Hours after Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and bombed terrorist camps in Pakistan, India’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said this was an “absolutely necessary” attack on the proscribed Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist group, which was readying for a major terrorist strike in India.
“In an intelligence led operation in the early hours of the day, 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,” Gokhale said.
Stressing the value of this target, Gokhale stated: “This facility at Balakot was headed by MAULANA YOUSUF AZHAR (alias USTAD GHOURI), the brother-in-law of MASOOD AZHAR, Chief of JeM (capitals in original).”
Qualifying those claims of success, the statement also said: “As the strike has taken place only a short while ago, we are awaiting further details.”
Gokhale made it clear this was a counter-terrorist strike that targeted only the JeM, not the Pakistan military or civilians. “The government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism. Hence this non-military pre-emptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp. The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties.”
The Indian air strikes were retaliation for the February 14 suicide bombing of a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) that killed at least 40 troopers. The Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, owned credit for the attack and top Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, vowed revenge.
The retaliatory air strikes, which came before dawn on Tuesday, were the first time since the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war that Indian combat aircraft crossed into Pakistan-held territory. Even during the Kargil war in 1999, when IAF fighters repeatedly struck Pakistan Army soldiers who had crossed into the Indian side of the LOC, great care was taken to ensure Indian aircraft did not violate the Line of Control.
Both sides have signed onto a confidence building measure (CBM) that prohibits fixed wing aircraft from flying within 10 kilometres of the LOC, and helicopters from coming closer than five kilometres without informing the other side beforehand. By disregarding this, the IAF strikes are a stern message to Islamabad.
In the tacit, unwritten understanding between India and Pakistan about action and reaction on the LOC, air strikes constitute a significant escalation, raising the stakes higher than cross-border firing, or a limited crossing of the LOC by ground forces.
In that sense, Tuesday’s air strikes constitute a stronger message than the “surgical strikes” of 28 September 2016, when Indian commandos attacked four terrorist camps across the LOC as retribution for the killing of 19 Indian soldiers by Pakistani militants in the town of Uri, close to the LOC.
Since there are two Balakot towns, confusion remains over which target was struck, and how deep across the LOC it was. One Balakot, across from the Indian town of Poonch in the Jammu region, is less than ten kilometres across the LOC. Another Balakot is in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, and striking targets there would involve penetrating some 80 kilometres into Pakistan-controlled territory.
“If this is Balakote in KPK it’s a major incursion & a significant strike by IAF planes. However if it’s Balakote in Poonch sector, along the LoC it’s a largely symbolic strike because at this time of the year forward launch pads & militant camps are empty & non-functional,” tweeted former J&K chief minister, Omar Abdullah.
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent in Pakistan, the IAF air strikes took place at Jaba Top, in Balakot (KPK), where the Hizbul Mujahideen operates a training camp. Local villagers also report hearing explosions in the area, reports the BBC.
This raises serious questions over the capability of Pakistani air defences. Their porousness was first dramatically exposed in the US operation against Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011. They have now been exposed again by the IAF’s ability to strike 80 kilometres into Pakistan without being intercepted or incurring casualties.
For now, Pakistan is downplaying the air strikes. Three hours after the strikes, Major General Asif Ghafoor, chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) tweeted: “Indian aircraft intruded from Muzafarabad sector. Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage.
At 8:41 a.m., Ghafoor tweeted four photographs of craters in a forested area, with the message: “Payload of hastily escaping Indian aircrafts fell in open”
At 9:59 a.m. Ghafoor tweeted again: “Indian aircrafts’ intrusion across LOC in Muzafarabad Sector within AJ&K (Azad Jammu & Kashmir) was 3-4 miles. Under forced hasty withdrawal aircrafts released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties. Technical details and other important information to follow.”
It remains unclear whether Pakistan will stick to denial or launch its own riposte. Business Standard learns the Indian military has been placed on alert, and leave of personnel restricted.