Those focusing on Balakot body count need reality check; time to leverage air attacks for diplomatic advantage

Just a week after the Indian Air Force (IAF) launched unprecedented attacks across the border on terrorist training camps in Pakistan, the din on this side of the Line of Control has risen to high decibel levels. As expected, Indian media, politicians and strategists are engaged in a shrill debate on whether the IAF strikes managed to do any serious damage.

Two specific events triggered the entire debilitating debate on the extent of damage caused by the air strikes in Balakot. First, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, at his press brief briefing on the day of the strikes, said a "a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis" had been killed. The same day, a report in India Today quoted National Security Advisor Ajit Doval as informing the Union Cabinet at a meeting that the air strikes had killed 25 top JeM commanders, among others.

Those focusing on Balakot body count need reality check; time to leverage air attacks for diplomatic advantage

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

This was followed by a joint forces presser on 28 February, at which Air Vice-Marshal RGK Kapoor declined to comment on the number of fatalities, quite properly stating that it was the prerogative of the government to release such data. Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa echoed this statement on Monday, when he, rather acerbically, noted that the IAF hit targets and did not count casualties.

In most countries, statements from at least three official sources would have been enough to quell the doubters. But not in India, where lack of knowledge doesn't prevent anyone from giving an opinion to the press, or to anyone else.

So here are some basic facts about terrorist camps, their nature, air strikes and such. This is a reality check for anyone who wants to evaluate this or other such strikes that may, or may not, happen in future.

- First, terrorist camps are of various kinds. Some are large, well-established centres, with extensive facilities like classrooms, training areas, air-conditioned offices and sports facilities. However, these large camps are usually located in the middle of Pakistan, such as the JeM camps in Bahawalpur and the Lashkar-e-Taiba installation in Muridke. Most look like schools and colleges from the outside, except that they are usually surrounded by gun-toting guards.

- At the second level are the slightly smaller camps, like the ones spread across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas, where classrooms give way to firing ranges, explosive testing grounds and physical training fields. These are usually located some distance from a town or a village but may adjoin a madrassa, which is basically a recruiting centre.

- Still smaller — and far more numerous — and functioning on a hub and spoke model are dozens of small camps, which enroll, assign and send militants out to jump off points/camps close to the Afghan or Indian borders. These camps, which are essentially logistic offices, are usually close to towns and centres, with prominent boards and flags advertising their presence.

- Finally, there are the jump off points themselves that lie along the border. These were the target of the 2016 surgical strikes.

The terrorist training camp in Balakot was of the second variety — large enough to be worthy of an air strike and at some distance from populated areas to avoid collateral damage. At any given point of time, such facilities would have more than two dozen 'staff' and trainees, even more if training was in full session, or if a group of commanders are present for a planning session. And yes, serving or retired officers of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are usually present at such sessions. It's the prevailing 'normal' as far as these camps go.

Next comes the targeting aspect. Given the small size of these camps, targeting them is no easy task, even with precision guided munitions, especially since a few are made of brick and concrete. Most are like better made shacks, as a result of which most missiles may just go through them, like a knife through butter, without exploding. However, the Israeli SPICE (Smart, Precise, Impact, Cost-Effective) precision guided bombs are said to be tailored specifically for such targets, allowing stand off capability, pre-selection of targets and a minimal entry signature.

In terms of BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment), the most reliable is from human intelligence — or sources — that are difficult to find in these parts. A second is from satellite imagery, which has been difficult as since the day of attack, and the following days, have been overcast. With all access to the area cordoned off by Pakistan Special Forces, a complete cleanup of the area is a certainty and would have been completed in less than a few days.

Precise intelligence will come, but it will take time and will depend on data on funerals and a plethora of small details that Pakistani agencies will make every effort to hide.

Meanwhile, an audio message from JeM chief Masood Azhar's brother, where he roundly curses Indians, has failed to convince doubters. Apparently, they would much rather have Maulana Ammar give a press conference himself.

Third is the utter futility of focussing on numbers instead of the fact that our aircraft crossed the Rubicon. At all times, and under all governments, everyone was aware that a given terrorist camp may or may not yield a large number of terrorists, since any one large group may suddenly decide to take off into the jungles or move to another camp. It was also accepted that some camps were out of bounds for air attacks since they were too close to civilian habitation that may or may not include terrorist supporters. It was also accepted that should precise photographs be provided to the media providing gory details of bodies, Pakistan would claim that these were students, teachers or civilians. Some Indian commentators would then want proof that they were, in fact, terrorists.

In short, there's no end to this cycle of questions and counter questions. What should be debated and considered by serious commentators is the fallout of crossing the Rubicon — the red line that has, so far, guided policy in terms of crossing the International Border and LoC.

As former national security advisor MK Narayanan put it, the Balakot strikes mean India sidestepped protocols that guide conduct between nations not officially at war. This will have consequences, both good and bad. It needs to be fleshed out and understood to be able to shape our future response.

Terrorism is far from eradicated and is not likely to be over for a good, long time, unless we can leverage the air attacks for diplomatic and precise advantage. That's the value of the air strikes. Body counts are for the undertakers.

Meanwhile, what would help immensely is if politicians of various hues stopped referring to the strikes at all. Each irresponsible statement undermines our advantage and leverage in the immediate future.

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Updated Date: Mar 05, 2019 16:19:46 IST

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