Imran Khan Says Pakistan Will Release Indian Pilot, Seizing Publicity in Showdown


NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan announced on Thursday that his country would be releasing a captured pilot from India after days of military conflict, offering a way out of the crisis and seeking to position Pakistan as the cooler head in a confrontation that has put the world on edge.

“In our desire of peace, I announce that tomorrow, and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody,” Mr. Khan said.

After hours of relative lull throughout Thursday, the gesture appeared to be a face-saving opening for both countries to head off a war. But Indian officials were guarded, saying that the pilot’s release would not necessarily end the crisis, which they said was rooted in Pakistan’s support of terrorist groups that strike at India.

The days before had brought both nations to the brink. On Tuesday, Indian warplanes dropped bombs inside Pakistan — it is not clear what they hit — and Pakistan shot down at least one Indian fighter jet on Wednesday. Tens of thousands of troops have been rushed to the countries’ border, heavy artillery barrages and gunfire have been volleyed across it, and tank columns have been chugging into place for what many feared could turn into a full-blown war.

Both nations wield nuclear weapons, and China, the United States, Britain and many other countries have been urging them to step away from conflict, which began after a suicide bomber killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary troops in the disputed region of Kashmir on Feb. 14. India accuses Pakistan of aiding in the attack, which was claimed by the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, but Pakistan has denied it.

At a news conference after his summit meeting in Vietnam on Thursday, President Trump said that there was “reasonably decent” news coming from India and Pakistan and “hopefully it’s going to be coming to an end.”

From the beginning of the showdown, Pakistan’s military publicity wing has demonstrated a knack for dominating the narrative. In particular, the almost immediate official circulation of videos that appeared to show the Indian pilot being first protected from a mob by Pakistani forces, and then remarking on how well he was being treated (“The tea is fantastic!” he said in one clip), became a virally blooming propaganda coup on social media.

But on Thursday, Indian officials insisted that was part of the problem — and made a point of noting that displaying prisoners for propaganda purposes violates the Geneva Conventions.

They suggested that Mr. Khan’s move was an empty ploy that ignored the real problem between the two countries. A senior Indian official told reporters in New Delhi that even if the captured pilot were returned home, there would be no chance “to go back to zero” and ease tensions unless Pakistan acted against terrorist groups that it has traditionally used as proxies against India.

Some observers said that much of the Indian public — and particularly among Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conservative Hindu political base — had little appetite to take Mr. Khan up on his second offer of the day: to engage in direct talks with Mr. Modi in order to defuse the crisis.

“Over the decades there’s been a real exhaustion and fatigue with Pakistan, and any Indian right now is fed up with Pakistan’s lack of action against terror,” said Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Indians feel Pakistan is not genuine in its calls for dialogue.”

Pakistan has, however, been better about wielding its public information campaigns.

For instance, when India for the first time in almost 50 years sent fighter jets into Pakistani airspace to launch airstrikes, it was Pakistan that took to social media first.

Hours before any comment from India, a Pakistani military officer tweeted that Indian warplanes had bombed an empty forest and the officer posted photographs showing some craters in the dirt. Later, India claimed to have destroyed a terrorist training camp, but had no evidence to show for it.

On Wednesday, after reports started surfacing online that Pakistan had shot down an Indian fighter jet and captured the pilot, Indian officials denied it. Hours later, they said during a stiff news conference that lasted less than 100 seconds that one Indian pilot was “missing in action.”

But again, Pakistan had the jump. For three hours – an eternity in social media time — videos were going viral on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp showing the captured Indian airman in a Pakistan military facility talking with Pakistani officers.

In public, Mr. Khan, a former international cricket star who became prime minister last summer, has tried to appear calm. Early in the crisis, he called for de-escalation, and promised to investigate any evidence linking Pakistan to Jaish-e-Mohammed’s bombings, if India would only share the evidence.

And on Wednesday, even as he claimed that Pakistan had had no choice but to retaliate for India’s airstrikes around Balakot the day before, he also expressed concern that the two countries must calm hostilities rather than risk nuclear war.

Behind the calm exterior, though, is the widespread belief that Pakistan is in no shape right now to wage a major war. Its economy is in deep trouble, with the country running out of hard currency. And most other nations — including China, which has traditionally taken Pakistan’s side in disputes — have pressed Pakistan to take more action against terrorist groups.

In the propaganda war of the past few days, both countries have been guilty of missteps. Pakistan maintained for a day that it had shot down two Indian fighter jets and captured two pilots, only later revising it down to one on each count.

But it is India that has suffered the more glaring contradictions. The government has yet to offer any evidence publicly for its claim that it downed a Pakistan plane, which Indian officials say crashed beyond their border. Likewise, India has offered no proof that its initial airstrike on Tuesday killed “a very large number” of “terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis,” as India’s foreign secretary has claimed.

Videos of a crushed building filled with bodies that soon began circulating widely on social media in India were quickly debunked. The images were not from the airstrike but from an earthquake in Pakistan more than 10 years ago.

This is beginning to take its toll on Mr. Modi, who is up for election in about two months and who until recently seemed invincible. But in some sectors, he is now being accused of military adventurism. One family of a fallen soldier called the government a liar.

Other Indians seem frustrated.

”The government has been lax and inaccurate in the way information is being let out,’’ said Mohammad Saquib, who works at a hotel in Delhi.

On the Pakistani side, initial fears that the confrontation could slip into war appeared to give way to jubilation at the news that an Indian jet had been shot down and that the pilot, identified by India as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, had been captured.

Even in the Pakistani media, which has suffered from intense repression by the security forces and initially was introspective about the military’s relationship with militant groups, skepticism has given way to triumphalism. Most criticism was shelved once Indian warplanes crossed Kashmir’s Line of Control on Tuesday.

By Thursday morning, upbeat news anchors appeared on television screens across Pakistan donning military fatigues, and journalists waved their national flag while delivering breaking developments.

Saadia Afzal, a popular Pakistani news anchor, tweeted a photo of herself posing in front of the wreckage of the downed Indian plane, surrounded by soldiers. “Take that India,” she tweeted.

“The Indian media was so jingoistic that even the most critical Pakistanis changed their position and said they were going to stand by their military and state,” said Raza Ahmad Rumi, the editor for The Daily Times in Lahore.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the information war came on Thursday, when Pakistan seized what could have been India’s triumphant moment, the return of the pilot.

On Thursday afternoon, the whispers from advisers in Mr. Modi’s government were that top Indian generals were ready to make a major announcement at 5 p.m. But well before that time, there was Mr. Khan, standing in Parliament and breaking the news, on live television, that Pakistan would unilaterally send the Indian pilot home.

Source : Nytimes