The Balakot Strategic Shift

The Balakot Strategic Shift

26 February 2019 marked a turning point in India’s fight against terrorism. The events of that day signified a strategic shift in the Indian approach from ‘Counter Terrorism’ operations inside own territory to ‘Counter Proxy War’ inside Pakistan.


What is the change?

This change from a defensive to an offensive approach manifested itself in the form of the pre-emptive strike by Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft against a Jaish-e- Mohammed (JeM) training camp at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a non-military target across the International Border (IB). India’s actions against Pakistan sponsored terrorist groups has until then been confined to the Line of Control (LoC), primarily by way of fire assaults.

Limitations of previous approach –

  • Ironically, India’s approach of dealing with the Pakistan sponsored ‘Proxy War’ as ‘cross border terrorism’ was a strategic blunder.
  • What this resulted in was a tactical response: the adoption of a counter infiltration posture astride the LoC and establishment of a ‘Counter Insurgency’ grid in the hinterland.
  • There was no action plan to take on the jihadi breeding grounds inside Pakistan or raise the costs for the Pakistan Army – the real perpetrators of the new form of warfare.
  • This ‘low cost-high return’ option served Rawalpindi well, evident from the fact that, during the last three decades, the Indian security forces suffered over 5000 fatalities.

Strategic Shift –

  • In response to the deadly terrorists attack carried out by JeM cadre on the Indian Army base camp in Uri on 18 September 2016, a retaliatory surgical strike was conducted by the Special Forces, targeting the terrorist launch pads across the LoC. The action was intended to give a clear political message to Pakistan, defining India’s threshold.
  • Towards Pulwama attack, given India’s past response to major terrorist strikes, be it on Parliament in 2001 and Mumbai in 2008, Pakistan felt assured that India’s response will be muted, at best a repeat of the 2016 type surgical operation, for which its forces were well prepared. Hence, the 26 February aerial strike at Balakot came as a shock for the Pakistani political and military leadership.
  • Making a departure from its ‘denial strategy’, Islamabad confirmed that the IAF aerial strike did take place but declared that there was no damage. However, the prompt retaliation by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) employing a package of some 20 fighter aircraft the next very day vindicated India’s claims of the effectiveness of the Balakot strike.
  • As a politico-military action, the Balakot operation was an astounding success. It achieved the strategic aim of conveying a clear message to Pakistan that, here on, the proxy war will be fought on its soil. The Pakistan military also felt the heat. The international community stood by India and even Pakistan’s closest allies, China and Saudi Arabia, were rather tight lipped in their response, advocating restraint.

What can be expected?

After a while, Pakistan’s likely strategy in the near future would be to scale down the intensity of terrorist activities to small actions by local militants. After the situation de-escalates, Pakistan is expected to be back at its game, may be with greater vigour, as spare Taliban hands from Afghanistan could well be diverted to the Kashmir Valley.

Way Ahead –

  • The growing China-Pak nexus is a reality which cannot be wished away. Ironically, due to the neglect of military modernisation, the Indian Army has been repeatedly pitched against a better equipped enemy. To address this serious flaw, a concerted effort is needed to accelerate the capacity building of our Armed Forces. This entails enhancing defence budgetary allocations, fast-tracking arms cum equipment acquisition procedures and indigenisation of defence production.
  • In tune with Joseph Nye’s conception of ‘Smart Power’, India needs to combine its resources into a successful strategy through the intelligence integration and networking of diplomacy, defence, development and other tools of hard and soft power. In other words, defeating Pakistan’s Proxy War is a national effort demanding the employment of all components of ‘National Comprehensive Power’.
  • There is an urgent need to formulate a ‘Counter Proxy War Doctrine’ that is multi-pronged and all-encompassing. There has to be a ‘zero tolerance policy’ against Pakistan providing safe haven to terrorists. A relentless diplomatic offensive to isolate Islamabad must be sustained and cooperation with nations like Iran, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, which too are victims of Pakistan sponsored terrorism, must be scaled up.
  • On the economic front, a concerted effort is required to tighten the noose around Pakistan through international bodies like the IMF and FATF.
  • Militarily, all options must be on the table including covert ones, to punish Islamabad if it continues with its misadventure. Simultaneously, internal fault lines need to be addressed on priority.


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