Asif Haroon Raja
Engineered Pulwama attack
Throughout his tenure, Narendra Modi has maintained a highly bellicose posture against Pakistan. Tension between the two arch rivals escalated after the engineered suicide attack in Pulwama on 14 February which killed 44 Indian Dalit soldiers. Indian leaders in accordance with the script, blamed Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Pakistan within minutes of the occurrence without carrying out preliminary investigations. A dubious video showing the suicide bomber Adil Dar stating that he belonged to JeM and intended to carry out the attack was shown as a proof. It was a dubbed video and the accusers didn’t take into account that Adil belonged to Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK), and was in the custody of Indian Army since September 10, 2017. There are tens of other glaring loopholes indicating that it was a false flag operation undertaken with specific motives.
Pakistan asking for actionable intelligence and offering joint/international inquest as well as dialogue were rejected since Modi had to intensify tension and create warlike situation. Interestingly, the dossier was handed over to Pakistan on February 28, which is heavy in weight but devoid of evidence.
The US Support to India. In keeping with the past track record of USA, NSA John Bolton contacted his counterpart in India Ajit Doval twice and promptly accepted the Indian version. He pressed Pakistan to take immediate action against the proscribed outfit and upheld India’s right to retaliate to terrorism in self-defense. His stance indicated his complicity with India, and amounted to giving a certificate to India to go ahead with the military venture. Bolton is known for his indebtedness to Israel for getting him a job in White House. There are reasons to believe that both USA and Israel had supported the gory drama since the trio is unhappy over the unfolding regional scenario.
Escalation by India. To up the ante, India took series of aggressive acts on the political, diplomatic and economic fronts against Pakistan and the fiendish Hindu extremist groups were given a free hand to persecute the Kashmiris in Jammu and various cities of India. Additional 10,000 troops were inducted in IOK. India media bad mouthed Pakistan and created war hysteria. As opposed to the frenetic behavior of PM Modi, PM Imran Khan (IK) behaved coolly and maturely.
First Provocative act
The first provocative military act by India was carried out on the night of 25/26 February when IAF jets initially tried to penetrate at two points along the eastern border across Sialkot border with six jets and the other across Okara-Bahawalpur border with 5-6 jets. Both the attempts were spotted by the radars and thwarted by PAF’s vigilant combat air patrols (CAP). The third attempt was made through the Tangdhar salient in Muzaffarabad sector where 12-14 Mirage-2000s assembled, but only 4 jets crossed the Line of Control (LoC) at 0330 a.m. to hit targets in Balakot. The remaining 8-10 Mirage-2000s along with AWACs gave backup support and also formed an aerial platform.
The intruding jets were deliberately allowed to cross the LoC to shoot them down inside Pakistan’s territory. Once they were challenged by the CAPs of PAF, the intruders after seeing the menacing PAF jets got so panicky that they scurried back and hurriedly dropped four Israeli-made air-to-surface Popeye missiles. The haste with which they offloaded their payloads can be judged from the fact that they completely missed their intended targets and the missiles fell at uninhabited Jaba hilltop near Jaba village, 10 km south of Balokot.
Reasons why intruding jets not hit
Pakistanis were incensed as to why the attacking jets had been allowed to escape and termed it as a weakness of the defenders. The reason why the intruders were not shot down is that the depth of intrusion was only 4-5 miles, stay time barely five minutes and they had caused no damage. Even if they had been hit while scurrying away, they would have fallen across the LoC and not this side. In that eventuality, Pakistan would have been declared an aggressor for entering Indian airspace and blamed for initiating the war. The other reason for not chasing the intruders was that they didn’t want to fall into the laid down snare of the Mirage 2000s.
India’s bogus claims
Indian media sensationalized the intrusion out of all proportions and it was claimed that the surgical strike was successful in destroying JeM training camps and killing over 300 militants, trainers and clerics. There were celebrations all over India over the phony victory. The preposterous claim was rejected by Pakistan saying that not a single human loss had occurred and not a single brick was found in the debris where bombs had exploded. All the local and international observers visiting the site as well as satellite imageries found no trace of human losses or damage to property except for craters and few damaged trees, and corroborated Pakistan’s version. Nearest structures were 100 meters away from the site of craters.
