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Surgical strike video leak: Why footage of Indian action should have become public soon after ops took place

The surgical strikes by the Indian Army’s special forces against terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control (LoC) in PoK on 28 September 2016 have come back to haunt the Indian political scene and create further acrimony with Pakistan in the information domain. These were operations conducted as raids by at least five to seven Indian forces teams at as many launch pads, where terrorists are known to be located just prior to them being infiltrated into Jammu and Kashmir. These terrorists, trained and funded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), are linked to a couple of well-known jihadi brand names such as Lashkar-e-Taiyaba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

It is sufficient to mention that post the 08 July 2016 killing of Burhan Wani the Kashmir Valley was in ferment primarily in South Kashmir where a local terror strain had emerged making Pakistan’s control over its proxy efforts less effective. Through July-September 2016 the ISI-Jihad combine made strident efforts to regain relevance through shallow strikes at Indian Army establishments closer to the LoC. On 18 September four JeM terrorists infiltrated across the LoC and struck at the headquarters of the Uri Brigade resulting in collaterally killing 18 Indian soldiers. Given the situation in the Valley this loss led to a public outrage all over India resulting in tremendous pressure for effective retribution. Consequently, Indian special forces teams struck across the LoC on the night of 28/29 September 2016 at multiple points, surgically avoiding Pakistan Army posts and destroyed an undisclosed number of terrorist launch pads. It is important to know that at all times Indian Army units deployed at the LoC have sufficient intelligence to pinpoint the well merged and camouflaged habitat of terrorists in the PoK villages close to the LoC. The depth to which the special forces teams penetrated was approximately 2-3 kilometres. The post-strike damage assessment of the punitive operations did not definitively indicate the exact terrorist casualties. There was no release of video footage of the same although there were indicators that the same was available in raw form, video graphed through head cameras and drones.

The news about the surgical strikes announced after the Pakistan Government had been informed of the same, was received with much cheer in India but the same was furiously denied by Pakistan. Unfortunately, the achievement was not fully supported by the political opposition in India which questioned the validity of the surgical strikes and the need at all of publicising this. The lead opposition party argued that such penetrative strikes across the LoC had happened many times in the past and the then governments had never considered it suitable to publicly claim them. Strangely, processed video footage of the event has now emerged through either leak or otherwise and vitiated the political environment with claims at attempts to politicise the achievements of the Indian Army. The entire handling of the post-event detail reflects the shortfall in the handling of strategic information and insufficient consensus on managing strategic crises.

Two issues of relevance emerge here outside the realm of the emotive debates on electronic media. First, is the reason why the declared ownership of the surgical strikes by the government of the day is correct and the need to keep this outside public domain, as in the past, not so relevant. No two strategic situations are ever the same. The scene in Kashmir today and recent past as compared to the 90s and the early millennium is vastly different. The entry of social media and visual electronic information has changed the discourse substantially. In 2000 17 Indian soldiers were killed by terrorists in a botched operation in south Pir Panjal; the information never reached the public and no pressure was ever generated on the government. Today public dismay over negative events in the security field draws emotive response as never before; successful operations equally produce elated sentiments and raise national motivation and morale. An event such as the Uri suicide attack had greatly diluted the morale of the nation and left at that the morale and perception of the Indian Army would be equally affected. Any retributive achievement had to be put into public space to neutralise that negativism.

The second issue is of Pakistan’s ability to execute acts such as that at Uri and remain in denial; more importantly, be allowed to remain in denial. It needs to be remembered that Pakistan’s core strategy against India is to execute the covert action and deny. It has done it on the issue of infiltration thus labelling the entire movement in Kashmir as indigenous with no proxy support. It did it during the Kargil intrusion and also played the information game on Siachen with much aplomb denying to its own population that Siachen was ever lost to India due to the inefficiency of Pakistan Army. That is why it continues to harp on a mutual withdrawal from Siachen for the benefit of its unwary public which does not know that Siachen is not even within view of their army. So how would denial of the surgical strikes help Pakistan? After the Abbotabad raid by US SF in 2011 a second penetration of Pakistan’s claimed territory would be disastrous for the image of its army which attempts to display its machismo across the Islamic world in particular and partially in the western world. Any reference to the existence of terrorist infrastructure and credible believability of it would puncture holes in its entire Kashmir policy.

When political parties oppose an issue it must be done with care, ensuring that no national strategic interests are hurt and the context of the times is taken into consideration. Merely opposing something because it was not done in the past does not display strategic understanding. In 1994, PM PV Narasimha Rao took the leader of the opposition Atal Bihari Vajpayee into full confidence leading to a year of the most decided politico-diplomatic gains India ever achieved. The 22 February 1994 Joint Resolution of Parliament and the neutralisation of Pakistan’s human rights allegations against India at Geneva were a joint political effort.

It is for this reason that I favoured the early release of the videography of the strikes followed by an international campaign at think tanks and international capitals to paint Pakistan red. The political opposition in India with smart approach should have grabbed that opportunity. This would have also ensured no emotive exploitation of the achievement by any political dispensation. Unfortunately, in India very few ever think of using information strategically and that’s a field wide open for study and betterment in the future.

The author is a retired lieutenant general and former general officer commanding 15 and 21 Corps.


Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 21:51 PM

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