In this photo released by the Foreign Office, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, right, heads an emergency meeting after Indian Air Force carried out strikes in Balakot on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. (Source: AP photo)
The official Pakistani statement issued after the special meeting of that country’s National Security Committee has “strongly rejected (the) Indian claim of targeting an alleged terrorist camp near Balakot as well as the claim of heavy casualties”.
But it has also alleged that “this action (by India) has been done for domestic consumption being in election environment, putting regional peace and stability at grave risk”, and accused New Delhi of “uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing”
Pakistan, therefore, acknowledges that Indian warjets entered Pakistani airspace and went back safely after their “action”.
However, it denies that the Indian aircraft targeted a terror camp, or that they “eliminated”, as the official Indian statement said, “a very large number” of terrorists
This is broadly the same as what the Pakistan armed forces spokesperson posted on Twitter early on Tuesday morning. In a subsequent tweet, however, the spokesperson claimed that “Indian aircrafts’ intrusion across LOC in Muzafarabad Sector within AJ&K was 3-4 miles” — clearly an attempt to feed off confusion in social media at that time about whether the IAF had hit Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, or the village Bala Kote, which lies opposite Poonch just across the Line of Control.
Interesting body language of PAF officers at the meeting called by Imran Khan. The air chief, Mujahid Anwar, is the one sitting with arms crossed. The Air Marshal next to him looks contemplative. pic.twitter.com/5LO4uHCkGu— Man Aman Singh Chhina (@manaman_chhina) February 26, 2019
It is now clear that the IAF hit targets in Balakot deep inside Pakistan, not in PoK. This place is in district Mansehra in the eastern part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, about a four-hour drive north from Islamabad.
The other point that the Pakistani statement makes is a commitment to retaliation for the intrusion by the Indian aircraft. So, what options does Pakistan have in this situation?
To begin with, the IAF operation is a huge embarrassment for Pakistan, no matter what the official spin is. This is the second time in less than eight years that foreign aircraft have caught the Pakistanis napping in their airspace — the first time was in May 2011, when United States special forces aircraft flew in from a base in Afghanistan to take out Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad (incidentally only about 60 km south of Balakot). There has been talk that the ISI actually allowed the Navy SEALs to come in, but there is obviously no such possibility where India is involved.
Days earlier, Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned India in a televised address: “If you think you would launch any attack on Pakistan and we would not think of retaliating, Pakistan will retaliate. Pakistan would not have any other choice but to give an answer.”
And only yesterday, after a meeting between the Pakistan’s Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and Chief of the Air Staff Mujahid Anwar Khan, the two generals had said the Pakistan armed forces were fully prepared for a “befitting response to any Indian aggression or misadventure”.
That moment will be seen to have now arrived by many in Pakistan.
No matter what the official claims are about there having been no damage — armed forces spokesperson Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor tweeted that “Payload of hastily escaping Indian aircrafts fell in open” and “No infrastructure got hit, no casualties” — both the government and Army will likely face attacks from the political opposition and at least some sections of the media.
Pakistan will have to choose between either continuing to play down the impact of the IAF action, or striking back at India. If it picks the first option, the rhetoric within will increase and the moral of the public will be hit. If it picks the second option, it will open up the possibility of escalation — in terms of both logistics and money — at a scale that it likely cannot absorb.
In addition — and especially given the muted international reaction well over 12 hours after news of the Indian air strikes broke — any retaliatory action by Pakistan will have to backed by serious diplomatic efforts in the background. In this, the Pakistanis will have to overcome the fallout of their own terrible history of having backed international terrorism for decades. International sympathy, if any, will be extremely difficult to extract, and even its benefactors such as China will likely struggle to find excuses for it.
As things stand, Pakistan’s options in this high-stakes situation seem rather limited.--IE