So the strikes took place as expected.
In a major departure from policy, fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force conducted airstrikes across the Line of Control (LoC) to attack well-known terrorist camps deep inside Pakistan. Spokesperson for the Pakistani military Major General Asif Ghafoor chose to say that the attacks were carried out in Muzaffarabad "sector" (as against district), but India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale confirmed that the IAF operation targeted one of the Jaish-e-Mohammed's (JeM) largest camps at Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Once part of the Sikh empire, Balakot has long been part of the jihadi complex. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area has a number of militant camps that serve the war fronts in both Kashmir and Afghanistan. Pakistan is clearly in shock, and there is jubilation in India.
The first point is that India acted in self-defence, a basic right as mentioned in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter: "Nothing in the present charter shall impair the inherent right of an individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations."
While briefing the media on the IAF operation, the foreign secretary said that the airstrikes were pre-emptive and calculated to frustrate yet another planned terrorist strike by the JeM. This is self-defence in every sense of the word. The Indian Air Force would have war-gamed such an attack at Balakot and other nearby terrorist camps several times. In such a strike, the aircraft would follow the deep valleys and ridges along the mountains to evade getting on the radar, entering at an angle that would dodge the most active air defence along the India-Pakistan border.
Whether India also attacked other camps in Pakistan is unclear. But some of the ones targeted are located near populated areas in Muzaffarabad district and therefore, escaped retribution — for now.
In the days to come, we can expect the following: Pakistani sources may claim civilian damage; and Indian "experts" can be equally trusted to claim "huge collateral damage". So here's the thing. Terrorists don't wear uniforms. They may take shelter in a school, or in a building marked "hospital", or at a madrassa. The bottom line for local authorities in Pakistan/Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is this — if you shelter terrorists, you are likely to be hit.
We can also expect that terrorist groups will roll out into the streets, demanding action against India. There may even be another terrorist strike in Kashmir, or more likely in a major Indian city. This is a risk that must be run.
The choices ahead are unusual, to say the least. First, India can claim its attack and Pakistan can deny it. End of story. Honour on both sides has been satisfied. Social media and analysts can go to town crowing over or alternately denying the strikes.
Option two is that Pakistan decides the airstrikes demand a strong riposte. It can use its muscle to launch attacks across the LoC as per its (self-imposed) constitutionally-mandated obligations. But after this operation, Indian early warning aircraft are likely to stay in the sky for a long while. It's not impossible, but it sure is risky.
If Pakistan launches attacks across the International Border, that would be naked aggression. Escalation is then certain, and India has the larger purse. Analysts will point out that Pakistan cannot afford a war.
But salvaging national pride is not just all about the money. As Pakistani sources note, just before the Kargil War, Pakistan's total public debt in proportion to its GDP was the highest in South Asia — 99.3 percent of its GDP and 629 percent of its revenue receipts, compared to Sri Lanka (91.1 percent and 528.3 percent in 1998) and India (47.2 percent amd 384.9 percent).
With China and Saudi Arabia pouring money into Pakistan's coffers, Islamabad is in (marginally) better shape than before. A short, sharp conflict is doable but will still ruin the economy in the long run. Reviving investments will slowly die away, and even investors like the Saudis will reconsider. China will continue to stand with Pakistan but is hardly likely to countenance a potentially ruinous move. Remember, Beijing has already sunk billions into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that has yet to turn into profits. No, China will advise both neighbours to stand down.
No democracy that is accountable to its people — which puts Pakistan out of this league — will willingly go to war. The stock markets plunging since news of the IAF operation broke is an early indicator that even India can't afford a war. Therefore, to prevent the tension from escalating, it is vital that Prime Minister Narendra Modi make a public announcement that Indian forces are now standing down after having acted in self-defence. He may also consider offering Pakistan a path of friendship, provided it cracks down on terrorism on its soil.
A little cheekiness may also be in order. India could even offer to provide assistance to Pakistan to help close down terrorist camps — that are ruining the country, in absolute reality — thus offering Prime Minister Imran Khan the possibility of finally getting a free hand to run his country. Ending terrorism in Pakistan will give the political class some freedom to manoeuver. A turn to war, and they will, once again, be shackled to the yoke of the army, not to mention the International Monetary Fund and other creditors.
Imran's choice is stark — he can either govern or fight. He can't do both.
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Updated Date: Feb 27, 2019 15:13:33 IST