12 Mirage-2000 fighter jets were used to strike at JeM terror camps deep inside Pakistan

Going by Imran Khan’s hasty conciliatory gestures smacking of anxiety and fear, it appeared that Indian air raids shook the Pakistani military establishment from inside. Pakistan's army soldier guards the area, after Indian military aircraft struck on February 26, according to Pakistani officials, in Jaba village, near Balakot, Pakistan, March 7, 2019

by Abhinav Pandya

In the post-Pulwama Indo-Pak stand-off, Indian airstrikes marked the watershed moment in the geopolitics of South Asia. The classic “strategic restraint” exercised by India before 2014 stands abandoned in favour of an aggressive posture.

India has set the 'new normal' of retaliating against Pakistan for every act of terror initiated by cross-border actors. Going by Imran Khan’s hasty conciliatory gestures smacking of anxiety and fear, it appeared that Indian air raids shook the Pakistani military establishment from inside.

All through the crises, India’s clumsy and incompetent information management, irresponsible and shallow politicking by politicians and jingoistic reporting by India’s electronic media diluted the message Modi wanted to send. In contrast, Pakistan’s media managers did a better job, making Pakistan appear like a responsible state committed to peace, cleverly hiding their 'snakes in the backyard.'

The war of perceptions and propaganda has always been a vital instrument of enhancing, projecting and exercising national power. It is one of the most critical dimensions along with the diplomatic, military, economic and cultural components of a nation's power. Countries with a vibrant and refined strategic culture, confidence and a strong sense of national power often explore its potential to the fullest. In the recent, Indo-Pak stand-off, despite our strong force posture and victory in diplomatic and military domains, we appeared like amateurs in the war of perceptions against Pakistan. 

Pakistan initiated a campaign where it, first did not make any official statement on Pulwama attack for two-three days citing the excuse of an investment conference with Saudi Prince MBS. The intention was to prove that Imran’s Naya Pakistan is innocent and naïve about such terrorist attacks, and it is genuinely trying hard to rescue the country from the dire economic straits. When Imran Khan spoke, he spoke in a measured way, conveying his intent of peace in spite of having strong retaliatory capabilities. The real intention was to bargain peace with India due to its inability to sustain a long war-effort on account of the weak economic condition but without expressing Pakistan’s military and economic weakness. Every part of the Imran’s speech- the choice and selection of the words and seriousness without anxiety and anger were perfectly customized to convey the intent mentioned above. Also, here, PM Imran deserves all the credit for being able to do it quite successfully, at least in the eyes of a large segment of people. 

After the Indian air strikes, Delhi should have come out with the announcement of Balakot strikes, instead Pakistan’s ISPR took the lead and announced that Indian airstrikes failed in hitting their targets in. They showed photographs, perhaps fabricated ones, of the craters that the explosions created in open forest land. The Indian government was on the defensive fumbling for evidence to prove its claims. 

Next day, Pakistan’s success in controlling the narratives and propaganda was visible when they staged a retaliatory action against Indian airbases. While Indian media was trumpeting battle cries and victories, ISPR spokesperson Asif Gafoor stated that Pakistan would surprise India, which they successfully did with a well-planned air defence ambush, lured our pilot into their airspace and captured him alive. Later, the same Pakistan which had gouged out the eyes of Captain Saurabh Kalia and mutilated our soldiers in the past treated Abhinandan like an honoured guest. They made excellent videos of him having tea and engaging in informal conversations. 

On the third day, the US mediation led to the release of Abhinandan and, here Pakistan emerged as a statesman by making fake peace-appeals. Imran Khan’s peace-appeal and conciliatory gestures preceding and after his release were well-timed, and brilliantly crafted and structured to project an image that Pakistan’s releasing of Abhinandan was not under pressure but entirely out of genuine concerns for averting a war in South Asia, despite having strong retaliatory capabilities. 

Pakistan knew that the Pulwama attack was planned and executed by ISI handlers and their Indian proxies, and in the overall global milieu against Jihadi extremism, with Pakistan already placed in the grey list of FATF, it would be tough to go scot free this time. However, with a successful information campaign backed by a smart tactical operation, they could divert the global attention from its terror-sponsoring activities to its superficial peace gestures and emotionally charged speeches of Imran Khan overstuffed with duplicitous innocence.

No substantial action has been taken against any of the wanted terrorists like Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed. The ban that was imposed on Jaish appears like an eye-wash without any genuine intent. In Kashmir Valley, Pakistan’s shrewd information operations led ordinary people to question the real perpetrators and motives of Pulwama attack. India’s security-centric approach in Kashmir and alarming levels of alienation made Pakistan’s job much more comfortable. The talk of the town in the valley is that Imran Khan has replaced Atal Bihari Vajpayee due to his peace overtures. Finally, Pakistan’s outmanoeuvring in the propaganda war was complete when Abhinandan’s return was broadcasted live by channels on both sides of the border.

The Indian government conducted a successful air strike on Balakot neutralising more than 200 terrorists, downed an F-16 of Pakistan, virtually coerced Pakistan to release Abhinandan through deft diplomacy and pressure tactics, and smartly manoeuvred the global opinion against Pakistan in multilateral agencies like UN and FATF against Pakistan. Even China could not defend Jaish in UNSC. However, we lost on the information war front. In spite of all the great achievements listed above, we were found fumbling, confused and in disarray on the information front. Also, lost in the claims and counter-claims was the primary message that Modi wanted to send- India is capable of striking not just in PoK but deep inside Pakistan at the time and place of its choice.

The political class was even a step ahead in making sure that India loses the information war. There was complete chaos with different politicians in the BJP giving different death counts. The politicians on the other end of the spectrum doubted the validity of the army’s claims and raised a huge question mark on the death count. Indian media was running 24/7 discussions on such sensitive national security issues.

As a result, Pakistani populace was entirely convinced that Indian strikes failed. The Indian viewers are also confused about the success of the air strikes. The whole thing looked like a mockery of the highly professional institution of Army. 

Abhinav Pandya is a graduate in public affairs from Cornell University, and has more than seven years of experience in public policy, counter terrorism, electoral politics and the development sector in India and the US