Indian air chief refuses to confirm death toll from strike on Pakistani militant camp

Rahul Bedi
Pakistani soldiers and media personnel gather at the site where the Indian Air Force (IAF) strike hit - AFP

India’s air chief has refused to confirm the death toll from last week’s strike on an alleged terrorist training camp in Pakistan, fuelling doubts about the success of an attack initially claimed to have killed 250 militants.

“The Indian Air Force (IAF) does not count human casualties,” said Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa in his first press conference since the 27 February offensive. “We count what targets we have hit or not.”

Asked how many militants had been eliminated in the strike, Marshal Dhanoa said: “It’s for the government to answer that question”.

The IAF had launched the punitive strike on what it claimed to be a training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group after the group claimed responsibility for killing 40 Indian paramilitaries in a suicide bombing in northern Kashmir on 14 February.   

The assault significantly raised tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours, triggering a dog-fight between Indian and Pakistani fighters in which an IAF pilot was shot down.

Over the weekend Amit Shah, the powerful head of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), repeated that 250 terrorists had been killed.

The government, however, has declined to comment.

Opposition party leaders, quoting foreign news reports from Pakistan, are now claiming that the air strikes were a fiasco, striking empty hillside.

“Were you (the IAF) uprooting terrorists or trees” tweeted provincial Congress Party minister Navjot Singh Sidhu from northern Punjab state.  “Was the air attack an election gimmick?” he further asked, referring to charges that Mr Modi had ordered the strike to boost his chances ahead of a general election scheduled to be held before the end of May.

Meanwhile defence personnel and analysts are questioning the overall capability of India’s military that is short of assorted materiel like combat aircraft, helicopters, submarines, warships, artillery, tanks and even small arms for the army’s infantry troops.

In a series of six reports tabled in parliament last December India’s Parliamentary Defence Committee castigated the government for allocating “inadequate funds” for long postponed military modernisation in a turbulent neighbourhood.  

In March last year the Indian Army’s former vice chief of staff said 68 per cent of the army’s equipment was in the “vintage category”. Some 24 per cent was “current”, and a mere 8 per cent “state of the art”.