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Almost To The Brink: India And Pakistan During The Pulwama Crisis – OpEd

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The wreckage of one of its aircraft exhibited in enemy’s Air Headquarters; a pilot thrashed by not so friendly mountain dwellers only to be detained by the enemy; a helicopter downed owing to fratricide; an Air Marshal “retired” under mysterious circumstances; and finally, an inadvertent confession from top echelons – though presumably aimed at domestic opposition – about adversary’s superiority. These were the ultimate outcomes of Indian PM Modi’s well-thought-out bid to capitalize at the opportunity created by Pulwama attack for his electoral advantage. Astonished and undeniably taken by surprise, he went even more desperate and almost pushed South to the brink of nuclear holocaust – definitely a cataclysmic imminence that was averted just at the last moment.

It all triggered on February 14, 2019. A despaired Kashmiri youth – once humiliated by the Indian occupied forces – sought revenge and rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into the convoy of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The outcome was the most gruesome and ferocious attack at Indian forces in the occupied valley since 1947. As per local media reports, nearly 750 pounds of explosive material was used that resulted in the death of around 44 CRPF soldiers while many others received serious injuries. 

Unquestionably, it was a massive intelligence and security failure but instead of beholding inwards, Indian officials were quick to blame their neighbour Pakistan and its spy agency ISI for the attack. All they had in terms of proof was a video statement purportedly recorded before the attack by the alleged attacker in which he pledged his allegiance to Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a proscribed group allegedly based in Pakistan and with a long history of struggle against the Indian forces in the occupied valley. Despite the acknowledgement by Lt Gen D.S. Hooda that it is not possible to transport such heavy quantity of explosives from across the LoC and it was managed locally, Indian officials continued to lay blame on Pakistan for the attack. 

Forty coffins of CRPF personnel was exactly the opportunity that India’s warmonger media and right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP, were looking before the general elections. While Indian media whipped up the war hysteria calling for “revenge” and inflicting “punishment” on Pakistan, BJP tactfully used the occasion to overcome its declining support base and soon “Pakistan bashing” was the core theme of election rallies with PM Modi – the person with proven extreme divisive credentials – taking the lead.

Pakistan’s response was composed and serene in nature. Unlike the past, when the military used to handle affairs related to India, Pakistan’s newly elected PM took the lead and in a short address, Khan offered India any help in the investigation of the Pulwama attack besides cautioning about any armed adventure against his country from the Indian side. In case of an Indian attack, he affirmed, Pakistan will not just think about retaliating, it will retaliate. There will be no way to respond other than to retaliate.” However, this offer attached to the caveat was to go unheeded in India. 

During the early hours of February 26th 2019, Indian aircraft crossed the de-facto border between Indian and Pakistan administered Kashmir and delivered ordnance in the Balakot area of Pakistan’s KPK province. In response, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) scrambled its jets but there is sufficient credence that the intruders made their way back unscathed. 

From an Indian perspective, it was a daring venture. After 1971, it was the first time that Indian Air Force (IAF) violated the archrival’s airspace and that too, during the time of heightened tensions, and ordnance was carried to mainland Pakistan. The bravado provided India with the ground to resort to symbolic chest-thumping platitudes and cash the boldness in the war of narratives. However, things took an opposite turn and in information realm, Pakistan took the lead via its ever-active Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR). 

Well before any official word from India, Pakistan’s DG ISPR took to the twitter and claimed that Indian planes intruded 3-4 miles into Pakistani territory and after being challenged by PAF hurried back while dropping their “payloads” in a forest without causing any casualties. Later media reports would reveal that a person was injured close to the point of impact in Blalakot and few nearby houses were damaged. Only casualties, however, were the innocent Pine trees, which Pakistani PM Khan has been accentuating to plant in an attempt to counter climate change. 

Interestingly, the recipient denied any damage before the inflictor could have taken responsibility and given the track record of Indian Government in making false and over-exaggerated claims, the Indian narrative was to pass through tough scrutiny. 

The Indian side, however, spent some hours to present their account and in a press conference during the day, Indian Foreign Secretary confirmed that “in response to imminent threat”, India took a “preemptive non-military strike” against the alleged JeM camp in Balakot in which “a large number of JeM terrorists” have been eliminated. He also claimed that the aversion of civilian casualties was especially ensured and only target was alleged terrorist training camp. There was no follow up Q&A session and curious journalists eager to barrage questions were left disgruntled.

The choice of words used in the Indian statement was strikingly paradoxical. The country had violated the sovereignty of its nuclear-armed neighbor using the even abstruse cover of “preemption” and was now classifying the blatant aggression as “non-military strike”. As customary, Indians were devising their own rules and deducing their own interpretations of diplomatic and military terms. 

Bizarrely, even the Indian media did not pay much heed to the official Indian narrative marked by ambiguity and generalizations. Soon, various Indian news channels were up in the frenzy and started broadcasting the different figures of 250 – 350 terrorists died adducing to sources in “India’s official circles”. The preposterous claims were nothing more than typical Indian fake news dissemination campaign, a domain already conquered by hundreds of notorious Indian news channels representing the most distorted versions of North Korean propaganda outlets.  

Later that evening, DG ISPR held a press talk and besides putting forth the details of India’s aerial incursion, promised a “surprise”. An attention-grabbing mention in DG ISPR’s statement was the convening of the meeting of National Command Authority (NCA), the body responsible for overseeing and operationalization of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, a clear case of nuclear signaling.

