File photo of a Mirage 2000 fighter jet. (Photograph: PTI)

Balakot Air Strike: Top Military, Foreign Policy Experts On What Happens Next


India carried out air strikes in Pakistan in early hours of Feb. 26, destroying the biggest terror camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed and eliminating “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis”, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said at a briefing in New Delhi. Gokhale added that the “non-military preemptive” strike was carried out after India received credible intelligence that the JeM was planning to carry out other suicide attacks after the Pulwama bombing on a CRPF convoy that killed 40 jawans.

To understand what happens next and the strategic calculus behind the move, former officials who have held top military and foreign affairs positions in India, as well as South Asia strategic affairs experts, in India and abroad, weigh in.

Air Strike At Balakot Strategically Thought Through

- Lt. Gen. (Retd.) HS Panag, Former General Officer Commanding in Chief of Northern Command and Central Command

This is a proxy war which has been going on for the last 30 years. India has generally exercised a strategy of restraint where we have said that we’ll manage our internal problems, and our internal terrorist action – we’ll act against it, but we will not respond against Pakistan to precipitate the situation.

We did have one response on Sept. 28, 2016 in the form of surgical strikes. As it became obvious, that was a standalone tactical operation, and it was not thought-through strategically. Consequently, no strategic aim was achieved. Pakistan denied the operation and continued with business as usual, and, the operation was at a very small scale.

Pulwama, with forty casualties, was a major event which India could not ignore, particularly this government which has been gung-ho about national security, and also with elections close at hand.

So, action was almost a compulsion, as far as the government is concerned. The government has, in this case, chosen to launch a strike at Balakot which happens to be beyond Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which is legally a part of India. This was required, to send a message to Pakistan that either you mend your ways, or we will raise the ante.

This time, it is my feeling that it has been strategically thought through.

In case Pakistan does not make a course correction as far as Jammu and Kashmir is concerned, India will continue to raise the ante, and up the ladder of escalation to launch more attacks, or act in a different form, in Pakistan.

How Is Pakistan Likely To Retaliate?

War is a two-way street and anything short of that, any hostile act short of war is also a two-way street. It is but natural for Pakistan to respond. But Pakistan also has the same kind of capabilities that India has, as far as operations below the threshold of war are concerned.

Pakistan can retaliate in kind, and it can take any form.

It can undertake similar air or missile strikes. It can be in the form of ground action across the Line of Control, it can be in the form of special forces’ raids across the line of control, it can also be in the form of a terrorist action.

Taking the last option will show that Pakistan works in cohorts with the terrorists, which is denied by Pakistan. Pakistan says that it only provides moral support to terrorists. So if it uses terrorists to launch another strike, it would be seen that Pakistan is in league with them.

Pakistan’s Denial Unlikely To Help

They went into a semi-denial mode which was rather late, because General Ghafoor tweeted that Indian aircraft had intruded into Pakistani airspace, and then he tweeted again that when the Pakistani Air Force responded, they ‘dropped their bombs in haste and went away’.

Therefore, it has acknowledged that Indian Air Force has definitely gone into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, if not Pakistan.

The Pakistan media too said that some sort of strikes have taken place, and BBC Urdu has quoted residents on the ground in Balakot, where they have said that strikes have taken place. So it is very difficult for them to go into a denial mode. Since their sovereignty is in question, which is supreme in the eyes of a Pakistani public that is very anti-India, some sort of military response is likely. Then the onus will come back on India, as to how we want to escalate this situation.

Alternatively, if Pakistan keeps quiet, and continues to do what I have said so far, then it puts the onus on us, which goes against us internationally, to again do something of a higher magnitude.

This is the kind of response strategy Pakistan is likely to follow. This situation is unfolding, and it remains unpredictable, and in my view, Pakistan will respond in some manner militarily, and thereafter, it will depend upon India, how it raises the ante.

But India has had enough time, 12 days [since the Pulwama attack] is all that India requires to prepare itself fully for the full spectrum of action, for operations short of war. Thereafter, whatever India does after Pakistan’s response, it will be a matter of India’s strategic choice. So, we will wait for the situation to unfold.

Don’t See Escalation, Pakistan’s Options Limited

- Lalit Mansingh, Former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the United States

The significance of this strike is that it marks the end of the policy of strategic restraint by India. If you go back to 1998, and the nuclear tests that both Pakistan and India conducted, India took the line that with both countries possessing nuclear weapons, it was not possible to engage in conflict hereafter. But the Pakistanis decided that it gave them an opportunity to carry out asymmetrical attacks on India, through cross-border terrorism without India having the capacity to retaliate, because it could escalate. This bluff has been called for the first time by India, and India has made it clear that retaliation will follow, and our strategic restraint should not be regarded as weakness.

We took a policy decision during Kargil that the Indian armed forces would not cross the Line of Control, and it was meticulously observed. But in the surgical strikes, India took the step of crossing the LoC in a shallow attack under territory under Pakistan’s governance, but technically belonging to India. But today, the attack was on Pakistan’s territory.

The message is loud and clear. That if you continue with cross-border terrorism, retaliation will follow, and Pakistan will not be spared. I think that’s a message which both Pakistan and the international community have to understand.

I doubt if there will be an escalation, because Pakistan’s options are limited.

Is Pakistan going to have a major strike in India? I think the international community will accept what India did as a fait accompli. The pressure will be on Pakistan not to escalate, not India, because India is not wanting to escalate. Now, look at Pakistan’s options.

Pakistan can go to its friends. But if it goes to the United States, remember, the U.S. has been attacking terrorists and terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan, and it’s U.S. policy to do that. I don’t think they can get much sympathy there.

