Surgical Strikes : Outcomes and Aspirations

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 3 Jul - Aug 2017
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
The strikes manifested a stunning and effective show of intent by the Indian Government
Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, PVSM, AVSM, SM (Retd)
Friday, July 21, 2017

While addressing the Indian community at Washington during his recent visit Prime Minister Modi drew the loudest response when he spoke on the surgical strikes conducted after the Uri attack last September. Surgical strikes triggered the imagination and interest of all Indians, instilling a feeling of pride in the nation state as it responded to Pakistan sponsored terror attacks. Now eight months after the strikes, given the increase in violence levels in J&K and targeting of the security forces, many in India and abroad are questioning the payoffs and the outcomes of the surgical strikes.

As a soldier and defence analyst, a simple answer is - yes these were an unqualified success, in all domains, political, diplomatic and the military. However, the key question is, have the surgical strikes met the aspirations of the Indian public at large and deterred Pakistan from waging a so called proxy war?

For a pragmatic analysis, it is essential to analyse the context and the construct of the surgical strikes. Indian response to Uri challenged the common belief that India will continue to suffer cross border terrorism by Pakistan with impunity and in perpetuity. Pakistan army drives the state policy with regard to India: “bleeding India with a thousand cuts”.

Pakistan’s undeclared low intensity conflict dates back to 13 Dec 1989, the day when Rubiya Sayeed the daughter of Mr Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, then Union Home Minister of India, abducted by JKLF militants was released in exchange for five known terrorists. At that time, Mr Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had been the home Minister for just five days, wef 02 Dec 1989.  Ever since Pak has waged a war by proxies.  The situation that has prevailed in J&K is well known and documented. In J&K alone, since the advent of the Pakistan engineered terrorism 14700 civilians have lost their lives, 6200 security forces personnel have been martyred and over 23000 terrorists eliminated.

There is also a need to take a quick look at the major/ high profile terrorist attacks in India perpetuated by Pakistan over the years. One of the worst terrorist attacks is the Mumbai serial blasts of 12 March 1993 killing 257 innocent people and injuring 700 others. It is another matter that the courts delivered the verdict on 15 June 2017, after nearly a quarter of a century. High profile terrorist attacks by Pakistan based terror groups have been carried out regularly all over the country, Coimbatore, Pune, Bangalore, Akshardham in Gandhinagar, Varanasi and Delhi to name a few other than J&K.

Except for the 13 Dec 2001 Parliament attack, India and Indians under various governments have suffered silently and given the short memory, it has always been business as usual. The year long mobilisation for war, post the parliament attack did raise the costs for Pakistan but it also indicated India’s strategic restraint albeit in keeping with the geopolitical compulsions, as the US would not allow any escalation, Pakistan being the only entry point and logistics base for the US to Afghanistan.  In the security calculus, the US needed Pakistan more than Pakistan needed the US.  This further encouraged Pakistan to continue terrorism as a state policy with impunity

The surgical strikes executed on the night of 28/29 Sep 2016 were and are unprecedented.  As a military professional and a Paratrooper, I salute each one of the 140 odd PARA Special Forces (SF) Commandos who executed the surgical strikes.  The selection of the targets was very apt – 7 terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control (LC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) within a few Kms of the LC, located on either side of Pir Panjal, the extremes nearly 350 Kms apart.  Seven troops of the PARA SF, one troop per target, inserted on foot on a zero moon night, totally undetected across a heavily manned and mined LC, destroyed the designated targets by fire assaults from close ranges, without any collateral damage to civilian population in POK and thereafter executed the most difficult part of the operation (having lost surprise) , extrication to own side with only a single mine casualty. 

For anyone who has served along the LC – the enormity of the task itself would have sent shudders.   The LC is not only heavily manned and mined, the Pakistani troops deployed are trigger happy despite a prevalent cease fire.  The military part of the strike was exceedingly well planned and executed.

Surgical strikes are a very sensitive and delicate operation with no room for error.  Firstly, all those who executed the strikes knew well that it was a ‘ONE WAY TICKET’. Secondly, any soldier having been left behind would have been a national embarrassment, he would have been paraded as a Pakistan victory and an Indian Military failure.  Without intending to make comparisons with somewhat similar military operations executed by other nations, just a mention of OP GERONIMO – during the elimination of Osama Bin Laden by the marines – a helicopter had to be destroyed.  Going back to Operation Eagle Claw- the rescue of the US embassy hostages in Iran on 24 Apr 1980- was a total disaster, giving birth to the US SOF (Delta Force) under Col Charles Beckwith.  In pure numbers the strikes achieved little, as per some reports only 39 terrorists were killed, of course Pakistan denied any such action.  The strikes at the terrorist launch pads are however, a master stroke by the Army where in during a single operation they have executed both ‘Punitive’ operations avenging the martyrdom of the 19 soldiers of the Uri attacks, and ‘pre-emptive’ operations, by destroying the terrorists and their launch pads.