However, mere repudiation to the Indian claim by Pakistani authorities was grossly insufficient for the Pakistani public, which could still recall the infamous OBL attack. Soon, revengeful populace started raising eyebrows followed by the pouring on of direct and indirect criticism – the last thing Pakistan’s government & armed forces could afford. 

With DG ISPR pledging a “surprise”, everyone waited with his fingers crossed as now it was the time for Pakistan to respond to India’s blatant aggression. Finally, the response came the next morning and the Pakistan Air Force delivered ordnance across the LoC in broad daylight. In response, IAF scrambled their jets, which were soon outnumbered and outgunned by technologically superior and high in number PAF jets. The dominance of electromagnetic spectrum by means of the better AWACS systems empowered PAF to create a communication gap between ground controllers and IAF jets leading to the crossing of LoC by an ill-fated Mig-21 Bison of IAF, which immediately facing an aerial ambush. Another Su-30 – as per the recognition of even Indian media – faced a lock and was in all probability, shot down only to tumble across the LoC in Indian Occupied Kashmir. 

Pakistan’s Ministry Foreign of Affairs (MOFA) announced the strikes and DG ISPR again took to the twitter to claim that Pakistan had shot down two IAF jets and two pilots have been taken into the custody – an exaggerated figure regarding pilots that later had to be revised and formed a little but a noticeable flaw in the whole account of remarkable accomplishments for Pakistani side. Later he held a press conference and asserted that PAF jets without violating the Indian Airspace deliberately targeted the uncovered areas adjacent to Indian military installations across the LoC in a bid to display “capability”, “will” and “resolve”. He maintained that in the ensuing dogfight PAF shot down two Indian jets with the wreckage and pilot of one aircraft in Pakistani custody confirming at least one kill. 

Not surprisingly, the Indian side had a contrary view. India’s MEA spokesperson appeared for a press talk – which again did not follow a Q&A session – escorted by an IAF representative, and read a written statement claiming that PAF jets violated the Indian airspace and tried to target Indian military installations. The attempts – as per his claim – “were foiled” due to high state of readiness by IAF. The MEA spokesperson confirmed the downing of one of their aircraft and admitted that one pilot is “missing in action”, but he came up with a still unsubstantiated claim that the captured pilot had shot down one Pakistani F-16 before his Mig-21 Bison was taken down. He further insisted that the wreckage of F-16 fell on the Pakistani side of LoC and asserted that Indian troops close to LoC witnessed the Pakistani aircraft going down. 

The assertion of F-16 downing based on flimsy grounds was undeniably an inefficacious attempt by India to secure some face-saving in the wake of audacious military action by PAF & ingenious information campaign by DG ISPR. The claim – besides repudiated by Pakistan – would also receive rebukes from scores of non-partisan media outlets and observers only adding to the embarrassment of Indian Government.  

Pakistan had manifested its capabilities in the combat and the wreckage of IAF Mig-21 along with the pilot – who was saved by Pakistani forces from the wrath of angry villagers in Bhimber – Pakistan was to enjoy an upper hand in the ongoing information war. 

Pakistan’s PM Khan was on air but not with a triumphant tone or with a provocative body language despite the fact that his Air Force had just guaranteed the aerial superiority over the enemy. Instead, his address was once again very serene and brilliantly composed. Khan elucidated the destructiveness associated with the war by referring to historical examples & once again, offered India to de-escalate the situation besides reiterating his country’s assistance for the investigation of Pulwama attack. Again, the desire for peace in Islamabad was to be received as a sign of weakness in New Delhi. 

The desperate Modi and his fanatic lieutenants were not ready to get off the escalation ladder so easily and as confirmed by official accounts also, India not only deployed it nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier battle group to exert pressure on Pakistan but also edged towards launching missile attacks at multiple locations inside Pakistani territory. Pakistani authorities were quick to ascertain the gravity threat and in a do or die mode, resolve in Islamabad was to reply with three missiles for each incoming missile from India. The imminent exchange – that could have easily spiraled out of control to reach cataclysmic levels – was only averted after the interference by high-ranking US officials and leaders from other regional countries. Indubitably, Pakistan and India were ever close to the brink and an imminent nuclear holocaust in South Asia – whose impacts were going to be detrimental for the whole world – had just been circumvented. 

The Pulwama crisis highlights the sheer precariousness associated with the ever-hostile relationship between Pakistan and India. Indian PM Modi played a dangerous gamble just to save his skin in the face of eroding popular support before the general elections and his inbuilt fanaticism and relentless greed for power nearly prompted the South Asian nuclear volcano to erupt and that too, with massive lava eruption. Although, the timely external intervention ensured that Modi’s fanaticism did not cost the South Asia region in particular and world in general, the cessation of India’s institutions to the fanaticism of BJP is menacing and can be a precursor to a vicious predicament in South Asia. For all intents and purposes, zealots – completely unmindful of the nuclear revolution and oblivious of the concept of nuclear deterrence – have taken charge of nuclear weapons in India and the way Indian institutions are caving into the zealotry, an already precarious nuclear equation has gone even perilous; thus, significantly enhancing the chances of failure of nuclear deterrence in South Asia. 

*Hamdan Khan is a Rawalakot (Pakistan Administered Kashmir) security analyst.

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