News Analysis | Parsing Foreign Secretary’s statement on Balakot air strikes

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The message that goes out is that India has done what it needed to do to defend itself, after being left with no other choice, and with no desire to engage militarily with Pakistan

Both the format and the wording of Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s statement on Tuesday announcing the Indian Air Force’s strikes on a terror training camp in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, indicated a restrained determination from New Delhi aimed at avoiding a military escalation.

The message clearly, say officials, is that India had carried out a “counter-terror strike” aimed at defending itself, rather than military aggression.

To begin with, unlike the September 2016 statement of the strikes that followed the Uri attack, where Director General of Military Operations Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh addressed the press, this time it was India’s most senior career diplomat who made the announcement of the operations.

Foreign Secretary’s full statement

However, like the DGMO, Mr. Gokhale began with a preamble on Pakistan’s refusal to take action against the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), despite evidence and information about the group responsible for the Parliament attack in 2001, Pathankot Airbase attack in 2016 and the most recent attack in Pulwama, being shared from “time to time” with Pakistani authorities, who turned a blind eye to Indian concerns and took “no concrete actions to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil.”

Mr. Gokhale said, “Information regarding the location of training camps in Pakistan and PoJK has been provided to Pakistan from time to time. Pakistan, however, denies their existence. The existence of such massive training facilities capable of training hundreds of Jihadis could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistan authorities.”

Next, Mr. Gokhale referred to the fact that the strike was pre-emptive and necessitated by the “credible intelligence” that the JeM was planning, at its training camp, more such attacks on India, where “fidayeen jihadis” were being trained. This indicates that the government did not intend the strike as just a “revenge operation”, but one carried out in self-defence, led by intelligence.

Significantly, while the Foreign Secretary described the location of the camp at Balakot, he gave no details of how the strike was actually carried out. “India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of Jihadis who were being trained for Fidayeen action were eliminated,” he said.

The omission of how the strike was carried out has led to speculation that while the target was deep inside Pakistani territory, not far from the cantonment town of Abbottabad, Indian jets may not have needed to cross too far in over the Line of Control.

According to military and diplomatic sources, this is the farthest Indian Air Force jets have crossed into Pakistani-held territory since 1971, but couldn’t confirm the actual distance inside Pakistan that was travelled.

Finally, Mr. Gokhale’s phrase “non-military pre-emptive action” aimed only at the JeM camp, not at military targets, and assiduously avoiding civilian casualties, is significant. The message that goes out is that India has done what it needed to do to defend itself, after being left with no other choice, and with no desire to engage militarily with Pakistan. The ball now, is in Pakistan’s court.

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