Two Imagery photos taken by @LFRM of the tail fins of the 1000 kg bombs dropped by Mirage-2000s, closely resembled those of the Israeli-produced SPICE-2000 precision-guided munitions (PGM). SPICE uses INS/GPS coordinates for autonomous navigation and electro-optical seekers for target identification and terminal navigation. SPICE-2000 is a precision-guided glide bomb that should not have missed its target. Israelis are not reconciling as to why the bombs missed the targets. Recovery of Israeli made missiles was a clear indication that Israel was on board with India.
Indian aggression taken seriously by Pakistan
PM Imran Khan as well as the Pakistan military took the violation of Pakistan’s airspace seriously. February 26 was a very busy day on which National Security Council meeting was held in which it was pledged that Pakistan will pick the time and place of its choice to hit back to uncalled for aggression. It was the second meeting in a week, which was followed by National Command Authority meeting which discussed nuclear options. Earlier on, joint parliament had passed a resolution condemning Indian aggression.
The PAF decided to beat the daylights out of the enemy’s head. The DG ISPR made it clear that the aggression will be befittingly responded and that the response will be different and will surprise the enemy.
Pakistan’s befitting response. On the night of 26/27 February, Pakistan military undertook a tit for tat action. Six high value targets were selected 50-60 km deep across the LoC which included Brigade HQ, Army Chief Command Post (CP), ammunition depot, fuel dump, division administrative area and tank leaguer. While creating an aerial platform 40-50 km this side of the LoC, few Mirages dashed forward and fired the non-nuclear missiles, but making sure they didn’t hit the actual targets that had initially been locked, but dropped slightly left, right and plus of the intended targets. The actual targets felt the full heat and the tremor of the dropped missiles. Coincidently, Indian army chief was present in the CP at the time of bombardment and he was horror-struck.
Purpose of this shootout was to demonstrate the capability, capacity, will, resolve and support of the nation to India. Underlying idea was to give a loud message to the enemy not to play with fire and to put sense into the minds of Indian jingoes and to de-escalate the warlike situation.
In anticipation to IAF retaliation, the PAF had laid an ambush this side of the LoC and the jets that had gone across as decoys were to lure the enemy jets towards the ambush site. When the eight Indian jets (four Sukhoi Su-30 MK1, two MiG-21 Bison and two Mirages) scrambled from Srinagar airbase, and in their urge to hit the intruders, two jets entered Pakistan’s airspace in daylight, the waiting PAF jets took them on. While Squadron Leader Hasan Siddiqui struck MiG-21, Wing Commander Nauman Ali hit Su-30 with BVR missiles. The former crashed this side of LoC, the latter with two pilots hit the ground across the LoC at Budgam. The pilot of MiG 21 Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured alive in Bhimber sector. It was initially reported that one of the pilots of Su-30 who ejected this side of the LoC, was also captured. Local civilians handed them over to soldiers after chanting full-throated ‘Pak Fauj Zindabad’ slogans.
As if these woes were not enough, another tragedy befell upon India soon after when an Indian M-17 helicopter carrying two pilots and four para-troopers air dashed to the site of occurrence to rescue the pilot of Su-30. The approaching helicopter was spotted by the already deployed Anti-Aircraft gun of Pakistan Air Defence. The gunner without loss of time fired Anza missile and hit the target. The helicopter hovered for a while trying to fly away, but came down crashing and none survived.
The entire scenes of the crashing two jets and the helicopter as well as the capture of two pilots and burnt body of the helicopter pilot were video recorded and the world saw them. The videos also showed the Kashmiris assembled at the site chanting vociferous slogans ‘Pakistan Zindabad’, ‘India Murdabad’.
