We Cut Through The Conflicting Claims And Misinformation Surrounding India's Strikes On Pakistan

The two countries are still trading accusations and social media and poor reporting continue to perpetuate false claims. Here's what we know.

USAF

It’s been more than a week since a spike in tensions between India and Pakistan devolved into two days of aerial skirmishes over the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, with an Indian pilot ending up briefly in Pakistani custody after his MiG-21 Bison got shot down. However, new satellite imagery has called India’s claims about their initial strikes on Pakistani territory into question. Beyond that, a host of other significant allegations from both countries remain unconfirmed, making it hard to say how the two nuclear-armed adversaries may or may not feel compelled to act going forward.

In reporting between Mar. 5 and 6, 2019, Reuters used satellite imagery it had obtained from Planet Labs and other sources, along with photographs from individuals on the ground, to challenge the Indian government’s claims that strikes near the town of Balakot had destroyed a major site belonging to the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Indian Mirage 2000 combat jets struck the area on Feb. 26, 2019.

The Planet Labs imagery from March 4, 2019, shows no clear evidence of bomb damage or strikes of any kind. The mountain-top site and the surrounding area looks virtually unchanged from the last image available through Google Earth, which is dated April 25, 2018.

There have been suggestions that dark spots on the main building might indicate that bombs pierced through the roof and that those holes have been patched up since the strikes. Minimal damage to buildings is often seen in strikes involving special low-collateral damage munitions where the intended target is a small group of opponents or even a single individual.

However, it’s highly questionable whether the imagery shows any damage at all and, even if it does, limited superficial damage doesn’t line up with official statements from the Indian government. India’s operation killed a large number of "terrorists, trainers, senior commanders," including a team preparing for new attacks in India, the country’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had said in an official statement on Feb. 26, 2019.

The Indian government has not given official details about the striking force, but unconfirmed Indian media reports have said that it included 12 Mirage 2000s, each carrying multiple Israeli-made SPICE 2,000-pound class stand-off glide bombs. Those same reports, all citing anonymous sources, claimed Jaish-e-Mohammed suffered between 200 and 300 casualties

The satellite imagery is simply incongruous with the extent of damage one would expect to see from such a large force striking such a small target. In addition, despite initial reports, India has not acknowledged strikes on any other targets in Pakistan proper or the areas of Kashmir under Pakistani control.

The Pakistanis, for their part, have been consistent in their assertion that the Indian aircraft caused no significant damage and that the bombs that they did release failed to hit their targets. Pakistan’s military has released one set of pictures showing an purported bomb crater and other damage a relatively far distance from the Madrassa complex, but its questionable whether those actually show the impact of Indian ordnance. A photographer working for Reuters took pictures of another impact spot on the mountainside.

At the same time, it is possible that Jaish-e-Mohammed has concealed some casualties in some way and has threatened locals who dispute the Pakistani government’s claims about the strikes. This still doesn’t explain the lack of visible damage in the satellite imagery. It is worth noting that there were similar disputes between Indian and Pakistani authorities about the body count after an Indian raid across the Line of Control, which formally separates the areas of Jammu and Kashmir that India and Pakistan administer, in 2016. 

Indian media, again citing unnamed sources and without independent corroboration, has claimed that the country’s operation destroyed up to 80 percent of its targets and that Indian authorities have their own satellite imagery and other data to prove this.  If India’s government does have this proof, they have so far declined to share it publicly.

Questions about the actual scope and results of the strikes near Balakot only add to the confusing and conflicting reports regarding Pakistan’s retaliatory operation on Feb. 27, 2019. This resulted in an aerial skirmish where Pakistan claims it shot down two Indian combat jets and where India has claimed that it shot down a Pakistani F-16 Viper fighter jet.

