The Balakot airstrikes have been an unqualified disaster for India on every front. They have shown that we cannot defeat cross-border terror by military means; that we cannot intimidate Pakistan with our conventional military; that Pakistan will retaliate with attacks on our military facilities if we attack terror camps in Pakistan; that our military equipment is outdated; and that the Indian people do not have the stomach for a war. Further, they have given Pakistan a chance to take the high road and act magnanimous with the release of our Air Force pilot, thereby making this a PR victory for Pakistan and its President, Imran Khan.
Some friends of mine are sharing a video of Pakistan PM Imran Khan's speech in the Pakistani Parliament on Facebook, citing it as an example of the statesmanship missing in our country.
I am not going to share it or provide a link to it.
The reason is that while it is a cleverly-written and well-delivered speech, it rests on a base of what I believe are lies.
What the speech illustrates beyond doubt is that the whole Balakot misadventure by India has led to one consequence: it has immeasurably raised Imran Khan's stature, both domestically and internationally.
What are the lies? Imran says that his government had nothing to do with Pulwama. That's a brazen lie. Hafez Saeed and Masood Azhar are both free in Pakistan to organize terrorist activities against India in Kashmir. Despite repeated complaints and dossiers, Pakistan has done nothing to stop them for decades. They keep lying that there is no evidence to convict them. Even when the links of the suicide bomber in Pulwama to the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) are clear, Pakistan has done nothing. They have no intention of doing anything.
Imran claims in the speech that they had taken a decision a while ago not to support any terror activities on their soil, whatever previous governments may have done. There is no evidence of this. To put it indelicately: Imran is lying.
Now that the dust has settled (or is settling) over the whole Pulwama-Balakot episode, we can take stock of what happened.
To put it mildly: the entire episode was a disaster for India.
Imran Khan's speech, in which he masquerades as the messiah of peace, the one rational voice in the subcontinent who wants to prevent nuclear annihilation, in the face of an irrational and warmongering India, is only the latest confirmation of why this is a disaster. Of course this projection of Pakistan is not true; Pakistan continues to support terrorist groups on its soil and claim that it is the victim. It is clear that Imran will do nothing to change this. He is continuing the tactic of demanding proofs when we have given mountains of evidence to Pakistan, which was perfected under Asif Ali Zardari during the 26/11 attacks. But anyone watching that speech of Imran will not guess any of this. It was a masterpiece of obfuscation and grandstanding.
What was achieved with the strikes? Let us look at the sequence of events.
- A JeM suicide bomber killed 49 CRPF jawans in Pulwama.
- We sent aircraft to bomb Balakot. At first there were reports that no damage had been caused and no lives lost; newer (unconfirmed) reports suggest that maybe some 35 militants died in the strike, which Pakistan covered up.
- But then Pakistan retaliated by attacking us at the LOC, and even downed one of our aircraft and took one of our airmen prisoner.
- Then Pakistan acted very magnanimous in releasing him.
- Now the hostilities are over. (There is the routine cross-border shelling that is a constant, of course.)
So, what was achieved?
Clearly, we have not destroyed the terror infrastructure. All we did at most was kill 35 JeM militants.
Some people say that we showed that we wouldn't take a terrorist attack lying down - that we could give it back. Yes, we did give it back but then so did they. So are we even or are they one up? I see it as Pulwama: Pak 1, India 0; Balakot: Pak 1, India 1; Pak retaliation: Pak 2, India 1. We lost. What Pakistan has told us (and Imran says it in his Parliament speech) is that if you strike us, we will strike you back. We have lost the advantage.
When they gave it back, one of our airmen was caught, and it became clear that we no longer had the stomach for war. Did that not expose a weakness in India? Now the Pakistanis know that one PoW and the game is over for India.
Our goal was to wipe out the JeM and to send such a strong message to Pakistan that they would stop cross-border terrorism, if government sources are to be believed. Was this realistic? What have we gained?
