Fierce Face-off

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In the aftermath of the horrific car bomb explosion, India availed the extreme option of getting deep into Pakistan for a hit. Pakistan retaliated and it took global diplomacy a lot of effort to push the arch-rivals back, even though the de facto Kashmir border is still blazing with guns, reports Masood Hussain

Narendra Modi

Less than a day after Dr Shah Feasal, coveted IAS’s (Indian Administrative Service) most celebrated Kashmiri ever, expressed the “doomsday feeling”, the surprise came on Tuesday (February 26) morning when the TV channels announced in the wee-hours the air raids on a Jaish-e-Muhammad camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan.

“Acting on intelligence, India early today stuck the biggest training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammad in Balakot,” India’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, told the media in Delhi. The strike, he said, was “pre-emptive” and did not hit either the military installations or the civilians. “In this operation, a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and jihadis being trained were eliminated.”

The newsbreak had actually come from Pakistan hours before Delhi confirmed the raid by a formation of 12 Mirage-2000 warplanes.

“Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircraft went back. Details to follow,” Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director Pakistan ISPR, tweeted at around 3:42 in the morning. Two hours later, he added: “Indian aircrafts intruded from Muzaffarabad sector. Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage.” An hour later, he released three photographs of the spot where the “payload”, read bombs, were dropped.

But there was a bit of lie too. He had said the intrusion was within “3-4 miles” of the “AJ&K”!

The 21-Minute Operation

The exact details of the operation remain mostly in the domain of military historians. But it is public that the entire operation lasted for 21-minutes. A dozen jets entered the LoC from Keran sector, flew over the Athmuqam, Nowshehri and passing along Muzaffarabad, the PaK capital, before crossing Garhi Habibullah, and finally reached the Jaaba hill to drop four bombs. For the return, they took the other side of Muzaffarabad and crossed through Uri.

“Sources say fighters and other aircraft took off from several air bases at about the same time, leaving Pakistani defence officials confused about where they were heading,” a report by NDTV said. “A small group of aircraft broke away from the swarm and headed to Balakot where “the sleeping terrorists were sitting ducks for the Indian bombing”.

Imran Khan

The raids were carried out as Netra, an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, was flying well inside Indian airspace, providing surveillance and radar coverage to the warplanes. With an inbuilt capacity of detecting radar signals and eavesdropping, the Netra can track targets 450-500 km deep into enemy territory without crossing the LoC and offer an almost 120-degree view of the territory.

The French fighter formation was Gwalior based, was refuelled mid-air by Ilyushin-78s based in Agra, according to Times Now and was closely coordinated with at least five airbases. “The IAF tasked four Sukhoi-30MKI fighters deployed in Bareilly and Halwara airbases for air defence role with many others on standby,” the report added.

The formation dropped six 1600-pound lasers guided Crystal Maze missiles SPICE-2000 bombs in a 90-second operation on the Balakot hill at Jaba and returned. This Israel bomb’s navigation system requires GPS and actual photographs, according to media reports.

“On February 18, Modi approved the strike,” Hindustan Times reported, insisting the actual timing was secret. “According to intelligence officials, only seven people knew of this decision – Modi, Doval, the three service chiefs, and the heads of RAW and Intelligence Bureau.”

Casualties

Vijay Gokhale said “a very large number of JeM terrorists were killed” but did not mention any number. The TV media put the numbers as per their own requirement and claiming 500 plus, which obviously cannot be independently verified.

“This facility at Balakot was headed by Moulana Yousuf Azhar, alias Ustad Ghouri, the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar,” Gokhale said. He did not say if he was alive or dead.

The Hindu newspaper reported that Yusuf was one of the men who hijacked the Indian Airline flight IC 814 to Kandahar in 1999. It was in the exchange of this aircraft that Masood Azhar was released by Vajpayee led BJP government, despite Dr Farooq Abdullah disagreeing. Delhi had sought Yousuf’s handover in 2002 and earlier the Interpol had issued a red corner notice against him on basis of CBI request, the newspaper added.

