Modi has tough choices after Pakistan's capture of IAF pilot: Diplomacy may work, but will have strategic, political costs

  • Pakistan’s low-cost asymmetric war that uses terrorists as cannon fodder, is reliant on the assumption that its nuclear arsenal will act as a deterrent against Indian aggression

  • Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine has no mention of ‘no-first-use’ policy and its policymakers have deliberately talked up a low threshold scenario

  • While India looked to have adopted the Israeli retaliatory model by degrading terror facilities deep inside Pakistan, it cannot have ruled out the possibility of a Pakistani retaliation

What a difference a day makes. On Tuesday, as news emerged that Indian Air Force had carried out an audacious "pre-emptive non-military strike" deep inside Pakistan's territory in Balakot to demolish Jaish-e-Mohammed's terror facilities and eliminate a "very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen attacks", the mood in the nation was jubilant.

The deaths of 44 CRPF jawans in Pulwama had been avenged. Their families and the entire nation had achieved a sense of closure. Equally, India seemed to have finally found a way of mitigating Pakistan's low-cost asymmetric war by altering the retaliation doctrine. The fact that a dozen IAF Mirage 2000 jets crossed the LoC for the first time since 1971 war, carried out a deep penetration strike and returned unharmed after a successful operation pointed to a greater Indian capability for military prowess, meticulous planning, execution and political will.

This also signaled — as many columnists including this one had noted — India’s willingness to call Pakistan's nuclear bluff and raise the bar of escalation calculus. By sending its fighter jets across the LoC and hitting a target in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region in mainland Pakistan, India declared that it will impose greater costs on the enemy nation through conventional war to degrade Rawalpindi’s ability of using terror as an instrument of foreign policy.

 Modi has tough choices after Pakistans capture of IAF pilot: Diplomacy may work, but will have strategic, political costs

An Indian Air Force chopper lands as soldiers stand at the site after Indian Air Force's helicopter crashed in Budgam district in Kashmir. Reuters

Pakistan's low-cost asymmetric war that uses terrorists as cannon fodder, is reliant on the assumption that its nuclear arsenal will act as a deterrent against Indian aggression. Pakistan's nuclear doctrine has no mention of ‘no-first-use’ policy and its policymakers have deliberately talked up a low threshold scenario.

The importance of Balakot lies in the fact that it proved the truth about nuclear war — that it lies at the very top of a graded escalation pyramid and there is enough space for a conventional war to achieve military objectives. It is also worth noting that the paradigm shift in India’s security architecture is incumbent on a greater willingness for risk-taking.

It is this risk-taking that will now be tested.

While India looked to have adopted the Israeli retaliatory model by degrading terror facilities deep inside Pakistan, it cannot have ruled out the possibility of a Pakistani retaliation. Pakistan had two options. Retaliation by pushing the envelope and risking escalation of a sub-conventional war while still staying below the nuclear threshold. Or quiet backing down through a mechanism of denial — as we witnessed in the aftermath of precision strikes by Indian Army across LoC post Uri terror attacks.

There was a difference. It is much easier to deny that a ground strike had taken place than denying air intrusion, and by putting out an announcement early on Tuesday Pakistan made it very difficult for itself to resort to denial. In absence of an effective denial mechanism, Pakistan struggled for the entire length of Tuesday by making some ridiculous statements and claims but it soon became clear to the Rawalpindi GHq that denial is not work going to work. India issued a pragmatic, de-escalatory and completely non-provocative statement on the Balakot strikes on Tuesday but the domestic pressure on Pakistani military began to increase — fed by an incendiary social media that acted as a force-multiplier.

The Wednesday morning violation of Indian airspace by Pakistan Air Force jets almost had an air of inevitability about it. Word is that Qamar Ahmed Bajwa, COAS, Pakistan army, is getting ready to pitch for an extended term instead of retirement on due date and IAF incursion into Balakot looked bad for his CV. A retaliation was inevitable if only to maintain the façade of invincibility. It could have proved too costly for Pakistan to take an IAF hit in its mainland and remain quiet or in denial.

However, the chain of events that unfolded on Wednesday point towards a conclusion that Pakistan has been plain lucky to be in possession of a leverage in the form IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman whose MiG-21 Bison took a hit and he landed in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir post ejection.