They can turn to their friends in the Middle East. But we had Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman in India, and he made a very strong statement and a joint statement. He actually criticised the terrorist attack that took place in Kashmir.

Pakistan can turn to the Chinese. But China too has joined the United Nations Security Council statement, which also strongly condemns the terrorist attack in Kashmir.

So I don’t think Pakistan can get much sympathy and support for any kind of retaliatory action against India, because India has made it clear it is not against an attack on Pakistan.

India is attacking terrorist infrastructure, and the international community has agreed that Pakistan itself should be doing it. So I doubt very much there will be an escalation, and I doubt if the pressure will be on India.

What I think will happen now is that the focus will turn to the United Nations and possibly the Chinese veto on naming the Jaish-e-Mohammed and its leader. China is now considerably isolated, and the first signal is that the they agreed to join the UN statement that was just issued.

Limited Options For Pakistan Amid Indecision

- Michel Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program, Wilson Center

It’s sort of like deja vu. It reminds me of what happened after the surgical strike in September 2016, when you have this assertion coming from India, that something really big was done. Then Pakistan tried to downplay and deny before coming out with an inconsistent response to what had happened.

I think the messaging from the Pakistani leadership suggests that the notion of an imminent visible retaliation by the Pakistanis is probably quite unlikely.

I do think that what Pakistan would try to do, and this would not be anything new, is simply double down on its embrace of these non state militant actors like Jaish e-Mohammed as it looks to try to punish India in ways that Pakistan’s conventional military forces cannot, because they are inferior to those of India.

It was not surprising that the Pakistani statements today have been rather vague.

I think that they don’t know what they want to do, just yet.

But the fact that from very early on, you had an effort to seem to downplay what had happened, that to me suggests that they’re not in a position... they don’t have willingness or capacity to respond to what has happened in a muscular or visible way.

Pakistan has relatively limited options here in terms of conventional military force. There will be diplomatic efforts to bring key countries to its side and to try to quietly lower attention. But it’s true that there are domestic political considerations in mind for Pakistan to clearly acknowledge that India did something. We don’t know the full details yet, but it did launch an operation in Pakistan, in ways that probably went beyond Kashmir. So, there’s going to be a need for something to be done, but again, what are the options. Those are relatively limited.

What I do think we are likely to see, unfortunately, is a decision on the part of the Pakistanis to double down on its ties to the military assets, perhaps encouraging them more aggressively, to carry out active operations and attacks inside Kashmir, and India more broadly.

I think there is a level of indecision in Pakistan.

There is a lack of clarity on what can be done, because this is somewhat of a new situation that Pakistan is not used to. It’s really unclear to me as to how Pakistan is going to act, and that’s why in these press conferences it was accurate that the diplomatic steps probably come first, before they think of military responses.

Pakistan Army Did Not Want To Make Matters Worse For Itself

- Bharat Karnad, Professor for National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research

My reading is that the Pakistani air defence radar which is called the Slack system did pick up the Indian combat aircraft, but the Pakistan air force aircraft scrambled to intercept them, because essentially, that would have meant stepping on to an ‘escalatorial’ ladder, and that they didn’t want.

I think it’s a considered decision on the Pakistan military’s part not to let the situation get out of control.

That is a very encouraging sign, because had they responded with a counter-strike and so on, then India would have been compelled to again up the ante, and hit back. That would have resulted in a kind of an uncontrollable situation.

What is a very good thing to have happened, the way it’s turned out, is that the Pakistan Air Force did not respond.

They were in a position to do so. They did not respond. Their air defence radar, just to make it very clear to you, did pick up the activity. It is the best air defence system in the entire subcontinent. Our air defence system cannot match that.

It says to me that the Pakistan Army did not want to make matters worse for themselves.

Pakistan initiated the attack with the terrorist incident, and India responded, and the Pakistanis have chosen not to counter-strike to our action. Up to this moment, they haven’t responded, so I don’t think they will respond in the days to come, because that will only compel India to up the ante. If India ups the ante, then the conflict gets out of hand. It’s still controllable now.

They have provided the rationale that the Indian aircraft intruded and then dropped the payload and went away. Which means that there was no damage done. That’s what they claim. That’s a very good thing. Let them claim whatever they want.

You have to give them a face-saving way out of the situation. You cannot claim that the Indian Air Force succeeded in taking out the Jaish camp.

One Strike May Not Be Enough

- Pushan Das, Associate Fellow and Programme Coordinator, ORF Global Governance Programme

One strike into Pakistani territory to take out a terrorist camp is not going to stop or coerce Pakistan to stop supporting terrorist groups. By carrying out the strike, costs have been imposed on the Pakistani state for supporting terrorist organisations like the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a whole host of other groups.

The ball is now in Pakistan’s court as to whether they see a cause benefit of risking Indian strikes into Pakistan’s territory targeted towards terrorist camps on a continuous basis.

From the Indian perspective as well, if you look at 2016, 17 soldiers died, and India conducted the shallow surgical strikes. This time more than 40 CRF jawans have died, and we have conducted air strikes.

From India’s perspective, we have set a precedent where any government – not only the BJP government – will have to manage public expectations the next time there is a terrorist strike emanating from Pakistan.

I think doing one strike is a signal. To make the costs heavy on Pakistan, India will have to continuously do this, if Pakistan continues supporting terrorist groups, or attacks Indian troops and Indian territory.

What next? I think India will have to continue playing that coercive card to disincentivise Pakistan from letting terrorist groups using its territory. One strike necessarily does not disincentivise Pakistan from not supporting terrorist groups.

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