A leading expert on terrorism tells The Lede that a short-term de-escalation is likely but that Pakistan has lost face internationally
The Lede reached out to Prem Mahadevan, a Switzerland based researcher and expert on terrorism. Mahadevan has been a Senior Researcher with the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich for about nine years.
He specialises in research on terrorism, intelligence and irregular warfare. He works with high ranking security officials from across Europe and Asia, besides NATO and the Global Counterterrorism Forum.
Mahadevan has co-authored policy studies for the Swiss Foreign Ministry and has also written a book on counterterrorist special operations for the Indian Army. He is the author of two books on intelligence, with the latest, Islamism and Intelligence in South Asia, specifically examining the Pakistani ISI’s links with terrorist groups. While writing this book, Mahadevan compiled data from 27 years of Pakistani media reports (1990-2017).
Prem Mahadevan responded to an email questionnaire sent to him by The Lede on the latest developments in the India-Pakistan military tensions and what we can expect going forward, both militarily and diplomatically.
Q1: The Indian defence establishment held an interesting press meet today. They presented evidence of PAF (Pakistan Air Force) using F-16s to attack Indian military installations in J&K. What do you think is the larger rationale behind this? Is India sending a message to the international community?
Mahadevan: India is sending a unified message to multiple potential audiences. The first is Pakistan itself (both the military and the general public of that country). The second is the international policy and diplomatic community. And the third audience consists of those commentators within India and abroad, who would like to cast doubt about the effectiveness of the 26 February airstrike.
The joint briefing exposed disinformation put out by the Inter Services Public Relations of Pakistan. It brought out that the Pakistani air force did indeed use F-16s on 27 February, something which had previously been categorically denied by the ISPR. The Indian joint statement also pointed out inconsistencies in Pakistan’s statements about shooting down two aircraft and forcing three pilots to bail out. Most importantly, the joint statement highlighted two other points. One, that India did indeed shoot a Pakistani F-16 which later crashed in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. And second, that the Pakistani aircraft were not simply making a point by symbolically intruding into Indian airspace and deliberately ‘not targeting’ military installations. Rather, the PAF intention had been all along to escalate the crisis and strike a military target in what would have amounted to an act of war, but the timely and aggressive Indian interception blocked this attempt.
What seems clear is that Pakistan’s actions do not match its words. It claims that it wants de-escalation. But it still attempted to hit a military target. If their mission had been successful, it would inevitably have raised the stakes. Furthermore, the fact that the Pakistani military took this action in response to an Indian airstrike that completely avoided hitting Pakistani defence installations – something that Islamabad too has acknowledged – shows that the Pakistani military is acting to protect its terrorist proxies. The ISPR is only putting a gloss on this, and the Indian joint statement has stripped away that gloss.
Q2: Much has been discussed about the Balakot airstrike which allegedly hit a “terror camp” in Pakistan, headed by the brother in law of JeM chief Masood Azhar. A number of ground reports have been published by the international media claiming that little damage was done by the Indian airstrikes. Were the airstrikes at all important to India? Or do you think this may have been a ploy to force Pakistan’s hand and make them use the F-16s?
Mahadevan: To my understanding, the F-16s were less consequential to the Indian strike plan, except insofar as they could have interfered with the original mission to hit Balakot (which went off without a hitch). The IAF airstrikes hit the intended target and can be expected to have indeed killed several hundred terrorists. This can be said with some confidence because the Balakot facility of JeM is well-known to terrorism analysts. It has been sporadically mentioned in media reports for several years.
So it is a bit like Muridke, the Headquarters of Lashkar-e-Taiba. A massive target with a holding capacity of at least several hundred. The only difference is that Muridke also houses the families of LeT leaders and senior fighters, but the Balakot camp of JeM was a facility solely oriented towards combat training and jihadist indoctrination. Hence there were no innocent civilians killed when the IAF struck.
