Most literate adults are aware of the Christian belief that the mother of Jesus was impregnated while a virgin. The Holy Spirit penetrated Mary the way light penetrates glass, leaving her hymen intact. Less well known is the Roman Catholic dogma that she stayed a virgin through Christ’s birth and after. The Son of God came forth into the world causing her no distress, and the cloister of her womb remained sealed during the process.
Indian broadcasters should have taken a cue from this idea while covering the Balakot bombing and its aftermath. Once the skies cleared over the attack site, satellites owned by Planet Labs Inc of San Francisco peered closely at the scene and concluded that the madrassa/terrorist hideout run by Jaish-e-Mohammad had suffered no damage. Analysing ground-level images, the Digital Forensic Lab run by the Atlantic Council (which boasts an International Advisory Board including Anil Ambani), made much the same judgement using stronger language (“botched operation”).
Not so fast, retorted Indian analysts. Three dark spots on the roof of the madrasa’s main building in the picture released by Planet Labs were entry points for smart bombs sold by the Israeli firm Rafael, they said. Rafael is no relation to the fighter jet Rafale, though Indians tend to pronounce the two identically. Rafale means “gust” in French, a good name for a superfast plane. Rafael means “God has healed” in Hebrew. How fitting to have a weapons-maker named after the angel of healing as partner in a “non-military” air strike carried out by a nation that associated its first nuclear tests with the Buddha.
To return to those three spots, the shortcoming of the point of entry theory was that Rafael’s 1,000-kg Spice bomb carries enough explosive to level that madrassa. But Indian analysts had a counterargument ready: there might have been little explosive material involved if most of the bomb’s weight went into boosting its penetrative capacity. In other words, we used bombs capable of getting through thick concrete on a target with a thin metal roof. But why would the military brass choose such a wasteful option? Apparently in order to minimise the force of the explosion and therefore collateral damage. It’s a clever theory, though it appeared only after the Planet Labs image, and seems geared to explain those intact buildings. Those who feel the three holes look too neat and close together to be made by massive, bunker-busting bombs, have been offered a new theory that it wasn’t the SPICE 2000 at all, but a more sophisticated secret weapon also sourced from Israel that was used in Balakot.
Why ask for evidence?
Could there be a more parsimonious explanation for those? An uncle who served in the Indian Air Force once told me about his first combat mission evacuating soldiers from Goa in 1961. He flew in with little information about how the conflict had gone. Approaching the airstrip, he saw much of it damaged by artillery shells. Since a third of the runway was intact, he executed a difficult manoeuvre to land within that restricted space. Once on the ground, he realised the bombed-out look had been caused by dark fillers used during routine maintenance. The troops waiting with cases of liquor they had appropriated as reward for liberating Goa were mystified to see their transport halt abruptly hundreds of meters from the pick-up point. Given that nothing in the jihadi handbook says that leaky roofs must be patiently endured, waterproofing might be a likelier culprit behind those spots than bombs.
Indian officials have been reluctant to provide any hard information to reporters, preferring to seed the narrative of their choice through the media. Had the Modi administration been as assiduous about afforestation as it is about planting news stories, we would be half way to reversing global warming by now. The government understands it doesn’t need to prove that the Balakot operation was a success, or that Wing Commander Abhinandan shot down a Pakistani F-16. Evidence becomes irrelevant when nationalism takes a form akin to religious fervour. If the government tells us bombs penetrated the building like light passing through glass, and killed 263 terrorists while leaving all walls perfectly intact, most Indians will believe the story. After all, if a virgin birth can be taken on faith, why not virgin deaths?
All of this is not to suggest that the official Indian version is a fudge or a lie. We don’t have enough details to make that judgement, and the final verdict will have to be postponed till such information is made available. Those seeking to affirm the Indian story have one clue on their side. The Pakistani government has not allowed any reporters into the madrasa/camp.
As with the holes in the roof, though, there are other explanations possible for this reticence, the most likely being that the Pakistanis are hiding evidence of terrorist infrastructure. The question ordinary Indians need to ask is, what if the experts at Planet Labs are correct and there were no holes on that roof? What if Reuters and Al Jazeera and Bellingcat and Digital Forensic Lab are offering the most accurate analysis of what transpired? What if the complex was at least part-madrasa, and was saved from being hit because somebody keyed in wrong co-ordinates or the guidance system didn’t work accurately? Imagine the consequences if our forces had actually hit a school? Killing dozens of minors in an assault on foreign territory would have constituted an honest-to-goodness war crime. India could credibly have claimed the dead were a mix of terrorists and apprentice terrorists, but it’s tough to argue with footage of dead kids being pulled out of wrecked buildings.
I suppose, no matter what actually happened, we should take solace in the practical result of the strike and counter-strike. As matters stand, Pakistani leaders can tell citizens their planes entered Indian territory and shot down a Mig-21 Bison in the ensuing dogfight. They can assume the moral high ground for releasing the captured pilot. Indians can boast of dozens of terrorists killed in revenge of the Pulwama suicide bombing, and a Pakistani F-16 brought down. Both sides can claim victory and de-escalate with no loss of face and a minimal loss of lives.
Maybe it would be better if all future battles became virtual, faith-based conflicts, with citizens believing every word put out by their government. It could remove the need for actual messy, costly, cruel wars.
Also read: What does the satellite imagery tell us about the Indian airstrike on Balakot?
IAF strikes: Political triumphalism over tactical success makes India lose sight of strategic goals