External Affairs

‘Surgical Strikes’ as Doctrinal Shift? Pakistan Is Already Adapting Its Responses

As the crisis in bilateral relations persists, there are signs that India is on the verge of being outmanoeuvred by Pakistan’s swift, adaptive responses.

The crisis in the Indo-Pak relations have been growing worse with increasing ceasefire violations. Credit: Reuters

The crisis in the Indo-Pak relations have been growing worse with increasing ceasefire violations. Credit: Reuters

The “surgical strikes” carried out by the Indian army’s special forces in response to attacks on military bases at the border towns of Pathankot and Uri generated a large volume of literature projecting the move as a “doctrinal shift” that would deter Pakistan from waging a sub-conventional war on India. However, Pakistan has responded with an innovative set of multi-faceted measures, signalling that it is well prepared to adapt to any Indian policy shifts – something that India did not expect. Besides the official strategies adopted by Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the recent attack on the Indian army base at Nagrota proves that Pakistan is far from being deterred, even after the surgical strikes.

The doctrinal shift

Although cross-LoC strikes by Indian and Pakistani forces are not a new phenomenon, the fact that the surgical strike operation was carried out under the supervision of India’s national security advisor points to the significance that New Delhi attached to it. There was hope that a solution had been found to end the menace of cross-border terrorism. This is because the spectral vacuum that arose after the two nations went nuclear was filled by adopting sub-conventional warfare against India. The possession of nuclear weapons implied that India could no longer use its conventional forces against Pakistan.

Following the strikes, tensions between Pakistan’s civilian and military establishments – as reported in Dawn’s controversial article – seemed to portray Islamabad’s futile attempts to wrest the Kashmir policy away from Rawalpindi. As per the report, in a closed-door meeting where both civilian leaders and military officers were present, the Pakistani army’s policy of promoting militancy in the Kashmir Valley was severely criticised.

As expected, a wave of confidence rode across New Delhi’s strategic circles and it was believed that peace in Kashmir was on the horizon as cross-border terrorism (and ceasefire violations) would decline following this policy shift.

In another instance, Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar was quoted urging the government to revise its nuclear doctrine, which presently rests on the twin pillars of “no first use” and “credible minimum deterrence”.

“If a written-down strategy exists or you take a stand on a nuclear aspect, I think you’re actually giving away your strength in nuclear”, Parrikar stated. His comments are worth analysing in light of Pakistan’s addition of tactical nuclear weapons – short-range nuclear weapons aimed at localising the nuclear conflict – to its nuclear arsenal, which has lowered the threshold for a potential nuclear conflict between the two nations. In his perception of the “no first use” policy being ineffective, Parrikar suggested keeping India’s nuclear doctrine ambiguous to make deterrence more credible.

With a formal induction of “surgical strikes” in the Indian army’s conventional response strategy, the “personal views” of the defence minister, favouring a flexible doctrine were also aimed at sending a message to Pakistan – it could no longer plan its strategies by making India’s nuclear doctrine a static focal point. However, as events progressed, quite the contrary has happened and Indo-Pak relations continue to experience a downward spiral with no sign of a breakthrough in the near future.

Moving beyond a tit-for-tat strategy

Pakistan’s adoption of this “doctrinal shift” has unfolded in a multifaceted approach that gives more cause to India to worry. Given their magnitude, the responses from the other side of the border suggest a transcendence of the traditional tit-for-tat response strategy.

While terming India’s surgical strike as a hoax, Pakistan has responded with its own set of claims, of its equally “covert” confrontation with India. On November 14, the Pakistani navy reported that it had prevented an Indian navy submarine from entering Pakistan’s territorial waters, which was reportedly chased after it was found lurking “40 nautical miles off the Pakistani coast in international waters”. Less than a week after reporting this incident, the Pakistan army claimed to have struck down an Indian drone after it had intruded into the Pakistani side of the LoC.

At the same time, the LoC continues to simmer with close to 300 ceasefire violations since the surgical strikes took place on September 29. Both countries accuse each other of unprovoked firing, while the death toll on both sides continues to rise. An even more dangerous development is the killing and mutilation of Indian soldiers’ bodies in Machil – allegedly by Pakistan army’s Border Action Team commandoes. After the surgical strikes, there have been two such gruesome incidents which have not only affected the morale of forces adversely, but has also brought the much-touted efficacy of the surgical strikes under question. The attack at Nagrota, for instance, which left seven soldiers including two major-rank officers dead. Unlike the Pathankot incident where intelligence inputs had been there, the army has accepted that it couldn’t gather any specific intelligence inputs in case of Nagrota.

Despite India’s strenuous efforts to isolate Pakistan at a regional level, as well as at the international fora, Pakistan’s alliance with China has worked wonders in insulating it from isolation. Not only does China continue to block India’s attempts at getting Masood Azhar declared as a global terrorist by the UN Security Council, but it also refuses to acknowledge Pakistan’s role in the instances of instabilities taking place in India.

Surgical strikes, ceasefire violations and claims of border transgressions are not new when it comes to Indo-Pak relations, but the simultaneous occurrence of these incidents and the multi-faceted offensive from Pakistan in a more aggressive, yet subtle manner, points towards the ready adaptability with which it responds to any Indian move. Even the expulsion of Pakistani diplomats on charges of spying was swiftly retaliated by the deportation of Indian diplomats on similar charges.

As the crisis in bilateral relations persists, there are signs that India’s doctrinal shift is on the verge of being outmanoeuvred by Pakistan’s swift, adaptive response which has forced India to devise new strategies again.

Prateek Joshi is a postgraduate in international relations from South Asian University, New Delhi and a researcher on South Asia’s strategic affairs.