So far, there has only been hard evidence of Pakistan shooting down an Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison. The Pakistani government released images from the crash site and, more importantly captured the pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

Indian officials say that Varthaman was pursuing a Pakistani F-16 and brought it down, reportedly with an R-73 heat-seeking missile, before getting shot down himself. Pakistan has denied this and said that its F-16s were not involved in its retaliatory operation at all.

India has publicly presented a fragment of an AIM-120C-5 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-air Missile (AMRAAM) that it recovered after the aerial brawl. We do not know if this fragment was from a missile that a Pakistani F-16 fired at Varthaman, or any other Indian aircraft, or if it broke off from the Viper the Indian Wing Commander reportedly shot down.

But only Pakistan’s F-16s can carry this missile, proving that they were, at least, involved in the cross-border fighting in some fashion. The Indian claims in this regard have been credible enough for the U.S. government to begin investigating whether or not Pakistan violated the terms of the export control agreements on its F-16s and AIM-120s in its cross-border raid.

AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Indian Air Force personnel show a fragment from an AIM-120C-5 during a press conference on Feb. 28, 2019. 

It also remains unclear what, if anything, Pakistan hit in its own strikes on targets in the area of Jammu and Kashmir under Indian control. Pakistani authorities say they deliberately aimed away from any particular targets and that their primary intent was to demonstrate their capability to respond. India has disputed this, saying the bombs fell inside Indian military installations. But neither side claims the strikes resulted in any casualties on the ground.

The two days of air raids and skirmishes have provoked a deluge of misleading or outright false reports on social media and from regional media outlets. Virtually all of the local reporting on the conflict has cited anonymous sources and often makes extraordinary claims that demand additional and substantial evidence to be believed. There is nothing so far to independently confirm the claims that Pakistani villagers lynched the pilots from the shot down F-16 because they thought they were Indian aviators or that an Indian Mi-17V5 helicopter that crashed was actually the victim of friendly fire.

Indian authorities have even had to make a public announcement that Wing Commander Varthaman has no social media accounts. They also complied a list of imposters on various platforms.  

Indian Air Force

An Indian Air Force message alerting people to fake social media accounts posing as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

This sort of disputed reporting has extended well beyond the incidents in Jammu and Kashmir and Balakot, as well. On Mar. 5, 2019, Pakistani authorities released a video clip a maritime patrol plane had taken using an infrared camera the day before purportedly showing an Indian diesel electric submarine snorkeling close to the surface near Pakistan's territorial waters. The Indian Navy refused to address the claims directly, but implied that the Pakistani claims were false.

Still, subsequent reports that this was simply recycled footage from 2016 may not be accurate. The arrangement and shape of the masts in the two clips, which you can see below, do not appear to be the same.

But Pakistan’s assertion that the boat was heading toward its territorial waters also appears to be false. The 2019 clip includes coordinates that show the incident was well away from the Pakistani coastline and that the submarine was only inside Pakistan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 

India is legally entitled to sail military vessels above or below the surface through the EEZ, which is still international waters. This also calls into question why the Pakistanis would have tried to pass off old footage as a new with a fake date stamp, but did not manipulate the location to try and place the submarine closer to its shores as they had claimed it was.

The submarine incident does point to still heightened tensions between the two countries, though. The Indian Navy is deployed in high state of readiness and remains poised in all the three dimensions – on surface, under sea and in air,” Rear Admiral D.S. Gujral had said during a press conference on Mar. 1, 2019.

On Mar. 7, 2019, Indian Air Force also released a statement saying that it continued to maintain “a strict vigil in the skies to detect and thwart any act of aggression from [the] Pakistan Air Force.” Both India and Pakistan have ordered a halt to commercial flights through the airspace along their shared border to try to prevent any dangerous confusion between civilian and military aircraft.

Since the Indian strikes on Feb. 26, 2019, there has also been major exchanges of artillery fire across the Line of Control, which formally separates the areas of Jammu and Kashmir that India and Pakistan administer. There have been reports of civilian casualties in these skirmishes and villagers who live near the demarcation line on the Indian side are reportedly building thousands of new bunkers to shield themselves from the shelling.

