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Three years ago, we were on the brink of war

India had sent a strong message by choosing to hit a target inside Pakistan. But the IAF had missed the designated target, shot down its own helicopter
Last Updated : 26 February 2022, 21:11 IST

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Three years ago this day, the lives of more than 1.6 billion people were in danger when India and Pakistan teetered on the edge of a military conflict after the Balakot episode. In the hype and hoopla over Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s moustache and the electoral success of PM Narendra Modi, amplified by the jingoism of hyper-nationalist media commentators, it is forgotten that the two nuclear-armed neighbours threatened to shoot missiles at each other on February 27, 2019.

Kya humne apne nuclear bomb Diwali ke liye rakhe hue hain (have we kept our nuclear bomb for Diwali),” was how Modi justified it, only weeks after the crisis. If things had not fortuitously fallen in place, the scenario would not have been of a Diwali celebration but, to cite Modi’s ominous evocation, of a “qatl ki raat (a night of slaughter).”

As Russia invades Ukraine and the Chinese military sits on Indian territory in Ladakh, it is worthwhile recalling the events of February 2019 that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of “a night of slaughter”.

On February 14 that year, a young Kashmiri boy drove an explosive-laden car into a bus carrying CRPF troopers near Pulwama in South Kashmir. More than 40 CRPF men died in the suicide attack, which was linked to Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based terrorist group.

Neither have questions about the quantity and source of explosives used in the blast been answered satisfactorily so far, nor has responsibility for the intelligence failure fixed on anyone senior in the hierarchy.

Faced with charges of corruption in the Rafale deal and dealing with the economic downturn unleashed by the sudden demonetisation and a flawed GST, the BJP was grappling with a tough electoral contest for Parliament in early 2019. With a largely pliant media furthering his political narrative, Modi grabbed the opportunity to order a retaliatory airstrike on Pakistan. The target was an Islamic seminary in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Though Indian and Pakistani armies have conducted cross-border military strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir for more than 25 years, the two sides had not used airpower after 1971. Even during the Kargil conflict of 1999, the Indian Air Force was strictly told by the Vajpayee government to stay on our side of the LoC. The airstrike on Balakot on the morning of February 26 thus crossed a thick red line.

The outcome of the Balakot airstrike has been clouded in doubt. Western observers, including satellite imagery experts, US government officials, and foreign journalists taken by the Pakistan military to Balakot, are convinced that the IAF missed the targets. The precision-guided munition is believed to have overshot the seminary, hitting the trees on the ridgeline. The evidence presented by the IAF to journalists – I was one of those privately shown those images – was not convincing, but no questions were raised then due to the prevalent nationalistic mood.

As expected, Pakistan launched its own retaliatory strike, near an Army establishment in Nowshera and Poonch in J&K. It claimed to have deliberately chosen an open area as it only wanted to send India a message but did not wish to escalate any further. With the Indian military on high alert, the IAF aircraft scrambled rather quickly to take on the PAF aircraft. An aerial clash ensued, which led to the shooting down of an Indian MiG-21 fighter jet, and the pilot, Wg Cdr Abhinandan, ejected in PoK and was taken captive. In the initial hours, as often happens in the fog of war, there were conflicting reports from both sides, which added to the confusion.

However, the confusion that took a toll was at the Srinagar airbase, where our own forces shot down a helicopter carrying six IAF personnel. More distressingly, the IAF kept quiet about the fratricide, hiding behind the excuse of an ongoing inquiry, to politically benefit the ruling party. The court-martial proceedings against two IAF officers held responsible for the incident began in Chandigarh only this Wednesday.

India had sent a strong message by choosing to hit a target inside Pakistan. But the IAF had missed the designated target, shot down its own helicopter, lost a fighter jet in an aerial skirmish, and its pilot was in Pakistani captivity.

At this point, the crisis seemed to spiral out of control. Media reports suggest that India then threatened Pakistan with a missile strike if the captured pilot was not returned immediately. The message was conveyed at the highest levels by intelligence officials. The accounts vary about the number of missiles that India threatened to fire — six, nine or 12 — but Modi’s public speeches and Pakistani officials have established that the threat, at least in the Pakistani decisionmaker’s calculus, was real.

In turn, Pakistan threatened to rain three times the number of Indian missiles on our cities. It also conveyed this counter-threat to western capitals, which panicked and swung into crisis-control action.

In two closed-door roundtable events, I attended with US government officials in Washington DC that fall, strong western intervention with India at multiple levels – from foreign minister to foreign secretary to NSA to service chiefs – was confirmed. Despite these efforts, the threat of escalation persisted till Pakistan PM Imran Khan finally announced the release of the captured pilot. The Indian government subsequently put out a statement that the Indian Navy, including its nuclear submarines, were in an operational deployment mode during the period.

Nuclear brinkmanship

While both sides engaged in nuclear brinkmanship, they eventually pulled back in time. Many think that the danger of a nuclear conflict after Balakot has been overblown. That is a mistake. Robert McNamara learnt from Fidel Castro in 1992 that as US Secretary of Defence during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he and his advisers had been wrong in their conjectures: Soviet nuclear weapons were already stationed in Cuba in October 1962 and a US invasion of Cuba would have almost certainly met with a nuclear response from Moscow. Shaken after learning this, he said the revelation had been “horrifying”. Kennedy and Khrushchev had been lucky. As were Modi and Imran.

True, India and Pakistan are not the USSR and the US, which had hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. But India and Pakistan share a border, which leaves their leaders with little decision time once a missile has been fired. A missile fired from Pakistan will probably land before the warning of its launch reaches decision-makers in Delhi. Whether a missile carries a conventional warhead or a nuclear one will always be a matter of imperfect assessment in the dense fog of war, further amplifying the risks and dangers in South Asia.

Pakistan has always been seen as the reckless actor in the region, one that negotiates with the world by holding a gun to its head. In India’s case, handsome political reward by the electorate for aggressive military behaviour in recent years has created a perverse incentive for risky offensive action. As India moves closer to another general election in 2024, we need to ask ourselves, are we going to depend on luck when the next crisis confronts us, or are we willing to sleepwalk into the “qatl ki raat”?

(Sushant Singh is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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Published 26 February 2022, 18:09 IST

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