The Indian Air Force strike on Balakot has not turned out to be as complete a success as one would have hoped. This is largely because of two factors -- the ineptness of India's political leadership and Pakistani propaganda.
The Pakistan government has successfully muddied facts surrounding the two issues related to the Balakot airstrike -- first, whether the intended target at Balakot was hit at all, and second, whether India lost the dogfight over Akhnoor.
The Pakistani media fed by its military establishment reported that no terrorist infrastructure or camp at Balakot was hit by IAF Mirages that intruded deep into Pakistani territory. Going by the Pakistani account, only a few trees were hit.
This narrative was picked up by the international media and some American commentators chipped in by claiming that satellite imagery did not show any significant damage in the area.
The international media also lapped up the Pakistani claim that its air force had shot down two Indian fighters, one of which fell in its territory and the other in India. In truth, India lost only one fighter, a MiG-21. A few days later, the New York Times ran a story headlined: "After India Loses Dogfight to Pakistan, Questions Arise About Its 'Vintage' Military".
Few reports were flattering of the IAF's remarkable achievements and there were few clarifications offered in the international media, while the domestic media followed a hyper nationalistic line, claiming the return of downed MiG-21 pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman a huge success.
The unfortunate part is the political leadership's role in adding to the overall confusion. Instead of speaking in one, moderated voice, the overall effect was a cacophony of largely self-serving statements.
The initial "leaks" by the political establishment in New Delhi suggested that 300 to 350 terrorists had been killed in the IAF airstrike on Balakot. Official statements however had not put a figure on the number of kills. India's foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale had merely stated "a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis were eliminated".
This did not prevent BJP president Amit Shah from declaring at an election rally a few days later that "more than 250" terrorists were killed in that operation. How he arrived at the figure remains a mystery.
If all this was not bad enough, another BJP minister, S.S. Ahluwalia, told reporters that the aim of the Indian Air Force strike in Pakistan's Balakot was not to cause "any human casualty" but to prove that India is capable of hitting deep inside enemy territory. What was this all about -- the world's first "peaceful airstrike"?
A news agency reported that at another rally in Surat, BJP president Amit Shah said: "Earlier our jawans used to be beheaded and insulted, but today situation is such that when our jawan fell in Pakistan while shooting down an F-16, within 24 hours he was back. This change is because of Narendra Modi's will power." [ANI tweet of March 3, 2019]
The unfortunate and rather blatant use of the military action for electoral advantage attracted the expected counter reaction from the Opposition but every dissenting voice was shouted down. Anyone doubting the efficacy of the airstrikes was dubbed anti-national and a friend of Pakistan. This kind of Orwellian rhetoric is unprecedented. And so is the level of ignorance -- a pilot is not a jawan.
It was left to IAF's doughty chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, to clear the air. His press conference made two things very clear: first, that the intended targets at Balakot had indeed been hit; second, that the IAF might not have done as badly in the dogfight as portrayed by the Pakistani and Western media. He said: "I think they have lost an F-16 aircraft in that combat."
The Pakistani disinformation about the IAF losing two planes appears to have been a deliberate ploy to hide the fact that their own frontline aircraft had been shot down by a MiG-21. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the pilot of the downed F-16 was lynched by his own countrymen.
The Air Chief also made it clear that the IAF was in no position to estimate the number of deaths caused by its missiles in Balakot. Those informed about military matters must know that targets in today's air combat situations are rarely sighted visually by pilots but are pinpointed by highly accurate coordinates fed into computer guidance systems. Today's fighter pilot does not have to physically see the target to hit it. The idea that a few trees were hit is ludicrous. Besides, as the Air Chief pointed out, why would the Pakistanis risk a reaction to the strikes if it just hit a few trees? Reports from within Pakistan suggest that several Jaish-e-Mohammed commanders were indeed killed and the jihadi outfit has vowed vengeance.
Though the Air Chief's press conference cleared many uncertainties, the damage was done. For no one reads the small print or the denials that follow a story. As far as the world and the Pakistani public were concerned, the Indian action was at best a partial success.
This is not good. A military action to have its desired effect must be believed to have been effective and devastating. Instead we have drifted into a grey zone.
The country to is divided into two camps - one that believes that we should "de-escalate" and open dialogue for a peaceful solution and the other that demands the shift in New Delhi's strategic stance be pushed to its logical conclusion through harder, more credible military action.
While dialogue and peace are all very laudable, it has been proved time and again that they don't work against Pakistan's military establishment, which is essentially a Timurid entity that only understands the language of force.
Diplomacy too will not work here as long as China remains loyal to its "all-weather friend" and the United States seeks Pakistani help in trying
to wriggle out of Afghanistan.
Overt and covert offensive actions are the only real alternatives left. The problem is that our political leadership chooses not to realise that any type of strike, surgical or otherwise, requires effective instruments, super sharp scalpels and not rusty old ones painted over with fake political chrome.