Behind Commander Abhinandan’s release

Abhinandan Varthaman

There are multiple versions to the story, each has its own pros and cons, confusing the commoner. Here’s what we know

The return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian Airforce pilot who was captured by Pakistan after his jet crashed across the Indian border on February 27 during a dogfight with Pak air force, is seen from different angles. The BJP and the pro-BJP media hail Pakistan’s decision to return Varthaman within a day of his capture as a victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Liberal sections in India bill the Pakistan Prime Minister’s decision an action out of magnanimity. They even say Imran Khan has taken a moral high ground by deciding to release Varthaman.

Make no mistake, there’s no magnanimity in diplomacy. Form the brink of a war, the capture of Abhinandan offered India and Pakistan an opportunity to de-escalate tensions. But in general Pakistan managed the crisis better, which allowed it to take lead in the battle of perceptions. First off, Pakistan responded to India’s strike within a day, “in broad daylight”, when Indian alert was still high. The Pakistanis were under pressure to respond. They didn’t respond militarily after the post-Uri raids conducted by India. After those strikes, India at least left space for plausible deniability for the Pakistani side, and there were no reports of direct violation of the border.

But this time, India announced that it hit Balakot, deep inside Pakistan. It also used air power to target the Jaish camp, first time since the 1971 war. India was putting a new normal in place. From the Pakistani point of view, if it didn’t respond, it would weaken its deterrence, rendering it vulnerable to future attacks by the Indians. So Pakistan responded immediately to bolster its deterrence. By shooting down at least one Indian jet and taking one pilot as captive, Pakistan managed to send the message it wanted across the border. Its next aim was to avoid further escalation. Pakistan, whose economy is struggling and which is an inferior military force in conventional terms to India, doesn’t want a full-scale war with its neighbour.

Tensions rise

There were some rumours on February 27 night that India was planning to launch missile attacks on Pakistan. The Pakistani military general Qamar Javed Bajwa apparently briefed the Parliamentarians to be prepared for any eventuality. Imran Khan confirmed on February 28 in Parliament the Pakistani intel that India was planning missile attacks. He immediately tried to contact Prime Minister Modi and when failed in his attempt, sent a message to the Indian government for de-escalation. Shamila Chaudhary, a National Security Council member in the Obama White House, wrote on The Hill that U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo interfered at this juncture. Mike Pompeo urged both countries “to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost,” she wrote.

The next day morning, Prime Minister Modi was reportedly angry seeing the morning papers. Most English papers led with the capture of Commander Varthaman and the downing of Indian jet. India had claimed that one Pakistani F-16 was downed, which did not get good play in the morning papers. In the morning, Air Force officials briefed select journalists in Delhi, telling them that India won’t back off and that Commander Varthaman was not a bargaining chip. They also rejected any U.S. mediation between India and Pakistan. However, President Donald Trump had already said in Hanoi, where he was meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, that good news was coming from India and Pakistan, confirming that the U.S. was involved in mediation.

The Ministry of Defence had called for a press briefing at 5 pm that day. The government was supposed to up the ante in the briefing, reminding Pakistan of the Geneva convention and attacking its decision to release a video of Commander Varthaman. India was also going to formally demand the commander’s immediate release. But minutes before the press briefing was to begin in New Delhi, Imran Khan told a joint session of Parliament in Islamabad that Pakistan would release Commander Varthaman the next day (March 1). He practically pre-empted the Indian move. The MoD delayed the press conference. Tri-services chiefs held the presser in the evening in which they welcomed the Pakistani government’s decision to release the commander, and also hinted that India was de-escalating tensions. The press release said India was committed to peace in the region and was prepared to face any provocation from the Pakistani side. The next day, Commander Varthaman was back in India.

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