Speaking to my Pakistani interlocutors about India’s now-famous surgical strikes in a chance meeting, I felt the experience was akin to interacting with aliens from another planet. “Surgical strikes in Pakistan by the Indian army? Never heard of them,” they said incredulously. “If you insist though, we can accept there were some cross-LoC fire assaults in which some Pakistani soldiers were killed. But surgical strikes – whatever that means – never heard of them in recent times,” they continued. I was in conversation with two retired lieutenant generals of the Pakistani army, one a cavalry officer and the other an infantry officer, who have both commanded the Peshawar Corps facing off against Afghanistan. One of them said that he had heard that the redoubtable Hafiz Saeed of the Jamat ud Dawa had promised to teach the Indian army about surgical strikes.
On November 14, after seven Pakistani soldiers were killed in cross-border firing in the Sundarbani sector south of Pir Panjal, Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif claimed that his forces had killed 11 Indian soldiers in retaliation. He then dared the Indian army to accept its own casualties, forgetting that the Pakistan army is the one that persistently refuses to accept bodies of its terrorists and soldiers, like at Kargil. Sharif said that India’s surgical strikes were limited to mere words, resulting in immense embarrassment over India’s claims. The BBC’s Ilyas Khan produced a detailed report last month after visiting the sites where the strikes were said to have taken place, and his findings confirmed that these attacks did indeed occur and Pakistan suffered casualties.
It is strange that despite consistently denying the occurrence of the strikes, Pakistan held a military exercise codenamed ‘Raad ul Burq’ (Thunderstrike) near Bahawalpur in Punjab to demonstrate its preparedness for war and its capacity to confront the enemy (read India) with a “befitting response”. Like the phrase ‘strategic partnership’, ‘befitting response’ is a term commonly used by politicians on both sides of the border to create a sense of bluster and bravado. The fact is that the current Pakistan-instigated tension across the LoC and the international border is due to the unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, which was sparked by the killing of Burhan Wani earlier this year. Pakistan needs to push in infiltrators to keep the state on the boil so that the Kashmir issue remains politically alive and central to the India-Pakistan narrative. The Uri killings, the retaliatory surgical strikes and tit-for-tat artillery duels along the LoC are intrinsic to the history of a predominantly snakes and a few ladders bilateral relationship.
The term ‘surgical strikes’ has become a metaphor for bold and courageous action, given that India has never openly dared to cross the LoC in order to maintain the moral high ground. ‘If you do to Pakistan what it does to you, you will become like Pakistan,’ India’s friends from the US normally say. Washington has constantly counselled New Delhi to maintain strategic restraint without getting Islamabad to rein in its ‘good terrorists’ even as India continues to bleed from a thousand cuts. Other military experts are astounded by India’s docile tolerance of cross-border strikes like the 2001 attack on parliament, Mumbai in 2008 and many other less spectacular terrorist-led assaults across India. The sanctity of the LoC was scrupulously maintained even in Kargil, when infantry soldiers had to counter the Pakistani forces which were situated on higher ground by attacking them from the front, the Indian forces forfeited the advantage of a multi-directional attack as that would have entailed breaching the LoC. For India, the LoC had become the ultimate ‘laxman rekha’. Still, the line was surreptitiously violated to retrieve soldiers’ body parts as war souvenirs in the surreal games soldiers play on the LoC. The September 29 surgical strikes were different from past forays as their enactment was officially declared and celebrated.
Lessons from the surgical strikes
Examining the surgical strikes, their repercussions and resultant satisfaction levels – politically, militarily and emotionally – is instructive. First, the content of the surgical strikes. These were carried out by army commandos, who crossed two to five kilometres across the LoC to destroy multiple terrorist launch pads. The operation was circumscribed by two riders: no escalation and no Indian casualties. This limited the option to one level above the lowest rung of response – fire assaults – to multiple shallow raids across the LoC. While such cross-border strikes have been executed earlier, though not on the same scale and much more clandestinely, for the first time their occurrence was accompanied by an official declaration.