Having touched upon the tactical domain, the larger issues need analysis. It is undoubtedly the first time that that the Indian government demonstrated a politico military will for a credible response to Pakistan sponsored terrorism. PM Modi has invested considerable political capital in normalising relations with Pakistan, however, Pakistan true to style, responded by perpetuating terror strikes in India.  The meeting between the two Prime Minister at Ufa on 15 July was followed by a terrorist strike at Gurdaspur on 28 July 2016. Again, Prime Minister Modi’s outreach to his counterpart by way a surprise stop over at Lahore on 25 Dec 2015 was paid back by a terror attack at the Pathankot Air Base.  This, along with the terrorist strike at Uri, challenged India’s strategic patience and it became necessary to demolish the Pakistan belief that India will not respond in the military domain for fear of an escalation possibly leading to a nuclear exchange.

This was also the first time that all elements of national power, political, diplomatic, military, informational and to an extent economic were synergised, leading to diplomatic isolation of Pakistan. By executing the surgical strikes India signalled a strategic resolve and indicated that its strategic patience has run out. While signalling a strategic resolve, India also in a very nuanced statement demonstrated a strategic restraint.

The choice of targets - terrorist launch pads, demonstrated India’s ‘Strategic Restraint’. The DGMOs call to his counterpart on the afternoon of 29th September saying that the operations had been closed gave a clear signal to Pakistan of the objectives, thus minimising the chances of any escalation. The strikes also created a ‘Strategic Dilemma’ in Pakistan. Pakistan denied that the Indian army had carried out surgical strikes in ‘Pakistan territory’ (the targets being in POK- which is an integral part of J&K state of India), as this hit at the very idea of invincibility which Pakistan army perceives to have created in the minds of its populace.

It is also the first time that the duly elected Nawaz Sharif government could afford to be publicly critical of the Army Chief General Raheel Sharif,   criticising him for isolating Pakistan. The strategic dilemma will now continue. For far too long Pakistan has waged a war against India in the sub conventional domain resorting to the rhetoric of use of nuclear weapons in particular its recently acquired

Nasr- Tactical Nuclear Weapons. India has finally called Pakistan’s bluff and shaken it out of its comfort zone. 

The media hype post the strikes created an impression in the minds of the public that this will deter Pakistan from sponsoring terrorism, that was never possible. Pakistan will not change its state policy of waging a proxy war because of one surgical strike. In the India-Pakistan matrix there are certain key certainties and relative uncertainties which will continue to drive the relations and policies. The key certainties are: -

•             Adversarial relations will continue as there are inherent insecurities in Pakistan. An anti-India narrative being a unifying factor in a divided people and region.

•             Pak will continue to try and calibrate the militancy in Kashmir.

•             Pak state policy of terrorism will continue unabated driven by the all-powerful Pakistan Army.

•             Pak will continue to try and internationalise the Kashmir Issue all over the world and in multilateral forums irrespective of the Shimla agreement.

•             Pakistan will exploit its geostrategic locational advantage by aligning with the US interests in Afghanistan and the Chinese core interests in the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC). CPEC is central to the China dream of One Belt One Road (OBOR).

• A risen and responsible India, a regional power is unacceptable to Pakistan.

The relative uncertainties in the India - Pakistan context are: -

•             The cost of any escalation will adversely impact Pakistan’s fragile and failing economy.

•             Economic impact of CPEC in the near term and the long term. Many analysts have opined that CPEC is not economically viable. 

•             The Politico-Military equation in Pakistan.

•             Spread of ISIS in Pakistan will challenge the Pakistan Army control over terror outfits.

•             Sustaining Ceasefire along LC.

•             Terrorist group(s) may acquire nuclear weapons (RDD).

•             India’s Politico-Military will. Need for a response to all terror attacks is neither sustainable nor desirable.

What India needs to do is ensure that Pakistan’s ‘high effect low cost war’ becomes a ‘low effect high cost war’ and that is exactly what the surgical strikes aimed at achieving. There are many contributors and indicators that Pakistan will continue to wage the proxy war as hither-to-fore albeit at a higher cost and caution now.  The internal security situation in Pakistan and its present economy does not allow Pakistan many options as it is aware of India’s military superiority and the resolve of the Modi government to ‘Hit where it Hurts’.

For the first time, the military has been permitted to launch punitive operations across the LC.  Even during the Kargil war in 1999, the Army and the IAF were not permitted to cross the LC. A military response is essential, as it is visible and showcases a nation’s resolve to protect its interests. Terrorism especially terrorism emanating from Pakistan in particular is a threat not only in the region but all over the world.  The Jus ad bellum that is the ‘Right to War’ is with India and the world supports India’s actions and is appreciative of India’s efforts in safeguarding its legitimate security interests. To the credit of Modi government, the response to Uri has been well orchestrated, synergizing all elements of national power, i.e. the diplomatic, informational, economic, political and equally important the military. The military response is essential as it is visible and showcases the nation’s resolve to protect its interests.

An analysis of the surgical strikes and the impact in the context of the India - Pakistan relations proved that the surgical strikes did achieve the aims and objectives, in totality. Anyone who questions the success and outcomes needs to understand geopolitical and geostrategic realities.

Military Affairs