'9 missiles from India pointed towards Pakistan': Islamabad's frantic message during Balakot strike

Pakistan's top diplomat alerted P5 nations about the message she got from its army

A Pakistan army soldier walks near to the crater where Indian military aircrafts released payload in Jaba village, Balakot | Reuters A Pakistan army soldier walks near to the crater where Indian aircrafts released payload in Jaba village, Balakot | Reuters

The day after the 2019 surgical strike which saw Indian warplanes pound a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Pakistan's Balakot, the then Pakistan foreign secretary Tehmina Janjua informed the ambassadors of the US, UK, and France a message she had received from the Pakistan Army.

The message read that "nine missiles from India had been pointed towards Pakistan, to be launched any time that day". This stunning revelation is from the upcoming book of former diplomat Ajay Bisaria, who served as Indian High Commissioner to Islamabad during the 2019 Balkot attack 

"The foreign secretary requested the envoys to report this intelligence to their capitals and ask India not to escalate the situation. The diplomats promptly reported these developments, leading to a flurry of diplomatic activity in Islamabad, P5 capitals, and in New Delhi that night," Bisaria writes in his book 'Anger Management: The Troubled Diplomatic Relationship Between India and Pakistan'.

The permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, China and France are known as P5 nations.

 "One of them recommended to her that Pakistan should convey its concerns directly to India," says Bisaria.

He writes that then Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan wanted to talk to his Indian counterpart. "At around midnight I got a call in Delhi from Pakistani High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood, now in Islamabad, who said that PM Imran Khan was keen to talk to Prime Minister Modi," he says.

 "I checked upstairs and responded that our prime minister was not available at this hour but in case Imran Khan had any urgent message to convey he could, of course, convey it to me. I got no call back that night," he recounts.

 "The US and UK envoys in Delhi got back overnight to India's foreign secretary to claim that Pakistan was now ready to de-escalate the situation, to act on India's dossier, and to seriously address the issue of terrorism," he says.

Bisaria says "Pakistan's PM would himself make these announcements and the pilot would be returned to India the next day." 

Bisaria was referring to Pakistan's detainment of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, whose MiG 21 Bison jet was hit in a dogfight.

He says India's "coercive diplomacy" had been effective, and its expectations of Pakistan and the world had been clear, backed by a credible resolve to escalate the crisis. "Prime Minister Modi would later say in a campaign speech that, 'Fortunately, Pakistan announced that the pilot would be sent back to India. Else, it would have been "qatal ki raat, a night of bloodshed".

He added that several countries, including China, suggested that it could send its representatives to both countries to seek de-escalation but New Delhi declined the offer.

He writes that India was willing to send an aircraft of the Indian Air Force to Pakistan to bring back Varthaman, but the Pakistani government refused permission. Varthaman was captured by the Pakistani Army and was released two days later.

  Pakistan had launched the retaliation for the Balakot airstrikes a day before. "We were willing to send an Indian Air Force aircraft to pick him up but Pakistan refused permission; the optics of an Indian Air Force plane landing in Islamabad after all that had happened over the previous three days, was, of course, not acceptable to Pakistan," Bisaria writes.

In the book published by Rupa, Bisaria, who had a distinguished diplomatic career spanning 35 years, writes that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan conveyed to China that it should support Islamabad since the United States decided to back India against China, but Chinese President Xi Jinping "declared that China would not be propping up Pakistan against India".

 "President Xi Jinping, apparently, responded sharply to Imran Khan for this simplistic geopolitical assessment and declared that China would not be propping up Pakistan against India," he says. "He had advised Khan that it was the US that could help Pakistan in its India relationship and it would be in Pakistan's interest to make up with the US as well as with Afghanistan," Bisaria writes.

Collapse of Agra summit

Bisaria says the Agra Summit collapsed not because of LK Advani's hardline approach but due to Pakistan's then President Pervez Musharraf's "overreach" in publicly airing his hawkish views on Kashmir.

Musharraf's lack of intent in containing terrorism and insistence on a formulation linking forward movement in overall ties to progress on Kashmir led to the collapse of the Summit in 2001. Bisaria served as a key aide of Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was the prime minister.

Bisaria says that on the second day of the Summit, Musharraf met with editors of major newspapers and TV networks for a breakfast conversation during which he "let loose" his hawkish position on Kashmir and equated terrorists with freedom fighters. Bisaria says this public telecast sounded to observers like a mid-summit report on the talks, where Pakistan's hard views were being inflicted on India, while New Delhi's positions were unclear.

The former diplomat says he and Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee's principal secretary and National Security Advisor from 1998 to 2004, watched Musharraf's televised remarks with "dismay" in the makeshift PMO in Agra. "Mishra turned to me and said that the PM needed to be informed of this development since he was sitting in conversation with Musharraf oblivious to everything happening outside the meeting room."

"Mishra scribbled a few lines. I had them quickly typed up, adding a couple of sentences of my own. The note basically said that a press conference by Musharraf was being telecast, where he had repeated his hardline positions, harping on the Kashmir issue and had talked of terrorists as freedom fighters," Bisaria writes.

It fell upon Bisaria to walk into the room where the two leaders and the two notetakers were sitting. "My arrival interrupted the conversation as both leaders looked up.

"Musharraf had been talking and Vajpayee was listening, apparently with great interest. I handed over the paper to the boss and said that there had been some important developments. After I left the room, Vajpayee looked at the paper and then read out from it to Musharraf, saying edgily that his behaviour was not helping the talks."

Bisaria says he was "playfully" accused by some colleagues of torpedoing the Agra initiative.

The former diplomat further says the narrative that emerged from the meetings in view of Pakistani leaks was that while Vajpayee and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh were for an understanding and "OK" with Pakistan's "convoluted draft" of the Agra joint statement (linking progress in bilateral ties to forward movement on the Kashmir issue), Advani, the hawk, had vetoed it since he did not want any progress with Islamabad.

"Advani was quite aware of the slant in the media reporting, making him the villain of the piece." Later Pakistani writings tend to highlight the almost agreed upon draft. The reality was different," Bisaria writes.

(With PTI inputs)

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