But did he die? Newslaundry website quoted Asia Times South Asia Editor Saikat Dutta saying: “Indian intelligence is quite confident that Yousuf is alive and very much around. They have credible inputs that the Masood Azhar family was moved out to safe locations soon after the Pulwama terror attack, anticipating an Indian response.”

Pakistani authorities, however, have insisted that there were no casualties. A video by BBC interviewed a resident admitting an injury and loss to various residential structures. Pakistan media identified the splinter injured resident as Nooran Shah.

Abhinandan Varthaman

The global news agency, Associated Press reported from Balakot that residents heard “loud explosions (that) woke them up, rattling their homes” in the middle of the night.

“Pakistan’s military cordoned off the area and kept reporters about half a mile from the bombing site,” the AP said. It quoted Balakot police chief Saghir Hussain Shah saying: “There are no casualties; there are no damages on the ground.”

The New York Times quoted a resident of Attar Shisha, about 2 miles from Balakot, saying that there were no casualties. “The villager said that Jaish-e-Mohammed still ran a school in Balakot, but that the airstrikes missed the facility and hit an empty ravine instead, adding that there were no casualties he had heard of,” the newspaper quoted the anonymous resident saying.

“Balakot and its surrounding area hosted numerous militant training camps until 2005, when a powerful earthquake struck the area, devastating its towns and villages,” The New York Times reported. “As international aid groups poured in to provide relief, militants packed up their camps and went elsewhere, to avoid being detected, analysts say.”

“The view that little had been damaged was supported by military analysts and two Western security officials, who said that any militant training areas at the site, in the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, had long since packed up or dispersed,” the newspaper reported.

Media in both the countries, however, continue following the nation stands on the action.

Why Balakot?

Initially, people mistook it to be the Balakot, one of Poonch’s six tehsil’s, which incidentally gets its share of shells every time the rival armies hit each other. But it was deep inside Pakistan in the Mansehra district in the east of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. “That’s a strike deep inside Pakistan & is hugely embarrassing for them,” Omar Abdullah, National Conference (NC) VP and former Chief Minister, wrote in one of his tweets.

Reports that appeared in Delhi media said that after the Lethpora car bomb explosion, when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced publicly that his government will “destroy their base”, in a follow-up meeting Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence gatherer, gave a set of possible targets. The meeting chose Balakot because it was considered to be the biggest ever training facility of the Jaish, spread over six acres and was literally a war-training school. It was located on a hilltop, inside a forest, and attacking it would not impact the civilian population.

Wreckage of an aircraft in Budgam.

But people who remember Kashmir of the 1990s know that Azam Inquilabi, one of the oldest ‘young men’ of Kashmir separatism had launched his party in its name, Operation Balakot. By naming his short-lived outfit after Balakot, Inquilabi, now aged and limited to his home, wanted to connect contemporary Kashmir with the history.

Balakot town was made historic by Syed Ahmad Barelvi (November 29, 1786 – May 6, 1831), one of the early nineteenth century’s biggest Muslim revolutionaries who was a soldier, a ruler, a scholar and a leader. Basically, from Rai Bareli (UP), Syed Ahmad was keen to establish a small Islamic state in the tribal belt. The idea was to prevent the expansion of Sikh rule and create a state that after containing the Lahore Durbar will go against the British. He actually succeeded but the tribal’s fought over taxes and the new discipline that he wanted to enforce. Once around 1830, he fled and took refuge in Kashmir, a place he was in love with. Sikh army beheaded him in Balakot in 1831.

Precisely, this is why, noted academic Ayesha Jalal, in her book, The Partisans of Allah terms Balakot as “the epicentre of Jihad in South Asia”. Also, that is why the town has a magnetic attraction for the Jihadi network. The media reportage suggests that Jaish had named its centre after Syed Ahmad.

“The word ‘Balakot’ is a powerful metaphor in the minds and hearts of many of those who have espoused jihad in the subcontinent – from Jamal-ud-din Afghani in the late 19th century to contemporary times,” David Devidas wrote in the Wire. “It is possible that this history of Balakot might have been among the host of tactical and strategic considerations in the minds of strategists – at least someone like national security advisor Ajit Doval.”

