India, for its part, claimed that Varthaman, prior to being hit, shot down an F-16, which crashed on Pakistan’s side of the line of control. Indian media claimed that this pilot was lynched when Pakistanis mistook him for an Indian pilot. Regardless, Varthaman’s return provided an opportunity to begin de-escalating the crisis.
Journalists have questioned much of this story.
Multiple analysts using commercial-satellite images have found little evidence of widespread damage to the Balakot facility, and there is no evidence of mass casualties, nor are there signs of the downed F-16 or its allegedly lynched pilot. Some Indian media accounts even assert that New Delhi did not send 12 jets across the LOC, and that in fact they fired weapons from India’s side of the line.
Joshua T. White: The other nuclear threat
Neither India nor Pakistan has been forthcoming with evidence to back up its key claims, and Pakistan, predictably, has made it very difficult for anyone to independently assess the damage at Balakot. Pakistan also has an incentive to cover up its use of American-made F-16s to attack India as doing so would likely violate the end-use agreements of the purchase. The internet, meanwhile, has been flooded with vintage photos of the Balakot site that variously confirm the preferred accounts of both sides. Some social-media users have even posted images from a popular video game, insisting they prove India’s claims. In India, the ruling party and its followers discredit any citizens asking for evidence as “anti-nationals,” while denouncing foreigners who question the official narrative as Pakistani apologists.
Given the high stakes, why are both sides obfuscating the objective truths involved?
From New Delhi’s point of view, Indians can rejoice that their air force rammed through Pakistani airspace to drop bombs on a terrorist training camp, obliterating it and its trainees. They can also celebrate that their war hero, Varthaman, felled a Pakistani jet.
From Pakistan’s side, it can claim that its jets chased off Indian fighter planes at Balakot, and then rallied into Indian territory while downing an Indian pilot. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, titillated the international media with his ostensible statesmanship and Islamabad received numerous accolades for returning the pilot, despite the fact that doing so was required by international law. The world seemed to have forgotten that South Asia was embroiled in tension because of Pakistani use of terrorism in the first place.
Deception, in both this situation and Kargil, provided an important way for both India and Pakistan to step back from crisis. But is this a good thing?
At present, the two are nursing convenient delusions to differing degrees. But the truth matters.
Pakistanis believe that their air force protected them, while also denying that their country continues to cultivate terrorists as tools of foreign policy. If India did not do as it claims, the gains of the latest misadventure exceed the costs, which have been extraordinarily minimal. This suggests that future use of terrorist proxies killing more Indians might happen sooner than later. Alternatively, if India did in fact do as it says, then there is no problem. Islamabad knows what New Delhi can do, and that might be an important regulator in future Pakistani calculus.