanchist motives. Two, prove to Pakistan that it is willing to take risks of a sub-conventional war below the nuclear threshold in doing so. Three, flag its “zero tolerance” policy on terrorism without worrying about any ‘commitment traps’. What’s more, the objectives were accompanied by a near diplomatic coup where Pakistan stood isolated and was pretty much forced to return the captured Indian pilot to buy peace when India indicated that it is not interested in any negotiation.

 Balakot airstrikes and aftermath: Strange to see Pakistans obfuscations given more credence than IAF evidence

A building, which residents claim is a madrasa, near to the site of IAF's air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan. Reuters

This is also where the trouble started. The Balakot airstrikes and the aftermath occurred at a sensitive time when India was getting ready to hold its general elections for the Lok Sabha where Prime minister Narendra Modi is seeking a return mandate. If the fog of war causes confusion, the fog of election even more so. Both the ruling party and the Opposition made an election issue out of Balakot, and the raucous debate over national security distorted the truth beyond recognition. The outrageous claims made by the politicians on both side of the divide — and magnified through the media — created a fork in the road for the Balakot narrative.

In domestic politics, the airstrikes enabled the BJP to use national security as a poll plank and corner the Opposition, to the extent that BJP’s rivals were forced to either acknowledge the efficacy of the kinetic action, or toe Pakistan’s line that India had failed its missions. This benefitted the BJP and discomfited the Opposition. We find Congress chief Rahul Gandhi praising the IAF for its “valour” in conducting the strikes while his partymen such as Navjyot Singh Sidhu, among countless others, raising questions against the IAF’s accuracy and blaming the prime minister for “misleading the nation”. The involvement of Pakistan in the issue made it trickier, because India-Pakistan rivalry pays rich dividends on both sides of the border during elections.

A spin-off of making national security an election issue and politicians making outrageous claims is that internationally, India’s reputation as a rational actor that is careful while disseminating information about a conflict took a hit. Suddenly, India’s measured statement — issued by the foreign secretary — of the objectives having been met in Balakot airstrikes and thwarting of Pakistan’s aerial attack the day after was being called into question, and an equivalence was being created between a democratic India and a semi-democratic Pakistan that has historically been guilty of using propaganda, lies, deceit and fake news as useful tools to control the war narrative.

The other important role in this confusion was played by scholars and independent analysts who seemed not only inclined towards giving similar weightage to Pakistan and India’s claims, but were bent on buying Islamabad’s story while overlooking evidences, circumstantial or otherwise.

Assessing commercial satellite images, Australian analysts suggested that the Indian Air Force missed its targets in Balakot and seemed to concur with Pakistan’s claims that India’s “precision bombing” of Jaish-e-Muhammad seminary (which India has designated as a terror camp) was not so precise after all.

Claims such as these found wide display in Pakistani media and quickly became fodder for the Opposition in India’s election campaign. In the fog of elections, Pakistan’s version of the narrative gained ground, despite the IAF’s assertion that its objectives in Balakot airstrikes were met and a series of reports that backed the IAF’s claims. Reuters reported that its team was prevented by the Pakistani authorities from visiting the affected seminary on Jabba Top three times in nine days.

This Newslaundry piece pointed out that “more than a month after the attack, they (Pakistani authorities) finally took eight journalists to the camp in what was obviously a carefully choreographed event. Even then, reports mentioned that some areas of the site were covered with tarpaulin and access to them was denied to the journalists.”

It seemed likely that a cover-up action had been under way as Colonel Vinayak Bhat (Retd), an expert in assessment of satellite imagery, in his piece for The Print challenged the version posted by Australian analysts to claim that the researchers made a gross error in calculation to reach incorrect conclusions. In other words, IAF strikes were a hit.

Two separate pieces for Firstpost busted Pakistan’s claims on Balakot. The first quoted eyewitnesses to state that the 26 February strikes against Jaish-e-Mohammed caused significant casualties and eyewitnesses saw “up to 35 bodies being transported out of the site by ambulance hours after the attack.”

The other detailed how Pakistan lied about the JeM terror camp. It is in this context that we must place the debate around the “missing” Pakistan F-16. Pakistan has gone through the hoops on this issue, changing its statement multiple times. Major General Asif Ghafoor of the Pakistan Army, who heads the infamous Inter-Services Public Relations has been its propaganda-in-chief, trying to control the damage of a state-of-the-art F16 being hit by a grandfatherly MiG 21-Bison during the dogfight by controlling the narrative.