All we have now to show for our efforts is that the US, the UK, and France have sponsored a resolution in the UN calling for a ban on JeM.
But we have seen what happens in these cases. Even if the resolution is passed and the ban goes into effect, Masood Azhar will go underground and continue to control his organization, which will change its name. They will say JeM no longer exists. It will just come back to life under a different name and a different nominal leader. Nothing will have been achieved. There are some unsubstantiated rumours about Azhar having been killed, but these have only been circulated by supporters of Mr. Modi so that they have something to show for this disastrous misadventure. Even if that were true, these organizations will not collapse after the death of a single person. The terror will go on. And now, knowing that we targeted them, they will be looking for an opportunity to prove that they can still strike at us. We should be ready and on high alert for a huge terror strike by the JeM in the near future somewhere on Indian soil as they seek revenge on us.
So, the bottomline is that the whole Pulwama-Balakot episode is a disaster. It has achieved nothing for India, and allowed Pakistan to take the high ground as the responsible party which tried hard to de-escalate the situation. From every angle - militarily, politically, the attempt to end terrorism, and public relations - the whole episode has been a debacle for India.
There is an unwritten maxim of war that has been in force in the US ever since Vietnam, but which still continues to be violated by foolish US Presidents. That maxim is: one must only initiate war when one is sure of a comprehensive victory.
President George HW Bush followed this policy in Desert Storm. The objective of that war was not to unseat Saddam Hussein, but to remove him from Kuwait. The US had overwhelming military superiority on land, at sea, and in the air, and reduced Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guard to a pulp.
His son, President George W Bush, did not follow this maxim, and the results have been inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan is actually a comprehensive defeat for the US, and Iraq too is going to be a defeat. In Afghanistan, the contours of the post-war settlement are being made without even consulting the present government that has been supported by the US, telling us how bad the American situation in that country is. That has happened because America went into Afghanistan without a clear idea of what they were doing. They could never finish off the Taliban and the al-Qaeda. To be sure, they killed a lot of important Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, but these organizations are not crippled if one or two leaders are killed. That should have been a lesson to India, but who is listening?
What went wrong in Afghanistan? Sure, the US had overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons, but they could not possibly examine every mountain cave. In fact, this is something known to India from our knowledge of Maratha history. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had superiority in conventional forces, but the Marathas defeated him through guerilla warfare and by hiding in the hills.
All this knowledge should have informed India that it was impossible to defeat terrorism or even reduce it with a single “surgical strike” in the mountainous areas of Pakistan. You need a prolonged war, and you need the assistance of the Pakistanis, to defeat the terrorists. And that is not likely to happen anytime soon, considering that it is the Pakistani military and the ISI themselves who enable the terrorists in the first place.
Were the Indian defence forces unaware of all this? Highly unlikely. So why were the Balakot attacks carried out?
One word: Optics. The Indian government wanted to send a message that it could retaliate, to satisfy the anger of the people who were outraged about the Pulwama attack. Unfortunately for us, the Pakistanis retaliated, and now it is clear that this course of action cannot be repeated in the future. This is like the story of the warrior Karna in the Mahabharata, who could use his irresistible Indra Shakti only once. Our Indra Shakti was military retaliation using air strikes. We have used our Indra Shakti, and it is now impotent. We now know that a military attack on Pakistan or on terror camps will not solve the terror problem in Kashmir.
Balakot has failed to achieve any useful strategic or tactical objective. It has been a failure in military terms. It has only exposed our weaknesses, which is a good thing. It has shown us that our military equipment is outdated and that the common people do not have the stomach for a war. And that last fact may be the most useful lesson from this charade, because it will discourage any future administration from embarking on a similar course of action, knowing that the capture of a single PoW can drastically diminish the apettite of the populace for war.
What this tells us is that the hardline policy of the present government on Kashmir is a failure. Kashmir cannot have a military solution: it needs a political solution. Whether that political solution can happen will depend on the willingness of both India and Pakistan to make concessions. Until that day comes, peace in Kashmir is a distant dream.