Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Mar 08, 2019

While every counter-terror theatre works on its own specific requirements and variables, Pakistan is a completely different ball game.

Balakot, counter-terrorism and use of air power

Nearly two weeks after Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft took to the unprecedented mission of successfully infiltrating the Pakistani airspace and dropping bombs targeting facilities used by terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours remain palpable. The hilltop infrastructure targeted was situated in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, not just across the Line of Control (LoC), significantly escalating the stakes for Islamabad.

The ‘fog of war’ has clouded the strikes and the Pakistani air response the day after, which downed an IAF MiG 21 and, as per India’s claims, a Pakistani F-16, which crashed on the other side of the LoC. The Indian pilot of the MiG was captured and later returned to India as a “peace gesture.” New Delhi played it down, saying Pakistan was obliged to do so as per the Geneva Convention.

The rationale behind the first strikes conducted by India has been of much debate — on what they achieved, and how this alters the future definition of the military status quo that both nuclear states have subscribed to for decades. The use of air power as a “pre-emptive” counter-terror operation certainly changes the variables significantly. However, air power as a tool for counter-terrorism is the last piece of the puzzle, and relies on an ecosystem that needs to be locked-in with each other as one cohesive institution for it to be effective. While we know airstrikes have been on the table as an option for a while, and the target had been under Indian surveillance for years, it can also be argued that their usage against targets in Pakistan has limitations. The Mirage 2000 strikes have indeed succeeded in showcasing intent and altering any lazy risk-assessment by Islamabad that India will continue to take terror strikes on its soil to its chin without retaliating militarily, but are such actions available for regular use as a counter-terror tool?

The rationale behind the first strikes conducted by India has been of much debate — on what they achieved, and how this alters the future definition of the military status quo that both nuclear states have subscribed to for decades.

Most of the current examples of air power as a counter-terror option around the world have one thing in common, that the theatres they operate in have next to no air defences or a valid countering air force. This, of course, makes it ideal for an air force to conduct strikes against terror targets when it is largely uncontested. Lets look at two recent theatres of conflict to pencil these arguments further — in Afghanistan and the battle against ISIS (Iraq and Syria). Both operations have seen extensive use of air power against an enemy that has next to no deterrence against such strikes. Within these theatres, the air power can be divided into conventional and automated, that is manned aircraft and drone strikes that are operated by pilots remotely. Both conventional and drone strikes against militant actors have paid dividends, despite drone strikes often garnering criticism over civilian casualties.

These counter-terror operations even gave birth to an American programme to develop cheap, effective aircraft on the lines of the Brazil Embraer A-29 Super Tocano, a single-engine light attack aircraft that has been highly successful as a strike aircraft that fits in specifically for low-cost counter-terrorism roles from the air. So much so that the US has given other nations such as Lebanon A-29s as well for similar roles due to its very low operating costs. Other, more economically strained nations are also opting for these models to fight insurgencies and other similar threats.

In Iraq and Syria, the ISIS was targeted by not one but three air forces at any given time, namely the US, Russia and Syria. These deployments significantly dismantled the geographic hold of the ISIS, but only because it was followed up by the Iraqi military conducting extensive ground sweeps in Iraq, and the same operations held by the Kurdish-led forces such as the SDF in Syria. The air strikes were means to an end. They paved the way for ground troops to re-capture territory or to go in and on the ground and sweep clean terror camps. The second way of employment of airstrikes in counter-terror frameworks is based on the theory of “find, fix and finish”, where as researchers Adam R. Grissom and Karl P. Mueller correctly point out, a force’s aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are in fact the first line of offence. This has developed particularly around the American use of drones in its ‘war against terror.’ While drones have been the preferred choice for such missions due to their endurance, high operating ceiling and low-risk factor over enemy territory, these missions to eliminate individuals of a terror group have proven to be successful many times in fracturing hierarchies of terror groups. Famous figures such as Al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki to a number of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s inner circle members were killed in drone strikes in both Iraq and Syria. Taking out senior members often disrupts terror networks significantly, either forcing them to split into micro-groups, or in many cases, setting off an internal battle for influence, command and power amongst senior cadres.

Taking out senior members often disrupts terror networks significantly, either forcing them to split into micro-groups, or in many cases, setting off an internal battle for influence, command and power amongst senior cadres.

Former Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden once warned his then aide, Atiyah Abd a-Rahman, that a sudden decapitation of a leader from an organisation is an administrative crisis. Bin Laden said that the rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced as the former leaders leads to repeated mistakes in operations and management, mistakes that an organisation that is being hunted by half the world cannot afford. Mistakes translate to visibility to the enemy. Drones as counter-terror options, has forced others like Al Shabaab and Boko Haram in Africa to release diktats that advise its recruits to not use digital communication and not gather in groups in open spaces. These tactics allow more direct and risky forms of counter-terror tactics such as the raid, which killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan to be used only in extreme circumstances. In Pakistan, while the Taliban often uses same tactics to avoid American drones that have eliminated many Taliban leaders, the likes of JeM, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and other state-supported entities not only gain shelter by Pakistan’s terror-ecosystem that operates under the nuclear umbrella protection, but also are allowed to appear publicly in cities despite being recognised as a global terrorist by the United Nations.

However, beyond the airstrikes, it is also imperative to have a healthy amount of clarity on what the said terror group’s composition would be after taking out a high-ranking official or leader. Deobandi groups such as JeM may not have as cohesive hierarchical structures as say Al Qaeda or the ISIS. Experts such as Prof. Christine Fair, author of multiple books on Pakistan, highlight that the Pakistani Deobandi groups do not necessarily have a very strong hierarchical structure and instead rely on loosely overlapping cells which trade organisation ‘elders’ between each other as heads. Here, as a group that is not guaranteed absolute security by Pakistan, despite popular belief, and the lack of hierarchical depth the likes of JeM and its leader Masood Azhar rely on the state’s help to maintain their image of a strong organisation.

Ultimately, airstrikes by themselves cannot dismantle a terror group. While every counter-terror theatre works on its own specific requirements and variables, Pakistan is a completely different ball game. India needs a long-term, clear counter-terror strategy in which air power can play a significant role, however, clear policies need to be in place to capitalise on strikes such as Balakot beyond just stating intent. Pakistan is a theatre where the likes of JeM and others enjoy air cover by a well-stocked air force, and while this state support may be conditional, New Delhi needs to take a long-term political approach, coupled with significant up scaling of intelligence capacity and defence modernisation to complement diplomacy. Signaling without capacity building and deployment only delivers short-term victories useful for political point scoring, less for clear strategic mileage and long-term vision to dismantle terror threats.

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Author

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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Editor

Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips

Jonathan Phillips James E. Rogers Energy Access Project Duke University

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