An appropriate Indian response to the Pakistan-sponsored car bomb attack at Pulwama on 14 February was expected any time. Analysts had recommended consideration of a spectrum of options beyond the non-military measures of doing away with MFN status of Pakistan and reworking the Indus Water Treaty. These were part of the spectrum as much as the effective diplomatic campaign undertaken by the external affairs ministry. The nation, however awaited what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised – an appropriate military response, having given a certain freedom of action to the armed forces.
The night-time strike by 12 Mirage-2000 aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) with 1,000-pound bombs against the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) camp at Balakot in the wee hours of 26 February, 2019 appears to be a very appropriately-selected option. It is learnt that the strikes also took place against a facility at Chakothi, which is just four kilometres from the LoC in the Uri sector and at Muzaffarabad, 50 kilometres deep across the LoC, although this is unconfirmed. The physical outcome of the strike is not as significant as the strike itself, and it will take some time before the damage assessment is complete. However, thousand pound bombs have a devastating effect and initial claims of casualties among terrorists are likely to be fairly correct.
What is the importance of the response in sheer strategic terms? Firstly, with lapse of time, the Indian public was getting restive and the government was under pressure. Whatever the response, it had to have a degree of proportionality; a general war with massive mobilisation is not something anyone had in mind. The selected option appears to have met that requirement. Secondly, with the kind of diplomatic traction that had been achieved internationally and Pakistan fairly on the mat, a military operation had to remain within the brackets of ensuring that this diplomatic traction was not lost. Any attempt to cross the LoC in Kashmir to do a surgical strike by the Army would have been old wine, affording Pakistan the ability to remain in denial mode. An air strike is much more visible and denial is difficult. The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing has already admitted that the event occurred. However, it has chosen to play it down by commenting on the effectiveness of the strike. The Director General ISPR has said that Pakistan Air Force (PAF) scrambled its aircraft in response and forced the IAF to drop the munitions well away from the intended targets.
However, as stated already, it is not the physical effect as much as the fact that the strike took place deep inside Pakistani territory, and all IAF aircraft returned safely to base. In due course, not only the IAF but also various international agencies will scan the target area and inform the world of the effect of the air strike; enough technology exists for that. Pakistan will in all probability repeat what it did after the surgical strike in 2016. A public relations exercise will be undertaken to take military diplomats to the sites of the strikes to prove to them that these were ineffective and that the PAF’s "timely action" managed to thwart the IAF from carrying out its mission.
Thirdly, the selection and usage of the term pre-emptive non-military strike very appropriately sends the message that India has kept the escalation aspects in mind and remained fully aware of the effects of its action. It could have struck at the Bahawalpur facility of the Jaish-e-Mohammad; it did not. It chose to target a comparatively lesser-known camp with confirmed presence of terrorists and their leadership deep inside Pakistan. It demonstrated capability and calibration when only terrorist facility and no Pakistan Army facility was selected as the target. This helps ensure that the traction India has achieved through the diplomatic campaign to isolate Pakistan remains intact and the hands of the international community have also been sufficiently strengthened to continue with the campaign to place pressure on Pakistan.
Fourthly is the question of a Pakistani response. It has two choices; one to remain in the mode of denial about the intended effect that India wished to achieve and then do nothing more. The second is to respond militarily and proportionately. Prime Minister Imran Khan and a host of his ministers have warned that an Indian military action against Pakistani territory will not invite consideration by Pakistan for a military response, but an assured action to strike back appropriately. Some Pakistani ministers had even threatened such military action as to defeat India on the battlefield.
This is going to place the Pakistan military leadership under tremendous pressure. There was similar pressure in 2011 after the United States' operation to neutralise Osama bin Laden, but a response against the United States was not possible. On account of the boast that Pakistan’s immature political leadership has made, the onus is now squarely on its shoulders. The options are very limited. A response employing air resources has an immediate challenge and that is the selection of targets; there are no terror bases in India. Targeting an Indian military facility or any other infrastructure will squarely pace the onus of escalation on Pakistan’s shoulders. That is where the choice of target by the Indian government and the appropriate messaging in the cryptic brief by the Foreign Secretary has been a smart step. A Pakistani response in some sphere or the other should be expected because it will now be the political and military leadership which will be under tremendous public pressure.
The Indian government must do extensive war gaming of the situation to assess the possible Pakistani response, but as of now, it is India which is decidedly at an advantage. It is still the beginning, not the end of the situation developing after the Pulwama tragedy.
The writer is a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army
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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2019 15:24:01 IST