Parley | ‘Abhinandan’s release was a saving grace for both sides’

Parley | ‘Abhinandan’s release was a saving grace for both sides’

In the aftermath of the air strikes by India and Pakistan, strategic experts Happymon Jacob and Dhruva Jaishankar debate the responses by both sides and the outcome, in a discussion moderated by Suhasini Haidar. Excerpts:

Have we reached a point of no return? Have the air raids into Pakistan been a successful advance in India’s strategic response to cross-border terror?

Happymon: Yes and no. Yes, because unlike earlier occasions, Indian forces actually crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and struck a target in mainland Pakistan. The Indian side wanted to create a new military normal by this action and this is unprecedented. But the Pakistanis have also struck back through their own air attacks. They have told India in a way that they won’t accept the new military normal. It is a psychological game, where India wants to push the envelope and Pakistan wants to ensure that India does not do that.

Suhasini Haidar in conversation with Happymon Jacob, Dhruva Jaishankar

Dhruva: I think there are two significant departures. One is striking mainland Pakistan and indicating that India would not be constrained by only Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as a retaliation point. After all, we have had terrorist attacks outside Jammu and Kashmir in other parts of India in the past, so why should India be limited to PoK? The second is the use of air power.

What I do not think will change is any belief that this will actually deter Pakistan. I don’t think that terrorist infrastructure would be wound down tomorrow. So, in that sense, I don’t think it’s a departure. It’s part of an evolution. The one other change has been somewhat on the diplomatic front… the reactions of the U.S., Europe, Australia and others, and to a lesser extent the Gulf countries, in terms of accepting India’s strike as pre-emptive self-defence.

Happymon, in normal times, we hear Pakistani generals and officials talking about tactical nuclear weapons. Yet, in this crisis, not once have we heard the word ‘nuclear’. So India has, in a sense, called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Would you agree?

Happymon: The Pakistani side has always maintained, in Track II forums, that it is not as if Pakistan is going to use a nuclear bomb against Indian conventional aggression on day one. They have indicated that they have enough material to fight for at least two weeks. So, you’re looking at the possibility of nuclear weapon use coming only at the end of that process. Second, the Pakistanis have also indirectly made it clear that anything India does within PoK, they will not respond with nuclear threats. Third, in this case, there was no nuclear posturing from their side. So, it would be incorrect to say that the Indian strike has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. At the same time, it has conveyed in no uncertain terms to Pakistan that India will retaliate one way or the other to terror.

Dhruva, do you think from the international perspective there was a real fear of escalation?

Dhruva: It was a very interesting 48 hours after the Balakot strikes. The first day, after India indicated that this would be a limited strike, I didn’t think they were concerned. But after the afternoon or evening of February 27 and the morning of February 28, there were a lot of panicky phone calls and messages going around the world about this.

It is also sometimes in Pakistan’s interest to over-inflate the potential nuclear dangers because that is often used to invite third-party mediation, particularly to put constraints, as they see it, on India. We saw this on February 27 and early morning of the 28th.

Happymon: I agree, except that before a strike happens, it is in Pakistan’s interest to inflate the nuclear threat. But once a strike happens, it is important for the Pakistani side to say, ‘no, we never said that,’ to be seen as lowering the threshold. It’s about the post- and pre-posturing.

It seemed as if Pakistan then used the panic over the attacks in order to bring everybody in. Do you think that’s one of the frustrations for Indian strategists — that in this escalatory ladder, it’s always the case that no matter what India is able to do, Pakistan will then bring in this nuclear threat or the threat of escalation between the two countries to defuse it?

Happymon: Absolutely, it’s in Pakistan’s interest to play to the international community and tell them that it is something really bad happening here, so you come in and resolve it. This time, the international community waited for a little while, giving some time to the Indian side, saying ‘you want to do a few things you go ahead and do it, because we’re going to give you leeway’.

Given that we have had many crises, the international community understood how this game gets played in South Asia and that these are not really irrational actors who would nuke each other. There is some steam venting that will happen, and if that steam venting doesn’t happen, it’s going to be more difficult for domestic audiences. So, they understand the nuance of a two-level game that both the sides are playing: one at the domestic level and another at the international bilateral level.

Do you think international mediation is more pronounced than before? Did it actually work?

Dhruva: It’s hard to know what exactly led to the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. There were back-channel talks, and this is a double-edged sword as far as India is concerned. India does not mind mediation as long it puts more pressure on the Pakistanis. But this idea that they would be a neutral party would actually diminish the power disparity between India and Pakistan, which is why India has been resistant to such talks.

