(Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
(Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

With Balakot strike, India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff: Kanwal Sibal

  • The Balakot air strike will compel future governments to go beyond PoK in response to any future strike, says Kanwal Sibal
  • Abhinandan’s return has drawn attention away from core issue of terrorism between India and Pakistan, says the ex-foreign secretary

NEW DELHI: New Delhi: With the air strike on Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, India has now set a new bar in dealing with cross-border terrorism, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said. The Narendra Modi government’s action has opened up strategic space for India and called Pakistan’s bluff—raising the spectre of nuclear exchange between the two countries should there be tensions, he said. Modi’s act will compel future governments to take similar action against terrorist threats from Pakistan with anything less being rejected by public opinion. Edited excerpts from an interview.

First up, do you see the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman as the start of a de-escalation process between India and Pakistan in the current phase of tensions?

No, I don’t. The return of Wing Commander Varthaman is a secondary issue in the context of Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of terrorism that precipitated the Indian aerial strike at Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the first place. The human story of the Wing Commander’s capture and return has drawn attention away from the core issue of terrorism between India and Pakistan. Varthaman’s return does not address it, and unless that is done, one cannot talk of any de-escalation process. We had characterized our attack on the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)’s principal training facility at Balakot as an intelligence-led non-military pre-emptive strike against JeM terrorists being trained to launch car bomb suicide attacks against Indian cities. What we have is an interregnum until there is a fresh Pakistan-linked terror attack and a wider Indian response.

Indian Air Force's Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman (left) after his release from Pakistan on Friday.
Indian Air Force's Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman (left) after his release from Pakistan on Friday.

From the surgical strikes in 2016 to Balakot in 2019, would you agree that we are looking at new rules of dealing with cross-border terrorism and Pakistan?

Absolutely. We have been reluctant to cross the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir by air as we saw during the Kargil War when our Air Force was under strict orders not to do so. On land, exchange of fire and limited incursions across the LoC have been going on for a long time. The 2016 surgical strikes in response to the Uri attack was the official announcement of a new policy decision. The Balakot air strike raises the level of our riposte much higher, especially as we have gone beyond Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and have hit Pakistan proper. We have opened up a lot of strategic space for ourselves because we have signalled our willingness to attack anywhere in Pakistan against a terrorist target. We have also overcome our concern that striking at Pakistan conventionally could escalate matters to the nuclear level. With Balakot, we have called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.

There is a change from the previous defensive posture to offensive, right? The use of air power for one, going public with the strikes—ground or air—being another.

I think we should get the nuance right. We do not claim Pakistani territory and do not nurture religiously motivated groups to stage terrorist attacks against it. The change now is that whereas we were willing to bear a lot of pain inflicted on us by Pakistan without inflicting pain on it in return, we have now decided to hit back at Pakistan militarily to dissuade it from carrying out terrorist attacks against us. To that extent, we have moved from a defensive to an offensive posture, but we are not going on the offensive against Pakistan independently of provocations by it.

But the strikes do set the bar high as it opens up options for future governments...

Yes. Our action at Balakot will compel future governments to go beyond PoK in response to any future strike. Anything less will reduce the strategic space we have opened up now and will be rejected by public opinion.

Talking of change—one noticeable one was the response of the international community. There was no call to sit down at the dialogue table though there were calls to exercise restraint and “direct communication". France referred to “cross-border terrorism" in its statement condemning the Pulwama attack; Pakistan did not get much sympathy for its line that India violated its sovereignty with the 26 February strike. What has wrought this change?

Pakistan’s image is now that of a country that spawns terrorism. Hollywood productions of a certain genre now identify Pakistan with terrorism. Its international standing has declined dramatically. Even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have joined us in condemning Pulwama and denouncing terrorism. Pakistan has been rebuffed at the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference) foreign ministers’ meeting at Abu Dhabi to which external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was invited as guest of honour. China, too, has condemned the Pulwama attack—it did not condemn the 2008 Mumbai attacks —and yielded to the reference to JeM in the United Nations Security Council’s statement on Pulwama. Even in the communique issued on the occasion of the Russia-India-China (RIC) foreign minister level meeting, the language on terrorism is tough and state responsibility to deal firmly with it is mentioned. The principal reason for this change is Pakistan’s failure to address the issue of terrorist organizations on its soil. It has again been grey-listed by the FATF (Financial Action Task Force). The stakes in India of US, Europe, Australia and others have grown because of India’s economic strides, its huge market potential, the non-threatening nature of India’s rise, the potential of partnerships with India in various domains, including security. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership has played a role in this.

Given all this, will India’s aim of isolating Pakistan internationally post-Pulwama succeed? India has not been very successful in doing that in the past, given Pakistan’s control over the end game in Afghanistan and it possessing nuclear weapons...

It is not clear what isolation means. On the narrow issue of terrorism, Pakistan has already been effectively isolated internationally, which explains the wide backing of India on Pulwama, notwithstanding its location in Kashmir, an issue on which countries still do not align themselves fully with India’s position. For furthering China’s geopolitical ambitions and its policy of strategically countering India, Pakistan remains a major instrument, which is why it is investing so heavily in a financially unsound country. Russia, too, is reaching out to Pakistan despite India’s sensitivities. Pakistan is a major nuclear-armed Islamic country and has security tie-ups with the Gulf countries. If Pakistan is seriously sanctioned by America, that would be meaningful in terms of isolating it because Europe, Japan and its other allies will follow. But America is not ready to do this not only because of its needs in Afghanistan but also Pakistan’s past services to it and a desire to maintain some kind of a balance in the sub-continent.

There has been an argument that India should declare Pakistan a terrorist state. The question being asked is why doesn’t India do that? What is your view on this?

There has been a flaw in our position on this. If we ask America to declare Pakistan a terrorist state, as we have done in the past, the obvious question would be why we don’t take the lead ourselves. I have seen before when Pakistan was under pressure from America, we did the opposite and engaged Pakistan, giving it respectability and credibility as an interlocutor. If we declare Pakistan a terrorist state, consequences follow. Diplomatic relations have to be broken, trade ties and travel across the LoC and the international border have to end, all other contacts at people to people level too, not to mention suspension of all treaties including the Indus Waters Treaty. It may come to this if Pakistan continues to believe that it can continue sponsoring terrorism against India under the thin cloak of deniability.

So what’s next?

Not much. We are maintaining diplomatic ties but as a channel of formal communication. Pakistan is still in a denial mode on terrorism. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech in parliament was arrogant, he was talking down at the Indian leadership, he blamed India’s policies for the Pulwama attack and asked us to introspect why we were driving Kashmiri youth to desperation, he threatened India with war, including implicitly nuclear war. It was a pretentious speech, out of touch with reality. And this at a time when the world is ranging itself against Pakistan on terrorism and the country is in dire financial straits, seeking bail-outs and so on. I don’t see much role of dialogue and diplomacy in our relations with Pakistan unless Pakistan makes some realistic fundamental choices.

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