While having the capacity to strike at terrorist targets in Pakistan, Indian leaders have been unwilling to use aerial power because of escalation concerns

by Kanwal Sibal 

India’s aerial strikes at terrorist targets in PoJK and in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have significance in many ways. India has overcome some critical self-imposed inhibitions in dealing with Pakistan

During Pakistan’s Kargil aggression, our air force was instructed not to cross the LoC, framing India’s response as purely self-defensive within Indian territory. The 2016 surgical strikes across the LoC broke this curb and warned Pakistan that the LoC will no longer be considered sacrosanct. The Pulwama attack showed that Pakistan has ignored this warning. It has continued to protect JeM chief Masood Azhar with China’s support from being designated as an international terrorist, besides allowing Hafiz Saeed to continue fomenting jihad against India. Despite its precarious financial situation and grey-listing by the Financial Action Task Force, Pakistan has not felt compelled to act meaningfully and credibly against the jihad organisations targeting India.

While having the capacity to strike at terrorist targets in Pakistan, Indian leaders have been unwilling to use aerial power because of escalation concerns. Aerial strikes have a political resonance different from cross-LoC limited operations or fire exchanges that have actually become commonplace, whether publicised or not. Air strikes cannot be ignored because an absence of reaction may encourage more strikes and deadlier ones. Use of aerial power by its very nature is therefore escalatory. In Pakistan’s case, our concerns about its nuclear capability has dissuaded us from taking strong retaliatory action. By using air power in a contained manner to achieve a limited anti-terrorism objective, we have finally got rid of the nuclear ghost in dealing with Pakistan.

The diplomatic ground for our action has been well prepared. By publicly recognising our right to self-defence after Pulwama, the US National Security Adviser made our response easier. At the initiative of France, the UN Security Council has issued a very strong statement condemning the Pulwama attack and attributing it to the JeM. Our past unhappy experience with the UNSC on Kashmir has made us reluctant to have the issue tabled at this forum lest the proclivity of member states to be even-handed between India and Pakistan and introduce the element of human rights and exercise of restraint blur Pakistan’s culpability. China, as usual, tried to shield Pakistan but eventually supported the statement, taking into account no doubt the damage its partisan position in the UNSC could cause to India-China ties. China has, however, made it known that the reference to the JeM does not alter its position on designating him an international terrorist by the relevant UN committee. Besides this, Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have strongly condemned the Pulwama attack, knowing its linkage to the JeM based in Pakistan. India now intends to put the ball back once again in China’s court by seeking a strong language on terrorism and condemnation of the Pulwama attack in the joint Russia-India-China communique this week.

Two aspects of our air strikes need highlighting. One, that no Pakistani military installation or economic asset has been attacked. Second, we seem to have had credible information that the JeM was planning car bomb attacks at places outside J&K and we had brought this to Pakistan’s attention in the past 14 days without Islamabad taking any action. Which explains why we are describing our strikes as preemptive against terror and are briefing the foreign governments accordingly. Clearly, India is seeking to contain the fall out of its action, make it more difficult for Pakistan to respond and put the onus on it for any further escalation.

The author is former foreign secretary