After the Pulwama terrorist attack, the already strained relations between India and Pakistan touched the nadir. In response to the attack, the Indian Air Force launched a surgical strike on a terrorist training camp located at Balakot and claimed that hundreds of terrorists were eliminated during the strike. A day after the strike, Pakistan Air Force warplanes launched a retaliatory air raid on Indian installations and shot down an IAF MIG-21 Bison aircraft and captured its pilot. In a ghastly yet largely unaccounted incident, the IAF also lost a Mi 17 helicopter to friendly fire which resulted in the death of six air force personnel.
It was a warlike situation and an environment of jingoism and hyper-nationalism was prevalent at that time. As a close follower of national news, I understood that in a warlike situation we rarely get to know the truth. All we hear is a bunch of claims and counterclaims and truth gets drowned in the resultant cacophony. Therefore, in such a situation, instead of completely depending on the official version of the government and the national media we should also explore the enemy’s claims. During the conflict, I frequently visited the Pakistani news site the dawn.com to know their version also. And I also understood that exploring the neutral sources of information enables us to get closer to the truth.
By exploring various sources, I concluded that some things published by Indian media outlets are true, but there are also many which are untrue. Firstly, the so-called Indian surgical strike appears to be not a successful one. An article featured in The Strategist, a commentary and analysis site of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, based on an analysis of satellite imagery of the buildings, concluded that there was no damage to the targeted site. The precision weapons fired by IAF pilots landed in a forest area and uprooted some trees.
The downing of MIG-21 Bison fighter plane flown by Wing commander Abhinandan was true as the pictures of the downed MIG were published in the media and the captured pilot was in Pakistani custody before being released. But at the same time, IAF claimed that it shot down a PAF’s F16 fighter plane. Pakistan refuted these claims and stated that it did not even use F16s. But after the IAF displayed the wreckage of an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile which could only be fired from an F16, Pakistan changed the tune. So, it is clear that Pakistan deployed F16s in its aerial raid on India.
But the claim that IAF shot down an F16 is still disputed as there is no incontrovertible evidence to state that it was indeed shot down. Though the IAF made some radar images public to substantiate its claim, the evidence appears to be far from being irrefutable. Even the Indian media, depending on open-source intelligence, published many stories to bring home the point that PAF had indeed lost one F16 in its aerial combat with IAF. Some newspapers even stated that it is a moment of pride for IAF to have shot down a far superior aircraft with a legacy fighter like MIG. But there are many defense experts who dispute the claim of the downed plane being a legacy fighter. MIGs are indeed legacy fighters but the MiG-21 Bison flown by Abhinandan Varthaman was updated with 4th generation fighter avionics and sensors in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
So, the MiG-21 Bison, according to some experts, is capable of downing a more advanced F16. In the meantime, an article featured in the website foreignpolicy.com stated that all the F16s in PAF’s inventory have been accounted for and none of them were found to be missing. This gave rise to the suspicion that the claim made by IAF was not true. However, days after this story, the United States department of defense stated that it was not aware of any investigation that was conducted to ascertain if Pakistan had lost an F-16 in an aerial dogfight with Indian fighter jets. There are other experts who believe that the US is reluctant to accept the fact that an F16 was downed by an obsolete fighter plane of Russian origin. Accepting this fact will not only give an edge to the Russian arms manufacturers but also adversely affect the prospects of American arms manufacturers.
There is already an effort going on from arms manufacturers to create an impression that India had lost a dogfight against Pakistan because of its old and outdated air force. They also opine that India, to keep pace with the changing times, must procure modern fighter aircraft.
So, from whatever information that is available from various sources, India’s post-Pulwama faceoff with Pakistan appears to have failed to yield the intended results as it could not inflict any significant damage on Pakistan to deter it from any future misadventures.
And the perception that Indian armed forces are ill-equipped to face the modern threats may give a fresh impetus to the arms manufacturers in the US, Europe and Israel to make a fresh pitch for arms sale. And the prevailing environment of hyper-nationalism enables the government to allocate a large amount of money for procurement of arms. The multibillion-dollar arms sales, as usual, will open floodgates for more corruption and leads to channelizing public money towards defense spending at the cost of welfare spending.
Pakistan, on the other hand, appears to have gained an upper hand all through the Pulwama episode. It not only inflicted unacceptable damage on India through the Pulwama terror attack, the subsequent air strike on Pakistan and aerial combat with its air force left India embarrassed. Even Prime Minister Modi seems to have indirectly accepted that Indian action against Pakistan after Pulwama attack was ineffective. Speaking at the India Today conclave he said, “India is feeling the absence of Rafale. The entire country is saying in one voice today, that if we had Rafale, the results would have been different. The country has suffered a lot due to selfish interests earlier and now politics over Rafale”. But despite all these setbacks, there are reports suggesting that the surgical strike at Balakot will boost the electoral prospects of the BJP. The reason could be that the Indian media outlets managed to generate enough hype around the air strike to enable the ruling dispensation to garner political benefits.
Pakistan, though posed as a peacenik during the post-Pulwama episode, is not in a position to wage a war against India due to its fast deteriorating economy. Its strategy appears to be continuing with its policy of making India bleed through a thousand cuts by promoting cross border terrorism.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi stated that India is planning to launch yet another attack inside Pakistan between April 16 and 20. It appears that the political leadership of Pakistan is trying hard to divert the attention of its people away from the pressing economic problems of the country to possible Indian aggression.
Pakistan’s economic woes are increasingly becoming insurmountable. Its shrinking foreign currency reserves and soaring sovereign debt compelled it to approach the IMF once again for a bailout. As it is a well-known fact that an IMF bailout always comes with preconditions and Pakistan must agree for a painful structural adjustment before it receives any bailout package. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor, (CPEC) as part of which mammoth infrastructure is being built, has already resulted in a spike in Pakistan’s sovereign debt and there are fears that failing to repay the Chinese debts may result in colonization of Pakistan.
Moreover, Pakistan appears to be increasingly getting isolated on the issue of terrorism as many nations have already asked it to reign in the terrorist groups that are operating from its soil. It is also facing the threat of getting blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) owing to its sparse measures in curbing terror financing. Therefore, Pakistan, instead of eying Kashmir, and using terror as an instrument of state policy, should take better care of its fast dwindling economy.
India, after failing to achieve anything significant in its action against Pakistan, should tread cautiously in future. Instead of resorting to military action, it should explore the possibility of further isolating Pakistan economically and politically. Pakistan, even while trying to bleed India with a thousand cuts, appears to be dying a slow death. India should wait and watch.