Because this camp was located so deep inside Pakistan, inside Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Pakistani military assumed that India would never dare hit it. In their minds, to have done so would have amounted to risking nuclear war, and they did not think we had the precise intelligence which was needed to launch a strike from the air, and one which would avoid collateral damage. They miscalculated. The damage done would have significantly hit the morale of JeM and other jihadist groups, and also force the Pakistani military to reconsider whether its earlier assumptions of nuclearisation deterring Indian reprisals hold true any longer.
Q3: America has given F-16s to Pakistan in order for them to fight terror within their country. What repercussions do you think this evidence presented by the Indian defence establishment have on Pakistan’s relations with America?
Mahadevan: None whatsoever. During the early years of the Cold War, the US provided Pakistan with Patton tanks to use against the Soviets, if a Soviet invasion ever occurred. These same tanks were soon used against India in the 1965 war, a war which Pakistan initiated because it thought India had been militarily weakened by its loss to China in 1962 and politically by the death of Nehru. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, some of these tanks were captured by the Indian Army and put on public display to show the Americans that they had not yet built weapon systems which fired only in one direction (westwards, towards the Soviet Union) but not another (eastwards, towards India).
About F-16s specifically: US-Pakistan relations have been deteriorating for at least a decade, but have never completely broken down. In part, this is because the United Kingdom is playing ‘good cop’ to America’s ‘bad cop’ and thereby sending a signal that Pakistan can get away with a certain amount of nonsense as long as it does not go too far. The fact that France and the US have been the UN Security Council P5 members who have been the most outspoken about JeM does not surprise me. They are less dependent on Pakistan for security-related intelligence than the UK, which is held hostage by Islamabad because so many British-born and resident terrorists have had linkages to Pakistan in the past. So Pakistan will not face any severe consequences for using weapons that were meant to fight terrorists, to protect them instead.
Q4: Will the on-ground mini-war now turn to a diplomatic one after the Indian military press meet?
Mahadevan: This presumes that there will not be a further escalation on the ground and in the air. At the moment, most Pakistanis still believe that their side has won a tactical victory by downing one of our aged fighter aircraft. But they are overlooking the bigger picture. A major strategic asset of their military – the jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed – has in all probability suffered heavy casualties. Following Pulwama, there were reports that the Pakistani army had withdrawn JeM cadres from launch pads along the LoC to bases in the rear. This means it would have concentrated them in Balakot, among other places. Now, besides the loss of terrorist manpower, the Pakistani military’s pride has been dented because their air force tried to launch a similarly deep-penetration strike on India but were thwarted. Putting out a positive spin makes them look good domestically, but it will not do much to soothe their bruised pride.
The 26 February airstrike revealed to Pakistani military planners, as well as to the world, that the Pakistani defence establishment is not as competent as it has long perceived itself to be. They would want to regain face by low-key aggression along the Line of Control. Obviously, they will focus on better managing their media narratives. It is one thing to deceive a captive audience, which is what the Pakistani public is, but the fact that they were not able to inflict a commensurately severe strike on India would rankle, as also that India was able to present proof contradicting their grandiose claims of shooting down two IAF planes and having suffered no F-16 losses.
That said, there has been a diplomatic war ongoing with Pakistani ever since 26/11. In the years since, we have tried our best to reason with them and get them to see that they should live up to their words and go after all kinds of terrorists, not just those who target the Pakistani military. This approach has failed but we have persisted nonetheless because it showcased to the world that we tried repeatedly to offer them a face-saving solution. They forced us to launch the Balakot airstrike when they kept denying that JeM had carried it out, even though the group had itself claimed responsibility. From that point onwards, diplomacy took a backseat and using the military option became necessary.
Q5: What do you think the reason was for the Pakistan PM Imran Khan to (a) continually call for talks with India and (b) to announce the release of the captured IAF pilot on Friday itself as a “gesture of peace”?
Mahadevan: Since 26/11, Pakistan has been wanting to have talks with India under the formula that ‘dialogue cannot be derailed by terrorism’. This formula, which was actually in place between September 2006 and November 2008, offers Islamabad the best of both worlds. They can negotiate with us about issues like the status of J&K, while covertly exerting pressure by carrying out vicious terror strikes through their ‘deniable’ assets, the LeT and JeM.
