File photo of the India-Pakistan border at Attari-Wagah. (Photograph: PTI)

After Wing Commander Abhinandan’s Return, Where Do India And Pakistan Go Next?


Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned to India on Friday, two days after his MiG-21 went down in an air fight with Pakistan Air Force jets on Feb. 27, and he was captured in Pakistani territory. His release was announced by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday who said the move was made to de-escalate tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. India maintained that it wanted verifiable action against terror camps in Pakistan. On Tuesday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said the Indian Air Force had carried out air strikes in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, destroying the biggest terror camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and eliminating a “large number” of terrorists. This followed the Feb. 14 militant attack that killed 40 CRPF paramilitary soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

Experts in geopolitics and strategic affairs lay out what they see as the next moves from here.

An Unfinished Matter For India

- Ian Bremmer, Founder, Eurasia Group

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement that the country will return Wing Commander Abhinandan is the right move to deescalate tensions. India had maintained it would not negotiate for his release, and this is an important move by Pakistan to deescalate tensions.

India will continue to push at a multilateral level to get Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar declared a global terrorist.

India will portray this as an unfinished matter until Pakistan takes concrete steps to stop harbouring terrorists who live within Pakistan.

For Pakistan, the next course of action is to enforce United Nations sanctions on JeM and actively take steps to prevent cross-border terrorism. otherwise, this situation will always have the possibility of escalating.

India Has Taken The Correct Approach

- Sameer Patil, Fellow, National Security Studies and Director, Centre for International Security, Gateway House

India is not seeing the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan as a peace gesture. The Indian government is still focused on the larger challenge which is how to tackle cross-border terrorism immediately from Pakistan. The fact is that even though there are some reports which suggest that the release may have been secured by the United States and other countries, the very fact that India decided to maintain the public posture that they will not seek a deal for the pilot’s release indicates that they don’t want this particular development to cloud the larger question, which is why this crisis started.

India should be firm in its approach and the approach that we followed after the air strike, which is to say that this was a preemptive, intelligence-led, non-military strike.

The very fact that Pakistan chose to respond to a counter-terrorist strike targeting a military installation, means they have just in a sense, admitted that they are willing to escalate the tensions, to protect their proxy assets.

This is a very important message coming from Pakistan and I think therefore India should be prepared to expect more such ‘rogue behviour’.

Between the people who say we should escalate, and people who say de-escalate, I think the point we have made right now is that without carrying any further military action also, the message that we should have is that we are not prepared to talk to Pakistan, unless they demonstrate a firm commitment to dismantle terrorist infrastructure.

We need to have evidence, and that evidence has to be on a sustained basis. It should not be a one-off spectacle. The pattern of typical India-Pakistan dialogue has been that India argues for dialogue, and then there is some terrorist group, which does something to sabotage it.

The fact that these groups retain the capacity to sabotage, means that the infrastructure for terrorism is still there.

Steps need to be taken to contain the activities of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masoor Azar and Hafiz Sayeed. Despite the fact that Hafiz Sayeed has been declared a global terrorist, you have him coming out and giving public speeches. A visible action in this case would be to make sure that he is not able to go out and give speeches. Here are the things that can be done.

  1. Speedy trial of the 26/11 attacks,
  2. Acting on the dossier which was supported in the previous attacks including Pathankot and Mumbai.
  3. Making sure that at least the two masterminds Masoor Azar and Hafiz Sayeed can’t carry out public activities.

Once the message goes that Pakistan is serious of doing this on a sustained basis, then maybe, India can at that time, not agree, but evaluate the Pakistani offer.

We should be able to have verification processes of Pakistani intentions and actions. For instance, if you see after the 2008 attacks, Pakistan launched this great spectacle on tracking down on the terrorist camp. Then after three months, you saw these camps appearing in some other places.

Pakistan’s behaviour is such that the more we don’t talk to them, they would think that Pakistan is not in India’s consciousness. They would make sure that they remain in our consciousness by making sure that the proxy assets act up.

Joint Press Tri-Service Briefing Sent The Right Signal

Wednesday’s statement was a right message to give. More than the domestic audience, it was aimed to the international audience. We were able to present the evidence of how Pakistan has used fighter planes which were supposed to be made by the contract, only for counter-terrorism operations. Not to be used against India. And here, they have used it to target the military installations, and that too in response, not to a military action, but a counter terrorism act.

This is not unusual. For instance the briefing after the surgical strike was given by the directorate general of the armed forces. For the longest period of time during the Kargil war, it was always a joint meeting.

I leave it to the judgment of the government on how they want to convey the message, but the fact is that they have chosen the appropriate mode to convey the message.

Don’t ReHyphenate With Pakistan

- Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science, MIT

India should take Imran Khan’s gesture, say it has achieved its objective at Balakot by degrading Jaish-e-Mohammed, and start walking down the immediate crisis. It should demand Pakistan acts against JeM/LeT but should not link it to the current rounds of escalation. War avoidance is in India’s broader strategic interest. It cannot change Pakistani behaviour or support for militants militarily now. Don’t rehyphenate yourself with Pakistan if you seek dehyphenation.