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.