Both India and Pakistan may be lying, and that may breed worse disasters

Image: Reuters/Jason Le/Adnan Abidi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) airstrike on Balakot, Pakistan, and the events since has led millions to wonder how much more serious situation between the two countries might become.

The shelling across the Line of Control has not yet abated, but the threat of stumbling into a war seems to be receding. The real risk of unstable escalation comes from the next major terrorist attack; a crisis that is almost assured to be more dangerous thanks to the Pakistani government’s untruths about what was really hit, and the India’s whoppers about the impact of its “counter-terrorism” actions across the border.

The most obvious lie in the official Pakistani story is that the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) is under a strict ban, and that no JeM complex exists in the vicinity. Unfortunately media reporting from on the ground confirms the presence of such a facility, and that it is headed by the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, the terrorist organisation’s chief.

Behind closed doors, senior Pakistani security establishment figures occasionally admit to international interlocutors their failure with the JeM and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), yet insist that the ban is no smokescreen. They confide that theycan’t take on all the groups at once, and are dismantling them one by one; that they’re trying to gradually steer jihadis away from violence and towards mainstream politics without provoking an extremist mass uprising.

What is worth asking is why the authorities won’t allow Pakistanis to debate the matter in the open. Many Pakistanis are tired of conflict, frightened by extremism, looking for economic growth and keen to see the country become a “normal” nation. Perhaps that’s why Dawn, a newspaper started by Pakistan founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah himself, had it’s editor and assistant editor raked over the coals after they reported the concerns raised by then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet over the diplomatic costs of the army’s jihadi policy in October 2016. That kind of silencing allows pro-establishment figures to promote absurd conspiracy theories, including the idea that the Indian government engineered the Pulwama attack as a pretext for attacking Pakistan.

But this Orwellian approach isn’t limited to the Pakistani government.

The official Indian ministry of external affairs statement read by the foreign secretary claims that a “very large” number of militants had been “eliminated,” with unnamed government sources bandying figures between 200 and 300.

Unfortunately the very same on-the-ground reporting that confirmed the existence of a JeM complex at Balakot also strongly indicated that all four IAF bombs missed their targets. The number, location, and impact of bomb strikes have been corroborated through open source analysis by the Digital Forensics Research Lab and other independent experts using commercially available satellite imagery.

And then of course there’s the matter of the dog that didn’t bark: Jihadi organisations almost never fail to publicly take credit for killing their enemies—or to publicly vow revenge when their enemies kill them.

Given the current government’s publicity-savvy ways, it seems unlikely they would have skipped overhead images of bomb damage if it buttressed the official claims. This unreal level of distortion is identical to the tall claims that accompanied the Uri “surgical strikes” of October 2016. Once the dust settled, Indian military professionals, including those who oversaw the action, made it clear that the operation had been “overhyped and overpoliticised.”

Why the lies destabilise

Why do these two lies matter, especially in combination? Pakistan’s refusal to acknowledge its proxy warfare makes its requests for dialogue with India seem hopelessly lacking in sincerity and utility. But this is something that is understood everywhere outside Rawalpindi, and it is more useful to examine why the lie from the other side of the border is so destabilising.

Simply put, the Modi government has been determined to break out of the status quo with Pakistan. The chosen means has been to up the level of overt violence in retaliation to major terrorist attacks while staying short of war. This has been accompanied by a harsher use of force against protestors and terrorists alike in Kashmir. The amplified response is meant to deter Pakistan, reassure the Indian public, and encourage international players to pressure Islamabad.

But if Uri had been effective, Pulwama shouldn’t have happened and Balakot wouldn’t have been necessary. The Indian military retaliation might have restored the balance of terror after the attack, but it did not disrupt the status quo. It is no surprise then that the JeM and LeT remained free to conduct an attack like Pulwama. Deterrence requires credibility in terms of demonstrated ability, not just will. Convincing highly nationalistic Indian television audiences is easy enough; convincing a nuclear power that’s already survived many gut-wrenching losses is a different matter.

Pakistan’s confidence in its air defence capabilities don’t seem particularly shaken by recent skirmishes. If it turns out that not a single terrorist died in Balakot, the Pakistan Army is unlikely to change tack, and it’s only a matter of time before we go through the whole cycle again. If the current policy remains in place (with or without the same government), how much more provocative and risky will the next military action have to be to top Balakot and Uri?

A page from history

History is instructive. In the 1980s, the Soviets fought a number of air battles with Pakistan and aggressively employed covert action; many believe the massive Ojhri dump explosion and Zia’s death was KGB or GRU handiwork. It changed nothing. In November 2011, the US Air Force deliberately targeted two Pakistani Frontier Corps posts on the Afghan border with an AC-130 gunship and F-15E strike aircraft, killing 28 soldiers. That was six months after the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad and the Raymond Davis incident. None of this substantively changed Pakistan Army behaviour; it continued to support the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqanis, and other foes.

The evidence suggests that the Pakistan Army cannot easily be coerced through military pressure when it believes vital stakes are at play. Can India achieve greater military asymmetry with a nuclear Pakistan than two superpowers at their peak? At the very least, the Indian public deserves to be looped into this vital question rather than restricted to cheerleading.

This is not to suggest that the region must surrender to terror and war, but instead that the only way out will come from acting with the kind of creativity and moral courage that ended colonial rule. The only way to end the unnecessary risks and pointless losses is to start making truth available again to the peoples of India and Pakistan. The truth about the Pakistani government’s relationship with militant extremism, and the truth about what it costs Pakistan. The truth about how ineffective the current Indian government’s policy of ratcheting up “toughness” in Kashmir and Pakistan has been; the truth about the true costs of military competition and war. Perhaps most importantly, the truth about how remarkably resilient both nations have proved to be.

May the truth set us all free.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.