Gains and losses in the aerial duels
The whole operation was meticulously planned and executed with precision like a text book within few hours of the so-called Indian surgical strike. As against felling four trees by IAF, PAF pilots destroyed two Indian jets, and captured one or two jet pilots. The gunner destroyed one helicopter, resulting in fatalities of helicopter pilots and the entire rescue team of four in the helicopter. This is called real “Surgical Strike” with the precision of a surgeon. It was a reminder to India that wars are won and lost by a “Nation” not just the army.
Had Pakistan opted to destroy the six locked targets, the onus of starting the war would have fallen upon Pakistan and it would have been declared an aggressor and India the victim of aggression.
Why India was taken by surprise?
What is being debated by many is as to how fully alert India with far superior technology was caught with pants down when it was clearly told by Pakistan that it WILL retaliate and surprise them? Another question is that after six missiles struck the empty spaces perilously close to highly sensitive targets, how come the PAF jets managed to indulge in air duels on both sides of the LoC for 35 minutes and remained unscathed? The reason was that Pakistan had successfully jammed the entire hi-tech stealth radar system of Indian air defence before locking the six targets. Once the target gets locked, it becomes helpless and cannot retrieve itself from the missile hit.
After it was learnt that the radar system had got jammed, the IAF was left with no option but to scramble its jets and confront the attacking jets. Jamming radar system was the first surprise and hitting six ground targets was the second surprise achieved. Shooting down two IAF jets in air duels in broad daylight was the third surprise.
India’s confused joint press conference
Finding themselves at a loss how to cover up the debacle, in order to cover up the embarrassment and to pacify the fuming public and media, the spokesman of IAF made a foolish claim on February 28 that one F-16 jet that had intruded into Indian airspace was shot down. When pressed to show evidence, the wreckages of IAF MiG-21 were shown as that of F-16, in addition to AMIRAAM missile with which Indian jet was targeted. They forgot to rub off the serial number of their aircraft which starts with letter ‘C’. The other blunder was the Pakistani flag painted at a wrong place and white of the flag missing.
It was soon found out that the claim was fake. Pakistan rebutted the fictitious claim saying that the PAF had so far not employed F-16s in the ongoing scuffle. Like the staged Pulwama attack and claims of air intrusion on 26 February, no proof of downing of F-16 was provided.
Rafael scandal. There was widespread resentment and lamentation in India as to why IAF had not been provided French Rafael jets, which would have outmatched Pakistani jets. Modi is finding himself in hot soup in Rafael scandal. He had cancelled the old deal and struck a new deal in 2016 for 36 jets worth $8.7 billion to favor businessman Anil Ambani and allegedly pocketed huge commission. This issue is likely to be exploited by the opposition in election campaign.
Positive effects of Pakistan’s riposte
Extraordinary brave actions by the two Pakistani pilots electrified the Pakistani nation. They had a just reason to rejoice the occasion which deflated the jingoism of Modi and his hawks. This event raised the spirits of the armed forces, gelled the divided nation, and brought the polarized political parties on one page to confront the Indian chauvinism. Pak media became patriotic and Pakistani traitors sitting abroad spewing venom against Pakistan fell silent.
Kashmiri freedom movement as well as the Khalistan movement got energized, bringing the Sikhs and the Kashmiris closer to each other. Large number of Pashtun Afghans assembled at Torkham border and pledged to fight the enemies of Pakistan. Erdogan vowed to send his army to protect Pakistan. OIC passed a resolution condemning in strongest terms about the Indian terrorism in J&K and labelled India as an occupier of J&K and a terrorist state.
India sought face saving. Loss of face incensed Modi and made him go mad with rage. He begged Washington to save his honor. In order to appease him, the latter not only gave a go-ahead signal for a joint Indo-Israeli air action to redeem the lost prestige of India, but also pressed Pakistan to release Indian pilot to damp down the anger of fuming Modi and to avert the nuclear war.