But it is important in contemporary times too. The Karakorum Highway, the main artery of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through this district. After Kargil, it is perhaps the closest access to the highway from Srinagar.

A Shocked Islamabad

A formation of 12 warplanes getting deep into Pakistan was a serious credibility crisis for a small country that bragged its nuclear facility at the drop of a hat. “Significantly, the IAF strikes have also finished the nuclear deterrent theory forever,” Iftikhar Gilani, DNA national bureau chief wrote. “Just two days ago, Pakistan Army PR chief Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had warned that in case of any kind of aggression, the right of escalation would remain with Pakistan, obliquely threatening nuclear retaliation.”

By carefully choosing Balakot, Gilani wrote, India demonstrated her “ground-level intelligence capabilities” and the possibility of hitting Muridke (Lashkar) and Bahawalpur (Jaish). “The IAF has also established its technical superiority and capacity of deep penetration,” he observed.

SIte of Lethapora attack.

“I remember when US Navy Seals (commandos) went to Abbottabad to kill (Al-Qaeda chief) Osama bin Laden, then why can’t India?” Arun Jaitley, the Finance Minister said. “This used to be only an imagination, a wish, frustration and disappointment. But it’s possible today.”

For Imran Khan, this was a loss of face. After meeting with diplomats, his cabinet, party leaders and eventually the assembly, the legendary cricketer was visibly frustrated when he said the reaction to “irresponsible Indian policy” and insisted it was linked to the impending elections.

“Once again [the]Indian government has resorted to a self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim,” Dawn quoted Khan saying. “This action has been done for domestic consumption, being in an election environment, putting regional peace and stability at grave risk.” He said Pakistan will choose the timing and place of its own to exercise its right to retaliate. Ghafoor even went ahead saying the response will come in daylight for everyone to see.

Soon, the LoC was on fire. In the overnight shelling, Pakistan lost six civilians as five soldiers and a civilian were injured on this side of the divide.

Warring Wednesday

Fearing Pakistan reaction, the IAF did not sleep the whole Tuesday night. So did Srinagar. Amid thuds of shells, Pir Panchal valley stayed awake in dungeons and basements.

By the time the offices opened in otherwise closed Kashmir; the disturbing news started pouring in. The first bit of news item came from Garend village in Budgam where an IAF chopper MI-17 crashed in a brick-kiln, killing seven persons, including a civilian, Kifayat.

By around noon, the civil administration in Rajouri confirmed the intrusion by Pakistani warplanes, bombing spots closer to the military installations. Residents in Rajouri’s Lam and Puknari villages said they heard PAF explosions in Narian, Bhimber Gali and Dareri. Greater Kashmir quoted residents watching the dog-fight between an IAF MiG and two low-flying PAF fighters and witnessed in horror “something like a ball of fire falling on hills facing our house in PaK area.” One minor girl, Reeba Kouser, received a splinter in her foot.

Subsequently, Pakistan claimed to have downed two warplanes, a report Delhi avoided confirming till late in the evening when it finally admitted one hit.

Delhi claim that it hit an F-16 in the dog-fight was rejected by Islamabad saying this fighter was not in the air at all. But IAF Vice Air Marshal, RGK Kapoor later, displayed the remains of a particular missile to insist on the use of F-16 in the intrusion.

Pakistani army fired at Indian troops in Poonch and Rajouri.

By afternoon, however, the images of the MiG pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan were on social media, all over. Pakistani Samaa TV interviewed Yasin, a local resident, who said he rushed towards his Horran village (falling in Samahni sector of Kotli) when he saw three umbrella’s (parachute) falling from the skies. “He had a pistol and he fired thrice,” Yasin was quoted saying. “When he asked which place it is, we said India and he shouted Jai Hind. The army immediately reached the scene and arrested him.” By then, a few civilians had beaten him. There was another clip showing people in Bhimber showering flower petals on the convoy that drove Abhinandan to the local garrison.

