DisFact #23: India-Pakistan standoff, explained

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It was a pretty tense week: As fighter jets of India and Pakistan crossed each other’s borders, it looked like the two nuclear-armed nations were on the brink of war.

There is a lot to absorb and digest. In today’s issue, I restrict myself to the analysis of the military and strategic aspects of the week’s events, focused on what happened—not what should have or what will happen next.

What’s going on?

Here are the headline events:

The terror attack: The Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the 14th February attack that struck a convoy of India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district and killed 40 paramilitary jawans.

India retaliated: On Tuesday, Indian Air Force reportedly struck on a terror training camp in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in Pakistan. For the first time since 1971, Indian warplanes crossed the international border to conduct air strikes within the Pakistan territory. The impact of India’s strike is fiercely disputed.

In an official statement following the strike, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale referred to the action as a “non-military pre-emptive strike”, meaning it was a defensive act, and a strike on terrorism, not Pakistan.

The phrase indicates the action was based on an assessment of an imminent threat, and had ensured that Pakistan’s military personnel and infrastructure were not targeted, and civilian casualties were actively avoided. In effect, New Delhi’s line is that the operation was an intelligence-driven counter-terror strike rather than escalatory military aggression. (The Hindu)

Pakistan responds: On Wednesday, Pakistani jets crossed the Line of Control (LoC), dropped “an unspecified number of bombs on unspecified targets, and retreated”.

One Pakistani aircraft was shot down by the Indian Air Force, which fell on the Pakistani side. India lost one MiG 21 aircraft and one Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured alive.

Pakistan said it had struck “non military” targets avoiding civilian casualties but India said it targeted Indian military installations. (Times of India)

Indian Pilot returns: The downed Indian pilot returned home on Friday. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan termed it a “peace gesture”. However, there is “evidence to suggest that there was pressure from other countries on Islamabad to make such an announcement to prevent further escalation from India.”

If Wing Commander Abhinandan’s return provides the space for diplomacy to take over, it is because it gives both countries the opportunity to signal a victory of sorts. Islamabad will project itself as having done the decent thing, and New Delhi is likely to claim that its tough stance compelled his return. (The Hindu)

What did the Indian Air Force hit in Balakot?

It is not clear and is a matter of dispute.

Pakistan’s official statement: missiles fell harmlessly on to a hillside and caused little damage.

India’s official statement: “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated.” (Read here)

What independent assessment suggests:

1. Analysis based on satellite imagery: Two independent reports based on open source intelligence—using before and after satellite images—one by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and another by the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) concluded that “no significant damage was done” by Indian air strikes.

Political scientist Christopher Clary tweeted that he would “withhold judgment until we have <1m resolution satellite imagery”.

2. Media reports: Al Jazeera had the most detailed ground report, which said that Indian air raids “destroyed parts of a mostly uninhabited forest and a farmer's field”, according to “witnesses and local officials”.

However, mystery “surrounds a religious school run by the armed group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) near the bombing site”. That is the site which the Indian government claims was the actual target. But reporters can’t access that site, pointing to limitations of ground reports.

Pushback from the Indian government: Following these independent reports, unnamed government sources told the Indian Express that India had “hit the four buildings it had targeted inside the campus of Madrasa”—the same Madrassa which reporters can’t access—based on images from Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). No images have been released, however. Another key point:

They [officials] said that limitations of technical intelligence and lack of ground intelligence at this point make any assessment of terrorists killed in the attack “purely speculative”.

The defence Editor of The Economist summed up the “information chaos” we are in:

Should the government provide evidence?

Indian masses are willing to accept that there were large casualties. They don’t need to be convinced at all about the degree of the impact. In fact, any scepticism about the claims made is considered treason and disrespect of the armed forces.

From a strategic perspective, there are two diverging views:

  • Degree of impact doesn’t matter, signalling was key: Even if India missed the target, it doesn’t really matter as we have signalled the intent. The strikes have established a new threshold between the two nuclear-armed nations. (More on this in the next section)

  • Details are crucial, capability matters as much as intent: If the objective of India’s air strike was to deter Pakistan from fighting a proxy war as it does so by aiding terror groups, it’s not just enough to display intent. Significant casualties matter.

