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Is Overhype Overkill?

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A chapter from a recent book examines the dynamics of the Uri strikes.

A political slugfest about surgical strikes broke out after Lt Gen Hooda’s statements at the Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh on November 7, 2018. Lt Gen Hooda was the Northern Army Commander who supervised the execution of the strikes at Uri in 2016. The General opined that the strike had been politicised, and that it would have been wiser if it was not hyped and had, instead, been carried out secretly. The Army Chief reacted to the statement and stated that it was General Hooda’s personal opinion.

The issue is one that needs examination in the politico-strategic context. Such an examination was done by Lt Gen Prakash Menon in his book, The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow. Here is an excerpt:

Uri – September 2016

In the early hours of I8 September 2016, four Pakistani terrorists who had infiltrated through the highly guarded Line of Control in Kashmir, attacked an administrative camp of the Indian Army which was located in the border town of Uri, claiming the lives of 18 soldiers and injuring several others. The attack was carried out at a time when India-Pakistan relations were at low ebb due to the Gurdaspur and Pathankot attacks.  In addition, Kashmir was witnessing a prolonged phase of violent civil protest that followed in the wake of the killing of a local terrorist leader of South Kashmir, Burhan Wani. On the international canvas, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was in session from 13 to 26 September.

The culpability of Pakistan was established through electronic tracking especially the GPS carried by the terrorists, intercepted communications and other items of equipment and food items found on the terrorists. Following a familiar pattern Pakistan, denied culpability, floated conspiracy theories and accused India of trying to distract attention from human rights excesses in Kashmir. Also, another phase of cross border cease fire violations commenced with fairly extensive use of mortar and artillery fire. All this was equally predictable and followed the existing pattern. But what was different this time was the internal political dynamics in India.

The substantial loss of lives coupled with the deterioration in India-Pakistan relations presented a challenge to the Indian Government that was left with no choice but to pick up the gauntlet. The Indian reaction was announced on 29 September post the UNGA Session. The announcement was made through a press conference specially called for the purpose. The Indian Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) initially alluded to Pakistan’s continued culpability in cross border terrorist activities. The Indian reaction was described as,

Based on receiving specific and credible inputs that some terrorist teams had positioned themselves at launch pads along the line of control to carryout infiltration and conduct terrorist strikes inside Jammu and Kashmir and in various metros in states, the Indian Army conducted surgical strikes at several of these launch pads to pre-empt infiltration by terrorists. The operations were focused on ensuring that these terrorists do not succeed in their design to cause destruction and endanger the lives of our citizens. During these terrorist operations, significant casualties were caused to terrorists and those providing support to them. The operations aimed at neutralizing terrorists have since ceased. We do not have any plans for further continuation. However, the Indian Armed Forces are fully prepared for any contingency that may arise. I have been in touch with the Pakistan Army DGMO and informed him of our actions. It is India’s intention to maintain peace and tranquillity in the region. But we cannot allow the terrorists to operate with impunity and attack citizens of our country at will. In line with Pakistan’s commitment in January 2004 not to allow its soil or territory under its control to be used for attacks against India, we expect the Pakistani army to cooperate with us to erase the menace of terrorism from the region.

Indeed the scope and effect of the surgical strike was a remarkable achievement by India’s special forces especially because considerable damage was inflicted without suffering any casualties.

The Indian DGMO’s statement evoked considerable jubilation amongst the Indian public and the Government projected the ‘surgical strike’ as a feather in their political cap. In the realm of domestic politics, ‘surgical strike’ became symbolic of a government that meant business and one that would not hesitate to take action in the interest of the nation. The term ‘surgical strike’ was added to the lexicon of domestic politics and later even used to describe the surprise sprung on the Indian public by a demonetization exercise aimed against black money. ‘Surgical strike’ thereafter figured in all the elections held at the state levels and was touted as a major achievement of the Government. To a public that was hungry for action against Pakistan, ‘surgical strike’ was food for revenge. The electoral benefits for the ruling dispensation also seemed considerable. From a deterrence perspective, ‘surgical strike’ had a confused canvas because Pakistan denied that any such strike had taken place!

Pakistan’s political and military leadership completely denied India’s claims of having carried out military actions across the Line of Control and the Indian government also decided against providing any proof of the strike, it therefore relieved the Pakistanis from undertaking any military reaction.

