Terrorist facilities in Pakistan have been bombed numberless times by the US, and there is little need to mention the 2011 Abbottabad attack, where US Navy Seals flew over 200 km into Pakistani airspace to “take out” Osama bin Laden from a location just a stone’s throw away from the Kakul Military Academy. This is a process that has continued for over 18 years, since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, and the ensuing Operation Enduring Freedom.

Pakistan’s support to terrorism, and specifically to the Taliban-Haqqani network campaigns in Afghanistan, in which at least 2,419 American soldiers have been killed, among a total of 3,561 Coalition soldiers, as well as tens of thousands of members of Afghan Forces and civilian fatalities. No amount of pressure has, however, forced Pakistan to back off from its support to terrorism against Kabul. Today, with the Americans suing for a face-saving flight from Afghanistan, Pakistan stands on the cusp of what it views as an inevitable victory.

The plot unravels

That India’s political leadership could have believed that a single air strike on a terrorist training camp could have significantly altered Pakistan’s strategic disposition reflects the degree to which fantasy dominates the ideologically driven political imagination.

The February 26 aerial strike by India against the Balakot terrorist camp in Pakistan, in itself, cannot be faulted as due retaliation for the Pulwama outrage, or at the level of its operational planning and execution by the Indian Air Force. It is after this point that the plot unravels from the Indian perspective.

First, as with the “surgical strikes” of 2016, no calculus of strategic gain, or of closure, is visible.

Second, and crucially, retaliatory strikes – whatever their nature and efficacy – against terrorist targets and their sponsors are not a novelty in the global scenario, but such incidents are not ordinarily transformed into a political carnival by the states that engineer them.

The incident occurs, and its targets are immediately and well aware of it. After a period of silence, related evidence is quietly shared with those who matter – intelligence agencies and diplomats of friendly or influential states, key elements in the media and other significant nodes of communication. Soon enough, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind about what happened – but there is also no wild escalation, no imperative imposed on the adversary to save face by seeking dramatic retribution. This is how retaliatory actions are handled. Not by prime ministers and political parties turning them into centrepieces of their election campaigns, not by dancing and celebrations in the streets.

The reason for this is simple. Military escalations occur in relative secrecy – a private (and bloody) conversation between the armed forces of the two adversarial powers, albeit constantly mandated by political sanction in a democratic system. The result is, military escalation can be, and usually is, narrowly calibrated, and the options of quickly ratcheting down the escalatory ladder are numerous. Decision-making is not encumbered by the pressures of the street, and is defined essentially in terms of strategic assessments of costs and benefits.

Once the confrontation is transformed into a jingoistic electoral-political spectacle, however, saving or losing face becomes the sole or dominant rationale of the action-reaction cycle. As compared to a military escalation, the uncertainties are infinitely greater in a political escalation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a public rally in Churu, Rajasthan on Tuesday. Photo credit: PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a public rally in Churu, Rajasthan on Tuesday. Photo credit: PTI

Erosion of credibility

Crucially, India’s poor handling of public and global perceptions is resulting in a rapid erosion of credibility. Here, it is useful to reiterate that Pakistan has talked peace and waged covert war against the US for nearly two decades and against India for almost four (indeed, if their support to the insurgencies of the North East is taken into account, for nearly seven). They have raised deceit and deception virtually to the level of an art form, and unless the leadership at New Delhi is able to harness evidence and restraint to counter Islamabad’s devious posturing, they will find their credibility quickly challenged, both domestically and internationally.

It is useful to examine Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s projections in this regard. In the wake of the Indian claim on the bombing of terrorist camps at Balakot, Khan was aggressive and lucid in his threats of retaliation. In the wake of the claims and counter-claims on the subsequent aerial skirmish in which Pakistan appears to have got the upper hand in terms of perceptions, with one Indian plane confirmed downed by the Pakistanis, and an Indian pilot in Pakistani custody, Khan shifted tack, and gave a “statesmanlike” speech – from a position of clear tactical advantage – calling for restraint and peace. This posture deepened even further with Khan’s announcement in Pakistan’s Parliament of the decision to immediately return the captured Indian pilot to India.

People celebrate the air strike carried out by the Indian Air Force on terrorist camps in Pakistan on Tuesday. Photo credit: Bhushan Koyande/HT
People celebrate the air strike carried out by the Indian Air Force on terrorist camps in Pakistan on Tuesday. Photo credit: Bhushan Koyande/HT

On the other hand, India’s triumphalism has quickly given way to apparent bewilderment, with its leadership, media and public discourse appearing petulant, out of control, and substantially committed to blind escalation. It is clear that neither side can be seen to back off in the wake of a tactical success by the other or a perceived advantage in the battle of perceptions. It is equally clear that neither side is prepared for a full-scale war.

It is, nevertheless, the case that anyone who is watching international news media, and not the flag-waving frenzy of most Indian channels, can see how the narrative is shifting, with Pakistan – a long term sponsor of terrorism – presenting itself as the generous and rational player in this conflict, while Indian leaders appear as petulant warmongers.

Consequently, unless the entire discourse and military cycle can be taken off the streets and off a largely hysterical, ignorant and jingoistic media – in both countries – we appear to be committed to a new normal: just as daily and escalating exchanges of fire have become the norm along the Line of Control and International Border in Jammu and Kashmir, so, frequent aerial skirmishes and tactical attacks across the Line of Control, with purposeless losses on each side, will increase.

Terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir did not commence with the suicide bombing at Pulwama on February 14, 2019. It will not end in a flurry of Indian tactical successes. India’s leadership focuses on the challenge of Pakistan-backed terrorism fitfully, in the wake of major attacks, and then, quickly, loses sight of the enduring strategic challenge. This cycle has kept Pakistan’s strategy alive for decades now. Unless a protracted conflict paradigm embeds itself in New Delhi’s strategic orientation, the noise of the current crisis will produce no significant gains.

Ajai Sahni is Publisher and Editor, Second Sight of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, where this article was first published.

Corrections and clarifications: This piece has been updated to note the announcement by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan that Pakistan will release IAF pilot Abhinandan Varhaman on Friday as a peace gesture.

Also read:

‘Don’t politicise this’: How people from across India reacted to the IAF strike on Pakistan

Five questions Pakistan needs to answer after the air strikes (and four that India still hasn’t)

Ajai Sahni: Belligerent rhetoric on Pulwama attack can’t make up for lack of strategic planning