At 5.12 am on Tuesday, the Pakistan Army spokesperson sent out a tweet: “Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back. Details to follow”.
Since then, a number of details have emerged. The Indian Air Force had struck a place called Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunwa province of Pakistan. Not only did the Indian government state this, it was confirmed by journalists on the ground in Pakistan. The Indian government claimed that the site had a building of the Jaish-e-Mohammed – the group that had claimed credit for the February 14 Pulwama attack that had killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force jawans.
However, after that there is much yet to be known even after nearly a day.
What exactly was hit?
The Indian government claimed that its aircraft “struck the biggest training camp of JeM [Jaish-e-Mohammad] in Balakot”.
However, Reuters interviewed people on the ground and claimed that the site had a madrasa (Islamic school) run by the Jaish. The report also claimed that the “Indian attack had missed its target as the bombs dropped exploded about a kilometre away from the madrasa”.
How many casualties?
While the Indian government said that “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated” it did not put out an estimate of people killed.
However, a number of Indian journalists put out a casualty number. Manu Pubby with the Economic Times quoted unnamed sources to claim 300 dead. This number was also repeated by major news outlets such as ANI and the Times of India. Another journalist quoted a “highly reliable political source in government” as claiming, “India went inside Pakistan. Not around LoC [Line of control]. Our estimate is 600/ 650 casualties. Our targets inside Pakistan and not in PoK.” How this figure had been arrived at was not explained.
Reuters meanwhile reported from the ground, claiming that the bombing had wounded one person. The BBC also interviewed an eyewitness who claimed that one person had been injured.
Experts also pointed out that there are a number of questions around any estimation of casualties.
After the all-party meeting in the evening, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted, “The government was categorical that it can’t & won’t speculate as to the number of JeM cadre killed in this morning’s action.”
In its press conference, as in its tweets in the morning, the Pakistani army maintained that no one was killed.
How did the Indian Air Force attack?
At 9:28 am, ANI claimed that terror camps in three places had been hit: Balakot, Chakothi and Muzaffarabad. However, the Indian government itself only claimed one place: Balakot. It had no other details, preferring to even leave out the fact that the “intelligence led operation” was carried out using aircraft.
The Print quoted unidentified sources to claim that the attack lasted 21 minutes. It also said that initially, the Indian Air Force did not intend to cross the Line of Control but fire the bombs from Indian air space. None of these details were corroborated by the Indian government’s statement.
Pakistan, on the other hand repudiated the claim that India had violated its airspace for 21 minutes While Pakistan admitted that India had entered its airspace for “four-five nautical miles”, it claimed that “there was no strike” and Indian jets “went back under pressure from Pakistan airforce”. It further went on to claim, “When they jettisoned their payload [bombs], it fell on Balakot”.
Pakistan, however, did not clarify how Indian jets, even when challenged, had managed to still hit Balakot, a known centre of the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Why did Pakistan not retaliate?
Pakistan claims it identified Indian aircraft entering its airspace but in his statement, the Pakistan Army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor refused to answer specific questions. But he did provide extra details about the attack.
Indian jets were first spotted on the radar in the Lahore-Sialkot sector, Ghafoor said, and Pakistan’s first combat air patrol scrambled to challenge it.
“A second formation of Indian jets then came close to Okara-Bahawalpur area of international border and the second CAP [combat air patrol mission] became airborne to counter it as per the SOP [standard operating procedure],” Ghafoor said.
“Our radars then picked a heavy formation in Muzaffarabad sector approaching from Keran valley. This was a heavy team – four minutes they crossed while coming in and four minutes while going back – they did not attack,” Ghafoor added.
“When our airforce challenged them – and repulsed them effectively, though they had come in four-five nautical miles – they retreated. While leaving, they jettisoned their payload. Given the angle of exit, the payload – four bombs – fell on Jaba and they went back,” Ghafoor claimed.
“There was no strike. They went back under pressure from Pakistan airforce. When they jettisoned their payload, it fell on Balakot, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, out of Ajad Jammu and Kashmir,” Ghafoor said.
In the press conference where this statement was delivered, a journalist asked the question, “Why did you not shoot down the [Indian] aircraft?” In response, Ghafoor had no clear answer. He first cryptically replied, “I wish there was that much time,” alluding to the Pakistani claim that Indian jets had been over its airspace for a short while. Ghafoor then went off on a long unrelated tangent about how India could have, if it wanted, hit targets inside Pakistan even without entering its airspace. He ended his answer with a vague threat: “We will respond differently and we will surprise you. And I am telling you, please wait”.
Ghafoor claimed that because of bad weather Pakistan army was unable to fly the assembled media personnel to the site where the “payload” fell. “By the time we take you by road, it would be dark,” he added, but offered to take “ambassadors, defence attaches, military observers, even civilians and military personnel” to the site later, to show that there was “not even a single brick in the form of debris.”
While there has been no official response to Pakistan’s claims, media reports citing unidentified sources countered some of the points made in Ghafoor’s press conference. Pakistani F16s aircraft that were scrambled to retaliate against IAF Mirage 2000s turned back due to size of Indian formation, claimed ANI quoting unidentified IAF sources. The Pakistan Air Force failed to detect the presence of the Indian fighter jets as it was already too late for them as their surveillance system had been jammed by the IAF, claimed news agency IANS. At least two jets mounted with electronic warfare system that helped jam the Pakistani radars, the news agency claimed.
The question of why and how Pakistan was unable to respond to such an obvious violation of its airspace still hangs, with commentators drawing parallels with the United States’ 2011 Abbottabad raid to kill Osama Bin Laden. There too, Pakistani airspace had been violated without challenge.