It was in the wake of these developments that civilian airports were closed in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal and Punjab. Some of the aircraft that were already in Jammu or in Srinagar were sent through a different route. Pakistan, on its part, closed the entire air space across the country that impacted the air traffic across the world with tens of thousands of flights being cancelled.

By evening, Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner, Syed Haidar Shah, was summoned and issued a demarche. “It was clearly conveyed that India reserves the right to take firm and decisive action to protect its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity against any act of aggression or cross-border terrorism,” the MEA said after the meeting. “India strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention”. Shah, Times of India reported, was given a dossier with what India said were “specific details and JeM complicity in the Pulwama attack and presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan”.

The MEA briefing came hours after the Prime Minister presided over a meeting of the security services chiefs and later the army chief and the NSA were also present in the separate meeting. The TV anchors said that Prime Minister has given a free hand to the armed forces.

All these developments followed Pakistan’s cricketer now Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech in which he insisted the two countries must sit and talk as the war is in nobody’s favour.

“We offered India that we would cooperate (in Lethpora blast). It is not in Pakistan’s interest to let our land be used for terrorism. There is no dispute here,” Khan was quoted by Dawn saying. “Yet, I had still feared that India would [ignore the offer and]still take action, and I had, therefore, warned India against aggression and said we will be compelled to respond because no sovereign country can allow that [violation of its sovereignty].”

Khan said the “sole purpose of our action” was to convey that “if you can come into our country, we can do the same”. Khan insisted: “All wars are miscalculated, and no one knows where they lead to. World War I was supposed to end in weeks, it took six years. Similarly, the US never expected the war on terrorism to the last 17 years. I ask India with the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford such a miscalculation? If the situation escalates, things will no longer be in my control or in Modi’s.”

The speech coincided with Russia, India, China and Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ agreeing at Wuzhen for closer policy coordination against terrorism. “They stressed that terrorist groups cannot be supported and used in political and geopolitical goals,” Mint quoted the joint communiqué saying. “Those committing, orchestrating, inciting or supporting terrorist acts must be held accountable and brought to justice in accordance with existing international commitments on countering terrorism.”

Earlier that day, USA, UK and France have moved a fresh proposal at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to designate Jaish chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist. If China does not veto, Azhar will get the tag of being an “UN-designated global terrorist”, subjecting him to the global travel ban, asset freeze and arms embargo.

World Reacts

The tensions between the two nuclear neighbours triggered a chain of reactions from across the world. Condemning the Lethpora car bomb explosions, almost every country asked Pakistan to act against the terror network. They wanted both countries to talk and not fight.

Stephane Dujarric, UN Secretary-General’s spokesman said Antonio Guterres was having discussions “at different levels with different parties” about the tense situation. “The message coming out of those discussions is on the need for both countries to do whatever they can to de-escalate the situation,” Dujarric was quoted saying.

The tensions prompted the Guardian to comment against the US president Donald J Trump. “India and Pakistan should perhaps be grateful that he (Trump) is otherwise occupied (in fixing his former lawyer Michael Cohen),” Guardian wrote. “In this charged and volatile situation, the prospect of a broker as ignorant and impatient as Mr Trump would be a cause for alarm rather than relief. But the loss of presidential engagement matters: state department expertise is significantly thinner; and US relations with Pakistan have deteriorated sharply, particularly after it cut military aid last year.”

Hours later, Trump statement came.”We have, I think, reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India,” CNN quoted Trump saying. “They’ve been going at it, and we’ve been involved in trying to have them stop. And we have some reasonably decent news, hopefully, that’s going to be coming to an end.”

By Thursday afternoon, it was clear that Saudi Arabia and UAE were playing the broker. During his Delhi visit, in the midst of tensions, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had flown to Delhi on February 20, and the joint statement the two countries made mentioned Indo-Pak relations.

