The release of Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, which was a key question on South Block’s table, is a crucial marker. It has set the ball rolling for de-escalation between the two nuclear-armed countries in an otherwise unknown and uncertain escalation ladder. But behind this, there was a fair bit of diplomacy.
When Islamabad dialled interlocutors from major countries across the world, including the P-5 on Wednesday, it told them that India was planning three offensive actions — moving Naval ships towards Karachi; planning to launch ballistic missiles and amassing troops along the India-Pak border.
Video: MiG 21 Pilot Missing, One Pak Aircraft Shot Down
Rattled, the foreign governments reached out to New Delhi. The Indian side is learnt to have told them this was “fictitious and manufactured”. In fact, they said that Indian Naval ships were moving in the direction away from Karachi. Delhi told them that since these countries have the capability to “detect” these movements with their eyes in the sky, they could, on their own, verify these Pak claims.
India made it clear that while it was not looking at escalation and had conducted a “non-military counter-terror pre-emptive” strike deep inside Pakistan, it was Pakistan which had tried to hit Indian military installations.
International interlocutors were told that as many as 20 Pak aircraft had approached Indian military posts and breached the Line of Control. They launched some laser-guided bombs, and contrary to Pak Army’s version, did not hit “rocks and trees” — they narrowly missed Indian military targets.
This was read by Delhi as an “act of aggression”, something the government told Pakistan on Wednesday. Also, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan Army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor’s claims that two Indian fighter aircraft and two pilots had been downed were incorrect and that dented their credibility. New Delhi told foreign governments that, evidently, Khan was not informed by the Army about the actual damage and casualty or was making false claims — either was disturbing.
India did not reveal whether it was considering a response to the attack — in which one MiG aircraft was shot down and an Indian force pilot landed in Pakistan’s custody — but threw the ball in Pakistan’s court saying it was Islamabad’s responsibility to de-escalate.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on Wednesday days after US National Security Adviser John Bolton had supported India’s right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism and offered all assistance to India. New Delhi briefed foreign envoys that it had a limited objective: to target terrorist camps and it had completed this mission.
Explained: Global diplomacy in India-Pakistan
But it had one pilot in Pakistan’s custody and it was Pakistan’s responsibility — under the 1949 Geneva Convention for the treatment of the prisoners of war — to treat him humanely and ensure his return. Sources said Delhi made it clear that there was no deal to be made and there was no room for negotiations but added that there would be consequences if the pilot was harmed or not released.
Also, Islamabad found itself isolated, with none of the P-5 countries standing by it and many, in fact, asking Pakistan to take action against the terrorist groups. Even the UAE snubbed Pakistan’s demand that the OIC withdraw its invitation to India.
With US, other P-5 countries, European Union, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE leaning on Pakistan, Islamabad had run out of options. The assessment here is that for his domestic audience, Imran Khan may have “avenged” Balakot strike by downing an Indian jet and capturing an Indian pilot. And now announcing his release gives the Pak Army a chance to portray itself as a professional force. This prompted India to dial down.
By evening, the Indian tri-services military came out and gave the message that they were in a “state of readiness” but would not escalate any further — unless there were more attacks. This non-retaliation posture by the Indian military brought relief to not just Pakistan but to the international community as well.
India, which waits for the pilot to return, has made it clear there is no relationship between the release and its demand that Pakistan show credible, verifiable action in its crackdown on terrorist groups, their proxies, their infrastructure and cross-border terrorism. To that effect, a detailed Jaish dossier was handed over to Pakistan, and now wants Khan to walk the talk, and take action on the basis of actionable intelligence — since he has been asking for such intelligence after the Pulwama terrorist attack.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 1 under the title ‘Pakistan worked phones, rang alarm bells — but how it was nudged to yield in India’s favour’.