Balakot & Abhinandan’s release– different and separate stories, one a failure, the other a qualified success (augmented)

Outlook India Photo Gallery - Abhinandan Varthaman
[Then CAS ACM Birender S Dhanoa and Abhinandan on his return]

The statement in Pakistan’s National Assembly Oct 28 by the former Speaker and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) MP Sardar Ayaz Sadiq that Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in the presence of the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had pleaded in a parliamentary committee meeting to not make a fuss over the decision to release the Indian MiG-21bis pilot, then Squadron Leader, Abhinandan Varthaman, downed on February 27, 2019. Abhinandan was released some 60 hours after his capture. Regarding the Foreign Minister Sadiq said this on the floor of the Assembly: “With his legs trembling and sweat on the forehead, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said to us, ‘For God’s sake, let him [Abhinandan] go back now or else India would attack at 9pm’. “No attack was imminent; they only wanted to capitulate and send Abhinandan back.” Two days later (on Oct 30), Sadiq confirmed his statement. “I stand by my stance. I have numerous state secrets. I….head a Parliamentary committee on national security. I had neither given any irresponsible statements in the past nor would I do [in future],” he said.  

Party colleague and fellow MP Khwaja Asif confirmed the meeting, Bajwa’s presence in it, the latter’s briefing to the committee and his voicing the hope that the release would be accepted by India as a positive gesture. Then Asif too turned the knife. “You might have released Abhinandan to ease tensions between the two countries,” he said, “but I want to ask as to what has been the outcome of what you invested into this step.”

The raising of this issue by the opposition party at this time is doubtless to counter the bad press generated by Imran Khan’s October 2 charge that his chief political rival, three times PM, and head of PML(N), Nawaz Sharif, had “gone [to the United Kingdom] and is playing India’s game. He is attacking Pakistan sitting over there. He is 100 percent getting backing [from India], he is a coward and without that [Indian support], he could not be doing anything.”

Predictably, Sadiq’s and Asif’s statements were dismissed by Major General Babar Iftikhar, the director general of the Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Public Relations, as an “attempt to distort history” and to sow doubts about an air battle in which PAF had given the IAF “a bloody nose [which] is still hurting.” Abhinandan’s release, Iftikhar declared, was nothing “other than a mature response of a responsible state in order to give peace another chance”. He added for good measure that the PML(N) “narrative is being used to downplay India’s defeat and loss”, and that “In [the] circumstances when the enemy has imposed a hybrid war on Pakistan, all of us will have to move forward with great responsibility.”

Pakistan’s minister for science and technology Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, who is often deployed by the Pak PM when fighting words are needed, instead of addressing the Abhinandan release issue and calling Sadiq and Asif names as is the norm in the Pakistani parliament, contrasted the ruling party’s muscular approach to India to the soft approach adopted by the previous PML(N) government. He revealed that the terrorist attack on Feb 14, 2019 on a CRPF convoy was, in fact, his government’s handiwork. Seeking, perhaps, to needle Delhi he deliberately echoed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words. “Humne Hindustan ko ghus ke maara (We hit India in their home)”, he said. “Our success in Pulwama, is a success of this nation under the leadership of Imran Khan.”

He thus unwittingly confirmed that his country sponsored terrorism and prosecuted terrorist actions. It fits in with the Indian government’s longstanding diplomatic campaign to punish Pakistan for being “the epicentre of international terrorism”. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in Paris only a fortnight or so back had given Islamabad one last chance to mend its ways — just six months, actually, to change laws, and incorporate various other measures verifiably to tamp down on the sources of terror inside the country, failing which to face crippling economic sanctions. FATF is a UN body tasked with shutting down channels of illegal and clandestine funding of terrorist outfits the world over.

