Army’s professionalism is under the scanner post the video release of the 2016 surgical strikes
The recently released video clip of the surgical strikes, and the comments of the then northern army commander, Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda have raised two disturbing questions on army’s professionalism which directly impinge upon India’s national security.
The first concerns the mission objective. According to the senior-most theatre commander, Lt Gen. Hooda: “We did not even remotely think that it will end Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.” Instead, “We proved that we were capable of crossing the heavily guarded Line of Control (LC) and strike at multiple points.” Moreover, “We are capable of doing it again.”
To recapitulate, strikes were done at seven temporary terror launch pads (not Pakistan Army posts) across the LC by the army’s 4 and 9 Special Forces on the night of 28-29 September 2016. According to the then Director General Military Operations (DGMO), Lt Gen. Ranbir Singh (and now the northern army commander), ‘Significant casualties were inflicted on terrorists’. The Pakistanis were informed about the strikes before it was announced to the Indian people. Significantly, they were told that India had no further plans for such strike.
The DGMO’s remarks run contrary to what is taught to professional armies’ the world over. Such operations are covert, never announced and always denied. Most importantly, the enemy is kept guessing about when and where the next wave of strikes would come from. The latter compels the enemy to review his war-preparedness before launching counter-attacks, which would almost certainly lead to tactical-level escalation. This is because the initiator of the strikes, while well-prepared for an escalation, resorts to surgical strikes to caution the enemy to mend ways or face the well-defined war-escalation ladder.
The Indian Army did the opposite. By telling Pakistan that it need not fear any more strikes, the Indian Army and the political leadership admitted to the lack of war-preparedness and political will for tactical level escalation or any more such strikes. The Indian Army, therefore, failed in the text-book legitimate mission objective of such strikes, which should have been to check (temporary halt), if not end, cross-border terrorism.
Given this, Lt Gen. Hooda’s comments to say politely, are intriguing and speak volumes about the army leadership. On the issue of ‘crossing the heavily guarded LC’, the Indian Army had done it better, multiple times, without fanfare and without senior army and political leadership’s direct involvement, in the decade of Nineties until November 2003, when the ceasefire came into being. Instead of terrorists, army’s unit commandos (not even Special Forces) on numerous occasions had raided Pakistani posts, killed their soldiers, later denied the acts, and got gallantry awards too! These actions had kept the Pakistani’s cross-border terrorism in-check, and below the escalation threshold.
However, after the Indian Army’s conduct post-September 2016 strikes, the Pakistani Army did what was best for them. They denied surgical strikes, and while heaving a sigh of relief at the state of Indian Army’s poor escalation capabilities, intensified the infiltration and fire assaults across the LC.
In the larger war-fighting scenario with Pakistan, the 2016 surgical strikes did as much damage as the 2001-2002 Operation Parakram, the 10-month long military stand-off. While Operation Parakram had blunted India’s conventional war-fighting capabilities, the surgical strikes had blunted India’s tactical level capabilities on the LC. Since a likely war is expected to begin at the LC for fear of crossing the nuclear weapons threshold on the International Border, the so-called surgical strikes have convinced Pakistan that it could continue its proxy war unabashedly.
The second serious concern is about politico-military relations in the conduct of war which has become complex. While mission-building is done together, the military leadership has the critical responsibility to both advise and emphasise upon the political leadership about what can and cannot be done, and the implications thereof. For example, General SAM Manekshaw advised and insisted to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (India’s only leader who understood national security) the timings and preparedness for the 1971 war which India won decisively.
This was not done in the 2016 strikes, where the political leadership converted army mission into a political mission: to create the perception of a first-of-its-kind spectacular operation! Since the videos of the strikes were shot, it was a given that the Modi government would be disclosing it at a politically opportune time. With a big chunk of pliant media at its beck and call, the Modi government would showcase itself as the best custodian of national security. Given the national narrative, it will not be difficult to silence the informed critics.
All this has been done by undermining the army leadership which was initially against the disclosure of the video clips. It knew that having done extraordinarily better in the past in tactical level operations, the video clips showed the army and its leadership in poor light. The clips showed some terrorists being killed, and a few bunkers and military constructions destroyed; the larger effect was given by the background roaring commentary. For instance, the then foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar’s remarks made to the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs. He said that “The strikes were target-specific, limited-calibre, counter-terrorist operations across the LC which the army had done in the past too, but this is the first time the government has gone public about it”.
Since any military force is as good as its leadership, it is time to pause and ponder over the future of the Indian Army. Can the honour, valour and professionalism of this force remain secure and respected when its leadership seems to have pledged its own to the government?