Last week the world media was gripped with the news of Indian airstrikes inside Pakistan followed a day later by Pakistani figher jets (which allegedly included F-16s) apparently intruding or flying very close to the LOC and atleast one of the Indian jets, MiG 21, pursuing the Pakistani fighter planes getting hit with both the plane & its pilot falling into the PoK region.
Initially the Pakistani army & political establishment claimed that they had downed two Indian jets and that they had 2 Indian pilots in their custody but this was corrected a little while later to the claim the custody of only 1 Indian pilot.
There is only one pilot under Pakistan Army’s custody. Wing Comd Abhi Nandan is being treated as per norms of military ethics. pic.twitter.com/8IQ5BPhLj2
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) February 27, 2019
Two days later the Indian pilot was handed over to India after the Pakistani PM Imran Khan made an official announcement within their parliament. The prompt release of the Indian pilot is considered by some to have gone a long way in de-escalation though heavy shelling at LOC from both sides appears to be still ongoing.
However, behind this unfolding story that dominated International media for a few days, there are other developments preceding and succeeding it which also need to be looked into.
The reason why India was forced to carry out the airstrikes deep into Pakistan in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the massive suicide attack on a CRPF convoy of about 75 buses transporting 2500 soldiers back to the borders after their holidays. This attack martyred more than 40 Indian soldiers and caused a huge uproar across the nation. The Indian government was quick to point to Pakistan for the attack and as per The Hindu newspaper, the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for the attack with the suicide bomber being a local Kashmiri youth.
The NDA government in India under Narendra Modi had so far tried to project a no-nonsense image against terrorism, especially in Kashmir. As a result, the Uri attack was followed by what India claimed was a major ‘surgical strike’ across the border into PoK that apparently left many dead in the terrorist lauchpads. The recent Pulwama attack was bigger than Uri and so the Modi government was expected to do something akin to the ‘surgical strike’ or maybe bigger. Modi warned of a retaliation and the air was thick in anticipation. The Balakot airstrikes followed 12 days later.
The Pakistani narrative all along has been that there is no proof of Pakistani involvement in the Pulwama attack and that it was willing to act upon the terrorist organisations inside Pakistan if India provided them ‘actionable intelligence’. The Pakistani political establishment argues that given the precarious economic position Pakistan finds itself in, it is in no position for adventurism and carry out the Pulwama attack and create more problems for itself. It has been also preaching peace non-stop. The release of the Indian pilot was also apparently meant to further this Pakistani objective.
Who’s behind the Pulwama attack ?
In consonance with the Pakistani establishment preaching peace and innocence has been the narrative within Pakistan which suggests that it is Narendra Modi & his Govt consisting of Hindu fundamentalists who want war and bloodshed and who are just looking for an excuse to start a war. Apparently this war hysteria & jingoism across India against Pakistan is Modi’s own making which he has created to help him win the upcoming elections which he would otherwise lose. Infact the demonisation of Modi in Pakistani media has been a constant feature ever since he became the PM candidate from the BJP for the 2014 polls. In newspapers like the Dawn, there does not pass by a week without atleast a couple of articles about the ‘misdeeds’ and ‘mal-intentions’ of Modi & RSS/BJP . This has been happening for 5 years now. You are unlikely to find a single Pakistani who has some good to say about Modi. Thats the kind of propoganda the Pakistani media has run against Modi & BJP/RSS with a lot of help from their liberal leftist media friends in India. Many in Pakistani are quite convinced that the Pulwama attack itself was done at the behest of Modi so that he could create a war hysteria and use it to his benefit in the elections.
Nevertheless, the Pulwama attack was not the only major terrorist attack in the region in the past few weeks. Just a day before the Pulwama attack which happened on February 14, there was an identical terrorist attack in Iran where a suicide bomber in a car/van attacked a bus of the elite Revolutionary guards of Iranian armed forces in the Sistan province in which as many as 27 of these soldiers were martyred. The attack was claimed by Jaish-ul-Ahd, a group operating from within Pakistan just like the Jaish-e-Mohammad. It is likely that Jaish-ul-Ahd has links with Lashkar-e-Taiba & the Pakistani establishment.
The Iranians have vowed revenge and they also appear to put the blame on Pakistan.
The extemely identical nature of these terrorist attacks in Iran & India separated by a mere day, and targetting the security forces of these countries travelling in convoys, by jeeps/vans driven by suicide bombers, suggest that these attacks may even have been planned together. If so, it raises the question – could Pakistan have the gumption to carry out such dastardly attacks at the two ends of their neighbourhood ? And to what avail ?
If Pakistan is given the benefit of doubt, it still does not mean that groups based within the Pakistani soil did not carry out these attacks. But could it be there is some external agency or power involved which has enough reach in the South Asian region in general and also in Pakistan, that backed these groups to carry this out ?
The responses of the Iranian leadership immediately after their armed forces were attacked is worth a read.
As per their Supreme leader Khamenei, “It is certain that the perpetrators of this crime were linked to spy agencies of certain regional and trans-regional countries and Iran’s relevant organizations must focus on that and seriously pursue it.”
Their President Rouhani while blaming the US & Israel as the “root causes of terror” in the region, urged Iran’s neighboring countries to “fulfill their legal obligations” within the framework of the principle of good neighborliness and prevent the terrorist groups from using their soil to launch attacks against their neighbors. In this last bit, the neighbouring country he had in mind appears to none other than Pakistan.
