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How to tackle Pakistan? Surgical strikes and the future of Indian military responses

First came the cross-border raid by the Indian Army’s Special Forces in Myanmar in June 2015. The raid targeted the Northeastern insurgent group NSCN-Khaplang’s training camps, to avenge the insurgent group’s ambush of the Indian Army’s convoy a few weeks earlier that killed 18 soldiers.

And now comes last week’s cross-LoC raid dubbed ‘surgical strikes’ by the Indian Army’s Ghatak commandos on the night of 28 September. The raid targeted terrorist launch pads across the LoC in northern Kashmir in Kel, Shardi, Bhimber and Lipa sectors in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir — launch pads that have, over the years, figured prominently in the intercepts of the intelligence agencies as ones facilitating infiltration.

There is no clarity on how the raid exactly happened — despite a series of ‘briefings’ from the army to those journalists who are close to the government; but it is clear that the raid has caused extensive damage to the terrorist launch pads, killed more than 40 terrorists and at least two soldiers of the Pakistan Army. This is the beginning of a new offensive posture from India.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Earlier too, the Indian Army had undertaken many cross-LoC and cross-border raids in the pursuit of the militants. On the eastern borders, these raids mostly took with the consent of the neighbouring States, while on western borders they were covert operations. But one thing was common: There was little public acknowledgement of these raids from India or the Indian Army, to maintain ‘plausible deniability’.

This strategy had its advantage and the disadvantage.

The advantage was that by sanctioning such a raid to target the militants, the army was able to keep the morale high of its rank and file. It showed that the army would not take the continued targeting of its officers and jawans by terrorists lying down. However, the disadvantage was that by maintaining deniability, the government couldn’t satisfy the citizenry, which after repeated terrorist attacks, looked out for ‘retributive justice.’ And that invited the tag of India being a ‘soft state’. The only time that these strikes were publicly acknowledged by the army was during the beheading of the Indian soldiers incident in January 2013. That acknowledgment too had come a few months after the operation was carried out.

So what is new this time?

Two things.

First, the public acknowledgment of the raid in a very pointed statement from the Director-General of the Military Operations of the army, at a joint briefing with the Ministry of External Affairs. This no-bars hold approach is significant for its signalling to Pakistan, its sponsors, the international community and most importantly, angry Indian citizens — who have had enough of Pakistan’s machinations. No wonder then that the American National Security Advisor Susan Rice called up her Indian counterpart Ajit Doval just before the raid, to convey that Washington would be with New Delhi to deal with the after-effects of the surgical strike. The public acknowledgment of the attack also shows that India is also testing Pakistan’s bluff on nuclear weapons and see how much the logic of ‘nuclear escalation’ can be stretched.

Second, the immense political capital spent in planning the raid: A response to the Uri attack of 18 September 18 that had angered Indians. Unlike earlier, when the army used to inform the political leadership about the planned cross-border/LoC operation, this time the initiative for such an operation came from political leadership that sought to direct the course of the operation.
Now that Pakistan has been scurrying for cover and looking for a response, will this mend Pakistani behaviour?

It looks unlikely.

It will take more than a cross-LoC surgical strike to make Pakistan withdraw its support to anti-India terrorist groups and cross-border terrorism. The government has already been considering other measures to corner Pakistan and isolate it diplomatically. Will this be the standard response of India to the future terrorist attacks coming from Pakistan?

It's hard to say.

Surgical strikes and cross-LoC raid look feasible options if the Pakistani Army and the ISI keeps up with its strategy of executing terrorist attacks in Indian states bordering Pakistan — like Uri and the previous attacks in Udhampur, Pathankot, Gurdaspur, and the rest. But if the ISI manages to repeat what it had done in Mumbai in 2008 or revives its campaign of causing serial blasts in major Indian cities, then this sort of response of surgical strikes may look harder to execute, particularly if the attack has its roots exclusively in Pakistani Punjab, and not PoK. Then the Indian government and the Indian Army will have to think of new ways to militarily respond to Pakistan.

There is no clarity on how the raid exactly happened — despite a series of ‘briefings’ from the army to those journalists who are close to the government

This was exactly the sort of dilemma with which the government of former prime minister Manmohan Singh grappled in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks when a cross-LoC raid looked like militarily the least punitive response against Pakistan.

In the coming days, Pakistani generals will certainly be rethinking their terrorism strategy against India. Expect more terrorist attacks on Indian soil as the ISI tries to reclaim lost ground. India too will need to re-evaluate its military options to keep up with the Pakistani strategy.

Updated Date: Oct 03, 2016 08:04 AM

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