India’s recent claim to have conducted surgical strikes on alleged terror launch pads in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, has generated much euphoria among the general public and the wider strategic community in India. While the public excitement was mostly to be expected, the glee inside India’s wider strategic community could be a cause for concern. It raises important questions about whether such strategists have an accurate understanding of surgical strikes, and their efficacy as either a military tactic or a strategic response to India’s wider security challenges.
If the narrative emanating from New Delhi is to be believed, then it is being suggested that there is a significant policy shift, abandoning the much disdained policy of strategic restraint in favor of a militarily assertive behavior. Although it is too early to assert that there is a radical shift in the Indian state’s national security policy, this piece aims to caution India’s strategic elites to stop short of getting entrapped in Pakistan’s strategic ambush – the “strategic ambush” being a temptation to the Indian political elites to initiate military action against Pakistan, which in turn, offers Islamabad a much desired strategic parity with India.
Prior to any further discussion, it is important to note a few observations about surgical strikes. First, for a long time there has been a growing inclination within the Indian strategic community toward adopting “surgical strikes” as an effective military tactic in responding to range of security challenges faced by the Indian state. The Modi government has demonstrated an intent to respond positively to this growing demand within India’s strategic community. Previously, India has claimed to execute similar attacks in Myanmar to neutralize alleged terrorists.
However, given the distance of penetrated foreign territory from the origin of the attack, and the tentative geographic location of the area under attack, it would be more appropriate to depict these attacks as “border raids” than surgical strike. The military term “surgical strike” is more appropriate for instances involving an attack deep inside the enemy territory, with a substantial use of air power.
Perhaps the most important fact is that such strikes are not without precedent in India’s military history. Such attacks have happened in the past; the only thing that is new is that India’s political leadership has publicly owned it up this time. The way in which these “border raids” were publicly acknowledged by none other than the director general of military operations (DGMO), army chief, minister of defense, and prime minister accentuates one important fact – these raids were anything but a military tactic. In contemporary military science, a military tactic is considered a lowest level of planning, after strategy and organization, and seldom requires such a public oversight from the country’s topmost leadership as demonstrated in this case by the Modi government.
A discussion on the foundation, and perceived abandonment, of strategic restraint, is beyond the scope of this piece, yet it is important to acknowledge that India’s political elites and wider strategic community have perennially lived under the debilitating shadow of strategic restraint. Undoubtedly, India faces a gamut of security challenges, the likes of which no other state in the international system of comparable national power is currently experiencing. Apart from facing the normal, tangible external security threats emanating from Pakistan to the west, and China to the north and northeast, India is exposed to the perennial threats of internal insurgencies and cross-border terrorism. However, it is not just the multitude of security challenges alone that makes India’s situation precarious. Instead, it is the restiveness within India’s strategic community vis-a-vis the shadow of strategic restraint, which has been so persuasively imposed on the current Indian strategic thinking that India’s choices of action in securing the nation becomes difficult.
It is important to note that no other nation comparable to India’s size, status, and power in international relations has to ever fight a battle of perception of this magnitude about their ability to defend themselves against any adversary. Every time the Indian state has to exercise military power against what it perceives as a threat to its national security, policymakers have to simultaneously wage a war against the ghost of strategic restraint. One important architect of this web of strategic restraint was George Tanham’s powerful essay, written immediately after the end of the Cold War, which asserted that India had no strategic culture.
Ever since then, there has been a notable restiveness within the Indian strategic community, seeking to break the web of strategic restraint that often threatens to muddle Indian strategic thinking. Since a wider section of this strategic community finds a natural affinity with the current government in New Delhi, as a consequence, this government also appears to be influenced by the same restiveness. This explains the current hullabaloo in New Delhi about the recent alleged surgical strikes.
On the contrary, what is clearly evident in this instance is the fact that India’s strategic adversaries, at least those on the northwestern frontiers, have an accurate understanding about the inherent restiveness in India’s strategic community, and more so, within the new government in Delhi. This explains a conspicuous shift in the strategy of terror attacks allegedly emanating from Pakistan ever since the change of government in New Delhi in 2014, where targets have been security forces installations such as Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Udhampur, and Uri. The objective seems to be to exasperate the current government, which is clearly seen to chafe at strategic restraint, with the hope that Delhi ultimately falls into the strategic ambush of Pakistan.
Pakistan has always managed to maintain strategic parity with India for most of its history as an independent state. That is to say, the international community has always clubbed India and Pakistan together as dangerous, nuclearized rivals. It is only in the last decade that India has succeeded in breaking away from this dualism and crafting a global identity as independent from Pakistan – a situation of acute discomfort for Islamabad.
There seems to be an understanding within Pakistan’s military planners that a military conflict in the region, especially one where Pakistan is seen as being forced to take recourse to war, has the potential to elevate Pakistan’s strategic parity with India. Evidence suggests that the current Indian government is being slowly dragged into that strategic ambush by their western neighbor.
Sandeep Singh is a PhD candidate at the University of Wakiato, and an Editor of Auckland-based Indian Weekender, Pulse of the Kiwi Indian.