One of my favourite arias is from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut where the protagonist sings a heart-rending “Sola Perduta Abbandonata” (I am lost and abandoned) before she dies waiting for her lover to rescue her while she is stranded in the middle of the American desert.
In many ways, this describes the situation Pakistan is stuck in – it has run out of its only oxygen, the supposed “internalisation” of the “Kashmeer Isshoo” as Musharraf used to call it, being used to divert attention to external follies. Perhaps, a bit like Manon, Pakistan needs great Coloratura to draw the world’s attention.
Signs are worrying
The playbook has been that every time Kashmir was disappearing from the horizon, Pakistan would resort to some outrageous action in order to refocus the international community. Today, thanks to satellite-based open-source intelligence (OSINT), we can predict that a similar operation is quite possibly underway, in order to relieve the domestic political humiliation that the Pakistani army and its ‘selected’ prime minister are facing. Below are a set of three images showing that almost the entire Pakistani fleet has been put out to sea, from the three major naval ports of Karachi, Ormara and Gwadar.
The main image above shows that the Jinnah naval base at Ormara is now totally empty. The inset on the right shows Gwadar, again totally empty, while the inset on the left shows the naval docks in Karachi with just three ships. Now contrast these with the reference peacetime images below of the same three bases, showing large number of military ships (easily identified because of the grey camouflage) in base from last month.
By itself, this would be worrying, but we have also detected that the C-130 transport aircraft station, closest to the Line of Control, at PAF base Nur Khan in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, has also been emptied out, suggesting a sudden and significant uptick in military transport requirements. The image on the left was taken on the evening of 4 August in response to reports on online messaging groups that there was some panic reaction over what’s likely to happen in Kashmir. The image on the right shows the normal peacetime deployment.
The image below is the latest from the airbase, acquired just this (Friday) morning, and the numbers are nowhere near normal, with just two C-130s in clear operational readiness mode.
Add to this, we have a sudden increase in the number of VIP flights to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) since 5 August (four flights in two days). The image below is of a VVIP Gulfstream IV, indicating that this could have possibly flown Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa himself (I was unable to decipher the call sign RED2).
Since Thursday, again acting on the tip-offs from online messaging groups, OSINT surveillance has further revealed significant air activity. The image below, taken Thursday night and the GIF earlier Friday morning, indicate a massive and intensified defensive air cover patrol. We know this because of the Pakistani AWACS flying in a classic pattern accompanied by an aerial refueller at a distance. This would clearly be in support of 5-7 PAF fighter aircraft (which do not turn on their transponders). There is also a significant movement of VIP aircraft monitoring or supervising these movements, as seen in the animation.
Call for action on the streets
However, I was able to correlate this information with several online messenger groups (the same ones that had tipped me off about the activity in Chaklala on 4 August) associated with militants and their sympathisers, known to be run by the Pakistan military. Till the night of 5 August, the messages had been mostly acrimonious, slamming Pakistan for sleeping on the job. Sometime around the morning of 6 August, these messages changed from shock to yet-unseen desperation for “action on the streets” with promises of Pakistani support. The strangest one was “you need to go out on the streets and JUST DIE (my emphasis), we cannot help you unless we have some just cause”.
By itself, these satellite images and online messages would mean nothing, but put together, I believe they conform to a classic and old Pakistani plan, which can be summarised as follows.
No matter the movement of military material into Kashmir, the fact is that a major infiltration a la Kargil or 1965 or 1947 is not feasible. Yet, the matter is time-sensitive, and if Pakistan takes long to draw a plan for massive infiltration, the international acceptance for the abrogation of Article 370 would be deemed legal, due to the lack of a legal or political challenge.
Pakistan is therefore desperate, asking its local agent provocateurs in Kashmir to foment street trouble. For instance, one message said, “just go out in the streets and die”. This would play into the expressed concerns of the UN and international community, which revolve around human rights.
Such a large-scale death of protesters would also give Pakistan grounds for a major military escalation under the guise of humanitarian intervention or the responsibility to protect. Given the imminent lifting of restrictions and the celebration of Eid on 12 August, such messages should be taken very seriously.
Known Twitter handles on the Pakistani payroll: Zaid Zaman Hamid and others have already been putting out (false) stories of a mass uprising and claiming massive fatalities of 250 and upwards. Given that none of these handles has any credibility and that we have media correspondents on the ground, we know that this is complete rubbish.
India must exercise caution
The main intent of this article is to ensure that India is not lulled into complacency.
To be clear, it is also not to suggest that Pakistan will go to war over the deaths, if they happen. Pakistan is in no position to do this, not so quickly at any rate, and not given the economic situation it is in.
What we will, however, see is a major ground and naval build-up in response to security forces’ apparent overreaction in the Kashmir valley. The intent of this will be to THREATEN war and get the international community involved. Optimally, from the Pakistani point of view, this will lead to demands for the withdrawal of the abrogation of Article 370. Minimally, it would give Pakistanis a chance to say, Article 370 or not, we internationalised the issue and created a new paradigm.
Clearly then, India has to exercise significant caution. It has two options. It can continue the curfew in the Valley for a month till such time as the abrogation of Article 370 is seen as fait accompli. Alternately, it can enforce rock-solid discipline in the security forces and micro-manage the ground situation very carefully to avoid flare-ups. One can only hope that this was factored into the Indian grand strategy.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.