The glossary of military terminology suggests that surgical strikes predominantly fall under the domain of the air force and missile and nuclear warfare. Initially, the operation was described by the military as ‘surgical strikes along the LoC against multiple terrorist launch pads, causing significant casualties’. Later the foreign office refined it to ‘cross-LoC, target-specific, limited calibre counter-terrorist operations’. If the political objective for crossing the LoC and claiming ownership for the strikes was to lift the immunity enjoyed by Pakistan – for stoking the fires of militancy and unrest in Jammu and Kashmir by employing non-state actors to infiltrate the state and ending cross-border terrorism – the aim has not and will not be achieved. Pakistan’s low-cost, high-yield strategy of cross-border terrorism cannot be deterred without escalating further and risking war, given the military and special forces’ finite capacity for covert and overt cross-border operations. The political and military leadership is aware of this strategic deficiency.
So far, in India, no serious study has been done on combating Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism, except by the Northern Command at Udhampur. In the US, studies have been done by Georgetown University’s C. Christine Fair in her book, The Pakistan Army Way of War: Fighting to the End, and by George Perkovich and Toby Dalton in their latest book, Not War Not Peace: Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross Border Terrorism. More serious work needs to be done by the Indian army to further minimise infiltration and reduce the numbers of the approximately 300 local and foreign fighters inside Jammu and Kashmir. Some serious questions are being asked in the context of the surgical strikes: Has the figure of 19, the number soldiers killed at Uri, become the yardstick for punitive retribution? Will India respond to each loss caused by cross-border terrorism in this manner? Has India put aside strategic restraint? Has Pakistan’s nuclear bluff been called? The answer to all these questions is generally along the spectrum of ‘no’ to ‘unlikely’.
The limitations of the strikes
Before the surgical strikes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told army chief General Dalbir Singh that he did not want any casualties on our side and no vertical escalation. Remarkably, there has been no escalation beyond firing on the LoC after the surgical strikes. Pakistan’s denial that any cross-LoC action took place on September 29 has made a reprisal and escalation that much more difficult. Still, nothing can be said about Sharif’s intentions as he still has till November 29 to hang up his boots.
India’s first ever declared surgical strikes have been widely celebrated in the country and are likely to be used by the government during the forthcoming elections. However, the political objectives of dissuading and deterring Pakistan from cross-border infiltration and terrorism along with raising costs for the deep state have not been achieved and are unlikely to be consummated by such modest punitive strikes. India’s options for punishing Pakistan are limited by its finite capacity for covert cross-border operations. In his book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, former National Security Adviser (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon has said that after 26/11, he pressed for immediate military retaliation either against LeT Muridke in Punjab or against their camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) or against the ISI because retaliating would have been “emotionally satisfying”. It would also have erased the shame of the incompetence displayed by the security agencies in dealing with the situation, that too in the glare of TV lights, he added.
Menon’s predecessor, M.K. Narayanan, recently wrote that the options for striking terrorist camps in PoK being bandied about after Uri were considered unviable in 2008 after a cost-benefit analysis. He elaborated, “the reality is that the armed forces still do not have adequate capabilities for surgical operations despite claims to the contrary”. In their speeches, NSA Ajit Doval and defence minister Manohar Parrikar have espoused unconventional strategies to counter Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism but done little to create capabilities to do so. The lack of political will and absence of appropriate instruments for punishing Pakistan manages to pass off as strategic restraint.
The modest surgical strikes, it is clear, were ordered by Modi for political and emotional satisfaction without thinking through the likely tangible gains that might accrue in curbing and containing cross-border terrorism, which are negative. The offensive action to some extent has shown Modi as a strong leader, unafraid to strike back at Pakistan. The bottom line is that India will continue to bleed by a thousand cuts inflicted on it from across the border and the coffins of soldiers martyred in Jammu and Kashmir will regularly flash on your TV screens. India has to regain political and emotional control of the state and engage Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism, while increasing covert capacities of surgical strikes to raise costs for Pakistan.
Ashok K. Mehta is a founding member of the erstwhile Defence Planning Staff now the Integrated Defence Staff and has served several times in Jammu and Kashmir along the LoC.