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Playing with fire

Revisiting the Balakot crisis
People celebrate the Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot, Pakistan, February 26, 2019.
People celebrate the Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot, Pakistan, February 26, 2019.
Sourced by The Telegraph

Sushant Singh   |   Published 06.03.23, 04:32 AM

“I do not think the world properly knows just how close the India-Pakistan rivalry came to spilling over into a nuclear conflagration in February 2019. The truth is, I don’t know precisely the answer either; I just know it was too close.” This is Mike Pompeo, the then US secretary of state, writing in his new book, Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love, which was released in January.

Pompeo is not off the mark because during his Lok Sabha election campaign speeches in 2019, Narendra Modi had himself stated, “A senior American official said on the second day that Modi has kept ready 12 missiles and might attack and the situation will deteriorate. Pakistan announced they would return the pilot on the second day, else it was going to be a ‘qatal ki raat [a night of slaughter]’.” More tellingly, Modi also boasted that India had not kept its nuclear weapons for Diwali. He obviously skipped the part that Pompeo mentions: Pakistan had also kept its nuclear weapons ready. Imagine the horrors on escalation!


Last week was the fourth anniversary of that dreaded night, the first after Pompeo’s revelations, and it passed mostly unnoticed in South Asia. On February 14, 2019, a suicide car attack by a young Kashmiri militant on a security convoy at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir killed 40 CRPF personnel. India pinned the attack on the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed. This was weeks before the first round of Lok Sabha elections, and the ruling dispensation chose to act boldly.

On February 26, the Indian air force launched a mission to target a seminary at Balakot with precision guided munition. The choice of target was significant as it was not inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, an internationally disputed territory claimed by India, but in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in mainland Pakistan. To avoid adverse diplomatic repercussions, India characterised this as a pre-emptive strike directed against a terrorist training camp.

The IAF reduced the operational risk by choosing to not cross the line of control and by devising an elaborate deception plan. At least one of the missiles did not leave the fighter jet; others seem to have overshot the target. The result, as was detailed then by many international experts and confirmed later by satellite imagery and visiting foreign journalists, was less than satisfactory. The IAF had failed to destroy the targets it claimed to have hit; the government has not been able to provide any evidence to the contrary since.

In the nationalistic euphoria of the moment, uncomfortable questions about the operations were banished by the Indian media. But what were to follow was inexplicable. Pakistan launched a retaliatory airstrike the next day in Jammu and Kashmir, which led to the scrambling of IAF aircraft to target the enemy aircraft. In the ensuing aerial combat, the IAF lost a MiG21 fighter jet and the pilot of the aircraft was taken captive by Pakistan. There was huge confusion during the fog of conflict. Pakistan initially claimed that there were two Indian pilots who had dropped over their territory. It continues to believe that it had shot two IAF fighter aircraft but has not been able to provide any proof to back that preposterous claim.

The IAF claimed that before going down, the Indian pilot had shot down a Pakistan F16. The claim was doubtful even then, but all evidence from multiple international sources since suggests that it was not true. Elaborate tales were woven and convoluted conspiracy theories put forward in the media which were demolished by respectable international experts. The demand for a robust domestic political narrative had subsumed the truth about the military operation. This was confirmed by another unfortunate incident that morning. In the melee of Pakistani air strike, the IAF accidentally shot down its own Mi-17 helicopter, with six persons on board. The IAF’s concerted efforts to bury that news seemed to be more in tune with the needs of the ruling party than upholding its own professional integrity and military uprightness. This behaviour was even more disturbing than the IAF’s questionable operational performance during that episode.

The armed forces are duty-bound to professionally execute the orders given by the political leadership, but they are not supposed to jump onto the political bandwagon during an election campaign. During the 1999 Kargil War, another military conflict during an election campaign, the then army chief had specifically asked the then BJP government to stop dragging the armed forces into its poll campaign. However, that taboo had already been broken a couple of years before Balakot, during the so-called surgical strike across the LoC, which formed a prominent part of BJP’s election campaign in state elections. As we know now, it has established an unfortunate precedent for the future.

Another precedent it has established is for India’s engagement with Pakistan, especially in response to a major militant attack with Pakistani fingerprints. This is not because security or diplomatic goals were met in 2019. The Balakot strike did not deter Pakistan from its actions on the LoC — 2020 was the worst year for ceasefire violations on the de facto border in Kashmir; neither did it improve the security situation in Kashmir. Four years later, statehood has not been restored to Jammu & Kashmir and the assembly elections are not even on the horizon. In fact, the Modi government had to request the United Arab Emirates to act as an interlocutor with Rawalpindi in 2020 after India had come under military pressure from China on the disputed border in Ladakh. This led to the reiteration of ceasefire on the LoC, which has held since.

The inducement to launch the next military strike on Pakistan comes from the domestic political gains accrued to BJP after Balakot. Pre and post poll surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show that a rise in nationalist sentiments worked in favour of the BJP after the episode. A high awareness among voters about Pulwama and Balakot and a heightened polarisation on national security supposedly helped the BJP in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Having tasted blood once, it is a temptation that can be hard to resist for any political leadership. Many analysts argue that Balakot demonstrated that India had found a space to militarily target Pakistan without crossing Rawalpindi’s red lines on the use of nuclear weapons. This comes from an illusion of complete control over the escalation ladder, a fallacy that no nuclear power should ever harbour. It suggests a complete misreading of Pakistani nuclear philosophy, and Pompeo’s retelling of the events of February 2019 should impose a caution on such thinking. Things can easily spiral out of control.

The escalation can happen not only by design or miscommunication but also by accident. In 2022, the IAF accidentally fired a Brahmos missile that landed near an airbase in Pakistan. A surprisingly mature show of restraint by Pakistan prevented further escalation but New Delhi did not even acknowledge the accident till the other side had gone public with full details. Imagine a similar accident happening during the tense period when the Indian fighter pilot was in Pakistani captivity. The outcome would be a disaster.

In today’s world, there can be no bigger disaster than two nuclear-armed countries threatening to unleash the deadly weapon on each other, as India and Pakistan did four years ago. Nuclear weapons are not weapons of warfighting; they are weapons of deterrence. That is why their use is totally and tightly controlled by the civilian leadership in all democracies. To boast casually about their use is to undermine the dangers of a nuclear conflagration in the densely populated plains of South Asia. It took a young man with a few kilogrammes of explosives in an old car and a death wish to bring India and Pakistan to the brink of a nuclear exchange in 2019. Heading into another general election next year, it is a lesson no one in India should forget.

Sushant Singh is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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