So opaque has the security game between India and Pakistan become over the past week that even John Nash and Thomas Harsanyi would struggle to make sense of the emerging matrix of probabilities and payoffs.
Ordinarily, India’s ‘surgical strikes’ against terrorist launching pads across the Line of Control should have led to angry protests from Pakistan and the threat, if not the launching of retaliatory action. Instead, Pakistan denies it has been attacked and has been busing in foreign reporters to the LoC to buttress its point.
Terrorism and surgical strikes are no laughing matter but Pakistani journalist Gul Bukhari best summed up the Catch-22 in which the two countries – and their publics – find themselves today:
This is the funniest war I've ever come across.
IND: We attacked you
PAK: No you didn't
— Gul Bukhari (@gulbukhari) September 29, 2016
To this ‘riddle wrapped in an enigma, inside a mystery’, I would add another paradox: Pakistan denies any Indian forces crossed the Line of Control as part of the surgical strikes India says it launched, yet it has in its custody an Indian soldier. And India, which says it launched the strikes – but which has officially refrained from saying whether the strikes involved soldiers crossing the LoC – insists the soldier in Pakistani custody crossed the LoC inadvertently. This situation has created a delicious irony: The only way for Pakistan to stick to its stand that there was no Indian attack is to accept the Indian claim – that the jawan indeed crossed over by mistake.
Four days after India’s sensational announcement about conducting surgical strikes, the sheer parsimony of its statement has allowed all sorts of unverified and fanciful stories to swirl around the media.
To be clear, all that the Indian director general of military operations, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, actually said on the record on September 29 is that surgical strikes were launched against terrorist launching pads across the Line of Control, causing “heavy casualties”. Since then, the only other bit of information put out on the record – by junior information minister Rajyavardhan Rathore – is that contrary to ‘sourced’ reports, no helicopters were used to cross the LoC, and that there were no aerial strikes. On his part, however, the DGMO did not mention the number of targets or the number of casualties, nor did he identify them. Nor were any details provided of what the surgical strikes consisted of – whether special forces crossed over – as the Indian media has surmised, based on briefings from ‘sources’ who will not go on the record – or whether conventional targeted firing using mortars was used.
No compromise to security
Why has the government not officially released this harmless but important information in the public domain? One possible reason is the fear that the more specific details it provides, the harder it becomes for the Pakistani army to credibly claim there were no Indian strikes – thus making retaliatory action more or less inevitable. But if that were the concern, what is the reason behind the planting of hyperbolic reports on the Indian media? Surely the government knows this too will fuel the retaliatory impulse across the border.
Previous Indian border crossings were never publicised because they had the limited objective of raising the tactical cost to Pakistan of its transgressions – such as the beheading of an Indian soldier in January 2013. The army then took a call that the message from its action would go across even without publicity, and without triggering the pressure for further escalation. Today, however, the government has chosen to go public with the broad claim – but judging from the response across the border, it is not clear that its message has gone across.
What about national security considerations? Could that be the reason for the government’s reluctance to part with more details about the operation? Well, assuming the Indian army did indeed strike seven locations across the LoC, those locations are obviously not a secret to either the terrorist groups who were targeted or the Pakistani army, which keeps tracks of these groups and protects them. So there can be no justification for withholding the specific coordinates of the seven targets. How the government came to identify the locations ought not to be disclosed if intelligence capabilities are revealed as a result but making public the locations hit and providing a description of the nature of the target does not in any way compromise India’s security or intelligence gathering capabilities. Remember: Pakistan already has that information.
Similarly, there is no reason for the Indian government to withhold its precise estimate and assessment of the ensuing casualties at each of these locations since this information is also known to the Pakistani side. If Indian special forces neutralised 10 Lashkar-e-Tayyaba terrorists at a particular location, for example, the LeT bosses and their Pakistani military handlers already know this. So this information can also be easily made public.
Since the Pakistani side knows full well what methods India used to strike at each of the locations – special forces, firing across the LoC, or a combination of the two – sharing this information with the Indian public does not compromise any security or intelligence capabilities on the Indian side.
To the extent to which video footage exists, some of it may well be considered sensitive so I do not consider the release of such footage as necessary. In any case, showing footage without revealing the locations targeted will be of little value.
The irony is that instead of making public those details about the operation that are already known to Pakistan, the government is leaking information that the Pakistani army and the terrorist groups targeted there may not know and perhaps ought not to know. Some news reports have appeared in India identifying the specific units that were involved in the surgical strikes. The fact that commandos were flown by helicopter up to the LoC just before they went across seems to me another operational detail that need not have been shared.
Nip cynicism in the bud
So if the DGMO’s secrecy is not driven by the fear of provoking Pakistani retaliation, and if, as we saw above, there is no security-related reason to withhold basic data about the operation, why has the government chosen to batten down the information hatch?
Could it be that the targets hit were not particularly significant from a military standpoint, as Ajai Shukla has argued? In which case, has a political calculation been made that going public with this fact may reduce the ‘benefit’, if any, that may accrue to the ruling party as the next round of elections approaches? In a Facebook Live episode I did with The Wire‘s readers a couple of days ago, I was surprised at the number of people who asked questions along those lines. My own advice to them was: please put your cynicism on hold.
Although the government has made exaggerated claims about its actions in the past – in the ‘terror boat’ incident from February 2015, for example – the fact that the surgical strikes happened inside easily accessible, populated Pakistan-controlled territory and not on the high seas makes it improbable that the operation did not occur, as Islamabad claims. Even if the locations hit were small “targets of opportunity” – something the Indian army has gone after in the past as well – the fact that the government went public still marks a paradigm shift in the way the country deals with terror threats. It’s a different matter that the new paradigm may not be any more effective than the old one in furthering India’s strategic objective of reducing– and then ending – the threat of terrorism emanating from across the border.
For now, however, it is time for the government to be more forthcoming about the September 29 surgical strikes. At a minimum, it should make public the information that Pakistan already has with it.