The significance of the strikes

What India did until now:  

So far, India has either chosen to put diplomatic pressure on Pakistan (after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack), mobilise its armed forces (after the 2001 Parliament attack) or conducted limited ground-based operations (after the 2016 Uri attack). (Indian Express)

What’s new this time?

There are two main things:

1. Use of air strikes: India had “never used the Air Force, that too inside Pakistan. The use of airpower has been taboo between the two countries, especially after both became declared nuclear powers in 1998, because of the dangers of escalation” (Indian Express)

2. Location: “This strike was carried out in Pakistani territory, not in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the theatre for retaliatory action in the past”, marking “a new chapter with New Delhi’s willingness to push the war against terror into Pakistan territory.” (The Hindu)

A more important reason making it [Balakot] a watershed is the extent of incursion. Indian operations after the 1971 War have always been limited to the Line of Control and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir [PoK], never venturing into mainland Pakistan.

As India considers PoK to be Indian territory illegally occupied by Pakistan, and LoC is a militarily active border manned by the two armies, military action there has been considered somewhat acceptable. (Indian Express)

Why it matters: the new normal

Following a Pakistan-sponsored terror attack, the key strategic question is how should India respond without risking nuclear escalation. We now know that Balakot-style counter-terror air strikes inside mainland Pakistan may “just invite retaliatory action on the border for demonstration purpose”, journalist Kunal Singh noted in this insightful Twitter thread.

…India feels it has found a soft spot where it can strike — whether on ground using special forces, as in 2016, or using air strikes as they have in the current crisis — without crossing the threshold for all-out war between the nuclear powers. (Washington Post)

Pakistan “needs to do more for peace”

Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the United States, wrote in the Washington Post:

On Friday, Pakistan released an Indian pilot shot down in Pakistani-controlled territory amidst rising hostilities. But the peace gesture, as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called it, is unlikely to end the conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

There appears to be international consensus that, to truly end hostilities, Pakistan must shut down support for terrorist groups whose actions have brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war several times over the past two decades.

There is hardly any dispute on the Indian side that Pakistan needs to act.

The JeM’s leaders are roaming about freely in Pakistan. This is unacceptable. They must be taken to task immediately and there should be a clampdown on other terror organisations as an emergency measure. The Pakistani establishment’s usual answers — ‘we will come to them eventually’ or ‘we are also already fighting them’ — won’t cut ice any more. If Pakistan truly desires peace with India, it needs to play its part honestly. (The Hindu)

Media, Air Crash, Bollywood and Fake News

1. Media: Hours after India’s air strike on Tuesday, journalists started giving “credence to the totally unsubstantiated claim that the strikes killed ‘300’ terrorists,” Aman Sethi, the Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost India, wrote in this brilliant op-ed.

The claim of “300 terrorists” is very useful, as it allows the government’s most vociferous supporters to claim that the government’s response that the deaths in Balakot are several multiples more than the deaths in Pulwama.

Sethi reminds journalists what journalism is for.

It is our job, as the media, to compel them [the government] to share information and justify decisions that could lead to nuclear war: something that affects a lot more than Narendra Modi’s election prospects.

Fortunately for this government, a section of Indian journalists believe that the point of quoting “sources”, and accessing “leaks”, is to put out information in favour of the government. This has allowed the government to milk the moment for political gains without having to take responsibility for the information that journalists are putting out on the government’s behalf.

2. The air crash we are not talking about: On Wednesday, six Indian airmen died in an aircraft crash in Budgam, Kashmir. “The crash is believed to be a consequence of technical failure, not enemy action,” according to HuffPost India.

Read more: Who Will Mourn The Six Air Force Troopers Killed In Budgam?

3. Bollywood: “While India anxiously waits for news of war and prays for Abhinandan Varthaman's return, Bollywood is moving quickly to capitalise on this national tragedy.”

Following the attacks, the official body responsible for registering movie names saw a sizeable spike in titles around Pulwama and Balakot. (HuffPost India)

4. The online misinformation battle: “Even as fighter aircraft from both nations invaded each other’s air space, a full-blown misinformation war about the conflict raged on the internet.” (BuzzFeed News)

What did I miss? What do you think? I would love to hear from you. You can reach me at samarthbansal42@gmail.com.

Let’s end on a lighter note. These two tweets!

The perils of sharing your name with the Pakistani Prime Minister.

Say hello!

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