As we approach the first anniversary of surgical strikes, it is accepted wisdom that the military operation at targets across the Line of Control (LoC) was an unqualified success. Any operation’s success can be best understood as part of the government’s strategy — a bridge that connects political aims to military means. The political aim of the surgical strikes was to demonstrate to its own people the government’s will to respond boldly to a terror strike which emanated from Pakistan. Even if the official statement only mentioned strikes “along the LoC” and the government did not release any proof of the damage caused, the Indian public has been fully convinced of the strikes.
New Delhi’s strategic aim vis-à-vis Pakistan was to demonstrate that space exists for an Indian military response between a defensive response to a major terror attack and an all-out war between two nuclear-armed neighbours. By injecting an uncertainty in its likely response on the LoC, or crossing it, India wanted to force the Pakistan army to reassess its choices that are based on threats of an escalatory dynamic beyond anyone’s control. Unlike the political aim, this strategic aim has not been fully achieved because Pakistan refused to accept that such a military operation took place inside its territory.
By denying the existence of surgical strikes, the Pakistan army was able to avoid public pressure which would have forced it to retaliate against India. It is for this reason that India was prepared for a retaliatory action from Pakistan after the surgical strikes and would have to be prepared for an escalation in the future as well. Reflecting that apprehension, decision makers in Delhi have signalled that every outrageous terror strike in the future will not necessarily be met with a surgical strike. The strategic dilemma of dealing with a recalcitrant neighbour who promotes terrorism under a nuclear umbrella thus remains largely unresolved.
Beyond teaching Pakistan a lesson, another military aim of the surgical strikes would have been to deter the Pakistan army from sending infiltrators across the LoC, to stop it from fomenting violence in Kashmir, reduce casualties of Indian soldiers and to bring a semblance of peace and calmness to the LoC. As reported by this paper (‘Year after surgical strikes: Surge in death count of both soldiers, militants’, IE, September 19), data shows that none of these aims has been met.
The LoC has been very active, with the Pakistan army increasing its efforts to push militants across. With nearly 450 ceasefire violations on the LoC, the ceasefire agreed upon by the two countries in 2003 no longer exists. The army has lost 69 soldiers in Kashmir after the surgical strikes, compared to 38 in the nine months prior to the surgical strikes. Half of the 38 lives lost were in a single terror attack at Uri last September, which led to the retaliatory surgical strikes. To be fair, the army has also killed more militants since: From 100 before the surgical strikes to 178 in the year after it. Military commanders contend that this success in killing more militants is due to the higher morale after the surgical strikes.
The army feels emboldened with the respect it has earned across the country after the surgical strikes. It is justifiably proud of its professionalism in planning and conducting the operation, without any fatal casualty to the soldiers. The special forces have been a part of planning and conduct of a complex operation across the length of the LoC, at multiple points and staggered over a night.
While there has been a huge curiosity about the number of terrorists and Pakistani soldiers killed in the strikes, the army has been silent about it, putting forth the argument that the special forces operatives had no time to count the bodies. Some accounts place these numbers at 35-40 while others place them at 75-80, but there has been no authoritative proof put out yet. Lt General D.S. Hooda (retd), who led the operation as the Northern Army Commander, put it in context when he told this newspaper that “the crucial part about the operation was not about the number of terrorists killed but the safe return of all our soldiers… hundred terrorists killed and one soldier left behind would have been a failure.”
The surgical strikes were the first time the political leadership owned trans-LoC operations and marked a huge shift in the sanctity of the LoC as a de-facto international boundary. During the 1999 Kargil War, when the LoC had been respected as a not-to-be-crossed red line by the previous NDA government even though the Pakistan army had openly breached it.
This could play a significant role in future Indo-Pak negotiations over Kashmir, where India starts asserting its sovereign claim over the whole of J&K, instead of accepting LoC as a reasonable solution. That is still far in the future but having achieved its political aim, the official Indian establishment has been cautious in its claims about the surgical strikes because it realises the dangers of raising the public expectations about its response to any future Pakistani provocation. Others would also do well to take the cue and temper their celebrations and claims on the first anniversary of surgical strikes.