Vappala Balachandran The discordant national security discourse after the Pulwama and Balakot incidents is denigrating our armed forces. Widespread exultation over the achievements of our Air Force in Balakot, its heroic resistance to Pakistan’s air aggression and the shooting down of their F-16 have been drowned out by a cacophony of opposing dialectics, including controversies triggered by the ruling party. The first instance was on March 1 when BJP MP Subramanian Swamy tweeted that ‘just seven persons’ had ‘conceptualised’ the Balakot bombing. His list did not include Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. This made people wonder how our armed forces could operate without their minister’s knowledge. Then came BJP president Amit Shah’s claim during an election rally that over 250 terrorists were killed in the Balakot airstrikes. He criticised the opposition parties for demanding proof of the deaths. This provoked the Congress to say that the BJP was politicising the armed forces. This and other interventions forced the Air Force Chief to draw the red line: “Government counts casualties, not us.” By implication, he conveyed that the Air Force was given targets, which they hit successfully. “We hit the target… otherwise why would they (Pakistan) have responded?” Since then, all efforts of BJP spokespersons have been to justify the remarks of their president by quoting different sources, named or unnamed. No official figures have been released by the government so far. Simultaneously, the foreign media has been relentless in reporting the Pakistani version that no damage was caused. The opposition parties also complained that the Prime Minister was revealing details during public meetings, not officially. That did not prevent leaks from secret operational intelligence, collected by our National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), from appearing in the media. It was claimed that the NTRO had detected 300 active mobile phones in Balakot area before the airstrikes. No explanation for why the media was given this secret information unofficially was forthcoming. Simultaneously, an investigation by a leading Indian weekly found that residents of Balakot and police officials in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) were admitting that the IAF strikes had resulted in military casualties too, “not just destruction of terror infrastructure and militants.” If this is so, why is the government reluctant to reveal these details, which would only strengthen the official version? It is true that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had indirectly confirmed the NTRO story when confronted by the media during a BSF function on March 5: “Were these mobile phones used by the trees? Will you not believe the NTRO also?” He added that the number of dead at the Jaish training camp would be known “today or tomorrow”. Still, no official account was published. At times, the BJP’s dialogue resembled egregious politics descending to the street level when ministers spoke about the dissenters. On March 6, Minister of State for External Affairs and former Army Chief VK Singh called critics and journalists as jonk (leeches). Such remarks made the Opposition hit back. On March 11, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah made a frontal charge that the airstrikes were aimed at “winning the Lok Sabha elections”. The next day, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee alleged that the Centre was “stretching the elections till May-end for another strike in April”. Simultaneously, a Central investigating agency appears to be pitting the entire Muslim population in the Valley against New Delhi. The National Investigation Agency’s (NIA’s) recent summons to Hurriyat Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to come to New Delhi have united all 20 disparate Muslim religious groups behind him as he represents Srinagar’s Grand Mosque, a 300-year-old institution. Claims have been made that the Balakot airstrikes were intended to be a strategic step of escalation to deliver a strong message and isolate Pakistan. However, any such strategic step has to be followed by other measures by other countries to debar Pakistan from every possible venue. Unfortunately, nothing concrete has been achieved so far. As regards compelling Pakistan to give up its support to terrorists, all we could earn so far is a message from US National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton about his talk with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who had assured to “deal firmly with terrorist groups operating from the country”. To me, the Balakot strikes were as spectacular as the US bombing of Libya on April 15, 1986. Both conveyed the message, but did not have any strategic impact on the target country. Former CIA Director Robert Gates, who was then President Ronald Reagan’s Deputy National Security Adviser, writes in his memoirs From the Shadows that there was no consensus in the National Security Council (NSC) on the bombing, although the Reagan administration was ‘obsessed’ with Gaddafi from 1981. Secretary of State George P Shultz was clearly against it. Gaddafi was a bigger threat to world peace than even Pakistan, having supplied munitions to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The immediate provocation was Gaddafi’s bomb attack on a Berlin discotheque patronised by American troops on April 5, 1986, killing 2 Americans, besides a missile attack on a US Air Force plane in the Gulf of Sidra on March 24, 1986. Seymour Hersh, in his New York Times piece ‘Target Qaddafi’ (February 22, 1987), claims that the entire planning was done by a clandestine group in the NSC led by Col Oliver North, keeping senior NSC members, including Shultz, in the dark. (Do we see a parallel here if we were to believe Subramanian Swamy?) North came to grief only in 1988 for a similar illegal intervention in the 1987 Iran-Contra Affair. Did the bombing stop Gaddafi in his tracks? No, he executed a much bigger attack by planting a bomb on Pan Am Frankfurt-Detroit Flight 103, killing 270 persons, on December 21, 1988. Gaddafi was killed over two decades later on October 20, 2011, during the Libyan Civil War.
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