Less than a fortnight after the single bloodiest attack in Jammu and Kashmir in the last three decades of militancy, India on Tuesday conducted air strikes deep inside Pakistan, the first time after the 1971 war that it has hit targets in the country.
Announcing that India had struck the “biggest training camp” of the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, in which “a very large number” of JeM terrorists and their trainers were “eliminated”, the NDA government, effectively, drew a new red line in its strategic calculus with Pakistan.
This not only challenges the conventional escalation ladder between the two nuclear-armed countries but, after the post-Uri surgical strike, sends a strong signal to Islamabad that there will be a high cost for not tightening the terror tap on its soil. The strike also tests Pakistan’s retaliatory response as New Delhi shifts its focus to a renewed diplomatic outreach to the global community to persuade and convince Islamabad to avoid any step that may precipitate escalation.
By striking terrorist camps about 80 km away from the Line of Control in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, India chose “non-military” targets, the Jaish-e-Mohammed-run terror camps, and justified the strikes as “pre-emptive” since terrorists, Delhi said, were plotting another attack.
At 11.30 am on Tuesday, about six hours after Pakistan Army’s spokesperson first broke the news of a “Line of Control violation by the Indian Air Force,” the government confirmed that India had struck the Jaish camp in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday in what it called a “non-military pre-emptive action”.
Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in a prepared statement, “Credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country and fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose. In the face of imminent danger, a pre-emptive strike became absolutely necessary.”
“In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of today, 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. This facility at Balakot was headed by Maulana Yousuf Azhar alias Ustad Ghouri, (who is) the brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, chief of JeM”, Gokhale said.
Stressing that the Indian government is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism, Gokhale said that this “non-military pre-emptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp”. Gokhale did not take any questions.’
He underlined that the selection of the target was conditioned by India’s desire to “avoid civilian casualties”. “The facility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence,” he said.
While he did not specify the location of Balakot, sources later confirmed that it was in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province — considered to be the stronghold of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party PTI. It is located about 80 km from the LoC and near Abbotabad, where Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in hiding by covert US forces.
Gokhale, who was speaking within a few hours of the air strike, said that as the strike had taken place only a short while ago, Delhi was awaiting further details.
The Foreign Secretary recalled the Pulwama attack by a Jaish operative that killed 40 CRPF personnel and outlined that the group has been active in Pakistan for the last two decades. Led by Masood Azhar, with its headquarters in Bahawalpur, this organization, which is proscribed by the UN, has been responsible for a series of terrorist attacks including on Parliament in December 2001 and the Pathankot airbase in January 2016, he said.
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“Information regarding the location of training camps in Pakistan and PoK 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,” he said.
India has been repeatedly urging Pakistan to take action against the JeM to prevent jihadis from being trained and armed inside Pakistan. “Pakistan has taken no concrete actions to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil”, Gokhale said.
He underlined that the Pak government had made a commitment in January 2004 not to allow its soil or territory to be used for terrorism against India. “We expect that Pakistan lives up to its public commitment and takes follow up actions to dismantle all JeM and other camps and holds the terrorists accountable for the actions,” Gokhale said.
“I want to assure the people that the country is in safe hands. There is nothing above the nation,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a public rally in Churu, Rajasthan, in his first remarks after the strike. He, however, did not make a direct reference to the attack.
The news of early morning strikes Pakistan was announced by Pakistan at 5:12 am IST with a tweet by its military spokesperson, Maj General Asif Ghafoor.
He confirmed that Indian Air Force had crossed into Pakistan’s air space. “Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back. Details to follow.” His next tweet, at 7:06 am, said the intrusion occurred in the “Muzaffarabad sector”. He identified “Balakot” as the place where the IAF jets dropped their “payload”, i.e. bombs when they were met with “a timely and effective response” from the Pakistani air force.