Even Masood Azhar is not the main issue. Nor is it the ‘magnanimous’ return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. The main issue is, end of terrorism by Pakistan as state policy.
The main question I have about the entire post-Pulwama activity is about the end-game. What is the final resolution? What is India’s intent? What can India realistically expect to achieve, given the sad loss of life, as well as the various constraints we face?
On the one hand, there’s at least one good thing that came out of the entire exercise: the recognition of a military hero. Wing-Commander Abhinandan Varthaman has inspired Indians like few have before him. There were other heroes whom we never shown due respect to: Captain Saurabh Kalia, captured, mutilated, tortured and murdered during Kargil, 1999. Major Shaitan Singh, Param Vir Chakra (posthumous), and 13th Kumaon, C Company, who fought to the last man at Rezang La, 1962.
There is also no respect paid to Emperor Rajendra Chola, who, exactly 1001 years ago, sent a fleet across the Indian Ocean to defeat the maritime Srivijaya Empire in Sumatra. I saw his resting place is a miserable little shed. The victory stambha celebrating Marthanda Varma’s epic win over the Dutch in 1741 at Colachel is now a broken pillar surrounded by cow patties and overgrown with grass.
This is not how others celebrate their war heroes. To cite just one example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became famous in the first place because his brother Yonathan was the only Israeli officer, who died in the Entebbe rescue in 1976. To take another, John Kennedy became US president partly on the strength of his leadership of a patrol boat in the Second World War.
So I am delighted that for practically the first time since independence, a war hero has been feted by the nation. As I write this, it’s been a few days since the nail-biting drama of his release, which the Pakistanis exploited to the hilt. The usual suspects in the media were also full of fulsome praise for Imran ‘peace-gesture-deserves-Nobel-prize’ Khan, though he had no choice in the matter other than to release the prisoner of war (PoW) under the Geneva Convention.
I was quite sure that the Pakistanis would drive a hard bargain for the release of Abhinandan, and I wondered about the quid pro quo. India has done poorly in hostage situations in the past, notably in the 1989 kidnap of Rubaiya Sayeed, sister of Mehbooba Mufti. Of course, the caving in in Kandahar in 1999 was even more outrageous. By giving in to terrorism in both cases, India invited huge costs on itself down the road, most strikingly with Masood Azhar, who was released then. The 1971 release of 93,000 Pakistani PoWs with no quid pro quo was clearly a Himalayan blunder, probably without parallel in the annals of war.
Thus India has been an easy mark and a poor negotiator. And once again, India is doing the dossier-bombing tango, as it has done fruitlessly after every incursion: Pathankot, Uri, to mention a few.
I wondered if the bargain included things India has been keeping quiet about — satellite photos of the downed F-16 or the destroyed structures in Balakot. I don’t know, and most of us outside the charmed circles that do these things don’t know either. But given two things: one, the massive photo op the Pakistanis turned the release of Abhinandan into, and two, the furious support given to them by the Lutyens commentariat and the American #deepstate media, I am now inclined to believe there was no covert deal behind the scenes.
Perhaps others leaned on the Pakistanis. The Americans are furious about two things: their much-lauded F-16 has been shown up badly even in the hands of a top-gun Pakistani pilot, as it was shot down by an aging MiG-21. Secondly, they surely don’t want to be reminded again of their foolish largesse to Pakistan over the years in giving them war material and then finding it’s used in violation of end-user agreements. We could have told them so, and probably did, but this time it’s out in the open.
I suspect Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who, after all, is sugar daddy to the Pakistan Army, may also have given the Pakistanis a little lecture. Here was Mohammed bin Salman on a tour of India and China, trying to drum up support for his regime, which is rocked by the shameful optics of the Yemen war, and stained by the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He needs friends, and he has no particular reason to irritate India at this moment in time.
The Organisation of Islamic Countries also did not leap to Pakistan’s defence with its usual alacrity. The fact that they invited India as a guest of honour pissed off the Pakistanis so much that they boycotted the event in Abu Dhabi. (There might have been other reasons: Pakistan is so short of jet fuel, as Naren Menon suggested in an insightful analysis on opindia.com “Behind the red alert: There’s more to the airspace lockdown in Pakistan than meets the eye”, they can’t do frivolous things like fly some minister to Abu Dhabi)
Even the ever-dependable Chinese did not provide their usual pretzel-logic explanations of why they are shielding Pakistani terrorists. They, too, are a little rattled by the US-led trade war and their slowing economy, and Pakistan, they know, have no choice but to accept whatever they do: note the deafening silence from Pakistan about the brutal oppression of Xinjiang Muslims.