Imran, shaken by the prospect of the FATF lowering the boom on Pakistan now that his own cabinet colleague had admitted in Parliament Islamabad’s role in cross-border terrorism, ordered Chaudhry to go on Indian TV to try and get the country off the terrorism hook he had hoisted it onto. A visibly shaken Fawad, realizing the enormity of his terrible faus pax, made the usual excuse a politician does when caught with his foot in his mouth. He lamely explained that his words were misquoted, taken out of context, an explanation that a contrite Sadiq, who had started the fracas, too resorted to because he now faces an upset army. (He tried Oct 30 to pacify Bajwa. “Attempts to link my statement with Pakistan Army is a disservice to the country. It can be heard clearly in the statement that I spoke about the government,” he asserted.) The Indian news show host — Rajdeep Sardesai, India Today TV — who seemed to be channeling his inner Arnab, rather than talking about the FATF dangers facing Pakistan, etc., hectored his guest to right there and then confess Pakistan’s culpability. Chaudhry stuck to his line that if the Indian media only read his entire speech they’d know that he was really referring to the post-Feb 26 PAF operation to hit India! He was, however, unable to explain why his words “post-Feb 26 PAF operation” came out sounding like “Pulwama”!

Much of this is old hat. What’s new is Sadiq’s revelation of the Feb 27 9PM deadline. There’s no reason to disbelieve Sadiq’s version both because it is, timeline-wise, specific and because it fits in with the milieu at the time in India where the public was clamouring for hard retaliation, which Modi promised if indirectly by saying so grave a Pakistani provocation would not go unanswered. The retired air force chief BS Dhanoa’s statement on NDTV yesterday evening that IAF was “in a position to wipe out their forward brigades” had Abhinandan not been returned only confirmed Sadiq’s story.

Clearly, it suggests that the Modi government was ready to escalate and turn the crisis into an armed conflict if the Imran Khan regime failed to comply with Delhi’s privately conveyed ultimatum. It is possible GHQ, Rawalpindi, were aware of the Indian preparations but not ready to pick up the Indian challenge.

Whatever the truth, Abhinandan, disregarded Indian Ground Control’s warning of an F-16 on his tail, chased another F-16 into Pakistani air space and was knocked off. He returned to a hero’s welcome, won a gallantry award (Vir Chakra), a promotion, and even shared a celebratory ride in a MiG-21 with the air chief. Unfortunately, IAF has been unable so far to come up with any evidence of an F-16 kill that Abhinandan claimed, a story the IAF and Indian government support. There’s, however, tell-tale proof of his ignoring ground control’s directive and indulging in some hot-doggin’ and losing, in the process, his aircraft to enemy fire. In that situation, I don’t know what to make of this trade-off.

But it is a story that is intertwined with IAF’s Balakot strike and its aftermath. The Indian air strike was in retaliation for the Pulwama incident. Pakistan’s version repeated by Iftikhar is that Indian warplanes violated Pakistan’s airspace but dropped their payloads in an uninhibited area of the mountainous region of Balakot when confronted by Pakistani aircraft and scooted home. Rejecting Indian claims of the destruction of terrorist camps and killing of terrorists, he pointed out that local and international media were accorded access to the bombsite soon after the supposed Indian strike and they found no evidence of the alleged destruction, etc., and in an action-reaction-reaction sequence PAF, Iftikhar averred, “decided to teach the enemy a lesson in retaliation” for the airspace violation and “responded in broad daylight. Not only did we give them a befitting response, but also shot down their two jets [and] Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured.”

Further, capitalizing on the friendly fire incident in the thick of the crisis on Feb 27, 2019 when an IAF Mi-17 helicopter was blown off by an Israeli Spyder short-range Surface-to-Air Missile positioned for air defence of the Budgam airfield, the Pakistan military spokesman attributed it to panic triggering of the SAM because the Indian forces, according to him, were frightened by Pakistan’s reprisal. He then skewered the IAF when he picked up on the view of certain service brass who blamed the absence of the Rafale combat aircraft for the air force’s failure, seeing it as an Indian acknowledgement of Pakistan’s aerial victory.

The postscript to this episode is that even though Bhadauria admitted the Spyder hit on the Mi-17 was a big mistake, and promised that those involved would be dealt with expeditiously, a year and half later there’s still no news — unless I missed it — of the two officers responsible for this mishap being cashiered and/or court martialed.

The more troubling question is why the IAF is sticking pigheadedly to its story of the attack sortie against Balakot being a great success. As I concluded in my March 19, 2019 post IAF’s goofs and Delhi’s post-Pulwama debacle: A Post-mortem at https://bharatkarnad.com/2019/03/19/iafs-goofs-and-delhis-post-pulwama-debacle-a-post-mortem/ , that mission whatever else it was, a success it manifestly was not. Commercially available satellite images of the Balakot hilltop featuring the supposed target area showed little had been ruffled on the ground.

