Surgical strikes: Instead of assuming victory, India must wait and watch the game unfold

India's decision to boldly announce that its special forces struck terror launch pads along the Line of Control (LoC) on 29 September is indeed a defining moment in the subcontinent's history.

As former Army chief Bikram Singh told NDTV, such strikes have been conducted many times in the past with a degree of deniability. But the scale of Thursday's operation and the decision of the political leadership to own them publicly with a lot of maturity, changes the India-Pakistan dynamics forever, taking them beyond the line of restraint that had existed for decades.

But, those who are rejoicing the Indian action and thumping their chests in celebration need to hear the story of Venkatpathy Raju and Steve Waugh from the 1991-92 world cup.

Needing four to win and three to tie off the last ball of the rain-curtailed match, Javagal Srinath slogged a Tom Moody ball towards the midwicket. What happened next is captured in Steve Waugh's autobiography:"In my eagerness to take the match-winning catch I overran the chance. I had too much time to take the catch, which gave me jelly legs and unhinged my composure."

As Waugh retrieved the ball, he saw Raju, the non-striker, turn for the third run and celebrate a tie midway. "Fuming from my clumsiness and driven by the cockiness of Raju's gesture, I launched a bounce throw laced with anger to David Boon with all the force I had in me and ran the batsman out," Waugh wrote.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The point is: When you celebrate too soon, you can come to grief, a lesson cricket-watchers may have witnessed Bangladesh batsman Mushfiqur Rahim learn during their recent T-20 world cup match against India.

India's surgical strike, or special operation to avenge Uri, is just the opening gambit in a game India has decided to join at Pakistan's provocation. It is not the end, just the beginning; a start. To assume that it would force Pakistan to shut down its jihadist infrastructure overnight would be a folly. To sit back in the belief that Pakistan will not react will be tantamount to behaving like Raju, with similar consequences.

Like a good player, India has made its first move and put the onus of responding on the rival, giving him the option of choosing the scale and timing of the response. So, it is essential that instead of assuming victory, we wait, watch the game unfold.

Yes, at the moment Pakistan is sitting quietly, even vehemently denying the Indian claim. But, it is not sitting idle. Pakistan is biding time, using the interregnum between denial and action to set its house in order, send emissaries to its benefactors and mould public response by a) claiming the Indian claim of surgical strikes is bogus, a rebranding of cross-border firing and b) India too suffered heavy casualties in the exchange.That's part of its short-term strategy.

When India struck along the LoC, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was juggling too many balls. Till Saturday, he was worried about Imran Khan and his party's proposed march to Raiwind to seek the government's ouster in the wake of allegations of corruptions after the Panama papers expose. Having marched up to the PM's residence at the head of thousands of supporter, Kaptaan Khan (once a captain, always a captain, Pakistan believes about Imran) is now off Nawaz's back, giving the latter some time to think about recent events.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif is scheduled to retire in November. In case he does decide to walk into the sunset without engineering the mandatory coup, Raheel Sharif will have to face a tormenting query: Does he walk out like a poltroon who kept quiet after being slapped by the enemy or as a Pakistani hero (which he is because of his campaign against terrorists active in FATA) who struck back with vehement force?

In many ways, Raheel Sharif faces a dilemma similar to the one faced by Modi. Like the Indian PM, the Pakistan COAS is seen as a strong man, capable leader and symbol of the nation and army's pride. Like Modi, he is also a prisoner of his own image and expectations. He too may succumb to the pressure to live up to his talk.

So, what can the two Sharifs do?

As various strategic experts would tell you, Pakistan's denial of Indian action is part of its philosophy. For years it has avoided conventional war with India, fearing the neighbour's non-nuclear military superiority. Acknowledging Indian surgical strikes would leave it with no option but to either retaliate officially or just shut up. But, that would be falling for the Indian bait and inviting escalation.
Pakistan's core strength is its appetite for notoriety, ability to strike through non-state actors, fifth columnists, Wahabi preachers, donors and its stooges in the Valley. This is the response Pakistan is capable of. And this is the retaliation it would like to orchestrate.

Experts believe over the next few weeks— reacting too early would draw the attention of the global community— it would try to send more infiltrators through sectors 14, 15 and 16 in the north, mobilise its fifth columnists in India and pump more money and resources in Kashmir. All of it would be geared towards a spectacular strike, perhaps outside Kashmir, in a metro.

Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain, former General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar based 15th Corps, argues Pakistan may press its border action team, a mix of regulars and terrorists, into action. "A single action will not meet the requirement of this response where the benchmark has been set much higher. Will the deep state wish to keep it deniable or transparent; the latter more likely following the loop of escalation. Building overwhelming strength to smother a smaller LoC post is always a feasibility and many such posts exist without much mutual support. To avoid casualties on themselves BATs are more likely to target patrols and logistics parties by day," Hasnain argues in The Tribune.

Chest-thumpers, TV studio anchors and jingoists may exult that Pakistan has been taught a lesson and we have seen the last of cross-border terrorism. But, their pre-mature celebration is disproportionate to the Indian action.

India's surgical strike was just a few kilometres behind the LoC (500m to 3 km) and only on launch pads, most likely shacks or huts where jihadists gather temporarily before infiltration. India did not take out training centres, jihadist leaders—Hafiz Sayeed is still out there— or make Pakistan's civilians cower in fear enough to force their deep state to behave. Indian response was a mix of political posturing and strategic signalling of our pre-emptive intent. It was just the beginning.

It could be disastrous to take the eyes off the ball and start celebrating when the game has just begun. Both Raju and Rahim, victims of premature celebration, will agree.

Updated Date: Oct 01, 2016 18:57 PM

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