Balakot and beyond

Sudha Ramachandran wonders whether India will really benefit from a more hawkish response to Pakistani aggression

On 26 February, the Indian Air Force (IAF) carried out aerial strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. This was the first time since the 1971 India-Pakistan war that the IAF had entered Pakistani airspace. The strikes on Balakot came less than a fortnight after a JeM suicide bomber drove an explosives-filled car into a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy at Pulwama in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), killing over 40 Indian paramilitary personnel.

JeM has carried out several deadly terror attacks in India. In December 2001 it targeted the Indian parliament, and it attacked an IAF station at Pathankot and an Indian army base at Uri in 2016. A proscribed organisation in India, it has also been declared a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States and figures in a United Nations Security Council list of terrorist entities under sanctions. Indeed, JeM is a proscribed organisation in Pakistan too. Still, it continues to function openly there, enjoying the patronage of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

China, too, protects JeM. Over the last several years, India has been trying to get the UNSC to blacklist the group’s founder-leader Maulana Masood Azhar but its efforts have failed largely because China has blocked the resolution in the UNSC.

The recent air assault on the JeM camp at Balakot was ostensibly aimed at sending Pakistan a message that Delhi would retaliate robustly in the event of a Pakistan-backed terror outfit carrying out an attack on India. This was the same message that India sent Pakistan in September 2016, when its soldiers crossed the Line of Control (LoC) into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) to take out terrorist ‘launch-pads’.

While the underlying meaning may have been similar, this time India conveyed its message more forcefully, sending its combat aircraft to drop bombs on the Balakot camp rather than dispatching a few soldiers on foot. Besides, if in 2016 India signalled willingness to cross the LoC, in 2019 it warned Islamabad that it would not hesitate to cross even the International Border to strike deep inside Pakistan.

A day after the Balakot strikes, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) responded by sending its jets across the LoC. A skirmish between PAF and IAF aircraft ensued and Pakistan was able not only to shoot down an Indian aircraft but also to capture an Indian pilot, who was subsequently released.

Bilateral tensions, which soared in mid-February to early March, have since eased considerably. The immediate threat of a war between the two nuclear adversaries has receded, but there is still reason for both to worry. The recent chain of events holds important lessons; should the two neighboursignore them, it would beat their peril.

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long been in favour of a muscular response to dealing with terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Moreover, with general elections around the corner and its hawkish supporters clamouring for a strong response from India to the Pulwama attack, the BJP government ordered aerial strikes on Balakot. Previous governments are said to have also carried out military operations against terror camps in POK. However, it is only under the current dispensation (that is, since 2014) that India is announcing having carried out such operations.

The question is whether India benefits from such operations. Will a tougher approach push Pakistan to abjure its decades-old policy of sponsoring anti-India terrorist groups? Past experience indicates that it will not.

India’s ‘surgical strikes’ on terrorist ‘launch pads’ in 2016, for instance, did not prompt Pakistan to snap ties with terror outfits. Indeed, not only did Pakistan not distance itself from its terrorist protégés but the strikes were followed by an escalation of terror attacks in Kashmir and a surge in ceasefire violations along the LoC. It is well-known that Pakistan’s stepping up of shelling across the LoC is a ploy to provide cover for its infiltration of militants into India. Indeed, J&K police statistics indicate that infiltration of terrorists into India surged over the last couple of years.

JEM’S 2001 ATTACK: JeM’s 2001 attack on the Indian parliament brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war
JEM’S 2001 ATTACK: JeM’s 2001 attack on the Indian parliament brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war
The immediate threat of war has receded, but there is still reason for the two nuclear adversaries to worry

This time, too, terrorism emanating from Pakistan is unlikely to abate. JeM may have lost a few hundred fighters in the Balakot strikes but it can be expected to emerge stronger in the coming months. Indeed, it is likely to use India’s actions to win public sympathy and draw new recruits.

Neither is Islamabad likely to switch off support to terror outfits. Amid mounting international pressure, it cracked down on terror outfits a couple of weeks ago. Scores of JeM activists, including close relatives of Azhar, were taken into ‘preventive detention’. The government even announced that Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, front organisations of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, would be proscribed soon.

It is hard to dispel the feeling that these cosmetic steps by the Imran Khan government are aimed at fobbing off the international community. Such steps were taken in the past as well, only to be revoked within a few months when international pressure on Pakistan eased. It does seem that these recent measures will also be lifted in the coming months.

Thus surgical strikes or aerial assaults, whether in PoK or in Pakistan, are not useful to pressure Pakistan to mend its ways. On the contrary, by publicising such operations India has only embarrassed the Pakistani government, indirectly encouraging it to respond equally robustly to India’s muscle-flexing.

Terrorism emanating from Pakistan is unlikely to abate

By entering POK or Pakistani airspace, India signalled that it wasn’t deterred by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. It was willing to risk an escalation in the conflict if Pakistan supported anti-India terror outfits. But by sending its aircraft into Indian airspace and shooting down an IAF plane, Pakistan indicated that it too was willing to risk an escalation in the conflict, never mind India’s nuclear weapons. The recent chain of events – like JeM’s 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, which brought the two countries to the brink of war – suggests that India and Pakistan are not averse to a military confrontation, despite the real risk of such conflict escalating into a nuclear exchange.

Pakistan’s sponsoring of anti-India terrorism has seriously strained bilateral relations. Such provocations from Pakistan are likely to increase in the coming months. In 1989, as the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan wound down, Pakistani fighters returned home in large numbers. Concerned over the possibility of them turning their guns towards the Pakistani state, the ISI chose to divert them to fight India in Kashmir. Likewise, with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) losing all the territory it once held, Pakistani jihadists are heading back to Pakistan. The possibility of the ISI diverting them to Kashmir cannot be ruled out.

Following the Pulwama attack, international attention was on Pakistan’s support to anti-India terror groups. Post-Balakot, this attention shifted away from Pakistan’s role to global concern over the implications of an escalation of the India-Pakistan conflict.

The Balakot attack served to draw Indian public attention away from the BJP government’s poor handling of issues like unemployment and rural distress and directed it towards the government’s tough response to terrorism. It could win the BJP votes in the upcoming general elections.

However, the Balakot strikes, ostensibly intended to deal with Pakistan’s terrorist protégés, did not make India more secure.  Only the BJP and JeM benefited from it.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst. She writes on South Asian political and security issues

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