I had then contended that if the Modi government had decided to risk escalation and, potentially, war by approving IAF’s strike mission then the selection by Air HQ — because picking an appropriate weapon would surely not have been left to an operational commander for such a politically symbolic task — of the Israeli SPICE 2000 precision-guided munition was the wrongest possible choice. If the objective was to leave a huge impression of Delhi’s resolve on the Pakistani government psyche, the ordnance had to produce a damned big bang to flatten the entire hilltop — trees, terrorists, terrorist camps and all, which result could only have been obtained by dropping 500kg-1000kg high-explosive guided bombs. And, in the event, the launching of the SPICE PGM from a distance simply did not make sense because it did not have the earthshaking impact that was required for not just the local people and the world to see but for GHQ, Rawalpindi to get the deterrent message.

This failure is absolutely the IAF mission planning staff’s and, ultimately, Dhanoa’s who signed off on it and on the choice of the weapon. The Modi-Doval duo cannot be faulted for relying on the professionals to do the job right, except to the extent that it did not have the requisite military expertise on hand in the PMO to go over the final mission plan, including the selection of weapons and, if it did have such experts on tap, that they failed to apply any correctives, or at least to warn the Prime Minister and NSA that the mission would fail to have the desired effect and the reasons why.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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34 Responses to Balakot & Abhinandan’s release– different and separate stories, one a failure, the other a qualified success (augmented)

  1. Sohamg says:

    What the govt. and the IAF say is that they intended to hit militant training camps and residences and avoid a full-fledged earth-shaking strike and not risk escalation. Also satellite imagery has shown blackened residential buildings with holes on rooftops. There are some media reports claiming that Indian intelligence picked up heightened activity and a flurry of amblances at the balakot hilltops (with questionable validity though). Also entry into the area was barred for a week and ‘selected’ journos were then taken there who reiterated paki claims. When Israel bombed the hell out of the Syrian nuclear facility, Syria made claims similar to what pakistan is making now.

  2. Sankar says:

    In full agreement here.

  3. Vaibhav says:

    Mr. Bharat Karnad.

    A brilliant analysis of the events of Feb 26 and 27 can be found in the following articles written by ex-IAF pilot:
    View at Medium.com
    View at Medium.com
    View at Medium.com
    View at Medium.com

    These articles contain rebuttals to every point you have raised about the success of the airstrike and the shootdown of the Paki F-16. Please go through them thoroughly.

    • Will do so. Thank you.

    • Sankar says:

      @Vaibhav:
      What you are claiming as “rebuttals to every point” is utter nonsense. Either take your references herein as substantiation of the whole truth to make your case or reject them totally and withdraw. For instance, in your reference, there is the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBxk6rowPZA to Imran’s address where Imran demolishes India’s military strike as fiction and confirms that “two IAF’s pilot’s” are taken into custody. If you assume your reference as the evidence of truth to make your case, then you must also agree that the content of Imran’s address linked therein must be true also! This then substantiates what Professor Karnad is documenting here. You can make reference to some sources, but cannot just pick and choose from there what suits you but reject what does not. There is no point for me to go point by point what Joshi is trying to make as you have taken him seriously

      • AsH says:

        Sameer Joshi is a professional and he makes an excellent case for the downing of their jet(check him out on twitter too!) In that article. He is not a chest thumper by any means.

        As to Karnad sir’s envisionment of a hilltop flattening move, I think that would have been an out and out declaration of war. Their fauji would be more afraid of their zombie mobs lynching them on the streets on account of indian humiliation than an actual fight with india. IMO, we still do not have a power difference with them where we can have minimum damage and still wipe out their mil. Also, if nothing else, we finally called the bluff on their nuclear threats, where they have been putting up the ‘irrational player’ act in a game theory scenario. They won the info war because we did not have a clear win, which is needed because they are a smaller country than ours.(same w.r.t china and us, where china does not have a clear victory despite being a superior power)

      • Saldin N says:

        @AsH
        “of their zombie mobs”
        Irony died a thousand deaths.

      • AsH says:

        @Saldin fair enough, I do accept there are roves of zombies on this side of the border as well displaying masculinity in lynching a hapless guy while hiding in the anonymity of a crowd. I don’t think it can be compared to the phenomenon on your side, given the ideological reason that it exists for. For example if it was the US or China or any other country doing what Karnad suggests here my hunch is the establishment can still control the narrative without the need for retaliation, but not with India..the crowd will not be forgiving.

