Balakot strikes: Releasing 'proof' could compromise national security, Centre should resist Opposition pressure

The Opposition is clamouring for “proof” of the Balakot precision air strikes. This pressure on the government is likely to increase as the poll dates draw near and campaign begins in earnest. Pakistan has launched its psywar by ‘denial and obfuscation’ mechanism. International media has added one more dimension to the story, with claims and counter-claims dominating the media space. This has created some confusion. Politicians from both camps are adding more spice to the mix and dubious narratives have rushed to fill in the space.

 Balakot strikes: Releasing proof could compromise national security, Centre should resist Opposition pressure

File image of Narendra Modi. Reuters

This has prompted many independent analysts to urge the government to reveal the facts on the ground. Yet, this isn't a wise decision at this juncture. The government would be well advised to release evidence of the strikes, if at all, at an appropriate time unaffected by political pressure.

Before we elaborate why, it is worth looking at the impact of the cross-border air strikes carried out by India — the first time it has done so since 1971 war — deep inside Pakistan airspace. At one level, it has changed the India-Pakistan dynamic. Pakistan’s nuclear bluff has been exposed and the country can no longer use nuclear weapons as an umbrella to carry out its hybrid war against India without risking retribution. The strikes have handed the onus of retaliation to India and created space for a sub-conventional kinetic action below the nuclear threshold. This impact is far-reaching and will develop over time.

At another level, the strike has changed the domestic political narrative bang in the middle of election season. Very few people apart from rival politicians, media and analysts will be interested in knowing how many terrorists have been killed in the airstrikes. Even less will be interested in the procedure and accuracy of the munition involved. Did Israeli Spice-2000 laser-guided bombs demolish the Jaish-e-Mohammed training facility, did the missile penetrate the roof and kill all residents, or were the missiles a ‘dud’ and created no impact except burning a few trees?

The emerging narrative is that ‘Narendra Modi government has lived up to its promise and has shown Pakistan that it cannot get away with its terror tactics any more. While previous governments — such as UPA — could only wring its hands after 26/11 Mumbai attacks — this ‘New India’ under Modi enters the home of terrorists and kills them’. Easy to see why the Opposition has been gripped by panic. It leaves them very little space to maneuver and leaves them between a rock and a hard place. If they raise questions about the accuracy of the mission, BJP will go to town claiming that the Opposition is denigrating our armed forces: a sensitive topic among Indians. Yet, not raising any questions would mean tacit approval of the government’s action and reinforce Modi’s image as a ‘tough, strong leader’.

Faced with this predicament, the Opposition has latched on to reports in international media that raised questions against the efficacy of the precision strikes. One such widely quoted recent report by news agency Reuters has claimed — based ostensibly on images from commercial satellites — that the JeM facility appears intact and Indian claims of “many casualties” seem dubious. The report quoted satellite imagery analysts to buttress the claim and reinforced Pakistan’s claim that no damage to any infrastructure or human life took place and none but a few trees and a crow died in the attack.

The Opposition used this opening to question the government and has hinted that Modi government has suppressed facts on ground and forced the armed forces to remain quiet because the prime minister wants a war to help him win the election. The BJP, in turn, has accused the Opposition of aiding Pakistan by parroting their narrative. Amid this trading of barbs, which is to be expected before elections, let us take a quick look at the information in public domain.

The key question is whether India’s precision airstrikes had any real impact. Did it demolish the structure? If so, is the demolition evident? If the structure isn’t demolished (as purported satellite images show) how may India claim to have killed a ‘large number of terrorists’?

In NDTV, Vishnu Som pointed out that pre-and-post Balakot strikes “appear to show bomb impact points on a large structure in addition to significant damage on the ground at the site.” The article claimed the IAF used ‘penetrator’ version of the Spice 2000 glided bombs that are designed to perforate the roof and detonate inside, killing all inhabitants.

Two analysts confirmed this development. Colonel Vinayak Bhat (retired) who studies satellite imagery, wrote in The Print that “exclusive images” accessed by him show “four black spots on the CGI or corrugated galvanised iron sheet roofs of Jaish facilities,” which raises the possibility that S-2000 may have penetrated the roofs that have “since been patched with fresh CGI sheets and repainted.” But he added that “damage to buildings and walls from the air strikes may not have been as extensive.”

Military aviation expert Angad Singh pointed out on Twitter that penetrative variation of S-2000 munition will not leave extensive damage.

We therefore, get a picture that the IAF hit the target, but while claims of 300-350 terrorists killed may have been an exaggeration (nowhere did India release a figure), there is high possibility that “a large number of terrorists” have been eliminated.

This is corroborated by Italian journalist Francesca Marino who wrote an article for Firstpost quoting eyewitnesses that “up to 35 bodies (were) transported out of the site by ambulance hours after the attack. The dead, they recounted, included 12 men who were said to have been sleeping in a single temporary shack, and several individuals who had earlier served in Pakistan’s military.”

Interestingly, the article quoted one witness who claimed the Pakistan Army quickly took charge right after the strikes, cordoned off the area and prevented even the local police from entering. They seized mobile phones of the medical staff. If this is true, this would be an important piece of evidence of how Pakistan conducts its psywar and uses the openness of Indian democracy against it.

Meanwhile, the IAF has reportedly provided a dossier to the Modi government containing “12 pages of high-resolution satellite images and synthetic aperture radar imagery collected from an intelligence aircraft platform flying in Indian airspace” that conclusively prove that Balakot airstrike was successful, according to India Today. The report confirmed that “penetration warheads” were used for maximum internal effect.

If these bits of information in public domain paint a picture of a successful strike, why shouldn’t the Modi government release proof in public domain and clear all confusion? Let us take a look at a precision strike carried out on the night of 1 May, 2011, when US Navy Seals in an operation code-named Operation Neptune Spear took out Osama bin Laden by raiding a safe house in the Pakistan garrison city of Abbottabad.

An article written four years later in The New York Times entitled “What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?” mentioned journalist and author Mark Bowden who was interested in writing the script for a movie on this subject: “There was virtually no paper trail for Bowden to follow; the government had classified all the documents relating to the raid, including the record of the CIA’s search for bin Laden. Bowden had to request interviews through official administration channels and hope for the best.”

Two years before that article was published, a US federal appeals court dismissed a request by a watchdog group to order the US government in releasing more than 50 images of Bin Laden taken after his death. The court ruled US government’s decision to classify as “top secret” is correct and the government did not need to release them.

There are many reasons why details and proofs of sensitive operations such as the Balakot air strikes need to be kept away from public domain. These may relate to information gathering abilities of Indian agencies or the fear of exposing or compromising covert assets on the ground. It is entirely the government’s decision when to release it — it at all — and how much should be kept as classified.

Release of proof is not just a political call, but equally a decision that impacts national security. In so far as the strikes have been confirmed and a behavioral change injected into the India-Pakistan dynamic, calls for proof should be ignored. Let the politics play out on the ground.

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Updated Date: Mar 07, 2019 16:23:34 IST