Happymon, you were prescient a week before the Balakot strikes. You said, god forbid an Indian pilot should find himself in Pakistani territory. Just as international mediation played a part, do you think that was the turning point… it was not possible for India to escalate once Pakistan had decided to release Wg Cdr Abhinandan?

Happymon: There have been so many times that the Indians and Pakistanis have played this game at the retired military level, at the retired foreign service level… we have gamed this to such an extent that we can expect what the other side is likely to do. The fact that the Pakistanis returned the pilot became the moment of de-escalation. But the Indians probably did not expect such a reaction from the Pakistani side, that you strike a terrorist training camp in Pakistan and they would come at us with such force.

We had a pilot down, a MiG down and then we did not know the next logical step to follow. Because there was no desire on the Indian side to escalate this any further, they probably took the release as a gracious gesture from the Pakistan side. The Pakistanis wanted to send a clear message that they would not take their attack lying down. In the end it suited both sides to look at the release as a saving grace.

Dhruva: It is still significant that there was not a single Indian aircraft that went down in the Balakot operation. The possibility of at least one plane going down in that operation would have been contemplated by the Indian Air Force. They would have thought through to some degree except not exactly how it ended up playing out. The release was in some ways a turning point as it allowed de-escalation on both sides, but I would not over-read this, as a certain amount of pressure was put on Pakistan to try and find a face-saving device.

How important is it for the government to actually put out evidence on the number of casualties in the strike?

Dhruva: I don’t think it’s that important. I think the most significant aspect was that India could show that a strike could be done in the future on a terrorist campaign. One of the reasons why that is so important is we’ve seen after every crisis a pull-back away from the PoK. After 2008, after the 26/11 attacks, we saw Lashkar-e-Taiba move a lot of its assets out of PoK into Pakistan proper, because they were worried about Indian reprisal.

We will find out more information in the coming days and weeks on what exactly happened in Balakot. But I will say there are a few more significant things. One, Pakistan had to effectively admit that it was in touch with Jaish-e-Mohammad, which Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has done twice. The images of a signpost that clearly mentioned Masood Azhar and others have now made the rounds. They had to use F-16s in retaliation, which will have raised red flags in the U.S. because F-16s were provided to Pakistan under conditions that they would not be used for offensive operations. So, I think these things have been somewhat embarrassing to Pakistan.

Happymon: I agree that the objective was to show that India has a resolve to do something vis-a-vis terror wherever it is in Pakistan. But when Pakistan struck back at India, saying that they will not let a new military normal [settle], what we are looking at is the fact that we are back to square one now. Will India strike again? If it strikes, Pakistan will strike back. So, to that extent, the fact that we are back to the status quo, it is important for the government to show evidence of the destruction of the terrorist camp.

Dhruva: If evidence is released, it could add pressure on Pakistan to retaliate. So that is probably why the evidence has not been released.

Pakistan has admitted that Azhar is there. But I do want to ask whether this kind of a strike does have the potential of making Pakistan change its mind, and if not, what will?

Happymon: Absolutely not. This kind of a strike will not and is unlikely to make Pakistan change its mind. We knew that Azhar was in Pakistan for a long time. We know that there are terrorist havens in Pakistan. But the fact is, this sort of a dogfight and the Pakistani messaging was very good for them. Prime Minister Imran Khan came out on top in the battle of perceptions.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi was busy electioneering and campaigning, here was a man who was messaging the international community, addressing Indians and Pakistanis at the same time. His messaging was pretty good and the entire attention has now shifted away from terrorism to escalation and the dogfight and the attack using aircraft against Pakistan. For some reason, I think the messaging has not been all that accurate on our side as far as that particular issue was concerned. There was an additional question about what will make Pakistan crack down on terror. Now, this may be a very unpopular opinion, but I don’t agree with the argument that ‘terror and talks’ don’t go together. I think we should engage in various kinds of talks even when you have a situation of terror being given safe haven in Pakistan. Pakistan is a complicated country. If it is the Army that’s in power there, let’s reach out to the Army.

In the event of another strike of the kind we saw in Pulwama. Do you think India’s response will be targeted strikes on some kind of terror facility or will there be something else?

Dhruva: I think it will have to be something else because I think that card has been played at least this time around. I think there are other options on the table.

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