A year after Pulwama attack

India crossed Rubicon with Balakot air strike

The Balakot strike gave the military the boost in morale it badly needed after years of ‘restraint’. It gave the country a righteous belief in itself, and signalled to the world that Delhi was no longer going to play possum in the long battle against terrorism. But the strike can’t be seen in isolation of the economy, of internal strife, and a divided society.

India crossed Rubicon with Balakot air strike

Tara Kartha

Former Director, National
Security Council Secretariat

A year after the Pulwama terror attack that killed 40 CRPF jawans and the first-ever air attacks deep into Pakistan in retaliation, it’s time to ask a simple question: Did the Balakot strike by the Indian Air Force achieve its ends?

The attack on Jaish-e-Mohammad terror camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on February 26, 2019, caused a furore both inside and outside the country. In India, it reinforced the ‘strong man’ image of the Modi government, and left Islamabad in shock. Outside the country, academics warned of the threat of nuclear war, while sober government officials chided Pakistan on terrorism, even while calling for restraint on both sides. In private conversations, most diplomats agreed that Pakistan had it coming. A certain country that usually responds with massive force to any attack on it wondered why New Delhi hadn’t done it years before.

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That’s all very well in the heat of the moment. One year later, the question that arises is first, whether the objectives of the attack were met? And if yes, can or should it be done again? As in all military operations, actual objectives operate at many levels. The official stated objective was ‘self-defence’, given that terrorists at the facility were planning further attacks on India. The unstated one was sending a message both to a domestic audience and to the world at large, and Pakistan, in particular.

At a time of impending General Election, any government may be pardoned for prioritising the domestic audience. And it certainly worked, with the PM lauded even by his opponents. Unfortunately, a cynical media chose to go bellicose on Pakistan’s stance that nothing at all had been hit, which in turn forced ‘sources’ to produce figures out of their hats, further eroding credibility. The fact that the Balakot strike entered the national election rhetoric was produced as ‘proof’ of chicanery by the opposition, and an ever critical foreign media who forgot that even President Obama had used the Bin Laden strike during his own election campaign.

But there are two lessons here. First, any attack however successful has to be ‘won’ in the media, far more than on the ground. The government seems to not just lack a media strategy — and a social media onslaught doesn’t count — but seems to be unable to project its undoubted victories. Simply stating, as MoS V Muraleedharan did recently, that India will act ‘resolutely’ is not enough. Arising from this is lesson two. A year down the line, Balakot has done little for the party’s image, with the Delhi elections only the most recent in a series of humiliating defeats. Apparently, grandstanding on Pakistan doesn’t help in politics. It’s time to assess whether Indians are tired of that theme.

The second is the operational question of whether the ‘message’ was ‘understood and received’ in Pakistan. The point of the strike was not whether a tree was hit, or a hut or an entire terrorist facility. What mattered, and which Pakistan realised instantly, was that a Rubicon had been crossed as India shook free of its self-imposed ‘restraint’ despite the nuclear overhang. That’s changed the situation for good. The desperation of the Pakistani establishment was more than apparent, as its Prime Minister used any and every podium to warn of nuclear war. The fact that no one paid much attention only worsened Islamabad’s desperation.

Did Pakistan, however, stop terrorism? According to official sources, infiltration continues to rise, though terror attacks have reduced. So no, Balakot did not stop terrorism in its entirety, but then it was never expected to. The objective was to raise the issue to a new level. Today, Pakistan is under a severe threat due to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) questioning its every move. The activities of this global body can hardly be attributed to India. But its task of probing Pakistan has been helped by Delhi’s aerial move. Call it an unintended pincer move, if you will. But it’s there. In the meanwhile, expect that Pakistan will reduce the ‘boiling point’of terrorism in the Valley so as not to goad India into another attack. For the time being, anyway.

The third and final question is whether India can do another Balakot, keeping in mind that the operation was not cost-free, given the inevitable counter-strike by Pakistan. What should not have been inevitable was the downing of the Indian MiG-21. While in the broader sweep of war, one pilot hardly counts, this was meant to be a limited action only. Wg Cdr Abhinandan should not have been airborne at all on an aircraft that could not discern when it had crossed the border.

When sending a vital message, don’t use a bottle. Grand gestures need money. And a steadily reducing defence budget doesn’t help. Another Indian strike will also see Pakistani retaliation, never mind that it will have to hit civilians or military targets. In both cases, that’s an adequate ground for war.

Delhi skirted around it last year. Whether Delhi will choose to escalate or not next time round is the ultimate and crucial question for Rawalpindi planners. That doesn’t mean brainmapping the PM. That means its planners sitting down to a bean count. At the moment, the result of that exercise could be somewhat less than overwhelming. That needs to change, even as it needs to be accepted that resources will remain constrained in the immediate future. That means the services have to work around the budget with a new model that allows them to have their cake and eat it too. But that’s another story.

Balakot gave the military the boost in morale that it badly needed after years of ‘restraint’. It gave the country, long tired of other Pulwamas going without retribution, a certain righteous belief in itself, and signalled to the world that Delhi was no longer going to play possum in the long battle against terrorism. But the strike can’t be seen in isolation of the economy, of internal strife, and a divided society. At the time, Balakot was a response from the whole of the state, with the whole of its heart, and, therefore, it hit with resounding force. That’s probably not happening again soon. That’s the lesson. Learn it well, before talking loudly without that big stick.

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