Thus, India had a fair amount of support from countries fed up with every terrorist incident showing Pakistani fingerprints. Besides, Indians are not in any mood to compromise their interests in the pursuit of chimerical peace with Pakistan any more.
In addition, the Pakistanis milked the Abhinandan’s release for all it’s worth, delaying it for hours and then producing a clearly doctored video with the Wing Commander praising the ‘gentlemanly’ treatment he received at the hands of the Pakistanis, even though he had been beaten up, his face bloodied, and I hear, his spine damaged. He may also have been injected with some disease: we don’t know.
But, all told, much better than what happened to bonafide PoW Saurabh Kalia. The poor Captain and his men, Arjun Ram, Bhanwar Lal Bagaria, Bhika Ram, Moola Ram and Naresh Singh of 4 Jat Regiment, were tortured for three weeks, Wikipedia says, with the Pakistanis “burning their bodies with cigarettes, piercing the ear-drums with hot rods, puncturing eyes before removing them, breaking most of their teeth and bones, fracturing their skulls, cutting the lips, chipping of nose, chopping off limbs and private organs of the soldiers, and finally shooting them dead”.
Combined with the beheadings and mutilations of other troops on the Line of Control (LoC), this gives us an idea of how the Pakistani side normally behaves: as barbaric raiders rather than a professional army. That they were forced to quickly release Abhinandan is a secondary indication of the fact that “New India” is different.
On the one hand, given India’s growing economic clout, as the fifth largest economy in real terms (having just overtaken Britain), the rest of the world is interested in selling things to a “billion Indians”. And things have come a long way from the dark days of 1971, when the Indian plan to liberate the then-East Pakistan was condemned by an overwhelming 104-11 in the United Nations General Assembly, with the USSR, Cuba and Bhutan among the few on India’s side.
But the mainstream media (MSM), both in Lutyens India and in the West, is reflexively anti-India. Pakistan is a master at catering to their prejudices, and so milked the optics of the situation to the max, as though by releasing Abhinandan, the problem had been solved. Shortly after that, they floated the rumour that Masood Azhar, is dead or dying. A brilliant diversionary tactic, which also throws a crumb to Indians, suggesting the plausible scenario of ‘proof’ that the Balakot strike did kill a number of terrorists (which is hotly denied by the MSM, and quoting them, by bottom feeding politicians in India).
The problem is that Masood Azhar is not the issue. Nor is the ‘magnanimous’ return of Abhinandan. We cannot get distracted by them from the main issue: the end of terrorism by Pakistan as state policy. Pakistan has an exploding population, and terrorists are born every day who can be cheaply indoctrinated and turned into a force-multiplier that the army and China have plausible deniability about. That nexus has to come to an end.
That is the prize we have to keep our eyes on. And if that requires the disintegration of Pakistan into five or so states, that should be actively encouraged by India: a restive Balochistan that is already almost gone, Sind, the former North-West Frontier Province which, with the Durand line erased (it already expired some years ago after its 99-year treaty period) can join Afghanistan, and Balawaristan, the areas of Gilgit, Skardu and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
This is not my analysis alone: it comes from the CIA’s war game scenarios, and my friend Arvind Kumar wrote about this recently in “Redrawing borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan will lead to peace, stability”. With this breakup, the rump Punjabi Pakistan will no longer have the ‘strategic depth’ its army and ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) have craved forever. Think of it along the lines of America doing ‘regime change’.
Pakistan peaked too soon. There is hubris: they smelt big gains in Afghanistan as US President Donald Trump indicated that he wanted to declare victory and run for the exit, as former president Barack Obama did. That prompted the Pakistani Army and associated terrorists to mount three suicide operations: one on 13 February killing 27 of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on the Iran-Afghanistan border; the Pulwama bombing on 14 February, and the Helmand bombing on 28 February killing 32 Afghan troops.
Pakistan assumed that, with its proxy Taliban winning in Afghanistan, it can take on all three of its neighbours with the same tactic. Perhaps strategic over-reach, like China’s, which has boomeranged on them. Ahamkaram often leads to nemesis.