Though worrisome in the broader context of this latest crisis, this level of fighting is not necessarily uncommon. In the past, extended skirmishes along the Line of Control have not escalated into a larger conflict.

In addition, on Mar. 7, 2019, there was another reported terrorist grenade attack on a bus stop in Jammu and Kashmir, which raises concerns about a new road of tit-for-tat strikes. It was Jaish-e-Mohammed’s attack on Feb. 14, 2019, on a military convoy in the region using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, which killed 40 Indian soldiers, that precipitated the latest crisis.

So far, however, this latest terrorist attack has only killed one person and it was not against a military target, which may not prompt the same level of outcry in India as a whole. Indian and Pakistani authorities, with the help of their respective international partners, have reportedly been trying to find a diplomatic solution to the latest crisis, as well.

"I do not want to say it, but private diplomacy worked," Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan's Foreign Minister, said on Mar. 6, 2019. "U.S. through private diplomacy played a role in de-escalating tensions between India and Pakistan."

The two countries have already taken some steps to try to avoid further major escalations. On Mar. 1, 2019, Pakistan released Wing Commander Varthaman as a goodwill gesture without any public preconditions. India has also sent information to officials in Islamabad on terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, prompting a crackdown.

Critics have pointed out that Pakistani authorities have conducted these sorts of police operations in the past. These responses have generally been limited and ineffectual, with terrorists quickly returning to business as usual afterward.

The real question, as before, is whether domestic political forces in both countries might prompt further escalations, despite the apparent attempts to bring this latest crisis to a close. India will have nation-wide parliamentary elections between April and May 2019 and incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi has received a boost in his approval rating for his hard line against Pakistan.

Modi’s government also appears to be leveraging the outcome of the aerial battles to push for military modernization and push aside allegations of corruption in certain defense procurement efforts. Public outcry has seized on the fact that Wing Commander Varthaman was flying a MiG-21 Bison, a heavily upgraded Soviet-era plane, when he was shot down.

India has been trying unsuccessfully to upgrade its combat jet fleets for years now. This includes a purchase of new French-made Rafales that has become mired in controversy and allegations of graft.

In the wake of Varthaman’s shoot down, Modi himself has said that this wouldn’t have happened had he been flying a Rafale. On Mar. 6, 2019, K. K. Venugopal, India Attorney General, separately threatened to bring charges against The Hindu newspaper over its reporting of the fighter jet deal, saying the daily had received stolen secret government documents. This, in turn, has prompted an outcry from media outlets and freedom of the press activists.

The Indian Air Force also had to employ aging Mirage 2000s in the initial operation since they are the country’s only aircraft capable of carrying the SPICE stand-off munitions. On Mar. 5, 2019, reports emerged that the country would work to integrate these weapons onto its new Russian-made Su-30MKI Flankers.

Indian Air Force

Indian Mirage 2000s.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who only took office in August 2018, had already been facing his own string of political crises before this latest conflict with India erupted. He has since maintained calls for a diplomatic resolution to the situation, but has also made it clear that his country will continue to retaliate if necessary.

The underlying fear remains that a series of further miscalculations or domestic political forces could lead to uncontrolled escalation between the two-nuclear armed countries. Even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons could have catastrophic impacts across the world.

The competing official claims only further raises the possibility that both sides will feel compelled to prove just how serious they are about defending their respective positions. Modi’s comments about the Rafale show a dangerous willingness to try to exploit the situation to settle domestic political spats, as well.

The avalanche of confusing and conflicting information risks creating further demands from the population at large in either country for additional action. The longer it takes for a clear narrative that both parties can accept to emerge, the more time there will be for spurious claims to inflame public opinion.

In the meantime, we can only hope that Indian and Pakistani officials, working behind the scenes with their international partners, can continue to de-escalate the situation, regardless of what has or hasn’t actually happened.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com