On Tuesday, the Union government confirmed that Indian Air Force jets carried out a “non-military pre-emptive strike” on Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist camps in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale claimed that a large number of terrorists and trainers of militant outfits had been killed in what is being dubbed as India’s second surgical strike on Pakistan since 2016.
This is the first air strike by India across the Line of Control since 1971. It was carried out 12 days after 40 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in a terror attack in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir on February 14.
To understand the significance of India’s air strikes and their implications, Scroll.in spoke to Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management, and retired Lieutenant General HS Panag, on Tuesday.
What is the significance of the strike carried out by the Indian Air Force on Tuesday morning?
Ajai Sahni: The most significant element of the air strikes is that a new line has been crossed. India had refused to cross into Pakistani air space even during the Kargil “war” [in 1999]. This constitutes a dramatic alteration of the basic principles on which the Indian government reacted to Pakistani provocations in the past.
HS Panag: It is an unfolding situation so my guess is as good as yours. But it is a symbolic action at the moment, it is a message. We have said that we have struck a terrorist training camp at Balakot, the foreign secretary has said only one place has been struck. But there appears to be a difference from the surgical strikes of the past, which began with a bang and ended with a whimper, in the sense that it was a good tactical operation but strategically it achieved nothing, because Pakistan continued with business as usual. And over the last two years, we were not prepared to escalate the situation. But this time, we have upped the ante by striking at Balakot, which is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, not in PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir].
From what you are hearing, did the jets cross the international border or attack targets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?
Sahni: The fact that Indian planes crossed into PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] has been confirmed by the Pakistani side as well, though, of course, their narrative of events is very different from the Indian version. They claim that the Indian planes were moving towards Muzaffarabad [the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir], but Pakistani responses forced them back, and they simply released their payload in Balakot in the “open”, while “withdrawing in haste”. The ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations] has put out photographs of a crater and some debris on a forested hillside as the alleged site of the bombing. Our existing record, however, does show that Jaish terrorist facilities did exist in Balakot. We have no independent capacity to confirm or disconfirm the quantum of actual damage done.
How much of a precedent is the use of the Indian Air Force here? What would it have taken to make this decision?
Sahni: As I said, this is unprecedented, and India has refrained from the use of the Air Force in Pakistani air space even during as major a confrontation as Kargil. This is a political decision, clearly taken at the highest level.
Panag: If you take a decision today morning, the air force will strike by evening. Pakistan would also have been waiting and looking out for flights. The decision must have been taken quite some time back, and 12 days is adequate time to prepare for anyone.
India claims this was a non-military preemptive strike. What does this phrase mean and does it have global acceptance?
Panag: It means you have not struck their Army, not struck a civilian target, you have just struck a terrorist target. But once you have crossed national border and gone into Pakistan, you have already violated its territorial sovereignty – the rest is a matter of semantics. This is how it is played on the world stage – we try to stand by our moral stand.
Sahni: This is essentially India’s way of justifying its action. It implies that no military target was hit, and that the strike against the Jaish camp was not an act of retribution, but based on specific intelligence that another attack was being planned against targets in India, and hence the air strike was an act of self-defence. This is largely meaningless diplomatese. Eventually, Pakistan and the world will respond to this action in accordance with their own perceived political or state interests. Such an explanation has no meaning in international law, beyond an appeal to the general right to self-defence.
What do you expect will be Pakistan’s response? How serious do you think is the danger of escalation?
Panag: Twelve days [since the Pulwama attack] is enough for us to be prepared to go up the escalatory ladder. Pakistan is equally competent to retaliate. We have thrown the ball in Pakistan’s court, it is up to Pakistan now to respond. Depending on its response, we will take further action. But it is an unfolding situation.
Sahni: An escalation is inevitable, but an escalation to war is unlikely. Just as the surgical strikes of 2016 resulted in a significant escalation of terrorist violence in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in a dramatic escalation of ceasefire violations across the Line of Control and International Border, we can expect at least similar patterns of escalation in the wake of the present air strikes. While Pakistan appears to have handled its own challenge of domestic perceptions quite efficiently, if the strike was, in fact, as significant as India is claiming, it is likely to be tempted to new patterns of adventurism as well. Only the future will tell us what shape these could take.
Is India prepared to handle retaliation, either in the form a military response or another act of terror?
Sahni: I am sure India is prepared for a military response, and a nationwide alert against possible acts of terrorism has already gone out. Whether this can translate into effective prevention of such actions remains to be seen.