Like any other major military event anywhere in the world, Balakot, too, cannot be seen simply in isolation; as just another response to a heinous terror related event. It needs the joining of several dots and these exist in different domains: political, military, diplomatic, social and psychological. Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) remains one of the dynamic conflicts in the world with more than its share of ups and downs. The natural question which arises is whether the Indian airstrike at Balakot in response to the Pulwama incident effectively meant a victory for India.
A common understanding about military strikes is that they are all about victory or defeat, forgetting the fact that the conflict in J&K is hybrid. Being diffused in nature, hybrid conflicts bring temporary success or failure and can at best contribute to an eventual victory only if the follow up is strategically handled. So, how has India handled the post Balakot situation and what can it do further? A look at the different domains which make up the hybridity of the situation will give indicators and it must commence with the military domain.
Why Pakistan Thought India Would Not Escalate
Militarily Pakistan made a major mistake with the perpetration of the Pulwama incident. It presented the Indian Government a fait accompli: respond, or perish politically. There had been many incidents in the past which could be classified as spectacular in nature but politically the government was never under such political pressure.
It had already set some norms through the response to the NSCN(K) ambush in Manipur on 4 Jun 2015 and the trans LOC surgical strikes post the Uri incident (18 Sep 2016) in J&K. Pakistan was probably ready for a surface-based response and did consider the possibility of Indian missile strikes on some terror facilities.
In conventional understanding, the crossing of the border or LoC by an air force is considered an act of war. Even in as intense a military standoff as Kargil 1999, India held back the Indian Air Force.
After Pulwama, Pakistan continued to believe that an air strike by India could not be an option because of a prevailing perception that India would not risk conventional war which could be triggered by such an action. This perception emanated from a firm belief that the conventional war option for India was foreclosed due to their being virtually no plausible achievable war aims with nuclear deterrence firmly in place.
What Balakot Strikes Achieved For India
Firstly, what Balakot strike demonstrated was that the Indian Government was willing to take risk. Even a single aircraft of the attacking Indian air mission, if shot down, would have been extremely awkward for the BJP in the then approaching elections but the leadership risked the decision.
Secondly, the strategy of Pakistani denial about the surgical strikes in 2016 could not be repeated with Balakot, although it made brave efforts to deny its effectiveness.
Thirdly, the incidents of the next day (27 Feb 2019) involving the weak PAF response were supposed to be face-savers after the Osama bin Laden incident of 2011 which had drawn public criticism for the Pakistan military leadership. Instead, they got diffused into a spiral of events including the shooting down of Wing Commander Abhinandan, Veer Chakra, and the non-recovery of the F-16 aircraft which he allegedly shot down.
Pakistan managed a self-perceived internal face saver but India conveyed a message of steely resolve which could convert to many other actions in terms of response; not the least being a return to 2001 when India drew up detailed plans for PoK which had to be put on hold due to the 9/11 catastrophe in New York.
The return of India’s focus on PoK in the last six months should clearly expand the ambit of its military thinking in terms of the range of future options.
Diplomatic Advantage of Balakot Strike Led to Developments in Kashmir
Diplomatically, Balakot messaged the world once again about the dangers of escalation in the subcontinent. A proactive Indian diplomatic campaign saw the international community relatively muted especially after India’s decision to de-escalate, which was perceived as political maturity.
This also helped in the subsequent diplomatic campaign after the constitutional and administrative decisions of 5 Aug. The period after Balakot saw India pegging military and diplomatic advantage which gave the government the confidence to abrogate Article 370.
There is a need to, therefore, view Balakot in sync with 5 Aug 2019.
The psychological, military, political, and diplomatic advantage that both events synchronously generated need to be fully exploited for the internal strengthening of the mainstreaming of J&K. Counter proxy war has been optimally managed, thanks to the footwork done by agencies since 2017 putting hybridity of the conflict under pressure. Pakistan’s relative freedom of maneuver has been curbed and the winter may have been to our advantage.
However, Pakistan’s ability to calibrate may still be alive considering the political and people’s domain in J&K is yet to stabilise.
If recent violence in Delhi is any indicator, the ISI’s sleeper cells in other parts of India may have been tasked to create turbulence elsewhere to divert attention from J&K. The centrality of Pakistan’s grand strategy drawn up 30-40 years ago continues to remain the exploitation of India’s demographic fault-lines. Its focus has largely been on J&K but could alter now for which we need to remain warned.
Balakot Was ‘Advantage India’, But ‘Victory’ Will Be Elusive Unless Follow Up is Strategic
In J&K political initiatives will need to be taken early to retain advantage. It’s the psychological domain which will dictate much and yet remains largely unaddressed as the attitude of the populace remains unclear. The complete restoration of multiple modes of communication, which is on the cards, will probably bring greater clarity.
Taking on board the people of J&K depends much on our ability to bring greater political consensus. Recent initiatives of sending members of the cabinet to reach out have been good but will need to be repeated very often as this cannot be treated as a one-time exercise. ‘Town hall’ kind of engagements may have to be resorted to, commencing with small groups and graduating to the level of rallies.
In each of these, addressing the immediate problems of the local populace will be advantageous and provide the environment to communicate the larger message.
We will need to develop a communication strategy to exploit social media once the mobile networks are fully restored. This has been an acknowledged weakness on our part and hopefully has been ameliorated in the last six months.
While the year after Balakot has definitely been advantage India, a victory in such a campaign will remain elusive without the political and psychological realm being fully addressed. The summer beckons greater proactivity and with Afghanistan, FATF and the Pakistan economy all providing indicators of reduced Pakistani options it is this window which must be exploited and rapidly so, by India.
(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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