Release of Indian pilot
Amidst the happy tidings for Pakistan, IK played the masterstroke by announcing on the evening of 28 February that the captive Indian pilot will be released on the following day. He took this step as a goodwill gesture to deflate the volatile situation created between two nuclear states, deliberately ratcheted by bellicose Modi under a preplanned program. IK stood to his decision despite strong protests made by some quarters at home who asserted that he must not be released so quickly. IK made it clear that his gesture shouldn’t be misconstrued as a sign of weakness since any aggression will be responded to with full force.
Abhinandan was treated with respect and was handed over at Wagah border on 01 March. He happily went home stating that he found the Pak Army to be helpful, hospitable and highly professional. This has been the tradition of Pakistan all along. All the 21 pilots captured by Pakistan in the wars and conflicts were returned with grace in one piece. On the other hand, India didn’t return a single Pakistani pilot, dead or alive. Rather than appreciating Pakistan’s goodwill gesture, India asserted that the pilot was returned on account of Indian and international pressure. India crudely reciprocated the peace overture by handing over decapitated body of Pakistani prisoner Shakir Ullah jailed in Jaipur jail on 02 March. He was murdered by his inmates.
Unsolved mystery of missing pilot
Pakistan’s DG ISPR in his press briefing on the 27th had announced that two pilots had been captured, (one injured admitted in hospital and the other in custody), and the third pilot had ejected across the LoC. Times of India dated 27 February also mentioned 3 Indian pilots (captured Abhinandan, Ninad who died and one more). India however is now silent about the fate of one Su-30 pilot, whether he is alive or dead and so is Pakistan. Speculations are that the unaccounted for pilot was an Israeli, and is in the custody of Pakistan. There are reasons to believe in this story since India-Israel pilots undertake joint training and drills.
Stories in circulation are that neither India nor Israel can afford to make a mention of the missing Israeli pilot, and Pakistan is not obliged to hand him over to Israel, which it has not recognized and has no diplomatic relations. Gossipers are stretching their imaginations further by adding that Tel Aviv had requested Washington to help in releasing the pilot, and in case of refusal it would go to war with Pakistan. And when Pakistan refused and threatened to retaliate, the US hurriedly airlifted THAAD anti-missile defence system to Israel, which has been deployed for the first time. This became a motivating cause for Israel to physically take part in the missile attacks on the night of 27/28 February. Favors showered upon Pakistan from world powers, which is exceptional, is also seen as a possibility pointing in the same direction. And that could be a reason to promptly release Indian pilot.
F-16 controversy. In the meanwhile, another controversy cropped up about the bar on use of F-16s by Pakistan against India in the wake of controversial statement made by a US official. It has so far not been clarified by Washington, but PAF is very clear that there is no such restriction imposed and F-16s can be used for defence against any country including India.
Impact of IK’s goodwill gesture. The goodwill gesture of IK by releasing Indian pilot together with his reiteration of peace and dialogue was hailed at home as well as all the peace loving people throughout the world including India. It raised his stature in the world and gave a loud message that he is a peace maker and not a war monger. However, it didn’t soften the heart of war mongering Modi since he was working on a given agenda carved out by USA and Israel.
Indo-Israeli joint air attacks plan
Feeling humiliated on account of boomeranging of Pulwama drama followed by the fiasco of air intrusion at Jaba hilltop, and Pakistan’s harsh and effective response on the night of 26th, Modi decided on the 27th to climb another escalatory step during the night of 27/28 February, but this time Israel was taken in the loop and USA and Afghanistan taken into confidence. There are unconfirmed reports that Iran was enlisted as the third partner.
The two strategic partners (India-Israel) selected Rajasthan airbase as the base of operation and selected 8 targets for engagement in two phases. In first phase, mine dumps in Bahawalpur and fuel depots/naval dockyard in Karachi were to be hit with air-to-surface Brahmo cruise missiles by remaining well inside Indian Territory. In phase 2, already selected six ground objectives were to be captured by battle groups as stipulated in Cold Start Doctrine (CSD), or destroyed by Brahmos. Indian airbases were activated, naval ships moved into deep seas and ground strike formations in Rajasthan were moved forward. Line of Control in Kashmir was further heated up.
