India: On Surgical Strikes and the Aftermath

The Indian Armed Forces have come in for praise by the Government and the political class. But grievances of the soldiers, whether they are to do with OROP or pay panel recommendations, remain unresolved


by Ashok K Mehta

( October 26, 2016, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah has said that his party would take the surgical strikes ‘to the people’, ignoring the undesirability of politicising the Armed Forces. The ‘target specific, cross-LoC counter terrorist operations’, in his calculation, are expected to yield political dividends, though there is no empirical evidence that war victories or limited military operations blossom into electoral gains. The openly declared intrusions were after all, very modest — two to five kilometres across the Line of Control (Loc), causing significant casualties on terrorists, and Pakistan flatly denying anything like that had happened.

After the victory in World War II, Winston Churchill lost the election. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, won a handsome victory after the Falklands War, with the military junta in Argentina forced to surrender power. The BJP returned to power following a localised military operation at Kargil in 1999, though it failed to retain power following the attack on Parliament even after deploying the Armed Forces for a full-scale war and notching up some notable political and military successes. It lost the election in 2004. The UPA Government took no retaliatory action after the Mumbai attacks and still won the 2009 election. So it is a mixed bag.

Against the scale of the 1971 victory, when Indira Gandhi was transformed into ‘goddess Durga’, the September 29 surgical strikes are puny. Still, they touched public sentiment and political chord so significantly that a 50-year old self-imposed taboo and restraint has been lifted. With Pakistan no longer enjoying immunity from retaliation, there is a heightened sense of expectation about teaching Pakistan a lesson. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two riders on punitive retribution — no escalation and no own casualties — how will he respond to the next Uri-like attack? While India’s intention to impose costs and punishment on terrorists and their infrastructure is becoming unambiguously clear, what is opaque is the repertoire of options to do so.

For the last 70 years, Pakistan has sought to wrest Jammu & Kashmir with the aid of proxies a la non-state actors. Phase One of this clandestine operation ended in war and the imposition of a UN-backed ceasefire line in 1949. Phase Two began with Operation Gibraltar and the failed uprising, triggering the 1965 war. The 1999 Kargil intrusions were vacated by the Armed Forces without crossing the LoC. The latest and most serious unrest in J&K accompanied by increased infiltration and fidayeen strikes is an attempt to create conditions to replay Gibraltar. It is a sad ground reality that 70 years after cross-border terrorism was invented by Pakistan, we have failed to devise an antidote.

Unfortunately, the investment in augmenting overt and covert surgical capacities has been minimal. The word ‘resilience’ means the ability to recover from setbacks. India has suffered serial setbacks from cross-border terror. Still it has shown exceptional reluctance to empower the military with appropriate skills to deter it. On July 30, speaking at an Abdul Kalam Memorial lecture, Union Minister for Finance Arun Jaitley reportedly said that the country should spend more in development and poverty alleviation than on security.

After Uri, on September 23, following the Kozhikode BJP conclave, he reversed his position. Yet, in the Ministry of Defence, bureaucrats live with the illusion that there will be no war and, therefore, you can continue with the critical voids that Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh first spoke about in 2011. Conventional deterrence has, therefore, progressively weakened.

Despite the loud song and dance eulogising the Uri avengers, the terrorist strikes have continued with increased regularity — if not with equal success. Deterrence comes in two ways: By denial and by retaliation. The latter has apparently not worked with a single cross-LoC strike. What has worked is denial of success for the terrorist by security forces tightening defensive and protective measures after Uri. A high-alert defensive posture, however, is not sustainable indefinitely. Terrorists have to be lucky just once while security forces have to be lucky each and every time.

Prime Minister Modi’s exaggerated comparison of the surgical strikes with Israel betrays lack of comprehension of both — the weak opposition Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) face and its extraordinary capacities for surgical intervention. The IDF swats a fly with a hammer and is not confronted by any nuclear-capable country. Minister for Defence Manohar Parrikar, notorious for his inept similes and metaphors, boasted, “I made our Armed Forces realise their power. Like Hanuman, Army did not know its power.” He went on to attribute the military strikes to the vision of the RSS. Military veterans want him to speak less and act more, at least on his only one good one-liner: ‘Using terrorists to take out terrorists’.

The full-throated praise for the Armed Forces by the political leadership will not compensate the soldiers about the Government failure to act on crunch issues like modernisation, ‘one rank one pay’ and the Seventh Pay Commission. On the last, they feel terribly let down. The adulation of the Armed Forces by the political class is basking in reflected glory.

The situation in Pakistan is fluid. Both the Supreme Court and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan are asking Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to come clean on the Panama Papers. Army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, is due to retire on November 30, though some reports suggest he may do a Musharraf if Imran Khan can create conditions of grave public disorder. Unlikely. Although by no means a cerebral General, he has made himself hugely popular with the people. Prime Minister Sharif, on the other hand, wants to retire not just General Sharif but also replace DG, Inter-Services Intelligence, Gen Rizwan Akhtar, so that before the new military team takes charge, he can restore the balance of power which had shifted heavily in favour of the Generals.

If Gen Sharif is to ride into the sunset with glory, he has to ensure that the September 29 blemish is wiped off his slate. A counter-riposte is, therefore, highly likely, and before November 30. That is why the LoC is piping hot.

In that event, given Modi’s embargo on escalation and finite surgical capacities, his choice of options is rather modest — a repeat of September 29 but slightly tweaked; do nothing. While the rewards for crossing the LoC may prove marginal, the cost to the Government of non-delivery of retribution for the next strike and future attacks could be high. Will the Modi Government, therefore, have been better off retaining ambiguity by not declaring the surgical strikes than claiming ownership? Before long, we will know.


Ashok_K_Mehta(The writer is a retired Lt General of the Indian Army. He writes extensively on defence matters and anchors Defence Watch on Doordarshan)


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