The Debate

Why ‘Surgical Strikes’ Are a Slippery Slope for India

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The Debate

Why ‘Surgical Strikes’ Are a Slippery Slope for India

Making the latest operation anything but covert could backfire on India.

Why ‘Surgical Strikes’ Are a Slippery Slope for India

People wave national flags to celebrate after India said it had conducted targeted strikes across the Line of Control, in Ahmedabad, India (September 29, 2016). Banners read (L-R): “Many congratulations to the Indian army,” “The country is with the Indian army” and “Good wishes to the BJP-led government.”

Credit: REUTERS/Amit Dave

India woke up to news on Thursday morning that the Indian Army has launched surgical strikes across the border in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), killing 38 terrorists and destroying seven terror launch pads. For the uninitiated, surgical strikes are limited and lightning fast incursions into enemy territory meant to neutralize tactical threats. Following the night-long operation, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, the Indian Army’s director general of military operations (DGMO), held a press briefing to inform the Indian media of the developments, noting that the strike was based on specific intelligence that “terrorist teams” had gathered on Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control (LoC) waiting to infiltrate into India.

Singh portrayed the military strikes as “pre-emptive” self-defense in the face of an imminent attack by jihadists across the LoC and targeted at terrorist infrastructure rather than Pakistani military installations. India’s main concern, he noted, was that Pakistan’s territory continued to be used for terrorist activity. While the Indian Army had since stopped the operations, Pakistan’s continuing support to terrorist elements across the border, he suggested, would lead India to strike again.

Not surprisingly, the press briefing caused a Twitter storm in India, with a flood of admiring tweets and congratulatory messages lauding the Indian army for its muscular action. In the wake of the Uri attacks, it had become clear that India would at some stage be forced to act. The pressure had been building up on the Modi government and doing nothing seemed increasingly unviable. A key driver of New Delhi’s decision to launch strikes across the border, however, seems to have been the increasingly public opinion driven media discourse. With anger among Indians rising – particularly among those active on social media – Indian policymakers and military planners knew that only a military response would calm the enraged minds of their fellow citizens.

In the event, New Delhi’s decision to exploit the space below the ceiling of a full blown war to launch a sub-conventional operation seems to have been a well calculated risk. Not only has the Indian Army’s raid across the border brought huge cheer to the Indian public, which had been eagerly awaiting revenge for the Uri carnage, but reports that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally authorized the operation and monitored developments through its entire duration seem to have enhanced his standing among the Indian people.

And yet, there is something about the press briefing today that created a sense of unease. It isn’t as if the Indian army has never earlier taken precipitous action against Pakistani targets across the LoC. This certainly isn’t the first time that Indian forces have struck suspected jihadists across the border in peace time. It happened on a few occasions during the Vajpayee era, allegedly with devastating effect. Needless to say, those incursions are said to have led to significant casualties on the Pakistani side, even resulting in a temporary fall in infiltration attempts into India by Pakistan-based terrorists. Unlike the present instance, however, India’s special operations in Pakistan were kept secret and never revealed to the public.

There is a reason for this. Governments the world over realize the importance of covert cross-border incursions in deterring a recalcitrant foe, through the use of calculated punitive strikes. This does not detract, however, from the need for a sagacious approach that doesn’t portray the incursion as a response to public appeals for retributive action.  Aside from the fact that clandestine military missions can be plausibly denied by an elected government – thereby presenting a necessary cover for its popular and international legitimacy – cross-border strikes by a state must not be seen as mocking the authority and political resolve of another government. Such an approach leaves neither side with any room for diplomatic maneuver, working severely to the detriment of a political solution.

What surprised many this time was the very public nature of the announcement about the Indian Army’s counter strike, particularly the Indian DGMO’s claims of heavy casualties inflicted on the Pakistani side. It is almost as if the Army had delivered on a promise to the Indian people by making the Pakistanis pay for an openly provocative act in Uri. Unsurprisingly, the Pakistani establishment was quick to deny the attack, saying the Indian side was making much of cross-border firing.

It isn’t as if Pakistan Army was not expecting a violent response from India. After an unexpectedly successful operation in Uri that inadvertently (by some accounts) killed more Indian soldiers than originally intended, the generals in Rawalpindi may have been preparing for a counter-strike by India, even resigned to losing a few soldiers. They are likely to have anticipated an imminent raid by the Indian Army. What they may not have been prepared for, however, is an Indian media blitz about the strikes, causing an inescapable imperative for the Pakistani military establishment to respond.

Having denied any role in the Uri killings, the Pakistan Army cannot now be seen by its masses to be soaking in a blow by India. Needless to say, the mullahs and radical Islamist groups in Pakistan will be thirsting for revenge after the much publicized Indian incursion. From Islamabad’s perspective too, the strike comes at a bad time. Hours before the operation, the Pakistan defense minister had threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons in defending Pakistani territory against India attacks. What is worse, General Raheel Sharif, the Pakistani chief of army staff, who is on the cusp of retirement, is now faced with an unenviable choice of options. If he does not act, his legacy will be irredeemably sullied. If he does, he might risk war, even if it wins him an extension of tenure.

In the long scheme of things, therefore, New Delhi’s decision to make a media spectacle of the Indian Army’s strike across the LoC may turn out to be an imprudent one. Far from testing the Pakistan military’s threshold of escalation, it may have unwittingly served to lower it.

The ball is in Pakistan’s court now and not playing is not an option.

Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Fellow in New Delhi.