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Military lessons, starting from Pulwama to the eventual release of Wing Commander Abhinandan, should be left to the military alone, while non-military lessons must be rationalized to suit national narratives.


On the afternoon of 14 February 2019, a 22-year old home grown suicide bomber with 350 kilograms of military grade explosives in a minivan size vehicle rammed into one of the buses carrying about 50 CRPF personnel and killed them instantly. The perpetrator had been sufficiently radicalized and trained in sophisticated terror tactics by his trainers and handlers from Pakistan-supported outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammad. Since then, India has woken up to a well-known but crude reality of state-sponsored non-state-executed violence, and its potential to destabilize a national polity.


Unfolding Events


In a span of 16 days – from 14 February to 1 March 2019 – and amid an unfathomably complex security situation currently, three major developments took place:

a) terror strikes on 14 February by a young JeM fidayeen on the CRPF convoy killing 50 personnel and fuelling nation-wide anger and propelling aggressive nationalistic sentiments;

b) a non-military (IAF-led) intelligence-led pre-emptive operation by a Mirage fleet that pumped several 1,000 kilograms of Israeli supplied Popeye precision guided bombs into major terror facilities at the Jaba Top, situated in Balakot, about 80 kilometres deep inside the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (hereafter, KP) and destroying considerable amount of terror infrastructure as well as eliminating a few hundred trained terrorists on the wee hours of 26th morning; and

c) a fiercely fought close aerial dogfight between India and Pakistan (while Pakistani Air Force reportedly employed a fleet of 24 F-16s, the Indian Air Force employed ten assorted fleet consisting of four Su-30 MKIs, four Mirage 2000s and Jaguars as well as two MiG-21 Bisons) on the afternoon of 28 February, resulting in reported destroying of a F-16 fighter from the Pakistani side and gunning down of one MiG-21 Bison from the Indian side, resulting in the capture of an Indian fighter pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan by the Pakistani forces and his eventual release into India the next day (1 March 2019) by them as a “gesture of peace”, as referred to by the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.


From then onward (since 1 March 2019), the number of ceasefire violations (primarily through proactive actions from the Pakistani side and strong rebuttal from the Indian side) as well as the magnitude and intensity of cross shelling have increased. Military or semi-military actions apart, both countries have thus far witnessed a massive surge in emotional outbursts, primarily reflected through print, audio-visual media and all forms of social media resulting in a strong yet contrasting narrative building. On the one hand, Indian claims reflect assertive and muscular nationalism (decisive actions against terror, almost wiping out terror infrastructure and elements of precisely selected targets, destroying a front line F-16 and claims of death of two Pakistani fighter pilots, etc.) with an avowed posture of stronger actions in the future if provoked. On the other hand, Pakistani claims appear a concoction of dismissive posture (no damage to Balakot, no damage to F-16, minimal damage of military assets etc.) and carefully crafted diplomatic gestures (release of the captured Indian Air Force pilot as a grand peace gesture). Coinciding with these developments, India has also received visible diplomatic support from countries like France, Australia and many others, while its diplomatic posture seems to have paid initial dividends as well. Contrary to what was initially claimed as a colossal diplomatic failures in India’s attempts at the recently held Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meet, India has actually been able to extract diplomatic dividends from the OIC meet, in which the Abu Dhabi Declaration mentioned and urged Pakistan to control and eliminate terrorism from its soil, even though there was no mention of Kashmir. Such diplomatic efforts aside, India has also taken a series of actions like withdrawing security covers from top Hurriyat leaderships, imposing tough tariffs on Pakistani goods and services, withdrawing MFN (Most Favoured Nation) status etc.  


The Current Situation


After 1 March 2019, which saw the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan, uneasy calm prevails. Despite increase in crossfires across the Line of Control and claims of success and failure narrative building through media and social media routes, military-led actions seem to have taken a brief halt, at least for the time being. Whether direct military or military-led covert operations, many questions like the actual death toll, exact employment of air and related assets, tangible degree of success and failure, among others, remain to be validated by both sides. This validation process from both sides will take a long time for the very simple reason that the bulk of such operational details remain a secret as a part of military operational strategies. Even when such details emerge, they will have contrasting perspectives emerging from their respective internal assessments.


