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On surgical strikes and Pakistan, this ex-Army general has some advice for Modi

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I know of no other tactical action in history that has been politicised like the surgical strikes under Modi government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a wide-ranging interview to news agency ANI on 1 January, 2019. Three questions (Q31-Q33) pertained to the surgical strikes. Given the controversy related to the political and military aims of the surgical strikes, the results achieved and the politicisation of the event, the prime minister’s answers merit a critical analysis.

When a nation decides to use force in pursuit of national interests against another nation, it is done to achieve a political aim. The military aims and objectives are contingent upon it. The interviewer’s query was relevant and specific: “Q33: What were the objectives of this surgical strike? Terrorism has not abated, there is still cross border terrorism. Was it used just as a deterrent? Is there now a policy of hot pursuit?”

Also read: Why Modi govt only boasts about surgical strikes on national security front

This was the most important question and the PM dodged it by taking shelter under ‘executive privilege’ with respect to national security—“I don’t consider it appropriate to talk about such things in the media.”

If this was so, where was the need to make a public declaration? Even if it was necessary to send a message to Pakistan about our intent and firm resolve, then it should have stopped at the Director General of Military Operations’ cryptic statement. The PM himself, his ministers, his party and the Army Chief have endlessly talked about the surgical strikes relating them to ‘change in strategy’ to deal with Pakistan.

Once the matter is in the public domain, the nation has the right to know about the changed strategy. It is common sense that our national security strategy should be diplomatically—and

if need be militarily—force compellence on Pakistan to stop the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir and acts of terrorism in the hinterland of India.

Logically, the ‘surgical strikes’ should have been in pursuit of this aim. That Pakistan has been continuing with business as usual and we have done nothing more than the surgical strikes, indicates that these were only a standalone tactical retributory action and no more.

Also read: Modi govt has turned surgical strikes into a shareable post for a selfie stick generation

The PM’s wishy-washy answer has only confirmed what was concluded by even rookie defence analysts. More than that, his elaboration—“Whatever strategy is to be adopted, how to do, is ongoing at appropriate levels, has been happening. 1965 war, war during Partition… If after one war if we think Pakistan will behave, then this is a mistake. Pakistan will take some time to behave,”—only reflects the naivety of our political class with respect to strategic affairs.

His comparison of surgical strikes to ‘war’ confirms that we do not have a comprehensive national security strategy to deal with Pakistan.

Unmitigated politicisation

On the issue of politicisation of the surgical strikes (Q31), the PM concurred that there should not be any politicisation of such operations.  He was prompt in blaming the opposition for politicising the operation and belittling the army, but covered his own and his party’s actions as ‘hailing the courage of the army’. Why did the PM not take the opposition into confidence, if not before for security reasons then after the operation? This has been done in the past as a result of which there always was a consensus on national security.

Once the surgical strikes had been declared, owned and claimed to have never been done before, it was logical for the opposition to ask for details. More so, when Pakistan had denied the operation.

The praising-and-hailing-the-army logic is only a fig leaf to cover blatant political exploitation. Posters highlighting the retribution inflicted on Pakistan appeared in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.

Without any complementary mobilisation of the armed forces, the evacuation of villages in Punjab up to 10 km from the international border, made the action politically suspect in another poll-bound state.

As opposed to the brilliant Special Forces operation, the political management of the aftermath was an unmitigated disaster. Selective leaks about the operation were given to friendly channels who raised the jingoist pitch to a new high. The defence minister, of all the people, said the Indian Army—like Hanuman—had awakened to rediscover its prowess. So much for belittling the army.

The PM himself has missed no opportunity to use the surgical strikes in each and every political rally that he has addressed after the operation. Mega celebrations organised on the second anniversary of the surgical strikes were at par with Vijay Diwas which commemorates India’s victory in the 1971 War.

I know of no other tactical action in history that has been politicised in this manner.

While answering the question (Q32) about the state of his mind during the operation and his accountability in the event of failure, the PM was in his element. He candidly confessed about his bechaini (restlessness) and rage, and the anger within the Army. He talked in detail about his own involvement in the detailed planning, including the training. He also describes in detail his concern for the life of the soldiers and the anxious moments when they went out of communication.

Also read: Modi takes ‘tough’ questions but has no good answers

One is actually waiting for the ‘leak’ of the Obama moment-type of video/photograph, showing him sitting with his advisors watching the live streaming of the operation. Full marks to him for his emotional answer to the question.

My recommendation to him is that in the many ‘wars’ (his words) that he would be waging to rein in Pakistan, he should focus on the strategic level with a clearly defined political aim, and avoid getting involved in the tactical-level planning and be prepared for setbacks in terms of casualties and failures.

We look up to him to force compellence on Pakistan at the strategic level and not through the success of standalone brilliant tactical operations.

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.

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  1. If one recalls the days following the strikes, it would be crystal clear to a neutral observer that the reactions of the political opposition to the strikes, made the Govt behave the way it did. However you have chosen to paper over the ridiculous reactions of the opposition. One would expect an accomplished general to present a dispassionate perspective in the aftermath of the strikes rather than a biased opinion. Nobody must doubt the actions of the army. They deserve the highest respect, something the pea brained opposition worthies failed miserably.

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