Indian Airstrikes: Weakening Terrorists or Winning Votes?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 5

IAF Mirage-2000s (source:

On February 26, Indian Air Force (IAF) jets struck a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camp at Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Less than two weeks earlier, a JeM suicide bomber targeted an Indian paramilitary convoy in the Pulwama district of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), killing over 40 personnel. The Indian government described the Balakot operation as “a pre-emptive strike” aimed at preventing JeM from carrying out a major attack it was planning in India (Hindustan Times, February 27).

The Balakot operation was significant for several reasons. It is the first time since the 1971 India-Pakistan war that IAF aircraft entered Pakistani airspace. India had targeted terrorist camps in the past as well, but with ground operations. In September 2016, for instance, Indian ground forces crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to carry out surgical strikes on terrorist “launch-pads” in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The recent assault not only involved airstrikes, but the IAF’s Mirage-2000s crossed the international border to target a JeM camp deep inside Pakistan. The Balakot strikes were, therefore, a significant scaling up of India’s counter-terrorism operations directed at Pakistan (Indian Express, March 3). How successful will this be in fighting Pakistan-based anti-India terrorism? India’s past experience suggests that the airstrikes will neither weaken JeM nor force Pakistan to address anti-India terrorist groups.

Strong Messages

The airstrikes on Balakot sent a message to Islamabad that India would retaliate strongly, even militarily, in Pakistan, if terrorist groups based there attacked India (Times of India, February 26). In addition to this display of power vis-à-vis Pakistan, the airstrikes carried a message for the Indian public—it is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which acts most robustly in dealing with India’s enemies.

The nationalist BJP has always been a strong advocate of a muscular approach towards Pakistan. This approach strikes a chord with its hawkish supporters and the BJP-led government publicly announced that it carried out strikes on the JeM camp at Balakot to consolidate this support base. With India due to vote in general elections in a few months, nationalist mobilization and patriotic drum-beating has been useful for the BJP to deflect public attention away from voter woes with unemployment and other economic issues (Scroll, March 6). It has served to focus attention instead on the external enemy and on the BJP government’s tough handling of that enemy.

Pakistan used India’s airstrikes to send out its own messages. A day after the IAF assault on the Balakot camp, Pakistan’s F-16s entered Indian airspace and in the ensuing air skirmish, an Indian MiG-21 jet was shot down and its pilot taken captive, before eventually being released. With its military response, the Pakistan government signaled to India and its domestic audience that it would not remain passive in the event of India violating its airspace and that such Indian action in the future would not go unchallenged (The Wire, March 5).

The recent cycle of events underscores that a future terror attack in India could very quickly escalate into another India-Pakistan military confrontation. The question is whether this possibility will prompt Pakistan to address anti-India terror groups.

Setback to JeM?

According to the Indian government, “a very large number of terrorists, trainers and senior commanders were eliminated in the strike.” Among those reportedly killed was Yousuf Azhar, mastermind of the 1999 hijack of an Indian Airlines passenger plane and brother-in-law of JeM’s founder-chief, Maulana Masood Azhar (Times of India, February 26). According to Maulana Ammar, Azhar’s younger brother, IAF jets bombed JeM “schools where students were being trained” in waging jihad (Hindustan Times, March 3).

The Pakistan military has ruled out damage to infrastructure or even loss of lives. Indeed, it dismissed India’s claims of having hit the JeM training camp at Balakot, saying that IAF jets “released payload…in open area” (Express Tribune, February 26). Even if JeM did lose several hundred fighters, this is not a major setback to the terrorist group. It can be expected to recover quickly as the Indian strikes on its camp will likely help mobilize support and recruit fighters. JeM leaders have already started rallying their supporters. “By entering our territories and attacking our schools, India has ensured the beginning of jihad against them,” Maulana Ammar warned soon after the Indian airstrikes (Hindustan Times, March 3). JeM can be expected to step up attacks in India to raise the morale of its fighters and to signal its continuing capacity to strike India.

Boost to Terror

India can expect more terror attacks in the coming months. This was its experience in 2016 when, within weeks of its surgical strikes on terrorist staging-posts, Pakistan-based terrorists carried out a string of attacks targeting Indian Army camps in Baramullah and Kupwara, a police post in Shopian, and a government building in Pampore, all in J&K. There was an immediate surge in cross-LoC shelling after the surgical strikes as well (Indian Express, November 7, 2016).

Since 2016, the militancy in Kashmir has surged. Around an estimated 406 terrorists entered J&K from Pakistan in 2017, up from 371 in 2016. Terror attacks and terror-related fatalities too surged and India-Pakistan ceasefire violations more than doubled in 2017.  Pakistan also allegedly “ramped up” its “covert support for the insurgency” (Mint, September 27, 2018).

India’s recent airstrikes on Pakistan-based terror groups are unlikely to prompt the Pakistan government to halt support to them. Even the United States’ innumerable airstrikes on Taliban and Haqqani Network training camps in Pakistan failed to get the country to shut them down or deny them sanctuary (South Asia Terrorism Portal, February 8). There is little reason to believe that India’s airstrikes on JeM’s Balakot camp will be more successful in getting Pakistan to address anti-India terrorist groups.

The suicide attack at Pulwama as well as the India-Pakistan military face-off in the skies has resulted in the international community pressing Pakistan to act against JeM and its leaders. Under pressure, Pakistan has detained around 44 members of banned terror groups, including Azhar’s close relatives (Dawn, March 6). Such action occurred before, only to be reversed in a matter of months (Daily O, January 31, 2017). Skepticism over the latest Pakistani crackdown is therefore widespread in India.


Pakistan’s current crackdown on terror groups should not be read as a sign that it is rethinking its use of terrorism as a weapon in its conduct of foreign policy. Its actions over the last couple of decades suggest that the crackdown will be short-lived, aimed at getting the international community off its back.

India’s targeting of the JeM training camp at Balakot will not weaken the terrorist group. Rather, this will likely increase its capacity for targeting India. Indeed, with India-Pakistan relations worsening, Pakistan’s support to anti-India terrorist groups could increase after a temporary lull. The airstrikes are expected to boost the BJP’s electoral chances.  Thus, it is the BJP and JeM that are the main beneficiaries of the Indian airstrikes.