Pakistan’s foray into Indian airspace — as expressed by the statement released by MOFA on Wednesday morning — was aimed more at reclaiming some lost ground and playing to the gallery back home instead of a serious retaliation.

The statement makes it clear that PAF strikes “across Line of Control”… “was not a retaliation to continued Indian belligerence. Pakistan has therefore, taken strikes at non military target, avoiding human loss and collateral damage. Sole purpose being to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self defence. We have no intention of escalation, but are fully prepared to do so if forced into that paradigm.” http://www.mofa.gov.pk/pr-details.php

As can be gauged from media reports so far — while one Pakistan fighter aircraft was shot down by IAF jets in an aerial engagement after PAF jets had violated Indian airspace in Jammu and Kashmir's Poonch and Nowshera sectors — the IAF lost one MiG-21 Bison. It is possible that the aerial engagement took place over PoK airspace when IAF jets were in pursuit of the PAF aircraft.

The chain of events at this stage are unclear still, but it appears that both the F-16 and MiG-21 fell on the PoK territory, making it possible for Pakistan to claim his custody.

Indian ministry of external affairs released two statements on Wednesday. The first statement — also read out at a media briefing by the MEA spokesperson — acknowledged the loss of one MiG-21 Bison aircraft and one pilot missing in action and mentioned the fact that one Pakistani jet has been hit. The most important lines were these: “Against this (India’s) Counter Terrorism Action, Pakistan has responded this morning by using its Air Force to target military installations on the Indian side. Due to our high state of readiness and alertness, Pakistan's attempts were foiled successfully.”

Targeting “military establishments” in retaliation for India’s acts of demolishing a terror facility (non-military preemptive strike, ostensibly in self-defence) is an act of war, and the very fact that this was mentioned, points towards an Indian willingness for escalation.

The second statement makes this threat more explicit. This MEA statement mentioned that Pakistan's acting high commissioner was handed a demarche lodging India’s “strong protest”… “at the unprovoked act of aggression by

Pakistan against India earlier today, including by violation of the Indian air space by Pakistan Air Force and targeting of Indian military posts."

The release goes on to add, "It was clearly conveyed that India reserves the right to take firm and decisive action to protect its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity against any act of aggression or cross-border terrorism… India also strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention."

The language reinforces the impression that we may be looking at a kinetic action from India. As an option, it is fraught with risks of escalation but is best suited to meet domestic expectations.

What this fortuitous turn of events has done is that it has presented Pakistan with a crucial leverage in a game of brinkmanship and shifted the onus on India to react. The choice before India — as it was last night before Pakistan — are two.

India may choose to engage in diplomacy, remind Pakistan of its obligations under the Geneva Convention and demand early and safe return of Wing Commander Abhinandan. This could be the most pragmatic course of action since none of the nations want war — as evident from both Pakistani and Indian responses — but it will become increasingly difficult for both nations to get off the escalation ladder without suffering from significant political and strategic costs.

Pakistan is in a better position at this stage. The Balakot embarrassment has been reversed and a degree of deterrence has been restored. The capture of an IAF pilot is a bonus. It has therefore sounded conciliatory. Army spokesperson Imran Khan — who is also the Pakistani PM — has renewed his call for “peace”, confident in the belief that he has the upper hand.

The task for prime minister Narendra Modi is tough. The capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan is a major embarrassment and over the next few days is likely to become a hot button issue causing major domestic pressure. The Opposition won’t let go of such an opportunity right before the elections, more so because they sense that Balakot may bring political dividends for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Under the circumstances, Modi may order more air strikes inside Pakistan or a limited ground incursion but none of these options will be risk-free and will involve re-raising the escalatory calculus.

The other option, of course, is diplomacy and highlighting the duplicity of Pakistan and its aggression that is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the JeM terror facilities at Balakot were important enough for it to retaliate. That establishes a direct link between Pakistani state and the terror assets under its command.

It is also difficult to achieve dominance in escalation over an adversary which has nuclear arsenal and decent conventional resources. Whether that will be enough in achieving India’s objectives and mitigate domestic pressure is the moot question.

Updated Date: Feb 28, 2019 09:48:04 IST