Pakistan didn’t wait long to squash India’s Balakot airstrike bravado with its air incursions. However, the financially strapped country cannot support a serious escalation of hostilities, not least because India could wreak massive punishment. This demonstrates why Pakistan’s military is at pains to affirm that it is not seeking war.
The mass murder shooting at Pulwama was India’s moment of truth. For too long, India had put up with Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism without imposing any tangible costs. So, when the Pulwama massacre happened, it triggered intense anger across the country, not just against Pakistan, but also against the fractious and feckless political class that has reduced India to a soft State.
Peace with Pakistan is a mirage, and the Indian Air Force (IAF) aptly employed its Mirage 2000 aircraft to bomb terrorists there. In a chilling message to Pakistan’s terror masters — the military generals — it demonstrated its ability to deeply penetrate Pakistani air defenses and bomb. This represented a major loss of face for the generals. To salvage their image at home, the generals have responded with aerial aggression.
Had the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee quickly responded with punitive airstrikes to the December 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on Parliament — at a time when much of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet was not airworthy due to a lack of spares — India probably would have been spared the Pakistan-scripted terrorist carnages that have followed. The lost golden opportunity was compounded by nearly 18 years of political dithering on allowing limited uses of air power, such as taking out trans-border terrorist launch pads. India’s belated use of air power to strike a terrorist safe haven has finally sent a clear message: it is not afraid to escalate its response to the aerial domain in order to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.
Balakot represents the first time a nuclear power carried out an airstrike inside another nuclear-armed State. The current conventional military face-off, however, promises to bust Western academic theories about the inevitability of tit-for-tat actions rapidly triggering a serious nuclear crisis. Pakistani generals may be impish but they are not suicidal. Their delusions of security behind a supposed nuclear shield stand exposed.
A more fundamental question is whether the popular face-off will mark a turning point for India, generating a newfound determination not to be continually gored. Or did India carry out the Balakot airstrike — like the 2016 ground-launched surgical strike — widely to assuage public anger, with the calculation that Pakistan would again not respond in kind? A one-off airstrike, in any event, would be as ineffective in deterring Pakistan as the one-off surgical strike was.
Whatever the number of terrorists killed at Balakot, the fact is that Pakistan’s generals were made to pay no costs. Now emboldened by their own quick military response, they will attempt to bleed India further. Tellingly, the 2016 terrorists-targeting surgical strike, while underscoring India’s refusal to impose any costs on the terror masters, was followed by serial Pakistan-orchestrated terrorist attacks from Nagrota to Pulwama.