IAF pilot Abhinandan to return: Pak rang alarm bells – but how it was made to yield

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Updated: March 1, 2019 6:14:56 AM

India clearly conveyed to the US and other P-5 countries that while it was not looking at escalation and had conducted a “non-military counter-terror pre-emptive” strike deep inside Pakistan, it was Pakistan which had tried to hit Indian military installations.

The foreign interlocutors were told that Pakistan cannot use the pilot as a bargaining chip and has to ensure his safe passage home.

The release of Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, which was a key question on South Block’s table, is a crucial marker. It has set the ball rolling for de-escalation of tension between the two nuclear-armed countries in an otherwise unknown and uncertain escalation ladder.

But behind the de-escalation, there was a fair bit of background diplomacy and action that went in.

When Islamabad dialled interlocutors from major countries across the world, including the P-5, Wednesday, it told them that India was planning three offensive actions — moving Naval ships towards Karachi, planning to launch ballistic missiles and amassing troops along the India-Pakistan border.

Rattled, the foreign governments reached out to New Delhi for a confirmation.

The Indian side is learnt to have told them this was “fictitious and manufactured.”

In fact, they said Indian Naval ships were moving in the direction away from Karachi.

Since these were mostly P-5 countries, Delhi also told them Pak rang alarm bells — but how it was made to yield that since these countries have the capability to “detect” these movements with their eyes in the sky, they could, on their own, verify the claims being made by Pakistan.

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India clearly conveyed to the US and other P-5 countries that while it was not looking at escalation and had conducted a “non-military counter-terror pre-emptive” strike deep inside Pakistan, it was Pakistan which had tried to hit Indian military installations.

Also, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan Army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor’s claims that two Indian fighter aircraft and two pilots had been downed were incorrect and that dented their credibility. New Delhi told the foreign governments that, evidently, Khan was not informed by the Army about the actual damage and casualty or was making false claims — both equally disturbing.

India did not reveal whether it was considering a response to the attack — in which one MiG aircraft was shot down and an Indian force pilot landed in Pakistan’s custody — but threw the ball in Pakistan’s court saying it was Islamabad’s responsibility to de-escalate.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on Wednesday days after US National Security Adviser John Bolton had supported India’s right to self-defence against cross-border terrorism and offered all assistance to India to bring the perpetrators and backers of the attack to justice.

New Delhi briefed foreign envoys that India was not going for any escalation and it had very limited objective — to target terrorist camp and it had completed this mission.

But it had one Indian Air Force pilot in Pakistan’s custody and it was Pakistan’s responsibility — under the 1949 Geneva Convention for the treatment of the prisoners of war — to treat him humanely and return him immediately, unharmed and unconditionally. Sources said that there was no deal to be made and there was no room for negotiations.

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The foreign interlocutors were told that Pakistan cannot use the pilot as a bargaining chip and has to ensure his safe passage home.

Also, Islamabad found itself isolated, with none of the P-5 countries standing by it and many, in fact, asking Pakistan to take action against the terrorist groups. Even the UAE did not withdraw the invitation to India to the OIC, where External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is the guest of honour.

Anyway, the Indian calculation was that the pilot would be returned either immediately or would be kept in captivity until the elections are over later this summer.

Delhi’s assessment was that this would give some sort of moral high ground to the Pakistan PM that he initiated the de-escalatory move first and is a leader in the region. Also, this would also give the Pak Army a chance to portray itself as a “professional force” and not a “rogue actor.”

India, which waits for the pilot to return, has made it clear that there is no relationship between the release and its demand that Pakistan show credible, verifiable action in its crackdown on terrorist groups, their proxies, their infrastructure and cross-border terrorism. To that effect, a detailed Jaish dossier was handed over to Pakistan.

Also, Delhi has indicated that it will not cancel the Kartarpur talks on March 14 or the Samjhauta Express train. This leaves open the next steps towards de-escalation.

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