Indo-Israeli plan busted
Reportedly, the ever vigilant ISI learnt all the details about the intended attack plan within two hours of the high powered meeting on the evening of 27th February held in the house of Modi, and presence of Israelis at Rajasthan air base. The other story is that our drones photographed the deployed Brahmos cruise missiles in Rajasthan and move of strike formations and battle groups. Yet another story is that the Israeli pilot in custody divulged all the details.
Whatever the source, DG ISI Lt Gen Asim Munir immediately informed the top brass as well as his counterpart in Delhi and told him of Pakistan’s shattering response action. The latter was taken aback and so were Modi and Indian army/air chiefs when they were told that the plan had been hijacked.
Pakistan’s battle preparedness
In the wake of impending missile attacks, Pakistan airspace was closed. Pakistan armed forces remained on high alert after getting a go-ahead signal to retaliate more vigorously against any aggression. The High Command selected 16 Indian cities as targets and in response to Brahmos, deployed Babar cruise missiles to fire non-nuclear missiles. Long range Shaheen-3 missiles were taken out of the closets for the first time and deployed uncovered for the spy satellites to see. Nasr missiles with the range of 40-65 km capable of delivering tactical nuclear missiles at low trajectory without fear of interception, were also readied and field commanders authorized to use them if Indian battle groups crossed the border. These can be fired from artillery guns, F-16s and JF-17s.
Islamabad conveyed its intended response action to India as well as to other important capitals including Washington, asserting that its retaliation will be three times more devastating. Leakage of top secret information was the fourth surprise for India. So far, India has been unable to trace the culprit who leaked the information and is eying USA with suspicion.
War averted. Pakistan’s battle preparedness in the backdrop of its unwavering resolve as had already been demonstrated a day earlier panicked the planners and their backers. The whole night, Modi and Army chief received calls from multiple capitals of the world each asking them for restraint. The suicidal mission was aborted when the master planner USA advised them to stand down. It was a close call and the standoff had all the potential to morph into a nuclear exchange. It was averted at the nick of the time.
Abortive intrusion by submarine. Yet another offensive act was committed by India on March 4 when Pak Navy (PN) detected Indian submarine hiding close to exclusive economic zone of Pakistan’s waters. It was locked and forced to surface near Ormara naval base and then allowed to flee in the overall spirit of restraint. Last time, such a sneaky intrusion was made in November 2016. It had either come on a spying mission, or was waiting for a sea target. Its timely detection spoke high of PN’s state of alertness and operational preparedness to take on the maritime challenges squarely.
Negative impact on India. India helped by USA had built around it an aura of a regional hegemon and the rising Super power. In a matter of week, India lost its reputation and its moral standing. Indian media that had gone berserk has become sheepish. On account of repeated blundering of Indian Western Air Command, its commander Air Marshal C. Hari Kumar was abruptly sacked. Indian Army and IAF are demoralized on account of low salaries, poor diet, humiliating behavior of officers, lack of motivation, prolonged stay in hard areas, caste based discrimination, sexual abuse. Sikhs in Army are refusing to take part in war against Pakistan and Sikh regiments deployed in Punjab and Kashmir are being shifted elsewhere. Khalistan movement has heated up.
Modi under fire at home. The bungled up Pulwama drama and abortive air and sea intrusions has polarized the Indian political parties espousing hard and soft Hindutva respectively, and the latter joined by the moderates and minorities. 21 opposition parties and moderate forces in India are lambasting the hardline ruling regime. Modi is being asked to explain the intelligence failure in Pulwama and for the abortive attempts made by IAF that have tarnished the image of India. Modi’s popularity has slumped and so is the case with BJP which has lost elections in 5 states. Hawkish regime of Modi is under severe censure and is being blamed for foolishly messing up with a nuclear neighbor merely to win elections, without realizing that it could lead to a nuclear holocaust. His muscular policy in Kashmir is also under criticism since record breaking brutal repression has alienated the Kashmiris and they have reached a stage of total revolt.