Could the Iranian leadership be onto something here and could it be that other more formidable powers with interests in the region, especially in Afghanistan & Pakistan, had a role in the twin attacks ? Surely one should not let Pakistan off the hook. It appears that even Iran argues about Pakistani complicity in the attack on its forces,
“Pakistan’s government, who has housed these anti-revolutionaries and threats to Islam, knows where they are and they are supported by Pakistan’s security forces,” said Revolutionary Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, referring to terror group Jaish al-Adl (“Army of Justice”).
“If (the Pakistan government) does not punish them, we will retaliate against this anti-revolutionary force, and whatever Pakistan sees will be the consequence of its support for them,” Ali Jafri warned.
However, could it be that the terrorist organisations and their military/ISI backers are a law unto themselves who perhaps do not even willingly answer to the Pakistani establishment and are willing to do the work of the highest bidder ? In such an environment, an external power can certainly find much opportunity to further its own ends.
The Aftermath of the Indian air-strikes
Apparently, after the air strikes, there was also a threat of a missile attack on Pakistan, as claimed by the political leadership of Pakistan (Imran Khan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi), a perilous situation that was subsequently diffused. It also appears that the US among all the external players involved in the region, has played the most active and significant role in diffusing the situation between India & Pakistan.
The statement by Donald Trump from Hanoi, Veitnam of some “reasonably attractive” news coming from India-Pakistan followed by the release of IAF pilot as well as the Pakistan Foreign Minister profusely thanking the Americans in playing the lead role in diffusing the tensions is clear pointing to such an inference.
As per Qureshi, “I would especially like to thank US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. By utilising private diplomacy, the US has played a very positive role. I’d also like to mention the efforts of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the UAE for trying to defuse the situation through diplomacy.”
The response from China has been on the other hand quite muted. It has also refused to take sides with Pakistan, whether in defending it from the Pulwama attack accusation or after the Balakot airstrike. China has merely asked both the countries to sort out the differences between themselves.
It could very well be that sensing an opportunity in the ongoing crisis to further its own ends, the US forced itself into the mediation between the two countries. In response to relieving the pressure from India, Iran & Afghanistan, India would have likely asked for strict concrete steps being taken against LeT & JeM and their leaders. However, it is also certain that the US would also have asked for its pound of flesh in the bargain in the form of Pakistani support in the US activities in the region, such as in the US talks with the Taliban. It may also have been a way for the US to convey to Pakistan that in a crisis with India, it was only the US and not China that can help it. If Pakistan has acquiesced to the US demands, we may even see some economic aid given to them by the US pretty soon.
What can India do ?
It seems to be clear that the US and Indian interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not converging. In the current flare-up, the US appears to not be completely on the Indian side. While it has condemned the terrorist attack, batted for India’s right to respond and asked Pakistan to act against the terrorists on its soil, it has taken an attitude of reconciliation rather than confrontation with Pakistan.
As far as India is concerned, one of the things that has changed from the Indian side is that it has shown a willingness to respond to a cross-border terrorist attack with significant escalation. This raises the stakes for all those countries with interests in the Af-Pak region such as the US, Russia & China as well as for the wider international community. India’s entreaties to other countries about terrorism emanating from Pakistan which harms it, will henceforth be taken with a greater urgency. The airstrikes did not just send a signal to the Pakistani establishment and they may have also served to remind the world community that India is in no mood to take this lying down and if they want things to run smoothly, they ought to exert pressure on Pakistan.
It appears now that Pakistan has for the time being at the very least started acting against the terrorist organisations if the news coming out of Pakistan is to be believed. Besides the Indian pressure, the imminent blacklisting under FATF is also hanging like a Damocles’ sword on Pakistan’s neck. But India remains unconvinced because it has often seen such actions being reversed in the past.
It remains to be seen what the larger Indian objective is and how will it be achieved. One likely strategy is to bring Iran & Afghanistan on the same page as India and portray them as victims of Pakistan based rogue elements. How much support does India get from the US in this is anybody’s guess.
While the Imran Khan government has unequivocally said that it wants nothing but peace with India, it has still made all efforts to highlight the Kashmir issue and sell its narrative of Indian atrocities in Kashmir. So, it is clear that though Pakistan seeks peace it still wants it on its own terms. As long as Pakistan maintains this obstinacy peace in the region will remain elusive. If Pakistan is sincere about peace, it should stop its focus on Kashmir. If India-Pakistan relations improve it is quite natural that the terrorism in Kashmir and alleged Indian atrocities are going to die down. So why does Pakistan not see this ? Perhaps because it still harbors a desire of wresting Kashmir out of Indian control, if not as a Pakistani province than as a independent country under its absolute influence. This will quite obviously not be acceptable to India at any cost. The sooner the Pakistani establishment lets go off this, the better it would be for peace in the region.
In the long term, the South Asian region needs to come together as one block if it wants World powers to stop meddling in the region. The biggest stumbling block is the Indo-Pakistani conflict on Kashmir and Pakistan’s willingness to act as a client state of world powers like the US and China who are only chasing after their own interests. China has a firm handle on Pakistan at the moment and it is unlikely that China will let go off it anytime soon but the Pulwama crisis has left the Chinese in an awkward position. With Pakistan giving the lion’s share of the credit for de-escalation to the US, the Chinese have had to themselves come forward and claim that it too played a ‘constructive’ role in the de-escalation. What this means for the future is anybody’s guess.