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Surgical strikes: A face-saving move or planned retaliation?

analysis Updated: Oct 01, 2016 01:07 IST
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Director General, Military Operations, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh during a media briefing, New Delhi, September 29

Amid the self-congratulatory noises emanating from the BJP government and the satisfied snorting of the media commentators in the aftermath of the “surgical strikes” on jihadi targets 2-3 kms across the Line of Control (LoC), several contentious issues have come to the fore.

Watch | Indian Army conducted surgical strikes on terror launchpad

In the context of a ramped-up Hammurabi Code voiced by the BJP general secretary Ram Madhav who promised “jaw” for “tooth”, the strikes by heli-lifted special forces on seven staging areas in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) were fairly tame, retributive, actions of the kind routinely undertaken by frontline units of the Indian Army in response to some Pakistani provocation or the other. The present strike seems like a scaled up version, for instance, of the shallow penetration and ambush on July 28, 2011, in the 15 Corps sector of a transport carrying Pakistani troops proceeding home on Eid leave, culminating in five heads being taken as trophy. This was retaliation in kind to a Pakistani attack in the previous days on an Indian post and the beheadings of two Indian soldiers.

Read | Meet Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, man of the moment after announcement of strikes

Such tactical level actions often involving regimental izzat and inconclusive artillery and small arms duels are par for the course. So there was nothing particularly novel or new about the attack this time around by Indian para-commando. What was innovative, however, was the follow-up move by the Director General, Military Operations, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh to apprise his Pakistani counterpart of the successful Indian operation and to request Pakistan army’s cooperation in eliminating the jihadis. It, in effect, has prevented Pakistan from escalating. But the lapse in time between the Uri attack and the riposte suggests that the commando action was more an after-thought and a face-saver for the government than a thoroughly prepared action.

Watch | Congress, BJP support Indian Army’s surgical strikes in PoK

This is because of absence of an in-place system facilitating instant, automatic and, depending on the situation, proportionate or deterrent response to Pakistan army-driven terrorist events. The evolving international norm is for punitive, anti-terrorist actions, to be launched in the immediate wake of an egregious terrorist incident accompanied by official assurance (such as by Ranbir Singh) about such strikes being limited response to specific provocation, while indicating readiness to deal with any military reaction and possible escalation.

Read | What India must do with Pakistan now

This requires that India, embroiled in an asymmetric conflict prosecuted by an adversarial Pakistan, have strike platforms at the ready at all times, primed by continuously updated intelligence and information about prioritised targets and target coordinates, and Pakistan’s military preparedness, etc, so no time is lost for the punishment to get underway. Lacking such a system, each terrorist incident is treated anew and initiates the same rigmarole of bureaucratised consultations up and down the government and the laborious process of conceiving and fleshing out options, this despite two decades of experience of fighting the jihadi-terrorists, who constitute an irregular arm of the Pakistan army.

The system of automaticity of proportional and punitive retaliation linked to anti-terrorist intent will do two things: Compel Pakistan to carefully think through the kind of terrorist event it may, at any given time, be planning. If it tips over, inadvertently or otherwise, into something big, General Headquarters, Rawalpindi (GHQR), would inadvertently face a situation spiraling out of its control — something it doesn’t want.

Second, with major provocations and escalation thus pre-empted, the situation will stabilise at low, mutually tolerable, levels of insurgency-counter-insurgency operations. This is not an ideal situation, but India and Pakistan could live with it until fatigue of the Kashmiris combines with good sense in GHQR to end the turmoil in the Srinagar valley and a compromise is implemented with Pakistan along the lines agreed upon by President Pervez Musharraf in the mid-2000s.

Read | It’s time for sober reflection rather than premature celebration

A more worrying aspect pertains to the Indian armed services’ characteristic unpreparedness for immediate retaliatory action. It forced AB Vajpayee after the December 2001 attack on Parliament to order the more wasteful “general mobilisation for war” once the Army chief General S Padmanabhan intimated him that the military was not in a position to take immediate action, and left Manmohan Singh in 2008 with the alternative of doing nothing after he was informed by the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Fali Major that IAF did not, just then, have target coordinates of terrorist camps in PoK.

It is also the military’s complacency and, apparently, habitual laxity about perimeter security that have permitted terrorist intrusions and incidents to happen in the first place. The attack on Mumbai in 2008 occurred because the loose, in theory multi-tiered, maritime security allowed the seaborne attackers to slip through. Pathankot happened in January owing to base security being reduced to a joke. And now the Uri event obtained because the jihadis sauntered to the Army camp by taking the un-policed path between the Army and Border Security Force camps that stretches to the LoC.

Read | Why political discourse in poll-bound states may change after army action

While it is well to criticise the government and the political class for their terminal indecisiveness, it is time the Indian armed services are held accountable for inexcusable lapses in preparedness and security. To continue to treat the armed services as holy cow is to fundamentally undermine national defence.

Bharat Karnad is professor for national security studies, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and author of Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)

The views expressed are personal