A week after India dropped bombs on Balakot, Pakistan, questions continue to be asked about what actually happened and whether the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are inflating their achievements for political gains. A fresh report from international news agency Reuters on Wednesday features images from a private satellite operator showing no discernible signs of an aerial attack on the madrasa owned by Jaish-e-Mohammed, which India claimed to have hit.
According to Reuters, a satellite image taken by San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc on March 4, six days after the Indian strike, is “virtually unchanged from an April 2018 satellite photo of the facility”. The report goes on to say, “there are no discernible holes in the roofs of buildings, no signs of scorching, blown-out walls, displaced trees around the madrasa or other signs of an aerial attack”.
This may bring into question claims by the Indian government that India struck the Jaish’s biggest training camp and killed a large number of terrorists. Unnamed sources in the Indian media have gone even further, suggesting there is satellite evidence held by the government that proves substantial damage to the madrasa.
Other reportage has, however, suggested that satellite imagery, especially from days after the strike may not be sufficient to establish whether damage was indeed caused, based on the claim that the Spice 2000 munitions India used in this case are not meant to destroy entire buildings but only cause damage once they have entered the building.
Because of a lack of on-record information from the government on a number of these claims, analysis, speculation – and braggadocio from the BJP – about what actual damage India managed to do in Balakot has been rampant.
What did India hit?
- It is clear that an attack did take place, since the first intimation of this came from the Pakistani government itself. Pakistan however said that the Indian jets released their payload in haste after being confronted by Pakistani ones. Pakistan also claimed there were “no casualties or damage,” and later released photos of open areas and trees that purportedly were the spots where the Indian bombs landed.
- Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale put out an official statement about the attacks, saying India has struck the “the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot” and that a “very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action (suicide bombings) were eliminated.”
- Since then, local and international media have been to the spots in Balakot, with reports that the bombs cause no major damage, although the reporters were not permitted to go to the Jaish madrasa itself. The Indian Express reported one student at the madrasa saying he had heard a “huge explosion” and was evacuated from the camp on the day.
What does the satellite evidence say?
- There have been multiple reports about the Indian government having official satellite pictures that would prove the Indian claim of having struck the Jaish camp. NDTV reported that “satellite images of the strikes, which are being treated as highly confidential by government officials for now, are likely to reveal multiple impact points made by the Israeli bombs.”
So far, though, the Indian government has not released any satellite imagery.
- The Indian Express reported on March 2 that the government also likely had access to radar imagery, captured by equipment that would have been fitted in the fighter jets. According to this report, the images show four buildings having been hit by the S-2000 precision-guided munitions.
An unidentified official told the newspaper that these particular bombs are not meant to destroy buildings. “It first penetrates through the roof, then enters the building and explodes after a delay,” the official said. The report claimed that the radar imagery showed the roofs going missing on the day after the strikes, but that other evidence showed the roofs having been repaired and back two days later making it hard to assess the damage.
- Zee News claimed it had accessed “exclusive satellite images” of the airstrikes which, it said, clearly showed the “whole camp” having been destroyed with “big craters” in the ground.
- The Print also said published “exclusive satellite images” of the Jaish camp, which it said showed
“four black spots on the CGI or corrugated galvanised iron sheet roofs of Jaish facilities.” According to this report, the images show the possibility that the Indian munitions may have pierced the roofs, which have since been patched with fresh iron sheet roofs and re-painted. “But the damage to buildings and walls from the air strikes may not have been as extensive as it has been made out by the Modi government and the ruling BJP,” the report said.
- Reuters report casts doubt on many of these claims, although its pictures are from March 4 – a full six days after the attack. The pictures it accessed show all the buildings still standing. Experts that the international agency spoke to, however, seemed convinced that if S-2000 munitions did indeed hit the camp, there would be more evidence of it.
“If the strike had been successful, given the information we have about what kind of munitions were used, I would expect to see signs that the buildings had been damaged,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
How many were killed?
- Questions raised about whether the camp was significantly damaged naturally leads to queries about the success of the attack, which India claims killed a “large number” of terrorists and others. The government of India has, however, refused to put out a number.
- The numbers have been in focus because, in response to bombastic claims from the BJP about up to 600 terrorists having been killed by the strike, the Opposition and even some of the wives of the paramilitary jawaans killed in the Pulwama attack, have asked for proof of the attacks.
- Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government will not give a casualty figure.
- Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa said that the Indian Air Force does not count casualty numbers.
- Earlier, Union Minister of State SS Ahluwalia said the attack was meant to warn and not kill, and that India did not want any human casualties.
- Despite this, BJP President Amit Shah has said that more than 250 terrorists were killed in the attack, without giving evidence for his claim.
- Union Minister of State VK Singh later said that Amit Shah’s figure was just an estimate, of how many “might have died.”
- Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that intelligence suggested there were 300 cellphone signatures from the area but insisted that, “Pakistan and their leaders know in their heart how many were killed.”