That hubris has been punctured in another way too: Pakistan has used strategic irrationality as a tool for years, threatening that it would escalate to tactical nuclear weapons because it was sure to lose a conventional war with India. Thus the specter of escalation to a nuclear war was supposed to hang over India like a Damocles’ sword, and successive Congress governments used that as an excuse to back off from severe retaliation against Pakistan for terrorism.
The current government has overcome this fear factor. Indeed, the strategic ambiguity is from the Indian side now. Let us note that in the wake of the Balkot attack, the Pakistan raid on India, and the Abhinandan transfer, the Indian government has said nothing at all about de-escalation, or talks, or anything conciliatory. India is keeping all its options open, including for punitive raids, or blockades. It has moved 10 columns of troops to Jammu and Kashmir, and Indian submarine INS Kalvari has been seen 150 miles off Karachi, as per the Pakistanis themselves.
These are signals. India is signaling that there will no abrupt caving in, in the face of “international pressure” (of which there was actually none), or “international media censure” (of which there was plenty from the usual suspects like New York Times, The Economist, Financial Times, The Guardian, et al.) Apparently, the Indian government doesn’t give a damn any more what these journalists say.
By violating Pakistani air space and bombing Balakot, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has exposed Pakistani lack of capability. Their fancy Chinese radars were jammed and the IAF faced no opposition in its sortie, and the planes delivered their payloads and returned. This is hugely shameful for Pakistan, because Balakot is not that far from Rawalpindi, their army headquarters. It was an emphatic statement that India will use the standard tactical option of “hot pursuit” into Pakistan. The use of Israeli munitions and electronic warfare systems, as well as an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System), stepped up the game.
The question of whether the Balakot strike successfully obliterated a major Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camp, and whether it killed Masood Azhar and other JeM bigwigs is still up in the air, but it doesn’t matter. That’s why the Pakistani disinformation campaign about the death of Masood Azhar was a one day’s wonder. Nobody actually cares about that individual, only the end-game. The fact that India is able to and will do aerial operations is a fact that Pakistani generals have to worry about.
There are several other open questions as well. The IAF did well to repulse the Pakistani incursion into J&K, with the intent of attacking military installations, which according to India were not harmed. The fact that F-16s were used (the AMRAAM missile is definitive proof) and that one of them was shot down is also widely accepted: even the Pakistanis had claimed in their initial communiques that two IAF planes had been downed and three pilots who bailed out had been captured. So there were three parachutes with pilots ejecting from their planes.
What happened to the others, other than Abhinandan? It is said that the F-16 was flown by one Shahbazuddin, a top gun in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and that when his plane went down, locals who chanced upon it mistook him for an Indian and beat him to death. Perhaps that is true, but then where is the third airman? What happened to him?
There are several possibilities here. One is that the shame of being shot down was so great that the ISI and Pakistani Army themselves murdered Shahbazuddin. Or did he die from injuries sustained during the dogfight or while landing? Where is his co-pilot?
Where, indeed, is the wreckage of the F-16, for conclusive evidence that it was shot down by the Indian MiG? India surely has satellite imagery.
What brought Abhinandan’s MiG-21 down? Was it a missile from the F-16, or was it ground fire? If it was ground fire, was it anti-aircraft fire from PoK, or was it some kind of surface-to-air missile (like a Stinger) on the Indian side of the LoC? That last would be a serious danger to Indian civilian aircraft as well. Did the Pakistan convoy of 24 aircraft deliberately try to lure the MiGs who engaged them to cross the LoC because they wanted to have a showpiece PoW?
Did people in India know about the coming Pulwama attack? Obviously the suicide bomber and his accomplices knew (it appears as though most of them, including his handler, have been wiped out), but did others know? Before Godhra, in 2002, online chatter in the US was agog that something was going to happen. Similarly, were there those who knew something was going to go down?
Finally, what’s next? Is India going to lower its guard, now that the Pulwama massacre is fading from public memory? This has happened before: after the Parliament attack in 2001, India massed troops at the border in Operation Parakram, and there was the chance of full-fledged war. But then the Godhra train fire happened, and the troops had to be redeployed, and the window of opportunity was lost.
Are we seeing a replay? Is the Indian public’s anger and anguish over Pulwama going to come to naught, and it will be business as usual for Pakistan and its state support of terrorism? That is not a good end game.