India Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale used an unexpected phrase when officially confirming that the Air Force had struck targets across the Line of Control on Tuesday morning. Gokhale said that India had carried out a “non-military preemptive action” targeting a camp of terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which had claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack earlier this month. Considering the strikes were carried out by the Indian Air Force, how could it have been “non-military” action?
Parsing Gokhale’s entire statement offers a better understanding of what the Indian government is trying to say with this phrase. Gokhale’s short comment makes a straightforward argument:
- Jaish-e-Mohammed took responsibility for the Pulwama attack, in which 40 paramilitary jawans were killed by a suicide bomber who drove a car into a convoy. The organisation was also responsible for the attack on India’s parliament in 2001 and on the Pathankot air base in 2016.
- India has repeatedly given Pakistan information about Jaish-e-Mohammed’s training camps, but Islamabad denies their existence and Pakistan has taken no actions to dismantle the “infrastructure of terrorism.”
- India had received credible intelligence that the Jaish was planning more suicide attacks on various parts of the country.
- “In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary”.
In other words, India wants to make it clear that its decision to send jets across the Line of Control – a risky move between two nuclear-armed neighbours – was aimed entirely at the Jaish-e-Mohammed. It has only became necessary because Pakistan has failed to control the terror group, and because India had information that another suicide attack being planned.
In the following two paragraphs, the foreign secretary added more information about the attacks, while continuing to drive home this key point: the strike was aimed at Jaish, not Pakistan, and was carried out to prevent another attack on India.
“In an intelligence led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated. This facility at Balakot was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar (alias Ustad Ghouri), the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, chief of JeM.
The government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism. Hence this non-military preemptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp. The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties. The facility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence.”
Each of those points tries to make it clear that this was not military action against the Pakistani state or its people. It was led by intelligence and out of a desire to prevent another attack on India, and it was specifically planned to ensure civilians would not be hurt.
The aim, then, of using the phrase “non-military preemptive action” is to communicate to the global community that India’s intentions were not aggressive, and were instead carried out as pre-emptive self-defence.
Despite its precision, the foreign secretary’s statement still faces two questions:
- Has it given enough space to the Pakistani establishment to de-escalate rather than wanting to retaliate? The admission that India managed to attack a target in Pakistan, rather than just Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, is embarrassment enough, and will make it hard for Islamabad not to respond.
- Can the Bharatiya Janata Party stick to the script? Union Minister of State for Agriculture Gajendra Singh Shekhawat was already the first to officially acknowledge the attacks – with a tweet that said this is “just the beginning”. In election season, the rest of the party is bound to add to the rhetoric, which might nullify the foreign secretary’s precise language.