In a national security-driven Lok Sabha election, India is now witnessing a ‘my surgical strike vs their surgical strike’ battle.
Alarmed by the impact of the BJP’s pitched rhetoric on security, the Congress sprang a surprise in the middle of the elections when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that “multiple surgical strikes took place” during the UPA tenure as well. Subsequently, Congress leaders gave specific examples of the ‘surgical strikes’, providing details regarding the date and target areas, across the Line of Control (LoC).
Heated political exchanges and media debates followed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mocked the Congress’ claim and asked if these ‘surgical strikes’ were “on paper, or (in a) video game”.
Defence analysts and veterans joined the debate, with some saying that a number of trans-LoC strikes and trans-border strikes in Myanmar and Bangladesh have been carried out over the last two decades.
The debate was eventually reduced to the interpretation of the term ‘surgical strikes’ and how September 2016 special forces tactical raids and Balakot air strikes were different from the trans-LoC/border military operations carried out earlier.
What’s a surgical strike?
The term ‘surgical strike’ is not defined in the official Indian military manual – Glossary of Military Terms – where all military terms are very specifically defined to avoid exactly this kind of misinterpretation. This term, however, is part of the military jargon and open to varied interpretations. The Army used it for the first time with respect to September 2016 tactical raids without actually formally defining it.
The term’s early usage can be traced to the 1970s/1980s with Israel’s hostage rescue – Operation Thunderbolt – at Entebbe on 4 July 1976 and later its air strikes on Iraq’s nuclear reactor – Operation Babylon – on 7 June 1981. It is centred around the idea of avoiding collateral damage and escalation, particularly in operations below the threshold of war. The moral dimension is to avoid killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure. Land/air/sea-based precision-guided munitions are best suited for such strikes.
However, other military operations carried out by special or regular forces on specific targets without causing collateral damage also qualify as ‘surgical strikes’. All other qualifying attributes like ‘political will/ownership’, ‘strategic nature’, ‘depth of penetration’, ‘terrorist targets’ or ‘number of enemy soldiers/terrorists killed’ or ‘extent of damage caused’ are mere semantics to justify a point of view.
Apart from the operations carried out in the period immediately before or after our declared conventional wars, there have been several trans-LoC/border operations. As early as 10 April 1959, our Canberra reconnaissance aircraft was shot over Pakistan and two pilots were taken Prisoners of War.
What’s different now?
The Narendra Modi-led BJP government has declared and ‘owned’ the trans-LoC special forces raids carried out on 29 September 2016, the trans-international boundary raid carried out in Myanmar on 9 June 2015, and the trans-border air strikes on Balakot on 26 February 2019. The political decision to declare and own was, no doubt, strategic, although the operations were in the tactical domain.
Earlier, trans-international boundary operations on terrorist targets in Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the military operation in Maldives had specific political sanction. However, no formal political sanction was given for trans-LoC operations. These operations were carried out by the Army either with tacit political approval of the government or under its mandate to ensure that India’s borders remain safe.
Record or no record, that the tricolour flies on Pt 5310, captured by 14 Sikh on 8 April 2000 to secure 12 sq km of ‘our territory in PoK’ in Karubar Bowl in Chorbatla Sector, is an undeniable fact.
Policy of strategic restraint
No government has articulated a formal national security strategy with clearly defined political aims and a desirable end state with respect to our adversaries. In the last 20 years, no long-term budget allocation has been planned to create the desired military capacity. Interaction with the military has been limited and political directions have been informal and ambiguous.
The functional security strategy of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Kargil and Operation Parakram notwithstanding, and the two Congress-led UPA governments was ‘strategic restraint’. This implied that nuclear weapons are a deterrence to decisive wars; that India needs to focus on its economy; that we must manage the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir in a humane way and neutralise Pakistan through engagement and diplomacy.
Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh both believed that LoC was the de facto international boundary and its sanctity must be maintained. This strategy formed the basis of India’s internationally accepted moral stand during Kargil and its diplomatic engagement with Pakistan.
Hence, all our trans-LoC operations, when required, had to be covert. No formal clearance was ever given. Yet, with the tacit approval of the government or under mandated ‘freedom of action’ to the Army, this 15-year period saw the maximum trans-LoC operations, barring the pre- and post-1965 and 1971 period. This period also saw the fatalities in terrorist violence drop to their lowest in 2012.
The major flaw of this strategy was that it failed to make the people of Jammu and Kashmir participate in the political process. The other flaw was India’s inability to create the desired overwhelming technological military edge.
Modi government lost patience
The Narendra Modi government initially adhered to the same strategy till 2015 with satisfactory results.
However, due to its ideological pull, its frustration with the PDP in the coalition government, the post-Burhan Wani killing agitation in 2016, and the Uri terror attack on 18 September 2016, it lost patience. Without much thought, the Modi government decided to pursue a ‘hard strategy’ in J&K and a ‘strategy of compellence’ with respect to Pakistan with the declared and owned trans-LoC raids by special forces on 29 September 2016.
This was a standalone one-off operation, which was not followed up by escalation despite Pakistan-sponsored terror activity increasing manifold over the next two-and-a-half years.
However, this operation provided the government an opportunity to advance its version of nationalism for political purposes. The military became a part of chest-thumping nationalism and national security the central electoral theme. The Pulwama terror attack, the Balakot air strikes, and the aerial skirmish on 27 February, despite the obvious stalemate, just seamlessly fitted into the BJP’s political strategy.
With the probability of even a limited war being low, the success of a ‘strategy of compellence’ with operations below the threshold of war hinges on an overwhelming technological military edge, which we neither have nor have made any efforts to create. Hence, we are in no position to compel Pakistan and it will adhere to its strategy of a calibrated proxy war.
Having raised people’s expectations, it is not Pakistan but India, which will have to remain in a permanent crisis management mode without actually having the means to manage the crisis.
While the world watches with awe how India conducts the largest democratic exercise, it could not have failed to notice our naïve and casual approach towards national security.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.