India struck Pakistan. Pakistan hit back, capturing an Indian pilot. Those are the established facts. Virtually everything else about the clashes between south Asia’s two arch-enemies last week is bitterly contested.
Did India hit a militant training camp in Pakistan? Did it cross the ceasefire line between the two countries in disputed Kashmir? How many people did the strikes kill? Was a Pakistani jet shot down while bombing Indian territory the next day?
A week since the first Indian airstrikes on Pakistani territory in nearly five decades, the answers to these and other questions are enveloped in a fog of misinformation and shifting official accounts.
India’s version is that early last Tuesday it struck a facility on a heavily forested hilltop in Balakot, an area about six miles (10km) inside Pakistani territory.
It claimed the site was a headquarters for Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the militant group that claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in Kashmir in February that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries.
India’s foreign secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said in a statement the strikes had killed a “very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis being trained for fidayeen [suicide] action”.
Several Indian media outlets quoted government sources claiming the airstrike killed between 250 and 350 people. That figure was cited at the weekend by the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, Amit Shah, at a campaign rally for India’s general elections in April.
Pakistan’s account is that Indian jets penetrated its airspace for a few minutes before they were detected and chased away, hastily dropping their munitions in an open field as they escaped.
The country’s military spokesman, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, tweeted pictures of a wooded open area where the payload was dropped, with no signs of damaged buildings.
Nooran Shah, a farmer who lives near where two of the bombs fell, told the Guardian the doors of his mud-brick house were blown off by the explosion. “Nothing was damaged except some parts of my house and there are four big holes in the ground,” he said by phone.
Why is there conflict in Kashmir?
The region in the foothills of the Himalayas has been under dispute since India and Pakistan came into being in 1947.
Who controls Kashmir?
Both claim it in full, but each controls a section of the territory, separated by one of the world’s most heavily militarised borders: the ‘line of control’ based on a ceasefire border established after a 1947-48 war. China controls another part in the east.
India and Pakistan have gone to war three times over Kashmir, most recently in 1999. Artillery, mortar and small arms fire are still frequently exchanged.
How did the dispute start?
After the partition of colonial India 71 years ago, small, semi-autonomous ‘princely states’ across the subcontinent were being folded into India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir dithered over which to join, until tribal fighters entered from Pakistan intent on taking the region for Islamabad.
Kashmir asked Delhi for assistance, signing a treaty of accession in exchange for the intervention of Indian troops, who fought the Pakistanis to the modern-day line of control.
In 1948, the UN security council called for a referendum in Kashmir to determine which country the region would join, or whether it would become an independent state. The referendum has never been held.
In its 1950 constitution, India granted Kashmir a large measure of independence. But since then it has eroded some of that autonomy and repeatedly intervened to rig elections, and dismiss and jail democratically elected leaders.
What do the militants want?
There has been an armed insurgency against Indian rule over its section of Kashmir for the past three decades. Indian soldiers and Pakistan-backed guerillas fought a war replete with accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killing.
Until 2004, the militancy was made up largely of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Since then, especially after protests were quashed with extreme force in 2016, locals have made up a growing share of the anti-India fighters.
For Indians, control of Kashmir – part of the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been proof of its commitment to religious pluralism. For Pakistan, a state founded as a homeland for south Asian Muslims, it is the last occupied home of its co-religionists.
Analysis of open-source satellite imagery has also cast doubt on India’s claims. A report by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab was able to geolocate the site of the attack and provide a preliminary damage assessment.
It compared satellite images from the days before and after India’s strike and concluded there were only impacts in the wooded areas with no damage visible to surrounding structures. “Open source evidence suggested that the strike was unsuccessful,” said Michael Sheldon, a research associate with the group.
Separate satellite analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute also concluded the that there was no evidence of damage to the hilltop facility that India claimed to have struck.
On Monday, India’s air force chief said the airstrikes hit their intended targets but would not estimate the death toll. “We don’t count casualties,” Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa said. “We can’t count how many people have died – that depends on how many people were there.”
The second major point of contention is India’s claim that it shot down a Pakistani jet involved in a strike on Indian-controlled territory on Wednesday morning – and that the downed jet was an F-16 fighter.
Images showing the wreckage of a warplane on the Pakistan-controlled side of the border were published by the Indian news agency ANI last week as proof that an F16 had been shot down.
Bellingcat, a forensic investigations outlet, has examined photos and videosof the wreckage and concluded it belonged to the Indian airforce MiG-21 that was shot down in Wednesday’s dogfight, leading to the capture of its pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman.
Indian defence officials have presented a fragment of an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile they say was fired by one of the Pakistani warplanes, a weapon they said could only have been deployed by an F-16.
The planes Pakistan used are significant: it has been speculated that the F-16 jets were purchased from the United States on the explicit agreement they would be used in counter-terrorism operations rather than against India.
A senior Pakistani military official with knowledge of the F-16 sales agreements said Pakistan could use its F-16s “for defensive use”. “That is absolutely legitimate,” he said. “Offensive use is a problem, definitely.” He declined to confirm if Pakistan had indeed used F-16s during last week’s dogfight with India.
A second Pakistani military official said the country could use “all weapons and military equipment at its disposal when it came to the question of self-defence”.
“Pakistan did not use F-16s in airstrikes inside India, that is out of the question,” the official said. “But in our self-defence, if we are attacked or our airspace is violated, then definitely we can use them.”
Pakistan’s military said it used Chinese-designed JF-17 warplanes in the attack, but has not presented any evidence that they can fire the kind of missile that India says was used.
Sheldon, from the Atlantic Council, says the confusion over basic facts is not unusual during conflict or major tragedies, especially in the social media age.
“The MH17 shootdown [of a passenger jet over Ukraine by Russian-armed rebels] was a classic case study for state-sanctioned disinformation,” he said. “Decentralised versions of this ‘trying anything to see what might stick’ [approach] do happen in the broader social media environment.”
At this stage, both sides have an interest in keeping the narrative malleable, said Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The advantage of the fog of war, especially in the immediate aftermath of something like this, is that … you can actually sustain contradictory narratives,” he said.
And that gives both countries room to claim victory and refrain from further strikes. “This kind of ambiguity can be de-escalatory for the moment,” Narang said. “We can litigate the facts once things settle down.”