  4. Tony says:

    The truth is all these actions of IAF produced lots of noise which was mission accomplished considering elections were few weeks away. Whatever that acheived or not , it was break from the past when nothing was done except for verbal gymnastics , mumbai attacks being biggest example. Modi and by proxy indian GOI is equated with Hitler which generates intense hatred and fear among pakistanis which I found is fictional and imaginery and insulting to german war machinery and efficiency. All the well it was good in a way it got bajwa sweated and shaking . Abhinandan did what anyone in trench warfare does and should be given a pass after all hara kiri is japanese not Indian.

  5. Amit says:

    I guess the reason we all are usually exasperated with anything India does is that India underperforms in all spheres and does not really care for outcomes. ‘We are like that only’ is a common phrase that comes to mind. And those of us who have experienced competence and efficiency outside of India are even more exasperated as even common sense actions are not followed. Only when we have an existential threat like we do with China now, we open our eyes. But we have a neighbour like Pakistan whose ministers are even worse – so hopefully our diplomats will use this opportunity and tighten the diplomatic screws on Pakistan using the comments made in its Parliament.

    As for Balakot Air Force operations, I profess ignorance. However, the propaganda war after the Balakot strikes, India definitely mismanaged. But what to do – ‘we are like that only’. Always playing catch up and never really getting there.

  6. From Joydeep Sircar, oropolitics@gmail.com, by email
    Sat, 31 Oct at 10:06 am

    Our air force mission planners at the time of Balakot did not take into account the post – strike scenario where claims of a successful strike would have to stand hostile public scrutiny. Because they are bloody stupid, period. Actually our armed forces are full of such men of limited vision and intelligence. Why was no arrangement made for a real- time infrared camera feed, like the Americans ensured in lraq a generation ago to show the effectiveness of their Tomahawks? The USA wisely understood the necessity of using Tom Clancy’s brains, but in our country that kind of lateral enrichment is unheard of. The result is that Dhanoa and co. were left fumbling, and made to look like fools and liars.

    l am deeply afraid that such kind of stupid people are still getting to lead our military.

  7. V.Ganesh says:

    Mr. Karnad, the very fact that the PAF had to launch a counter-attack itself is proof enough of them receiving the loud message that you’re talking about.

    • Really, Mr Ganesh, the PAF counterattack proves just the opposite! Had the deterrent message got through with massive destruction at Balakot, there would have been no counterattack.

      • V.Ganesh says:

        Mr. Karnad, let it also not be forgotten that Pakistan continues to consider India as an existential threat. Not just this, the Pakistan Army uses India as a convenient excuse to maintain its grip over Pakistan. Therefore, an attack by India on Pakistan in India going unanswered would have been unacceptable for Pakistan especially when it came from someone they consider to be an existential threat. The Pakistan Army was already a subject of ridicule in Pakistan after the US Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. Not launching a counter-attack to Balakot would’ve made them a laughing stock. And, when it’s become public knowledge that General Qamar Javed Bajwa was trembling and sweating post-Balakot, there’s no more proof needed that IAF’s Balakot strike was a success and the GOI’s message was heard loud and clear and achieved its objectives.

  8. Vaibhav says:

    Mr. Bharat Karnad, what you have been saying about arms purchases from US is completely true.

    “For a customer like India, we get a strategic bang for our buck and at the same time we get the economic benefits,” says Karl Kaltenthaler, a professor at the University of Akron who frequently advises various elements of the U.S. government on drone policy and other security matters. “This is a good story in that we’re keeping American jobs, we’re sticking it to China”, he adds.

    https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2020-10-29/india-resists-us-pressure-to-buy-armed-drones-as-trump-looks-for-foreign-policy-wins

  9. V.Ganesh says:

    Yes, really, Mr. Karnad. It hit them hard, loud and clear. For the first time after 1971, they’d been stuck inside Pakistan by the IAF. They’d no other option but to launch a counter-attack. Not doing so would have only resulted in the non-existent Pakistani Muslim martial prowess against what they consider to be a Hindu India that they’d created being busted. The fact remains that the PAF was forced to launch a counter-attack in view of the successfull strike on Balakot by the IAF and lost a Lockheed Martin F-16 of theirs which was shot down by then-Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. And, if all this wasn’t enough, the Pakistani populace couldn’t identify their own PAF pilot and killed him assuming him to be an IAF pilot.