In the absence of such details, the immediate impressions of such developments will be overwhelmingly dominated by fluctuating national passion, increasing the possibilities of further escalation, which could be fuelled through assertive alarmism on the one hand and equally dangerous dismissive postures on the other. For example, the possibility of a Neptune Spear type action (the special forces operation, which killed Osama bin Laden), which India is not only capable of undertaking but can possibly undertake, were spilled by senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Minister of Finance, Arun Jaitley recently. On earlier occasions, leaders like Donald Trump have hinted of actions preceding actual dates of actions and events. Trump had said that India was planning something big, before Balakot happened. He had also said that the world would get good news from India and Pakistan, and Wing Commander Abhinandan was released a day after. Senior BJP leaders like Amit Shah had given enough hints of a definitive proactive action from India after the Pulwama incident.  


In brief, the uneasy calm prevails at the moment. If it is an uneasy situation, it can entail reasonable possibilities of escalation as well. This is election time in India and there is every chance that such situations can be exploited politically to the full. This process has already started with the ruling party’s bragging of assertive and decisive action and the opposition camps questioning the intent and proof of claims on numbers of deaths, etc. Excessive politicization of a set of military actions not only generates heated debates, but more importantly leads to situations that may necessitate military action again.


Let the Military do its job


Although facts are coming in bits and pieces into the public domain for obvious reasons, both tactical and strategic aspects of military actions (from conceptualizing to eventual execution of the task and implications thereof) need a careful yet comprehensive autopsy by the Indian military, preferably independently by itself.


Military actions are preceded by a clear directive from the civilian political leadership, and adequate preparations for the given tasks, which invariably are aimed at achieving immediate objectives within the larger construct of strategic objectives of eliminating the menace of terrorism. Destroying terror infrastructure, needless to mention, is the first tangible step that brings in tangible results, while fighting perception, religious inspired violent actions (read Jihad), human and material resources (funding, weapons, etc.) necessitate employment of a long-term multi-dimensional state approach.


What lies ahead?


A set of four scenarios, flowing from what has happened and lessons learnt in the last few weeks are in order for further deliberations:


  1. The future of India-Pakistan relations will be reshaped for the better or worse, depending on how Pakistan deals with the menace called terrorism. The Indian side has given tangible yet strong message through its Balakot operations that unlike in the past, India will actually respond in no uncertain terms if terror incidents happen in the future. If Arun Jaitley’s avowal is of any indications, then one may see employment of such actions as the logical next step in managing terror escalation.
  2. The employment of the military for pre-emptive or retaliatory actions are also treated as validation of such actions. Since 2016 (soon after Uri happened), India has employed Army-led special forces operations on the ground, Air Force-led aerial strikes at Balakot and engaged in aerial combat thereafter. While lessons will be learnt by the Indian military, such validation will also propel the armed forces to graduate to next levels of operations in future. This may sound ‘provocative’, but this is also a possible set of options that India can employ in managing conflictual situations under control and well under a limited war/conventional war or nuclear threshold. Pakistan, on its side, will not only understand India’s intents and actions but also prepare accordingly.
  3. Unfortunate as it may be, but timings of such actions will entail political implications. This is already visible in the preparations for the national electoral battleground. Politicisation of military actions have almost infinite capacity of misuse, which could lead to electoral battles going from bad to worse. Both the ruling and the opposition parties should take enough care to not politicise it further. Whether such incidents favour the ruling party and increase its chances of a second term remains to be seen.
  4. Further deterioration in narrative building through mainstream, regional and social media is already evident. Consider these: a) Indians claim killing hundreds of terrorists, Pakistanis claim only a few trees have fallen and a solitary crow has succumbed to injury; b) Indians claim to have destroyed a F-16, whereas Pakistanis deny it vehemently. Many such claims and counter-claims have been morphed so badly that they can influence innocent minds on both sides. Exclusive and contradictory narrative building process will further squeeze objective and rational assessments as well as narratives.


The military option is usually exercised for a clearly defined specific set of objectives that entail both tactical and strategic implications. The politicisation of military actions invariably lead to concocted assessments and if this happens, the very purpose of military action is defeated.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.