The situation between India and Pakistan seems to have returned to the pre-Pulwama position. The High Commissioners, withdrawn in February for ‘consultations’, have returned to Islamabad and Delhi. Talks on Kartarpur are proceeding. The UN Security Council 1267 Committee failed to designate Masood Azhar as a terrorist because China faithfully put a technical hold on the proposal. It had done so in 2009 and 2017, following it up with a veto. Perhaps it is time to dispassionately assess if something has changed post-Balakot and if so, what?
First, the bare facts. On February 14, Adil Ahmed Dar drove his vehicle into a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy crossing Pulwama, killing 40 personnel and becoming the first Indian fedayeen. Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a terrorist organisation based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility. Facing elections in two months, the Narendra Modi government promised strong retaliation.
At a diplomatic level, it called for Pakistan’s isolation. Pakistan’s most favoured nation trade status was withdrawn and punitive tariffs imposed, though this impacted Indian exporters more as the balance is heavily in India’s favour. This was followed by an announcement that India would stop water flows into Pakistan; it was later clarified that the reference was to the waters of the three rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) that India was in any case entitled to, and further, to build storage and irrigation facilities would take five years. Clearly, this was inadequate.
After the September 2016 terrorist strike, also by the JeM at an Indian Army base at Uri, the government had launched pre-emptive ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control (LoC), and said it had destroyed launch pads and attacked terrorists assembled there. Similar shallow cross-border retaliatory actions had been undertaken earlier too but without publicity or the label of ‘surgical strikes’. Pakistan, however, denied the ‘surgical strike’ of September 29. India declared it had conveyed a signal to Pakistan that it was no longer business as usual and the Modi government would not shy away from raising the ante.
Given looming elections now, clearly, Pulwama demanded a stronger response. On February 26 a dozen Mirage-2000 entered Pakistani airspace, targeting a JeM training facility in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province about 60 km from the LoC. In an attempt to downplay the provocation, Indian authorities described it as a ‘non-military’ and ‘pre-emptive’ strike in which a large number of terrorists were killed.
Unlike post-Uri, this time Pakistani authorities acknowledged the airspace intrusion, claiming that Pakistani aircraft had scrambled forcing the Mirages to drop their ordnance and withdraw hastily. Pakistan promised retaliation, and the following morning its fighter aircraft intruded into Indian airspace. In the dog-fight that ensued, an Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-21 was downed and Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman ended up in Pakistani custody. If India had thought about retaliating further, having a pilot in Pakistani custody made it pause; for Pakistan, its honour having been restored, it provided the opportunity to demonstrate statesmanship. The Indian pilot was returned on March 1 and the crisis de-escalated.
Amid the paucity of facts, both resorted to exaggerated claims. On the Indian side, there was talk of a doctrinal shift away from strategic restraint, by having struck deep inside Pakistani territory, downing a Pakistan Air Force F-16 (in the dogfight) and having called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.
Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and Ministers inflated the casualties from ‘a very large number’ (stated by the Indian Foreign Secretary) to 250, 300 and then 400! Among the ordnance the Mirage carries is SPICE-2000 (or Smart Precise Impact and Cost Effective), a smart bomb with a 60 km glide range that uses GPS/electro-optical guidance, and stand-off air-to-ground missiles with a range of 80 km. Since Indian authorities have not been forthcoming with a post-strike damage assessment, it is reasonable to assume that with such weapons, the aircraft hardly needed to go deep into Pakistani airspace. The IAF maintains that it hit the identified targets but did not count the casualties. On the diplomatic front, India claimed that most major powers accepted India’s right of defence and pre-emption.
Pakistan maintains that there were no casualties at Balakot. Indian aircraft withdrew having damaged a pine forest in KP. Pakistan demonstrated resolve with its counter-strike on the 27th as well as restraint by not bombing the Indian targets after having locked on to them, signalling to the Indian side their vulnerability. It had initially claimed downing two Indian jets, that later became one. Pakistan denied that an F-16 was downed but the Indian authorities did exhibit part of an Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) missile, normally carried by an F-16. Pakistan demonstrated its good faith by returning the Indian pilot promptly. Its diplomatic clout is evident that its all-weather-friend, China, stood by it in the UN Security Council.
Clearly, rhetoric exceeded reality. It is true that unlike the ‘surgical strikes’ which were in disputed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, this time India targeted a location in Pakistani territory. Pakistan’s intrusion into Jammu and Kashmir the following day did not claim casualties, nor was any military facility on the Indian side attacked. Both sides were observing restraint even as armchair gladiators reached fever pitch in the TV studios.
The unexpected development of the capture of Wg Cdr Varthaman signalled the entry of the U.S. While National Security Adviser John Bolton kept channels open with his Indian counterpart, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Joseph Votel ensured that the Pakistani Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa played ball. The U.S.’s willingness to overlook the use of an F-16 in violation of end-use assurances helped. Moreover, the U.S. needs Gen. Bajwa’s cooperation to keep its dialogue with Taliban in Doha on track. Hardly surprising that on February 28, even as he cut short his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, U.S. President Donald Trump was tweeting, “We have, I think, reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India.”
A new development was the involvement of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the de-escalation. Both are U.S. allies and have committed generous financial packages to Pakistan. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was in India on February 19-20 and witnessed the ratcheting up of tensions. On February 28, Saudi State Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was in Islamabad even as the Crown Prince was on the phone with Mr. Modi. A week later, Mr. Jubeir was back in Pakistan and then in Delhi meeting Mr. Modi on March 11. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan was tweeting about his telephone conversations with Prime Ministers Modi and Imran Khan on February 28.
Pakistan’s four nuclear red lines are: capture of a large part of its territory, its military facing unacceptable loss, India attempting economic strangulation, and finally, large-scale political destabilisation. Clearly, none of the red lines was even close to being crossed. Therefore, nobody was calling anybody’s nuclear bluff.