Accordingly, we first heard that Pakistan had hit two Indian jets and captured multiple Indian pilots. A few hours later it became “two pilots arrested”. “Our ground forces arrested two pilots; one of them was injured and has been shifted to CMH (Combined Military Hospital) and, God-willing, he will be taken care of… The other one is with us,” said Ghafoor.

Later, the ISPR chief claimed that the pilot who was lodged in CMH hospital (which Pakistan claimed to be an Indian) has died. The IAF had all along maintained that one of its MiG21-Bison was hit before it took down an F16, and IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was “missing”. There was no acknowledgement from Indian side at any time that two pilots were missing. During his “message” to India, Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan also claimed two Indian pilots were in custody. Later, Pakistan conveniently claimed that just one IAF pilot was in custody: Abhinandan Varthaman.

These flip-flops should have served as red flags for any analyst who wishes to take stock of what might happened during the 27 February dogfight, but for some unknown reason Pakistan’s shifting narrative was given a short shrift. India’s claims, that it shot down an F-16, carried little truck. This, despite media reports claiming that the ‘mysterious’ second pilot who apparently died in Pakistan’s CMH hospital was actually the pilot of F-16 who was downed by Varthaman’s missile and ejected onto Pakistan-occupied Kashmir territory where he was tragically killed by his own countrymen who mistook him for an Indian (even this piece in Newslaundry cast doubt on the story).

How and why did this mistake occur? In his piece ‘In PAF lies & subterfuge, an F-16 tail number & a PAF pilot  —  both hidden to serve a myth’, former IAF Mirage pilot and air warfare writer Sameer Joshi wrote that the colour of the C-9 parachute on the PAF F16’s resembles an Indian flag and the PoK civilians may have mistaken the F-16 parachute to be an Indian and lynched the possibly injured PAF pilot who later died in CMH hospital. Joshi painstakingly pieces together compelling circumstantial evidence (including open-source intelligence analysis) in his exhaustive piece to conclusively suggest that a Pakistan F-16 was indeed downed.

This assertion came on top of the Foreign Policy piece where it was suggested that US personnel recently completed a headcount of Pakistani F-16s and found none missing. This prompted analysts to suggest that “as details come out, it looks worse and worse for the Indians… It looks increasingly like India failed to impose significant costs on Pakistan, but lost a plane and a helicopter of its own in the process.”

It’s not so simple, however. The Pentagon told Hindustan Times it was “not aware” that such an audit has taken place. The Pentagon’s denial could mean two things. One, it was a refutation of the Foreign Policy article that named two “unnamed sources” while revealing the headcount. Two, that such an audit had taken place and the Pentagon was either unaware of it or was lying. Both these possibilities seem fantastical.

Even at this stage, with Pentagon denying the knowledge of an audit, analysts were more inclined to believe Pakistan’s version corroborated by unnamed sources in a US magazine article.

Finally, the IAF went public with radar images to rebut Pakistan’s claims. It aired the radar images of the dogfight and said it had “irrefutable evidence” of a Pakistan Air Force F-16 being downed by an IAF MiG-21 Bison. Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor cited radio intercepts, Indian Army sightings and statements by the Pakistan ISPR to underline that the PAF lost an F-16 and added that the IAF is in possession of more evidences.

As the saga lies now, one thing is clear. India has all along stuck to its claims since the 27 February aerial engagement. The IAF has produced radar images and cited radio comms. Analysts and reporters have painstakingly pieced together circumstantial evidences to back India’s claims. On the other hand, Pakistan has changed its story multiple times, went back on its claims on F-16 usage and remained silent on the issue of the mysterious second pilot. Yet, it is India that must provide the proof of the burden.

Political jibes against IAF’s claims are understandable in an election season. It is sad to see the loss of objectivity among analysts and commentators who are ready to believe every outlier theory and claims by unnamed sources just to prove the IAF wrong. For them, even Pakistan’s statements seem kosher in comparison. It may or may not have to do with their dislike of an individual who looks set for another term at helm as prime minister. The mental gymnastics may become weirder.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Apr 09, 2019 18:23:49 IST

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