Calls for restraint. Sensing the gravity of the situation emerging out of the antagonism of two nuclear powers, the US, Russia, China, Turkey, OIC, GCC States, UK and Germany are urging both sides to show restraint and are keen to defuse the highly volatile situation. Mike Pompeo is taking credit of de-escalating tension. Indo-Pak War is not in the interest of USA in this timeframe on account of the Afghan peace process having reached a critical point and the US desperation for a peace accord.
Threat of war averted. Apparently it seems that tensions are easing up and threat of war has been averted but the dark clouds are still hanging over the horizons of the subcontinent. LoC has become red hot where heavy weapons and artillery are in use. Visiting Foreign Minister of KSA on March 7 offered his services to calm down the tension.
Onus on Modi. Since Modi had unilaterally climbed the escalation ladder and has been rejecting overtures of peace from Pakistan, and mediation offers from others including Russia, the onus of de-escalation rests upon him. However, although India agreed on March 6 to receive Pak delegation at Attari to operationalize Kartarpur Corridor, it has signalled that it is in no mood to de-escalate the hostile scenario so quickly. India has stepped up repression of Kashmiris in J&K.
Role of USA, Israel, Iran upsetting
Washington had initially encouraged India to brew up conflict, and then gave a go ahead signal for the intrusion on February 25, followed by joint Indo-Israeli limited air attack on the 27th. The underlying objective was to pressurize Pakistan and force it to get a peace deal of its choice from the Taliban. When Pakistan said ‘it will not do more’ in war on terror, it was put under the Damocles sword of FATF and forced to do more to avoid getting blacklisted.
Security situation in Afghanistan is going from bad to worse. The Taliban have carried out deadliest attack in Shorab Base near Helmand on March 01, causing over 400 casualties to US and ANA troops, destroying large numbers of aircraft, helicopters, Humvees, vehicles and also completely destroying RAW’s secret HQ. Attack in Kabul on March 8 has made the situation more precarious for the occupiers.
Pakistan is important for USA since it is playing a productive role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. This factor coupled with bungling of India and premature exposure of the plan has impelled Trump to call off the military adventure. Hopefully, the coming days would see gradual petering out of the Indian aggressive posturing. What is important to note is that Kashmir has become a nuclear flashpoint and to avert a nuclear clash, Kashmir dispute will have to be resolved
What is most upsetting for Pakistan is the direct participation of Israel in the aggressive acts. The much talked of Indo-US-Israeli nexus poised against Pakistan has now become a reality. Another disturbing aspect is the possibility of Iran acting as the conniving partner.
Conclusion. What is most pleasing is that Pakistan’s top civil and military leadership has stood the test of time and made the nation proud by taking timely, bold and right decisions. Above all, role of armed forces, particularly the PAF and Army, and the people’s behavior in these testing times has been dazzling. Political parties have also behaved sensibly. There is however, no reason for Pakistan to rejoice and become complacent after recent tactical victories, since it is still swimming in troubled waters. Clouds of war have yet not dispersed. Our policy makers have to keep in mind the bitter reality that the objectives of Indo-US-Israel against Pakistan remain unchanged. They have to remain wary of Afghanistan under the US installed government and not so friendly Iran. Early peace in Afghanistan will contribute a great deal in lessening Pakistan’s security challenges. It is time to differentiate between friends and foes, chalk out a pragmatic foreign policy, and to make our diplomatic front pro-active. Media has to be reformed and made more vibrant to confront the effects of hybrid war. The government has to paddle hard to overcome economic crisis to make the country self-reliant, and to improve moral turpitude of the society. Current patriotic fervor should not be allowed to wane. Unified nation, political stability, economically and militarily strong Pakistan will keep our adversaries at bay.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran, defence and security analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, Member CWC PESS and Executive Council TJP. [email protected]