The lessons from a deterrence perspective are once again in the eyes of the beholder and differed for both sides.

India

  • Surgical strikes signalled a switch in Indian attitude regarding use of military power to counter terrorism.
  • Surgical strikes could be an effective military tool to inflict damage to Pakistan in order to deter it from conducting terror attacks.
  • Pakistan’s reaction to surgical strikes could be muted or be dealt with and confined to reasonable escalation limits.
  • Considerable domestic political benefits couldbe garnered if the Indian public is exposed to the narrative of India having resorted to use of force and succeeded in causing damage to Pakistan. Action taken must be displayed for public viewing.

Pakistan

  • India’s response to terror strike is primarily meant for the domestic polity. Nuclear weapons would ensure that no major Indian military action ensues.
  • Pakistan is capable of countering any military action taken by India.

The Uri terror attack and its aftermath, the ‘surgical strike’, followed a familiar pattern of military discourse that has characterized the exchange of fire power across the Line of Control for several decades. The difference, this time, was perhaps in the scope of the cross-border action and, more importantly, the publicity given to the ownership for action. It also sought to convey a new approach that could be described as ‘we shall hit you harder each time’.

The Nagrota attack on the Army’s Officers Mess on 29 November, just two months after the surgical strike once again tested the Indian response. The response was immediate but contained within cross border artillery exchanges that lasted for several weeks and eventually waned. Nothing much had changed in strategic terms but in the Indian public imagination the Government had adopted a tougher stance to deal with Pakistan.

The strategies used and actions committed by the army should be felt and not heard. Perhaps this new found practice of flaunting the details of its exploits emanates from its belief that it’s sheer majority justifies it.Thepolicy of publicizing India’s military reaction was again witnessed on 23 May 2017 when the Indian Army publicized its ‘punitive fire assault’ on a Pakistani military post as a reaction to continued cross border infiltration and several terror attacks that included the beheading of two soldiers. A video was released of the strike that portrayed the destruction being caused by fire power. Pakistan quickly countered by also releasing a video that supposedly showed the destruction of an Indian military post. A ‘theatre of the absurd’ was on public display, the only difference was that  instead of it being a very private viewing it was exposed to the public on both sides. The hunger for vengeance was being assuaged through graphic scenes of destruction being inflicted. Domestic impact of military force application outweighed the deterrent effect. The Army was now more ‘heard’ than ‘felt’ and the successes were claimed by the ruling party as its own.

The exchange of fire power across the Line of Control provides perhaps the fastest and easiest means of inflicting damage. It was also not uncommon that it endangered the civilian population who lived in the vicinity and often forced their evacuation. Overall, as long as the both sides have a free will, fire power exchanges could continue ad infinitum without giving any relative advantage to either side. The cease fire agreement of 2003 was an acknowledgement of this reality. But, after the Uri attack, the ceasefire agreement was de facto moribund.

In summary, nothing had changed except new names were added to the lexicon of discourse in India-Pakistan relationship and a new imagination of ‘India acting tough’ seemed to have gained ground in the realm of domestic politics. From a deterrence perspective, the tone of the military activities had heightened in tandem with an increase in Pakistan’s cross border terrorism. Terrorism and cross border energy exchanges of fire power were re-established as the lingua franca. It was back to the situation prevailing prior to the ceasefire in 2003 except that the internal situation in Kashmir had morphed into a combination of terrorism and intensified civil unrest. This conflation carries within it the potential to activate the nuclear shadow that is shaped by the theory of limited war.

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Also check out:
The Dilemmas of Kargil — Lt Gen Prakash Menon
India in the Nuclear Age — Episode 80 of The Seen and the Unseen, featuring Lt Genon Menon.

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About the author

Lt Gen Prakash Menon

Lt. Gen. (Retd) Prakash Menon is the Director of the Strategic Studies Programme at The Takshashila Institution. He was the Major General General Staff of the army’s Northern Command responsible for operations in J&K and the Commandant of the National Defence College, New Delhi. After his retirement in 2011, he continued in government as the Military Advisor and Secretary to Government of India and from 2015 as Officer on Special Duty in the National Security Council Secretariat.He has a PhD from Madras University for his thesis “Limited War and Nuclear Deterrence in the Indo-Pak context”. He was appointed by the Union Cabinet as a member of an expert group for the creation of the Indian National Defence University.