Valentine’s Day 2019 inflicted “blood, sweat, tears and toil” on India by Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Pakistan-based and sponsored terror group, resulting in the death of over 40 paramilitary soldiers deep inside Indian territory, on a national highway. The cold, calculating manslaughter of 2019 understandably led India to launch an unprecedented aerial operation leading to the destruction of critical Jaish assets, which went beyond Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, to deep inside Pakistan. And as was expected, the Pakistani military countered with a knee-jerk reaction. An attempted counter-air assault on J&K which, not surprisingly, failed in its avowed mission, if any.
With this Indian enterprise, however, we have entered into a potentially new triple-edged war front. So far, it was a one-way “thousand cuts terror war” initiated 30 years ago in 1989 by then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to prove her loyalty to her boss — the Pakistani Army headed by a fanatic anti-India Sunni Muslim, Mirza Aslam Beg who himself was born an Indian, in Azamgarh. Second, it’s a virtually declared “war on terror” by India. The third, by now, an “undeclared shadow war between India and Pakistan”. The “second” war began after taking a 30-year beating, with the Indian Air Force bombing on Tuesday, February 26, of Balakot, an important training centre and launch pad of Pakistan’s state-supported Jaish-e-Mohammed. The “third” phase began the next day, with a futile counter-revenge attempt by the Pakistani Air Force, resulting in the loss of an American state-of-the-art F-16 fighter jet, inflicted by IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, notwithstanding his craft being downed by ground fire.
So where do we stand now? What awaits the future? Will the conflict escalate? If so, when and how? If not, then why? Which actors and what factors would help or harm the present scenario?
Allegations and counter-allegations of electoral politics on terror war notwithstanding, let us try see the picture beyond the visual range. It’s clear that for the first time, in almost eight decades, the IAF has come to play an anti-terror role in the northwest frontier of India, and beyond. After the 1930s, the Royal Indian Air Force was extensively used to suppress the tribal hostility in the India-Afghanistan border, referred to as the Durand Line. Second, the IAF action is a tremendously important symbolic gesture. The IAF bombed an area which constitutes a great strategic interest for China’s CPEC/BRI project. Balakot is 60 km north of Abbottabad (adjacent to the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul); and between the two falls Mansehra, around which passes a road connecting Kashgarh with that of port Gwadar, China’s key to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Thus, the north-south N-15 (road connects) Balakot with Mansehra (39 km), and from there further south, Abbottabad (23 km), it becomes N-35. This north-south 62 km axis has another east-west axis; Mansehra to Thakot (Battal tunnel) which turns into another junction for the north-south main Kashgarh-Gwadar CPEC road.
In fact, the Indian air attack of 26/02 on Balakot (somehow the date 26 has one common number with Mumbai 26/11), in one stroke has given notice to the safety and security to at least two of China’s high-profile “deep penetration” projects in Pakistan. The first undoubtedly is the 1,300-km NH-35 Karakorum Highway, linking Hasan Abdal (Pakistani Punjab) to Kunjerab pass (Pakistan-occupied J&K) in Gilgit-Baltistan, a territory which legitimately belongs to India via the accession of Jammu and Kashmir on October 26, 1947.
The second sector under the IAF’s radar now is the 2,395-km Kashgarh-Gwadar road which overlaps part of the Karakorum Highway’s en route the dwellings of Rawalpindi, Abbottabad, Mansehra, Chilas, Gilgit, Nagar, Karimabad and Kunjerab pass.
A question, therefore, comes to mind. Has India signalled to China that enough is enough? We’ve tolerated enough of your muck in the troubled waters of South Asia? We begged of you for long, to kindly steer clear of our territory which has been illegally and maliciously transgressed, and then occupied, by both Pakistan and China since the 1950s, and then followed by an equally mala fide and illegal transfer of territory by Pakistan to China!
And last, but not the least, even after taking into account the cacophonic criticism of politicians across South Asia that the IAF must show the “actual results”, what stands out undeniable is the successful conduct of a highly complex operation by the IAF deep into Pakistani territory and coming out unscathed therefrom. This by itself speaks volumes of the IAF’s professionalism where China has forcibly entered in the third person.
Thus, the future no longer holds India back under its self-imposed restrictions. The vast swathe of terror-infested lands of Pakistan now is anybody’s guess and game, as it stands prised open by the IAF.
An important point to note on terror, therefore, is a revelation. Terror for Pakistan is the most effective and useful instrument of the state to cut India. Terror for China too is equally profitable to keep India under check as has been done in the past, from Kohima to Kolkata in the east and from Kashmir to “Khalistan” in the west. The utility of terror has not diminished one bit. On the contrary, its more fruitful and futuristic than ever before. Each and every loss of Indian soldiers is a gain for the Sino-Paki axis and cause for celebration.
However, an important intangible development is that the unprecedented IAF operations, deep inside Pakistani soil, have definitely set alarm bells ringing in the policy planning division of both Islamabad’s military and Beijing’s money-making department. None of them possibly thought of the IAF’s ability to intervene and interdict in the vicinity of the hub of multi-billion dollar CPEC routes, in a terrain where even the best of the best fear to tread or tread with fear: whether from the sky or on ground.
In reality, India has surprisingly played the Chinese card — of turning the bilateral into the multilateral. China attacked in a tri-lateral junction (where Bhutan, India and Tibet meet) in 1962. CPEC, BRI and Aksai Chin all are Chinese creations to confuse, create chaos and confront. The Indo-Nepal area today is virtually trilateral. The Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — all stand as trilateral or multilateral Chinese enterprises. Balakot surely appears to be the first reverse trilateral Indian offensive. And there lies the future strategic great game to tell China. “Please do not push us beyond a position. Things may not go in accordance with your plan every day”. Every day is not a Chinese Sunday. Are we not witnessing a somewhat sombre and subdued Chinese reaction — calling for “restraint”? Will China play better than what thus far it has been playing? For trade, commerce, communications or cash through Pakistani terror… and also Indian territory?