After Mumbai 2008, we made it clear that ‘business as usual’ was no longer feasible – India could not and cannot negotiate under the threat of its security forces or civilians being killed. Imran Khan did nothing original or brave by calling for talks – he was merely doing what the Pakistani army has long wanted every civilian leader to do since 2008. That is, call for talks with India, shift the focus of bilateral dialogue away from terrorism and the lack of punishment to the 26/11 perpetrators, and provide a political cover for the ISI to resume covert attacks.
As for the release of the captured pilot, Pakistan could theoretically have held him to ransom in exchange for a concrete agreement that there would be a formal resumption of talks, on its own (i.e., Pakistan’s) terms. But realistically, they had no chance of this demand being met.
Furthermore, they have been made to look bad in the International Court of Justice over the farcical case they framed (and ‘framed’ is a very appropriate word here) against Kulbhushan Jadhav. So they decided not to risk any damage to their international image and project what would anyway have needed to be done at some point, into a ‘goodwill gesture’.
Q6: How do you foresee this situation panning out? Are we likely to see war, controlled aggression or something else?
Mahadevan: War is unlikely. But more shootdowns of aircraft are quite possible. As I said, the Pakistani military would be smarting from the humiliation which was inflicted upon them on 26 February, when they could not stop the IAF going in and taking out a terror camp, despite being on a heightened state of alert. I anticipate a very short-term de-escalation (more likely days rather than weeks). As to the bigger picture, the Pakistanis would now be waiting to see the outcome of the general election in India. They had thought that by carrying out the Pulwama attack they would either be able to fatally weaken the credibility of the Modi government, or strengthen its more hardline elements who could embarrass it. Now they have found that neither scenario is likely to work out. It is better for them to wait for the dust to settle, and concentrate on making up a false narrative about defending their territory from attack. But their commitment to attacking India through jihadist terrorists would in no way be unchanged, just momentarily quietened.
They will likely carry out aggressive probes along the LoC, including attacks on our outposts. We would of course, respond in self-defence but avoid being provocative. They would look for weaknesses on the ground, but even more so in the political space and in cyberspace, where they would hope to find allies who can create rifts in Indian society by playing up differences between political leaders and various social groups. That has been their long-term policy and they will continue with it.
Q7: What do you think happened behind the scenes in terms of the US and Saudi Arabia intervening diplomatically?
Mahadevan: The Americans likely were happy to see Pakistan get hit, because they have not lost sight of the fact that it was Islamabad’s support to the Taliban that prevented the US from stabilising Afghanistan. Neither would they have been unsympathetic towards India’s desire for closure on the Pulwama tragedy.
The Americans know better than anyone else, how deep the ISI and Pakistani military’s involvement in 26/11 was. A few weeks after Abbottabad, a retired CIA official told me in clear terms that the Mumbai attack was an act of state-sponsored terrorism. He would have known because he had been re-hired by the agency to help investigate the attack.
So I think that the US assessed it would be better to signal a measure of sympathy for India, but stay aloof unless things looked like they were getting out of control. That has not happened so far. Besides, we should not forget that the United States currently has a narcissistic president, who cares almost entirely about having the media spotlight on himself. This has actually helped India, because the Pakistanis always thought that the world would stop dead in its tracks whenever an India-Pakistan crisis broke out, for fear of nuclear escalation.
By staying slightly aloof but keeping open communication channels with both sides, the Americans have played a responsible role. Most importantly, they have ensured that the focus on terrorism is not forgotten – Pulwama was internationally condemned as a terrorist incident, including by the UN Security Council, partly due to quiet American lobbying in India’s favour.
The Saudis have likely played an important role in advising Pakistan not to ratchet up tensions immediately, but to declare ‘victory’ in their domestic media and then quit the game without waiting for an Indian counter-move.
Without knowing what was done behind the scenes, I think the fact that Saudi Arabia has pledged a huge amount of investment in Pakistan also constrained Islamabad’s retaliatory options, since they have something to lose.