For two days in February, South Asia stood on the brink of all-out war between India and Pakistan. The return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, a captured Indian fighter pilot who Pakistan decided to send back to India as a “peace gesture”, seemed to significantly reduce tensions and leave both nations looking ahead to what comes next. But many questions still remain.
Varthaman’s – eventual – return and the easing of tensions might offer an opportunity for closer scrutiny of what exactly took place between India and Pakistan, from actual details of the various incidents to the fog of disinformation being released via journalists. Here are the main unanswered questions:
- What was the objective of the action?
- Did the bombs fall where India intended them to?
- What was the extent of the damage?
- Why were journalists told as many as 600 people were killed if there was no official estimate?
- Who is stopping journalists from visiting the Jaish-e-Mohammad madrasa?
On February 26, Pakistan’s military spokesperson announced that the Indian Air Force had violated the Line of Control. “Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force,” Major General Asif Ghafoor wrote, the Indian jets “released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage.”
Later in the day, India’s Foreign Secretary released a statement conveying New Delhi’s official version of the incident. Saying that India had received credible evidence that the terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed was planning another suicide attack in various parts of the country, he announced that the Indian Air Force had struck “the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot”, which is in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, not in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
“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,” Vijay Gokhale said, using the Arabic term for “those who sacrifice themselves”.
Both sides agreed that Indian jets had crossed the line of control and struck sites near Balakot. But they differed on the outcome of the attack. Pakistan said neither people nor infrastructure was hit. India claimed it had destroyed a terror camp with a “very large number” of people.
Indian journalists went much further, citing sources that said India had killed as many as 600 people.
But skepticism remained about the Indian claims, with Pakistan putting out pictures of woody areas and a field with no structures where it claims the bombs landed.
Reporters from Al Jazeera and Reuters visited the area where the Pakistan Army claimed that the 1,000-kilo munitions fell. The Al Jazeera report reflects the Pakistan line, that the bombs fell on uninhabited, empty areas, while adding that the reporter was not allowed to visit a nearby madrasa with connections to the Jaish-e-Mohammad where one local said there is a training camp for mujahideen.
Reuters, meanwhile, said that the only confirmed victim of India’s air strike was a man who was shaken awake by the blast that left him with a cut above his right eye. “No one died. Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died,” said Abdur Rasheed, a local.
The BBC also spoke to a local who said just one person was injured.
The lack of access to the madrasa has however raised eyebrows. Though some who have tried to do satellite analysis based on what is publicly available have claimed that there doesn’t seem to be any damage to the structures, it appears to be evident that the madrasa is connect to the Jaish-e-Mohammed. A FirstPost report said that, despite Pakistan’s insistence that it was not connected to the terror group, property records and other details confirm that the sprawling seminary belongs to the JeM.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appeared to be the first from India’s political class to demand that the government offer up more details of the Balakot strike. “We want to know what actually happened,” Banerjee said on Thursday. “National television channels were saying that 300-350 people were killed [in the operation]. Some international channels say one died. We want to know how many actually died.”
On the same day, at a press conference held jointly by representatives of India’s Army, Navy and Air Force, it was confirmed that there was no estimate of the number of casualties. “We have fairly credible evidence on the damage,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, saying it would be up to the political leadership to decide if this evidence should be released to the public.
“Our weapons hit the target. But it would be premature for us to comment on the kind of damage inflicted on the terrorists and the number of people killed. Whatever we intended to destroy, we destroyed,” Kapoor said.
One reading of the events suggests that it does not matter what India hit. The idea of the action was to prove that India was willing and able to hit a position on Pakistani territory, not just Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. As one article on the website of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute suggested, since India let it be known through later leaks that it used precision-guided bombs that would have been pre-programmed, the chances of them missing their target were low. In this scenario, then, the aim was not to hit anything but only to prove that India has the capability to carry out such an attack, while signalling to Pakistani decision makers that that these strikes were limited – but only by choice.
