Balakot Strike: The Forward Flight Path
Each nuclear power has its own way of viewing the utility of its Nuclear Arsenal. Superpowers view it as an umbrella under which their blocks of influence can wither the turbulent times. Others see it as a deterrent against geopolitical rivals and a necessary evil to ensure peace by assuring Mutual Destruction in the event of transgression. Some (like North Korea) see it as a nuisance to draw world attention to for their sustenance. In the Indian sub-continent, nuclear power was initially seen as a balancing force given the asymmetry in the conventional capabilities of the armed forces of India and Pakistan. However, soon this evolved to become a shield for the asymmetric warfare between non-state actors supported by one nuclear power to create unrest in the other. The underlying belief for this approach was that given the threat of nuclear war, the conventionally superior state would not use its military capability in response to Acts of terror, and the world powers would be forced to arbitrate and ensure restraint. This doctrine was put to test and proven at least on two occasions i.e. in the wake of attack on Indian Parliament in December 13, 2001; Mumbai Terror Attacks in November 26, 2008. On both the occasions, India resorted to flexing its military muscle in the form of build ups but stopped way short of taking any action against Pakistan.
India and Pakistan have been locked in a vicious conflict over the past seven decades. The two neighbours have gone to war on three occasions in 1948, 1965 & 1971 and an armed conflict short of war in 1999. The main bone of contention between the two remains the state of Jammu and Kashmir to which both the countries stake claim and parts of which both the powers control. And in this contest that the use of non-state actors has been more of a norm than an exception. In fact, two of the three Indo-Pak wars i.e. 1918 & 1965 were initiated by action through non-state actors code named as Operation Gulmarg and Operation Gibraltor respectively.
While the motivations of the State of Pakistan (which essentially means the Pakistani Army) stem from its twin obsessions of Strategic Depth in Afghanistan and wresting Kashmir from India, the various non-state actors are motivated by Islamic radicalisation which has a history of more than two centuries of evolution in the sub-continent. The canon fodder for these Tanzeems has been the youth (population of whom in the sub-continent is seeing the biggest bulge in the age pyramid due to Malthusian dynamics) – underfed, underemployed and kept under educated by misplaced Government policies and vested interests in the feudal agrarian landscape. The harmony between the puppet and the puppeteer is so complete in this show that the lines between the two become dangerously on occasions. This harmony is best demonstrated by the functioning of Quetta Shura (whose street address were famously claimed to be known to the US -); Lashkar-e-Taiba operating from Masjid Qadsiya in Chowburji in Lahore and Jaish-e-Mohammad operating from Bahawalpur.
On Feb 16, 2019 terrorists belonging to this very Jaish-e-Mohammad carried out a suicide blast killing nearly 40 soldiers in Pulwama in the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir. Following the attack, under the mounting political pressure and recognising a paradigm shift in the nature of militancy in J&K, the Indian political leadership decided to undertake pre-emptive strikes aimed at terror infrastructure belonging to the JeM, the group that claimed responsibility for the Pulwama suicide bombing. The first option available was Bahawalpur, the Hqrs of the group. The city houses the main Madrassa of the group as well as the full-fledged terror training facility, Jamia Masjid Subhan Allah. But a civilian population of nearly 800,000 made such a strike imbued with the risk of huge civilian casualties. Therefore, attention shifted to the Balakot Training Camp located in the rugged hilly terrain of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This camp was widely known as the second biggest facility of the terror group where the experience and expertise of Afghan veterans was used to sharpen the teeth of fresh recruits for Kashmiri Jihad.
In a meticulously planned operation, the Indian Air Force, on Feb 26, managed to breach Pakistan air defence, enter deep into the Pakistan air space and launched an assault on the terror training infrastructure. Though the exact number of casualties remain a matter of debate, the intention and purpose of the attack to numb the terror groups into inaction by escalating the cost to them met with success. The Pakistan Air Force retaliated the very next day and targeted Indian military establishments located close to the Line of Control (the line that divides Indian & Pakistani possession of Kashmir). In the air skirmish that followed, the Indian Air Force using age-old Mig-21 Bisons (retrofitted to enable use of Vympel R-73 air-to-air missiles) managed to shoot down one of the Pak jets (F-16 or a JF-17) before losing one Mig-21 of their own.
The events that followed went on to prove that the nuclear threshold, an intangible concept, is a function of many factors including military capabilities, battle hardiness, battle fatigue as well as cultural percepts and the mere presence of nuclear arsenal does not rule out the use of conventional military might in a direct manner. Despite this air battle and huge artillery exchanges, the fact that these two nuclear powers did not escalate the conflict was seen by many as calling off of the nuclear bluff i.e. the limited utility of nuclear deterrence as a cover while using non-State actors for achievement of geo-political goals.
What does this departure indicate for the future? The answer lies in the womb of time. Sources well versed with the Kashmir conflict indicate that terror infrastructure in the Pak-controlled area of Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan has resurfaced. Despite pressure from the Financial Action Task Force, Pakistan, on account of its ambition as well as incapability, has not been able to rein in the non-State actors like JeM and LeT. These groups may be silent for the time being, but they have no intentions of giving up their jihad. However, one thing that is certain, is that any terror attack in the future is bound to invite similar escalation from India, thereby putting the entire idea of nuclear deterrence under increased strain and the world at the age of a nuclear catastrophe once again.
The author is an Advisor, Informing Asia