Ashok K MehtaA plethora of sweeping phraseology – “game-changer,” “paradigm shift” and even “calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff” – has entered the strategic discourse post-Balakot, signalling a turning point in India-Pakistan military balance. Like the surface surgical strikes, the aerial pulverisation of Balakot deep inside Pakistan may turn out to be a one-off also. However, neither the solitary surgical strikes nor the Balakot bombing will end cross-border terrorism. It will curb the menace and lead to diplomatic dividends to prevent India from repeating a military action that the international community fears could trigger the nuclear threshold. Continuing its 30-year-long counter insurgency campaign, India must frame a sustained strategy based on the political aim of destroying/degrading Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure while fully sanitising its own side against terrorist strikes. Israelis call this mowing the grass. The strategy must introduce covert capacities for clandestine operations to hurt Pakistan’s military though India will find it easier to disincentivise Pakistan from its fatal attraction to terrorism as an instrument of state policy diplomatically than militarily. Not one country criticised India for the defensive cross-border counter terrorism operations while Pakistan was censured by several countries with even its all-weather ally China merely mentioning “respect for sovereignty.” Two things are clear: Pakistan cannot be completely isolated diplomatically; terrorist organisations are Pakistan’s strategic assets and military equaliser and while they may lie low for some time, they cannot be wished away. Pakistan’s decision to release Abhinandan as a peace gesture was the button for de-escalation. A Pakistani delegation will arrive tomorrow for Kartarpur Corridor conversations. It will soon be business as usual as India begins to fight bitter electoral battles for the next eight weeks to determine whether Balakot will give Prime Minister Narendra Modi the decisive majority for another term. Public mood at present is overwhelmingly for his return to power. The imponderable is what will Modi do if there is another mass casualty terrorist attack in the run up to elections whose footprint cannot be traced to Pakistan. Or there is a dramatic Rafale exposure pointing at him. In the first case, air strikes might appear to be the most appropriate instrument of response once the signature on the envelope is deciphered. The IAF has consistently complained that the inherent flexibility and non-escalatory character of air power has not been recognised (this has to be taken with a grain of salt). It recalls the historic folly of Nehru not employing the IAF in 1962. Former Air Chief Marshal Fali Major this month at the India Today conclave advocated the use of helicopter gunships in support of Army in eliminating terrorists in Kashmir – many of whom are Pakistanis. I have been saying this for over a decade: use armed helicopters to give quick closure to hostile engagements in Kashmir. Air strikes in PoK/Pakistan may not work again as Pakistan Air Force will not be caught napping. Further, Pakistan’s strategic assets will be re-located close to population centres, some even embedded close to cantonments. IAF may have opened a strategic window but another air strike will be fraught with risks of attrition and escalation. What stood out during Balakot is that India, while winning the air battle lost the battle of narratives. Pakistan’s DG ISPR, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, started his campaign of fake news within minutes of the air strikes against our own disorganised presentations 14 hours later. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s terse statement with no questions taken left multiple doubts after Ghafoor had belittled the damage caused by our air strikes. Similarly MEA spokesperson accompanied by an IAF officer, who did not utter a word, also appeared without anything new or useful to add. Later, at a chaotic tri-service briefing, some picture emerged about the air battles, prospects for escalation (India will respond only if Pakistan escalates) and likely damage assessment – targets that were designated had been destroyed. This was reiterated by the Air Chief who added that IAF does not make any estimate of casualties and it is for the government to give out details of damage and casualties. In Pakistan, not just Ghafoor but both Prime Minister Khan and Foreign Minister Qureshi were addressing domestic as well as the international audience. No Indian minister said a word at any formal interaction with the media. The military completely lost the media plot, having done impressive daily media briefings during Kargil. Not for nothing is the international media challenging India’s claims of damage and casualties.The government says it has the data but will not put it out as the enemy will find out IAF’s technology advantage. In the perception battle, Pakistan has won hands down.
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