“Based on the available evidence – satellite imagery, official statements, and reported leaks to the media – it appears plausible that India’s strikes in Pakistan were designed primarily to placate a domestic audience while simultaneously limiting escalation by not targeting built-up areas and causing substantial casualties,” wrote researcher Nathan Ruser.
- Did Pakistan target Indian military installations?
- Did the Indian jets fall prey to a trap?
- Why were Indian journalists told that all pilots are accounted for?
- Why did Pakistan claim that there were three pilots in the area, when ultimately only one ended up in custody?
- Was Pakistan using F16s?
On the next day, after news emerged of some sort of skirmish in the skies, the Pakistan military was once again first out with the confirmed news, saying in a release that it had undertaken “strikes across the Line of Control from within Pakistani airspace”. The release also claimed that Pakistan carried out “strikes at non military target, avoiding human loss and collateral damage.”
Soon after, Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted out that Indian Air Force jets had crossed the Line of Control in response. Ghafoor claimed that the Pakistan Air Force “shot down two Indian aircrafts inside Pakistani airspace, adding that “one of the aircraft fell inside AJ&K while other fell inside IOK. One Indian pilot arrested by troops on ground while two in the area.”
There was no official comment from India for several hours, though journalists continued to offer many reports from sources. Out of these two key claims emerged.
One, that India had also managed to shoot down a Pakistani jet, in this case an F16 – which was controversial, since Islamabad is not supposed to be using these aircraft for offensive manoeuvres. And two, that it was unclear whether Pakistan had any pilots in custody. Indian media reported government sources insisting that “all Indian pilots were safe and accounted for”.
It was not till the afternoon that India’s External Affairs Ministry put out a short statement saying that the Pakistan Air Force had targeted military installations in India, and admitted that one pilot flying a MiG-21 Bison was missing in action. Soon after Pakistan also confirmed that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was in their custody, and added that there was one more Indian pilot in the hospital. Videos of Varthaman turned up online.
The Indian government then put out a strongly worded release objecting to Pakistan’s “unprovoked act of aggression”, “targeting of Indian military posts” and “vulgar display of an injured personnel”. Pakistan would later say that only one Indian pilot was in its custody, with no explanation for what happened to the other two that were mentioned earlier.
Further reporting from NDTV and others suggested that a Pakistani formation of 24 jets amassed on one side of the Line of Control, with some then crossing over and attempting to drop munitions on military targets. They were intercepted by eight Indian fighter jets, which engaged in combat.
Of these, Varthaman’s MiG-21 Bison locked onto an F16 and pursued it across the LoC. Per this, report, he managed to fire a missile and get the F16, before himself being hit and having to eject. Others have also claimed that the manoeuvre involved a trap set specifically for the Indian jets.
On Thursday, the joint Indian military press conference saw Kapoor saying Pakistan had made factually incorrect statements about the number of pilots in their custody, where their bombs were dropped and whether an F16 was used. The military displayed a partial piece of an AMRAAM missile, which it said was only used by Pakistani F16s in South Asia. Pakistan continues to deny that F16s were used, since the country is technically not permitted to deploy them in any offensive role and only against terror.
Varthaman returned to India as a “peace gesture” from Pakistan.
- What happened to the Mi 17 chopper in Budgam?
Somewhat lost in the noise over the dogfight was the crash of the Mi 17 helicopter near Budgam, close to Srinagar. The Air Force, in its release regarding the incident, said that all six personnel on board died in the crash. It also killed one civilian on the ground. The Air Force release insisted that the helicopter was on a “routine” mission, but pictures of the chopper prompted some speculation about whether it had been shot out of the sky.
Journalists reported unnamed government sources saying that the crash was unconnected to the tensions at the Line of Control and may instead have been the result of a technical fault. A court of inquiry has been initiated, and for now, with the focus on Pakistan, it is unlikely that there will be much more clarity on this incident for now.
Five questions Pakistan needs to answer after the air strikes (and four that India still hasn’t)
Extent of damage and delayed response in Pakistan: What we still don’t know about Balakot airstrikes