The recent listing of Masood Azhar, the head of the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, came as a shot in the arm for India’s ruling BJP party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Azhar’s listing under the UN sanctions committee had been long sought by India, since 2001 when his organization claimed responsibility for the attack on the Indian parliament. It was also a huge diplomatic victory for India, as China acquiesced, removing its longstanding objection. In the words of Maj. Gen. B.K. Sharma, the head of research and strategic studies of the United Services Institute of India, sanctioning Masood is testimony of Pakistan’s duplicity.
The spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to announce that the listing “…shows that in international counter-terrorism cooperation, we have to uphold the rules and procedures of relevant UN body…I would like to stress that Pakistan has made enormous contributions to fighting terrorism, which deserves the full recognition of the international community. China will continue to firmly support Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorist and extremist forces.”
However, a closer look will reveal that this is part of a larger pattern and there is an international appreciation for India’s concerns regarding cross-border terrorism.
The February 14, 2019 Pulwama attacks came as a rude shock for India, when 42 paramilitary personnel lost their lives in a suicide attack by a 21-year-old radicalized resident of state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan-based terror group the Jamaat ud Dawa claimed responsibility.
The government at the center came under attack by the opposition for what was obviously a major intelligence failure. In an election year this was akin to sacrilege. It was also a clear-cut case of cross-border terrorism. India’s response was unprecedented. While diplomatically drumming up support from the international community in its favor against terrorism, it took the dramatic step of hitting targets inside Pakistani territory. On February 26, Indians awoke to the news that India had launched three strikes against alleged targets housing terrorists.
Vijay Ghokale, the Foreign Secretary announced, “In an intelligence led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated.” He also said, “The Government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism. Hence this non-military preemptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp. The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties. The facility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence.”
The widespread jubilance however was short-lived. For one, the announcement that “hundreds” of terrorists had been killed was bitterly disputed and questioned, in Pakistan and in India as well. Spokesperson of the Pakistan Armed Forces, Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted that “Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back.” Reuters quoted local villagers as saying the strikes had claimed only one casualty.
Soon after, an Italian journalist Francisca Marino, with intimate knowledge of Pakistan, reported that about 37 persons had been killed or injured. However, the information department of Pakistan trashed this and the Indian narrative.
But for India worse was in store. Pakistani combat aircrafts — said to be F16s — violated Indian air space in a tit for tat measure, and took captive of an Indian air force officer who had given chase, entered Pakistani territory and then had to parachute himself there. From jubilation the mood of the nation turned somber. While the clamor for the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman grew louder by the hour in India, it made for perfect optics for Pakistan.
Here was a jubilant country, at the receiving end of its bigger more powerful neighbor, yet standing its own ground valiantly. The Director General of Pakistan Armed Forces’ media wing, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor tweeted that Pakistan had brought down two pilots and one pilot had been admitted to the hospital. Later it was found that one aircraft and one of the pilots brought down (and lynched) turned out to be Pakistan’s. However, it was eclipsed by the excitement generated by Pakistan’s audacity to violate Indian airspace and the dogfight that followed. His subsequent media conferences were well organized and crisp while the Indian media spoke in multiple voices. While some parroted the government claims, others disputed them.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan played the perfect statesman, when unconditionally he announced the release of the Indian pilot in the Pakistani parliament. The international media, as also the Indian media, was effusive with praise for Khan. In comparison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to be belligerent and vengeful. At home too, Modi came under attack from the political opposition and sections of civil society, including the media. In Pakistan, on the contrary, a petition was launched calling for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Khan. Calls for peace reverberated across the globe. Whereas in Pakistan the media and civil society spoke in a united voice, India once again came across as divided.
So, did Pakistan win this round? The optics would certainly suggest so. Yet, analysts believed that India had the edge in this entire crisis. A closer look at events too suggested so.
First, let us look to the interim period between the terror attack in India and India’s punitive strikes against Pakistan. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or MBS as he is popularly known departed on his Asia trip. His itinerary included Pakistan, India, and China. He first landed in Islamabad where he signed deals worth USD 20 billion, signalling that both sides had successfully overcome the differences that had crept into the relationship over Pakistan's refusal to join the war in Yemen.
Then, instead of proceeding to Delhi on the second leg of his tour, the crown prince returned to Riyadh and a couple of days later landed in Delhi in what seemed to be a stand-alone visit to India. It was widely believed that diplomatic sources in Delhi had requested MBS to not club India with Pakistan on his visits, and MBS had duly obliged. In Delhi, he called Modi his elder brother, made all the right noises, and though Pakistan was not named, terrorism as a common enemy made it to the joint statement. India’s strikes came soon after the visit and the Pakistan media speculated that India must have won tacit Saudi approval to go ahead with its punitive action. Similarly, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had discussed with his US counterpart just a few days before the strikes — on February 15 — who as reported by the Press Trust of India said “we support India’s right to self-defense.”
Indian analysts believed that India had very clearly
won this round by breaching a red line, calling Pakistan’s bluff, and
undertaking surgical strikes.
Indian analysts believed that India had very clearly won this round by breaching a red line, calling Pakistan’s bluff, and undertaking surgical strikes.
