Payoffs: Surgical Strikes

Seen as demonstrating India’s willingness and capability to use force for responding to cross-border aggression, and as a ‘concept demonstrator’ of India’s aggressive strategic response and possibility of further operations, the surgical strikes were a huge success.

Shailesh Kumar, National Defence
New Delhi, 27 September 2018

In the aftermath of the attack on Indian Army’s Jammu and Kashmir based Uri Brigade Headquarters in September 2016, numerous civil and military response measures were initiated by the Indian government against Pakistan. Of these, the step that became widely popular and resonated with the nation was the ‘Surgical Strikes’, a series of near simultaneous raids on a number of launch pads across the Line of Control (LoC, the de facto border separating the disputed Kashmiri territory administered by India and Pakistan held Kashmir) on the night of 28/29 September 2016, subsequently revealed by the Army, through a press conference, by the Director General Military Operations (DGMO), along with a resolute and reciprocal response to Cease-Fire Violations (CFVs) along the LoC.

Undeniably, the murderous attack on the Uri base was a watershed event in the way India viewed Pakistan’s conduct of sub-conventional warfare in Kashmir, following which its approach underwent a discernible shift, as demonstrated with a hardening of posture along the LoC and the way it dealt with ceasefire violations (CFVs). While surgical strikes were not a novelty in themselves, India for the first time acknowledged having carried the cross border raids, with the larger message intended at signaling the adversary of the change in India’s approach to respond to terrorism. The strikes were a nationally coordinated move, followed by a public acknowledgement by the DGMO the next day in a press briefing jointly organized by Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), with the greater message of strikes seemingly being a major paradigm shift in the way India responded to provocations by the Pakistani army.

The fact that the surgical strikes were meant to serve as more than tactical actions has been alluded to by the then head of Indian Army’s Northern command at the time of the strikes, Lieutenant General DS Hooda (Retired), who himself admitted that these strikes “added one more serious option in [our] range of responses”. This was also intended to serve as a ‘Proof of Concept’ for probable future strikes. Gen Hooda’s conviction was in turn based on intercepted radio messages of the Pakistani army which hinted at fear and panic, coupled with proof of cancellation of leave of Pakistani soldiers.

Seen as demonstrating India’s willingness and capability to use force for responding to cross-border aggression, and as a ‘concept demonstrator’ of India’s aggressive strategic response and possibility of further operations, the surgical strikes were a huge success. The increase in ceasefire violations by the Pakistani army along both the IB and LC, and renewed terror attacks in the aftermath of the surgical strikes confirmed the notion that the Pakistani army was desperate to prove that no surgical strikes had occurred and things may go on as usual. But after a last gasp at Nagrota, both the intensity and frequency of attacks has come down, indicating that the surgical strikes have been effective in the cognitive domain, the physical effects remaining clear for everyone to see.

Accompanied with the Surgical Strikes, the CFVs also began to be viewed as part of the larger strategy to deter infiltrations, thereby increasing costs for the Pakistani army by damaging border posts and targeting border infrastructure and logistics. The idea was to compel the Pakistani side to engage in a cost-benefit analysis between a hostile LoC and infiltration, and forcing them to choose between extensive damage to their border and LoC infrastructure or continuing assisting infiltration.

In its previous avatar, the army followed a more wait and watch approach; watching over the LC with a highly effective surveillance grid and waiting for the terrorists to cross over. Due to an integrated Counter-Insurgency (CI) Grid system in the entire Valley and a highly effective Anti Infiltration Obstacle System (AIOS), a high percentage of infiltrators were intercepted and killed before they could even reach their place of hiding inside Indian territory. However, in this strategy, there was always a minuscule possibility of some infiltrators bypassing the security net and managing to inflict damage inside Indian territory, as attacks on Uri, Pathankot, Gurdaspur and similar places allude to. The Indian government came out with an integrated strategy, post Uri, to weaken and isolate Pakistan. Its military component was in the form of a highly publicized ‘Surgical Strike’, a simultaneous commando raid on a number of terrorist launchpads across the LoC that signaled a willingness on part of the country to act aggressively to protect its sovereignty.

For Pakistan, it was necessary to use the dent created by the shock nature of the public declaration of the surgical strike and follow it up with a diplomatic onslaught that also signaled some demands and requirements that India sought such as reduction in CFVs or reduction in infiltration, with the promise of more strikes or similar punitive action if those demands were not met.

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