“The two sides stressed the importance of regional stability and good neighbouring relations. His Royal Highness appreciated consistent efforts made by Prime Minister Modi since May 2014 including Prime Minister’s personal initiatives to have friendly relations with Pakistan,” the joint statement said. “In this context, both sides agreed on the need for creation of conditions necessary for the resumption of the comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan.”

With the airspace closed for anything civilian, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir flew to Pakistan Thursday in his charter. Their involvement had prevented a missile strike on Pakistan Wednesday night.

War For Polls?

“I assure you, the country is in safe hands,” Modi told a crowd of supporters at an election rally, hours after the IAF raids in Pakistan. “I pledge on my soil, I will not let the country die. I will not let the country stop. I will not let the country bend. It is my promise to Mother India that I will protect your honour.”

The language irked the opposition that believes Modi is increasingly politicising the armed forces for his benefit.

“For the first time in 40 years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bravery has resulted in Pakistan learning a lesson. When 42 of our soldiers were martyred, PM Modi had said he would extract revenge for the deaths of each soldier. With the pre-emptive strike, he has kept his promise,” Karnataka BJP chief BS Yeddyurappa told the media in Chitradurga. “I heard this morning (Wednesday) that our forces have shot down a Pakistani aircraft. If you see, people are rejoicing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move and they are celebrating. The impact of this strike will help BJP win more than 22 seats in the state.”

It started triggering a reaction. “RSS is aiming at creating a war-like situation and sabotaging polls,” CPI(M) leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was quoted saying. “BJP has foreseen their loss in the Lok Sabha polls and that’s why they are trying to sabotage polls and impose emergency.”

Later on, Wednesday when the opposition met, leaders spoke harshly against Modi and BJP for politicising the armed forces. “The meeting of 21 parties expressed their deep anguish over the blatant politicisation of the sacrifices made by our armed forces by a leader of the ruling party. National security must transcend narrow political considerations,” the Hindu quoted the Opposition joint memorandum saying.

Air Vice-Marshal R G K Kapoor (right) flanked by Navy’s Rear Admiral D S Gujral (centre) and Army’s Major General Surendra Singh Mahal speaks with the media.

Some politicians had dropped enigmatic references in the Lethpora car bomb blast, now being investigated by the NIA. “You (Mr Modi) knew that the attack would take place. Intelligence input was there. But they (jawans) were neither airlifted nor was there any naka checking or road checking,” the Hindu reported West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, saying. “Everyone was allowed to move freely. Why? In order to take advantage during the election. Now Modi is trying to play a game of war.” Shiv Sena leader went a step further saying: “If NSA Ajit Doval is investigated, then all the truth about the Pulwama terror attack will come out.” Friday Times editor and one of prominent Pakistani’s peaceniks, Najam Sethi, see the explosion in the larger prism of CPEC, Afghanistan and Saudi-Iranian relationship as a similar explosion took place on Pakistan’s Iran border.

Imran Khan, however, maintained the region is being pushed to war like situation because of the general elections in India, however, took the first step in de-escalation. He said the pilot will fly home as a goodwill gesture. The decision came at a time when Delhi said it will not give in to any blackmail on the Kandahar pattern. Perhaps he heard Kashmir’s novelist MirzaWaheed who wrote in the Guardian: “An old uncle of mine once told me: you can always go back to war if peace doesn’t work.”

Regardless of what the TV anchors in India are saying, Khan managed to emerge as the only peacenik in the subcontinent. He avoided war, accommodated everybody and played a sharp diplomat. Now even top politicians in India are asking Modi what he got out in the bargain. This was despite his metaphoric reference to a “pilot project” that can be “up-scaled”.

“With his reckless “pre-emptive” airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inadvertently undone what previous Indian governments almost miraculously, succeeded in doing,” noted author Arundhati Roy wrote in Huffington Post. “By goading Pakistan into a counter-strike, and so making India and Pakistan the only two nuclear powers in history to have bombed each other, Modi has internationalised the Kashmir dispute. He has demonstrated to the world that Kashmir is potentially the most dangerous place on earth, the flash-point for nuclear war.”

As borders are getting silent, the crisis remains: what about Jaish?

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