The truth behind India’s airstrikes in Balakot
And thoughts on South Asia perpetually being on the brink of nuclear war
On 26th February 2019, for the first time in over 50 years, the Indian Air Force (IAF) carried out airstrikes in undisputed Pakistani territory. Under the cover of darkness, Indian jets entered Pakistani airspace around 3 AM and detonated their payload near the village of Jabba in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That much is not under dispute. What is disputed, however, is where exactly the bombs struck and what its resulting casualties were. Nine days after the attack, Soch along with conservation groups WWF, IUCN and the Geological Survey of Pakistan, visited the bomb site to explore what happened first-hand.
The site itself was accessible only on foot, an approximately twenty-minute hike from the nearest gravel road. With forest guards leading the way, we followed a trail meandering through the sparsely forested area that makes up the government-designated “Massar Reserve Forest” before finally reaching its Compartment 12, where the brunt of the damage had occurred.
There were at least three visible bomb craters, each at a distance of a hundred metres or so from the other, in what appeared to be a vertically straight line, indicating the possible flight trajectory of the Indian jets overhead. One of the bombs had fallen in a densely forested area, flattening some trees in the vicinity, but much to the relief of conservationists, two of the bombs had been dropped in a relatively barren area, creating deep craters in the soil and uprooting some shrubbery, but avoiding fully mature trees. The impact of the bombs was further minimised by the elevated height of the surrounding area. The bombs had fallen at some of the lowest altitude points in the area, almost neatly bisecting the valley and thus somewhat insulating people and property on higher ground from damage.
Nevertheless, the bombs did leave an impact in the vicinity. We examined a few homes nearby and found large cracks snaking through the walls of one of the homes. The owner claimed that the impact of the explosion had blown out all his windows and lifted his entire roof. Another resident showed the gaping hole left in his roof by either debris or shrapnel emanating from the bomb. That no one suffered any casualties or serious injuries can be put down to sheer good fortune.
The trees on the other hand were not so lucky. Despite there not being much forestry at the point of impact of the bombs, less than a hundred feet away was a thickly forested area showing visible signs of damage. Several fully mature trees had been sliced cleanly off their stumps, probably by bomb shrapnel. A Ministry of Climate Change official put the total losses at 19 fully mature pine trees, worth an estimated PKR 2.70 million.
The bombs falling in a relatively barren area was also not of much consolation because those areas had been planted with tree saplings. It was in fact barren patches like those in this forest that had pushed the Government of KP to begin a mass tree plantation drive several years ago, dubbed the Billion Tree Tsunami. As part of this drive, thousands of tree saplings had been planted in the area, many of which had now perished. The district forest conservator estimated that natural regeneration and tree plantation within an acre of the points of impact had been affected by the airstrikes. Further details of the environmental impact were stated in a complaint presented in the UN, which was prepared by the Ministry of Climate Change and shared exclusively with Soch Videos. The Minister, Malik Amin Aslam, also shared his thoughts on the issue with Soch.
As for the alleged Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camp, it seems India’s intended target was a structure on a peak a few hundred metres from the bomb sites. We could not independently verify the purpose of the structure but according to several locals, Google Maps, and Al Jazeera, it served as a JeM-run madrassah. We did however independently verify, through a combination of on the ground and drone footage, that the structure appeared to be completely intact. The footage, along with the Indian government’s refusal to publish any evidence of the strike, leads to the conclusion that India did indeed miss its target.
Rather than celebrating however, it is worth reflecting on what may have happened if the Indian Air Force had indeed hit its target. It is not unheard of for a madrassah to provide accommodation to the children studying there. Had the airstrikes been on target, instead of dead trees, Pakistan may have had dead children on their hands. Those children’s grieving families would have been broadcast on live TV. Suddenly, instead of mirth and derision in Pakistan at India’s failed airstrikes, there would have been anger. Instead of calls for restraint, there would have been calls for war. The Pakistani government and military would have faced tremendous pressure to not just retaliate, but set a precedent to deter India from ever repeating such an attack. Would short-range tactical nukes, developed for this very purpose, perhaps have come into the picture?
All these scenarios are mere hypotheticals, but they could very easily have been reality. A conflict between two nuclear armed nations always carries with it the potential to elevate to a full-blown nuclear war. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have launched the airstrikes to whip up nationalistic fervour and deflect from his poor economic record in the run up to their elections. But in his eagerness to win, we almost lost the entire subcontinent.