Balakot air strike: Brace for retaliation, win narrative war, say experts

File Photo: Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage 2000
The air strikes on Tuesday are significant, but also part of a larger process — including both military and diplomatic options — that will have to continue, said former Indian Air Force officials and defence experts.

They said not only was there a possibility for a conventional retaliation by Pakistan, there might also be terror attacks. India will also have to make its case to the international community.

“There are a whole range of essential actions we have to take. One cannot rest on this one air attack,” said Air Chief Marshal (retired) Anil Tipnis, who was chief of air staff during the Kargil conflict in 1999.

He said, “We need to continue. First, we need to launch a diplomatic offensive, to explain to the rest of the world why this action was taken, the extent of the damage on terror camps, and how careful have we been in not inflicting any collateral damage.”

Analysts said the global community was sympathetic to India, but the diplomatic and political class should continue to drive home the message.

“India has got a good story. We should tell it in a persuasive way. In the 21st century, it is not enough to win a war; you have to win the narrative as well,” said retired Commodore Uday Bhaskar, now director of the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank.

“We pitch the story very well in a domestic political context. But on the external front we need to have a more persuasive story. Beijing has to come on board, that is the challenge,” Bhaskar said.

Experts said that the terminology used by the Indian establishment so far drives home the point that the Indian fighters crossed into Pakistani airspace only with the intention of hitting terror camps.

In later off-record briefings, top government officials also conveyed a similar message. An official said it was a “real-time intelligence-based counter-terror operation”.

“These words are significant. India is trying to move away from narratives of retribution, revenge. That is desirable,” said Bhaskar. He however, warned against the narratives being spun for the electorate ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“You haven’t seen any adverse reaction from any of the global leaders… There should be a clear message that we are targeting specific terror installations, and we don’t want escalation. So far, nobody in the government has gone and said anything which can be misconstrued,” said retired Air Marshal N V Tyagi, a former deputy chief of air staff.

Bhaskar said India’s global outreach should continue with the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who is heading to a China-Russia-India trilateral meeting in Beijing. After that comes the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Council of Foreign Ministers, to be held in Abu Dhabi on March 1-2. India will be the “guest of honor”, a first for a non-Muslim-majority nation. But Islamabad has decided to counter the latest surgical strike at the OIC, a forum it sees as home turf.

Bhaskar and Tyagi also said that India will have to be ready for a non-conventional response. “We also have to be prepared for a terror attack. Pakistan has the ability to respond militarily and through proxy forces,” said Bhaskar.

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