Furthermore, to Pakistan's dismay, which has always claimed special relationship with the Arab world, and of course with the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) — a 57-member grouping of Muslim majority countries, the OIC issued a statement not as strong as Pakistan had expected. In fact, Iran, an important member of the OIC, also came down heavily on Pakistan at the same time for the killing of 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards near the Iran-Pakistan border on February 13, which it said had been planned and carried out by Pakistani citizens.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which Khan had put in special effort to deepen ties and seek financial assistance from, were working the back channels. In fact, they, after the US, were the most involved in diffusing tensions. The UAE Crown Prince Mohammad Al Nahyan spoke to both Modi and Khan on the phone. While Khan came out the perfect statesman, it was US President Donald Trump who at a press conference on February 27 gave the game away, saying he was expecting some “reasonably decent news” from India and Pakistan where “we have been involved in trying to help them”.
Sure enough, the pilot was released unconditionally by the Pakistan authorities and returned to a hero’s welcome in India. The Saudi king dispatched minister Al Jubeir to Islamabad on February 28 with “an important message”, while on the same day the Saudi Ambassador to India Mohammed al Sati met with Modi. The UAE Ambassador to India Ahmad Abanna later stated in public that the UAE too was involved in de-escalating tensions between the two nuclear armed neighbors. He said that “we have played an important role in reducing tension between India and Pakistan”.
Both Russia and China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, also impressed upon Pakistan the futility of ratcheting up tensions any further, while calling for peace and dialogue in their public statements. Indian media and strategic circles noted that China had not extended the exact support that Pakistan would have expected. A smiling Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj with her Chinese and Russian counterparts at the routine Russia-India-China (RIC) meeting in Wuzhen the very next day after India’s strikes also made for good optics for India. In fact, on February 21 — just days before the strikes — the UN Security Council had strongly condemned the “heinous and cowardly” Pulwama terror attack by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed and underlined the need to hold perpetrators of these “reprehensible acts” of terrorism accountable and bring them to justice. It was significant that China had not obstructed the statement.
The icing on the cake however was the invitation to Swaraj by the UAE authorities as a “guest of honor” to the OIC foreign ministers’ conference in Abu Dhabi on March 1-3. In its announcement of the conference, the Emirates News Agency said that “the friendly country of India has been named as the guest of honor in view of its great global political stature as well as its time-honored and deeply rooted cultural and historical legacy, and its important Islamic component.” This was so unacceptable to Pakistan that its foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi boycotted the conference altogether. After all, it went against Pakistan’s much touted Islamic bonding with the OIC members.
It was Pakistan who had prevented India’s participation in the very first OIC conference in 1969 when Indian delegation arrived in Rabat — the conference venue — but could not participate because Pakistan insisted otherwise. Pakistan has since steadfastly refused India’s participation in any capacity. In any case, most Indians would be opposed to the idea of India becoming a member of the OIC, so membership is probably not what India would be seeking. Rather, it may be seeking an observer status, given that India has good bilateral relations with most OIC member states. In Abu Dhabi, Swaraj made a long and detailed presentation. The UAE authorities were keen to have India’s participation as the UAE is celebrating this year as the year of tolerance and wants to showcase the emirates as a model Muslim pluralistic society. This was also subtle signalling to Pakistan. The final OIC document — the Abu Dhabi Declaration — made no reference to Kashmir, though the subject was debated in sessions subsequent to Swaraj’s presentation.
Yet another feather in the cap for Indian diplomacy as well as for Modi personally was the announcement by the UAE that it was conferring on Modi its highest civilian order – the Order of Zayad. Soon after, Russia announced that it was also conferring on Modi its highest civilian order — the order of St. Andrew the Apostle. With elections ensuing, these announcements could not have come at a better time for Modi who had been facing some flak for the terror attacks and also for the capture of the pilot as the skirmish exposed India’s sadly lacking air capacities.
Furthermore, the Pentagon too refuted Pakistan’s claims that the US had taken a headcount of its F16s and found none missing, trying to peddle the story that India had not shot down an F16. Pakistan is committed to not using F16 supplied by the US against India. China’s acquiescence to the listing of Azhar nailed the last coffin in Pakistan’s narrative. Soon after in an interview with Reuters, Khan said, “We have no need for terrorists.”
Indian analysts believed that India had very clearly won this round by breaching a red line, calling Pakistan’s bluff, and undertaking surgical strikes. Maj Gen B.K. Sharma told this author in an interview that “India’s actions have received a lot of domestic and international support and even led to some lukewarm reconciliatory moves from Prime Minister Imran Khan towards India.” He further pointed out that it took the Pakistani authorities 43 days to facilitate the visit of diplomats and journalists to the site of the bombings. “And they were taken only to some select buildings there and not to the buildings targeted by the IAF. So, the mere fact that they have taken so much of time to take the people there, itself tells you that the whole thing has been decked up.”
However, the Balakot strikes have also showed up India’s Achilles’ heel. Furthermore, India and Pakistan are destined by geography to live together; hence a resumption of the dialogue process would be the best way forward for both countries. The new Indian government will have inherited an old problem but will have a new paradigm established to move ahead in its dealings with Pakistan.