“You cannot surprise us but we will surprise you”, was message sent by the Pakistan Army in an audacious tone, to its Indian counterpart on February 26, after the Indian Air force violated Pakistan’s airspace the night before. The violation by the Indian fighters had taken place amid rising escalation and provoked Pakistan to respond as the payload of the intruding jets fell well within Pakistani territory.
On February 27, The Pakistan Air force conducted strikes across the Line of Control, selecting six targets and intentionally avoiding Indian casualties to contain the soaring escalation. In a prompt response to Pakistan’s strikes, two of the Indian fighters crossed into Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control. The Pakistan Air force shot both the intruding fighters down in dogfight, one of which fell in the Indian Occupied Kashmir. The fact that India lost two fighters in a jiffy was a surprise to India but the biggest blow came when its Wing Commader Abhinandan Varthaman got captured by Pakistan alive.
The recent escalations between South Asia’s two nuclear neighbours can be traced back to an attack on Indian security personnel convoy in Pulwama, Indian Held Kashmir, that killed 46 CRPF soldiers. To no surprise, the Indian authorities accused Pakistan for sponsoring the massive attack. The attack in Pulwama, purportedly carried out by a local Kashmiri militant Adil Ahmed Dar, mounted sheer pressure upon the Modi Government as the country mourned the loss of its 44 soldiers.
The Indian Media added fuel to fire as most of the channels kept showing provocative hashtags, demanding action against Pakistan. It successfully managed to create war hysteria among the Indian masses, which in turn, mounted pressure on the Modi government to ‘punish Pakistan’. There are other factors involved too, in shaping India’s aggression towards Pakistan, the most important of which is the desperation to win the upcoming General Elections in April-May 2019.
The Indian masses demanded revenge, strangely from Pakistan whose involvement in the attack could not be ascertained. This pressure pushed India towards an adventure across the LOC on February 26. The fighters successfully intruded kilometers inside the Pakistani airspace from Keran Valley, Muzaffarabad Sector but were challenged by a Combat Air Petrol of the Pakistan Air force. As the intruding jets escaped, they dropped payload at Jaba in Balakot. The episode was later claimed as a ‘strike’ which ‘killed 350 terrorists’ by the Indian authorities.
Understanding Pakistan’s Response
In order to understand the response given by the Pakistan Air Force on 27th, a study of the aftermath of Indian aggression across the LOC is essential. The Indian violation of the Pakistani airspace mounted pressure upon the military in various dimensions. In the following lines, these dimensions shall be discussed individually:
Pakistan Armed Forces were bound to respond due to the strategic pressure which had been mounted upon them. The fact that the Indian fighters crossed into Pakistan’s air space and stayed in the air for minutes, without being shot, raised a question mark on Pakistan Air force’s credibility. Although, the intrusion was detected on radar and challenged by a Combat Air Petrol, there was a short delay which gave the Indian fighters some space to execute their plan of dropping payload within Pakistani territory.
The strategic pressure was if crossing the LOC without doing damage is not considered an aggression by Pakistan? Whether Pakistan was ready to retaliate to Indian aerial aggression by shooting the fighters down? These questions were mounting pressure on the military to respond and maintain its credible deterrence against the enemy. Not responding to the aggression meant India could consider repeating the action whenever required, whether for strategic or political reasons.
When the Pakistani citizens woke up to know about the Indian Air force’s violation of the LOC, the general question in their minds was why the Pakistan Air force allowed the intruding jet to escape unscathed. The nation expected Pakistan to retaliate especially when it is already on high alert and therefore, it was a bit disappointing that the fighters dropped a payload in Jaba, Balakot and were still not taken down. Most in the country believed that after dropping payload within Pakistani territory, a escape should not have been given to the intruders.
The Pakistani public demanded its military to respond to the Indian aggression by retaliating strongly. The spokesperson of the Pakistan Armed Forces, held a press conference and promised a ‘different’ and ‘surprising’ response to Indian aggression. Thinking from the perspective of a common Pakistani, the credibility of the armed forces to respond to enemy in times of crisis was at stake and was a matter of concern. This reaction of the public at home was mounting pressure on the military to respond and maintain its repute as the ‘saviours’.
Another dimension in which pressure was mounting on Pakistan’s both civil and military leadership was time. If Pakistan was to respond, it could not wait for long as the relevance of the response would then be faded. This became tough as soon after violation of the airspace, the Indian Armed forces, particularly the air force stood well alert fearing a backlash from Pakistan. The challenge was to respond to India quick and efficiently despite its full alertness.
After the Pakistan Air force came up with an emphatic response in the morning on February 27, escalation was expected to rise dramatically but the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj issued a quick statement in which she stated that It did not wan’t any further escalation with Pakistan.
After Pakistan released the footage of Abhinandan Varathman, the captured pilot of the MIG-21 shot down by the Pakistan Air force, the emphasis shifted towards that recent development. The hawkish sentiments of the Indian Government saw a thaw and it appeared that things would cool down, however both the air forces remained alert throughout the day and till date, the escalation across the Line of Control and the international border has not declined at all.
The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced to release the captured pilot as a peace gesture, in a joint session of the Pakistani parliament. With the bold move, PM Khan has practically shown Pakistan’s resolve to de-escalate tension. With this, he hopes India would reciprocate with de-escalation and the conflict would move towards resolution. However, the Indian Armed Forces with its latest press-conference and the Indian Media after a renewed onslaught against Pakistan, show no signs of improvement of the situation.
After Pakistan’s Aerial offence and PM Imran Khan’s announcement to release the Indian pilot, India has limited options available. With elections looming, PM Modi would probably not like to accept de-escalation in a situation where Pakistan has the last laugh, instead, he would be looking towards another move to satisfy the disappointed masses and ensure he gets voted again in the upcoming elections.
The dilemma however is that the Pakistan Air force has just shot the two intruding fighters of the Indian Air force, making the option of conducting a strike in return, very risky. If India takes such a risk and loses one or more fighter jets in dogfight with Pakistan Air force, it would bring more embarrassment instead of face-saving.
The other options available include sub-conventional engagement with Pakistan Army across the LOC and International Border which is already going on and can only become more emphatic. However, the rise in its intensity will provoke similar action from across the border and no major gain will be available to India.
With the United States, Germany, Britain joining the episode and working on diffusing the tensions, a military assault against Pakistan in reaction to downing of its fighters, at a time when Pakistan is releasing the Indian pilot as a gesture of peace, will make things very difficult for India. Any further action by the Indian forces will increase escalation and Pakistan will not hesitate to provide a response, as shown earlier on 27th. India’s best option in this regard lies in diplomatic realm and not battlefield.
Though the Indian Foreign Ministry has already claimed after Pakistani strikes that it did not want further escalation with Pakistan, the Islamic Republic needs to stay alert for the possibility of an Indian strike cannot be ruled out as no de-escalation has taken place. Indian Air force may consider crossing the International Border in Sindh in a bid to surprise the Pakistan Air force.
During the entire period of Indo-Pak escalation post Pulwama attack, a great synergy between the government and the armed forces was witnessed, which has put Pakistan in a very favourable condition. With PM Khan offering peace repeatedly, Pakistan armed forces retaliating militarily by shooting down two fighters and Indian fighter pilot in Pakistan’s custody, Pakistan has gained a decisive edge over adversary. India will, undoubtedly be looking forward to score something for face saving, before agreement on de-escalation. Pakistan needs to display the same synergy and exhibit preparedness on all fronts to lock the current gains over time. De-escalation is good for both Pakistan and India, the entire region but not for Prime Minister Modi, who is projected to enter elections with a bloody nose.