REMINISCING THE FEBRUARY STANDOFF

Author Name: Aneeqa Safdar      28 Feb 2020     Airforce

The vulture and the eagle soar

In the same air, but in worlds apart – ­­Iqbal

Tensions in the South Asian region intensified as the two neighbours, India and Pakistan, came at the crossroads of an escalated conflict in February 2019. The face-off between the nuclear neighbours began in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack when a paramilitary convoy was attacked by a 22-year-old boy, a resident of Pulwama District of Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). A suicide attack that killed around forty Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, dejected the Indian state. Indian authorities, as proven time and time again, were quick to blame Pakistan in order to evade attention from their own atrocities in IOK. Within hours, the attack was linked to Pakistan through a calculated video linking the revolutionary youth (for them, the radicalized one) to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), allegedly based in Azad Kashmir. The narrative that followed in India was loud and clear: revenge and war.

Despite Pakistan’s repeated offers to India to share any actionable evidence against the perpetrators of the attack, the latter’s chauvinistic nationalism and jingoism disallowed it to settle on any sane option. On the night of February 26, the Indian Air Force (IAF) carried out a clandestine operation and afterward boasted of a pre-emptive strike. Indian authorities maintained that the IAF’s mirage 2000 jets bombed a JeM camp in Balakot, a town in Mansehra District of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, killing hundreds of so-called terrorists.

The next morning, Pakistan denounced the strikes and with effective proof, debunked the Indian claim of targeting any facilities in Pakistan. Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor took to twitter to expose the Indian intrusion and showed evidence of a hasty payload dumping by Indian planes as a result of a timely interception and response by Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The claims were later on also substantiated by neutral observers evinced by satellite imagery.

As the details of the standoff followed post de-escalation, a clear demarcation was established between rhetoric and reality. On February 26, IAF violated Pakistan’s airspace from four fronts: Sir Creek, Rahim Yar Khan, Fazilka Sector and the Line of Control (LOC), i.e. Kashmir. A total of twenty IAF aircraft, twelve Mirage 2000 and eight SU30MKI were involved in the aggression against Pakistan. However, only four from a total of twelve loaded aircrafts were able to drop bombs in Pakistani territory, while missing the claimed target by several miles, clearly illustrating the (in)competence of IAF.

In the air skirmish that followed no later than a day, i.e. on 27 February, Pakistan took India by surprise as promised by its leadership. In a befitting response, PAF carried out air raids in IOK in broad daylight while deliberately avoiding targeting any civilian area or military installation. Unlike India, Pakistan exercised restraint as per its political objective and only conveyed its resolve to act, and to act decisively. India’s External Affairs Ministry, however, claimed that Pakistan intended to target its military installations. Pakistan meticulously ended the argument by releasing pictorial evidence of Operation Swift Retort, the codename of PAF’s military operation in IOK, which clearly showed the pilot locking the target and then purposefully guiding the bomb to an uninhabited area.

                                                                                                                                                                              

The ensuing dog fight saw the downing of two Indian planes, a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 and an SU-30. The wreckage of the MiG-21 flown by Wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman fell in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, while that of the SU-30 fell in Indian Occupied Kashmir. Wing commander Abhinandan’s plane was shot down by PAF as it violated the LOC, however he was captured by locals and later arrested by the ground forces.

India, while hiding its humiliation, asserted that its pilot had shot down a Pakistani F-16 in the engagement. Whereas, the IAF pilot was shot immediately after take-off; Pakistan also showed all the four missile seeker heads of the downed MiG-21, which were recovered intact. Nevertheless, Indian claims were yet again thwarted by none another than US authorities, rightly discrediting the entire Indian version of the events.

Fatefully, amidst the tension of the aerial combat, India also lost a Mi-17 V-5 chopper in friendly fire, killing six IAF personnel on-board. Initially, India attributed the crash to technical reasons but an indigenous inquiry months later admitted the slipup and established that the chopper was hit by an Indian air defence missile.  However, on March 1st, Pakistan acting maturely and responsibly, handed the Indian pilot to Indian officials to de-escalate the situation and as a gesture of peace. The Indian state nonetheless failed to reciprocate in any constructive manner (rather it aggravated the situation in the days to follow by its August 5th move).

While PAF, with its swiftness, diligence, and resolve, earned an eternal decoration that is going to remain in history, India also spared no effort. To cover its failure and unprofessionalism, it awarded the liberated pilot with a military award, making him the only pilot in the history to be bestowed with an honorary medal after facing a staggering defeat.

The writer is a researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com. This article was first published in regional times newspaper.