In the early hours of Tuesday, 12 Mirage 2000 fighter jets from the Indian Air Force (IAF) crossed into Pakistan and bombed a target in Balakot, a sleepy town nestled in the hills of eastern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
It was the first time since the 1971 war between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors that air power has been used to hit targets. The jets took off from the Gwalior and Ambala air force bases before 3:30 am and crossed into Pakistani air space in minutes, top Indian defense officials said. The operation lasted till 3:54 am as Pakistani F-16s scrambled after the Indian jets fired its precision guided munitions at the pre-determined targets. A number of SU-30 combat jets from Bareilly and Halwara air force bases also took off to defend any retaliatory action from Pakistan, supported by two airborne early warning aircraft.
The incident comes in the wake of a terror attack in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir, which killed 40 Indian policemen. New Delhi accused Islamabad of harboring the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the militant group that claimed responsibility for the attack.
India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, called the attack an “intelligence-based pre-emptive strike against non-military” targets in a prepared statement that was read out later in the day. Earlier, Major General Arif Ghafor, the official spokesperson of the Pakistani military, tweeted that Indian combat jets intruded into Pakistani air space early on Tuesday and reportedly dropped what was described as a “payload” in Balakot.
Initially, there was confusion about Balakot, since there is a similar sounding place near the Line of Control (LoC). Later on Ghafoor tweeted that the IAF planes made a hasty escape after being challenged by F-16s from the Pakistan Air Force.
While Ghafoor maintained that Indian jets entered “3-4 miles” inside Pakistani territory via Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, his claim that the aircraft’s payload was found near Balakot has raised question marks.
Dispute over target
Balakot, located roughly 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, from Muzaffarabad, is part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. Pakistani security analysts note that the admission that the jets targeted KP would imply that India launched an attack inside Pakistan.
However, the same analysts also say Balakot’s location along KP’s border with Pakistan-administered Kashmir means that it is also likely that Islamabad will not claim that Indian forces targeted Pakistani territory.
However, local Villagers also confirmed they heard explosions in the morning. Witnesses from Jaba and Garhi Habibullah, towns near Balakot in KP, told local police they heard “blasts” and aircraft about 4 am local time. Multiple sources in the Indian security establishment also confirmed the target was Balakot in KP province.
“For years we had been building a major picture of the terrorist camps active in Pakistan. Balakot emerged as an important JeM camp,” a senior Indian security official told Asia Times. “We had credible reports that the JeM founder, Maulana Masood Azhar, and his brother Ibrahim Athar used to frequent the camp regularly to address cadres.”
Masood Azhar was in an Indian prison before being released in exchange for Indian hostages on board a hijacked Indian Airlines flight in December 1999.
His elder brother Ibrahim was the lead hijacker and was known as “Burger.” Azhar also had two brothers-in-law, Maulana Kamran Rasheed and Yusuf Azhar. While Kamran’s son Talha Rasheed was killed by Indian security forces along with Ibrahim’s son Usman last year, it is believed that Yusuf, also known as Ustad Ghauri, used to run the Balakot camp. However, Indian government sources said it was likely he survived the air strikes as the Azhar families had been moved out soon after the Pulwama suicide attack.
Indian foreign secretary Gokhale also said there was “credible intelligence” that more suicide attacks like the one in Pulwama were being planned. He said this “pre-emptive” strike was carried out to prevent further attacks in “self-defense”.
For the Pakistanis, embarrassed after US Navy SEALs carried out a raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, the violation of its air space was a sensitive issue. That led to the later denials that the target was Balakot in KP province.
However, both Pakistani and Indian sources have declined to confirm reports on the number of casualties, if any. While some media reports claimed 300 were killed, officials on both sides said no such figures were available.
“No camps have such a high number of cadres at any point,” a senior Indian security official said. “There could be a nearby madrassa, but it was empty at 3 am. So the casualty figures are imaginary,” the official said.
A new threshold
However, analysts on both sides agreed that a new threshold had been established. Anand Arni, who retired as a special secretary to the government of India and was a career intelligence professional specializing in Pakistan, said the “threshold has definitely been raised. Pakistan has to be careful on how it launches the next attack,” he said.
Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail, a former F-16 fighter pilot with the Pakistan Air Force and a scholar, remained skeptical of Indian claims.
“I do not see any reason for the IAF to send the so-called ‘heavy package of 12 Mirage 2000s to carry out the attack. I think this is just to spice up the ‘surgical strike’ story. Bala Kote [and not another town called Balakot which is well inside Pakistan] is just a couple of km from the LoC, so I see no reason why a stand-off attack could not be carried out,” he said.
“Why risk the shooting down of manned fighters? So to me, it was a stand-off attack. I do not believe that there is or was any training camp of Jaish or LeT or any other group,” he added.
However, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan called a meeting of the cabinet and called the Indian action an “uncalled aggression.” A decision was also taken to ferry journalists to the area of the attack, to ascertain the facts about India’s claims.
“The claimed area of strike is open for the world to see the facts on the ground. For this, domestic and international media is being taken to the impact site,” a statement from the Pakistan government said. “(The) Forum concluded that India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing.”
Pakistan will also raise the issue with the Organization of Islamic Countries, United Nations and friends and prepare for any kind of aggression. It also briefed foreign diplomats from key countries. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said India was causing harm to regional stability, while vowing that Pakistan would continue to act “responsibly.”
“India is damaging regional peace, while Pakistan is being a responsible state. Pakistan desires peace but it has a right to defend itself and appropriately respond to Indian misadventures,” he said. A meeting of the National Command Authority of Pakistan, which also overlooks its nuclear weapons arsenal, will take further decisions and analysts believe it could plan a retaliatory strike against India in the coming weeks.