  10. A reaction (sent via whatsapp) Oct 30, 2020 from a former Service chief reproduced below:
    “Dear Bharat, Greetings! Balakot neatly done analysis and it was overdue as The Airforce has been pulling a fast one for a long time especially Dhanoa.”

  11. Kunal Singh says:

    Because The madarsa infrastructure wasn’t levelled, that gave ispr a story for media then their is some failure on our side

  12. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Another wonderful explaination Mr Karnad from your mighty pen. Do you think that Pakistan has successfully managed to lower the power gap with India in the last couple of years? I would love your views on the same. Is that the reason do you believe IAF decided not to retailate in the post-balakot situation? I would love your frank views.

    • No, Pakistan has not closed the gap. The difference is that Pakistan uses the military resources (of all kinds, including political-diplomatic and asymmetric warfare) more often, more boldly, keeping a bigger India off-balance. It is a point, among many others, I’ll be making in my next (2021) book.

      • Janjua says:

        Dear Sir,
        if i look at PAF of early 2000s …. it had no BVR platform, only 32 F16 non upgraded (with no BVR) and IAF was way ahead with mirages, su30,mig29 etc!!!
        having said that as of now i see paf having 200+ BVR platforms for air defense… upgraded f16 plus chinese platforms which are integrated in its air defense architecture…. its a huge jump from what it was…..
        The issue which IAF needs to focus on is the standardization of platforms and cockpit to pilot ratio….

  13. andy says:

    Regarding the choice of the Spice 2k, there’s no doubt that it was a poor choice of weapon, since the impact was not clearly visible from satellite images. There was cloud cover in the days following the bombing. Later the roofs of the buildings had the telltale signs of hurried repair, showing that the bombs had penetrated and done their stuff, because the weapon is designed to penetrate hardened roofs and explode inside an enclosed space, going after soft tissues,rather than the structure itself. Notwithstanding the efficacy of bomb used,it would have been more useful to use munitions that flattened the Balakot hilltop , for the optics . Here the precision strike gave the Pakistani establishment plausible deniability and so the pressure was on the IAF to prove that the strike succeeded, wherein they miserably failed. Nonetheless Imran Khan calling the Balakot bombing ‘khaufnak’ in a rally later proves something.

    The American F series aircraft have had troubles with the MIG 21 in the past.After cope India 2004 ,Colonel Mike Snodgrass, commander of the USAF’s 3rd Wing based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska: “The two most formidable IAF aircraft proved to be the MiG-21 Bison, an upgraded version of the Russian-made baseline MiG-21, and the Su-30MK Flanker, also made in Russia.”
    Plus the IAF believes that it’s forte is dog fighting,, for which they train hard, so it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that the MIG 21 with its low RCS and jackrabbit acceleration, taking off from Srinagar and flying in the shadow of the Pir panjal mountains, surprised the Pakistani fighters,who were more intent on a SU30 kill. With the F16 package embroiled in BVR manoeuvres with the SU30 ,the sudden appearance of four MIG21s must’ve been a shock and hence a WVR kill is a possibility.

    • Janjua says:

      On the contrary, the mig 21 comms were jammed and could not listen to minty GCI to turn cold clearly indicates that the mig was picked up eary on….
      please also note that exercises are usually done with limitations of weapon systems and ROE are set….
      a rafale was able to shoot down a f22 (HUD available) but do you really think that f22 will allow the rafale to come in this close???
      the fighter packages in exercises are usually mimicking a platform or has been briefed to act in a way….
      in 2008 redflag the same american col came with a press conference about the su30 weaknesses…

    • Janjua says:

      If the forte of IAF is dogfighting…… i guess the military planner brought a knife to a gun fight because of their myopic thinking…..
      Since long PAF acquired Amraams was the IAF sleeping ???

  14. Saldin N says:

    Many so-called nationalists don’t seem to grasp the idea that Pakistan chose to retaliate in a manner which was commensurate with what they received. If indeed hilltop vaporising ammunition had been used, then perhaps the reckoning which came swiftly the next day would have been different?

  15. Surya says:

    Mr. Karnad have a look.

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