Guest Column | The Elephant Strikes Back

India’s surgical strikes on terrorist launchpads were the much needed response to Pakistan’s proxy war

Vinod BhatiaLt Gen. Vinod Bhatia (retd)

On the intervening night of September 28 and 29, Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonstrated an unprecedented politico-military will executing punitive strikes across the Line of Control (LC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).

In a swift, well planned, coordinated and flawlessly executed special operation, troops of Parachute Regiment (Special Forces) carried out surgical strikes at multiple terrorist launchpads, indicating a paradigm shift in India’s strategic resolve and policy in fighting Pakistan sponsored terror.

It has been over a quarter of a century that Pakistan has waged a proxy war against India, employing terror as a state policy. In Jammu and Kashmir alone, since the advent of Pakistan engineered terrorism in 1989, 14,700 civilians have lost their lives, 6,200 security forces personnel have been martyred and over 23,000 terrorist eliminated. There have been high visibility, high profile and effective terror strikes in most major cities including Mumbai 26/11 and the attack on the Indian Parliament among others. As India never responded in the military domain, it emboldened Pakistan to intensify the ‘Low Cost High Affect’ war.

surgical strikes

The terror strike on the Army Camp at Uri on 18 September 2016, just 6 km from the LC wherein 20 soldiers have been martyred, is the proverbial last straw for a tolerant people of India. The anger and anguish spread across the entire length and breadth of the country, specially so as it came after another high visibility attack on the Pathankot air force base in January. The Lakshman rekha had been crossed and the public sentiment needed to be assuaged.

The Modi-led NDA government has invested a considerable amount of political capital in improving relations with Pakistan. However, Pakistan responded in the old tried and trusted way by perpetuating terror strikes in India. It is obvious that the Pakistan army, which drives the India policy, is not too happy with the political efforts of seeking solutions. The meeting between the two Prime Minister at Ufa on July 15 was followed by a terrorist strike at Gurdaspur on 28 July 2016.

Again Prime Minister Modi’s outreach to his counterpart by way a surprise stopover at Lahore on 25 December 2015 was paid back by a terror attack at the Pathankot Air Base. But the terrorist strike at Uri, crossed the Lakshman rekha. Diplomatic and economic offensive alone have not yielded results over the years and it has emboldened Pakistan to perpetuate more and more terror attacks not only in Kashmir but across the country from Mumbai to Delhi and Bengaluru to Pune.

The military option finally exercised has raised the bar. Pakistan can no longer perpetuate terror strikes in India with impunity; the costs have been raised as India for once has synergised all elements of national power launching a well calibrated offensive in all domains to include diplomatic, informational, economic, political and more importantly military.

For the first time the military has been permitted to launch punitive operations across the LC. Even during the Kargil war in 1999, the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) were not permitted to cross the LC. A military response is essential, as it is visible, and showcases a nation’s resolve to protect its interests. With the impending onset of winter it was an imperative for Pakistan’s ISI to infiltrate the terrorists to exploit the prevailing situation in the Kashmir Valley as also carry out terror strikes prior to and during the festival season in the hinterland.

The strikes at the terrorist launchpads is a masterstroke by the army where in a single operation they have executed both ‘punitive’ operations avenging the martyrdom of our 20 soldiers and ‘pre-emptive’ operations, by destroying the terrorists and their launchpads. The army must be complimented on the choice of cross LC targets, the terrorist launchpads. For one, the choice of targets demonstrates India’s ‘strategic restraint’ while responding in the tactical domain. The Director General Military Operation’s call to his counterpart in the afternoon of September 29 saying that the operations have been closed gave a clear signal to Pakistan of the objectives, thus minimising the chances of any escalation.

In addition, the targets, though in the tactical domain, were spread from Bhimber to Kel on either side of Pir Panjal a few hundred kilometres apart, demonstrating our capability and capacities to hit when and wherever required. Equally importantly the surgical strikes were both ‘punitive’ and ‘pre-emptive’.

Pakistan for far too long has waged a war against India in the sub-conventional domain resorting to the rhetoric of use of nuclear weapons in particular its recently acquired tactical nuclear weapons. India has finally called Pakistan’s bluff and shaken it out of its comfort zone. Terrorism and terrorism emanating from Pakistan in particular is a threat not only in the region but the world. The Jus ad bellum that is the ‘Right to War’ is with India and the world supports India’s actions and is appreciative of India’s efforts in safeguarding its legitimate security interests.

The key question is what now? Pakistan does not have many options. The leadership has gone on record saying that India has not conducted surgical strikes in Pakistan and these are only skirmishes along the LC. It is a fact that Indian Army has not conducted surgical strikes in Pakistan as POK is an integral part of India. The probability of Pakistan stepping up the escalation ladder is low to very low. There are many contributors and indicators that Pakistan will continue to wage the proxy war as hither-to-fore albeit at a higher cost and caution now. The internal security situation in Pakistan and its present economy does not allow Pakistan many options as it is well aware of India’s military superiority and the resolve of the Modi government to ‘hit where it hurts’. Till this strike inside POK, ‘strategic restraint’ had not yielded the desired results. Will a ‘strategic resolve’ deter Pakistan from employing terrorism as a state policy? It is doubtful, however, it will raise the costs of Pakistan low cost proxy war.

The Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif is expected to retire on November 28, it is also rumoured that he is likely to be promoted to Field Marshal. Will he do something to redeem his image? It is not likely, as he is well aware of the consequences of a war with India. It is a historical fact that Pakistan stands defeated in all previous wars. The probability of escalation to a war is minimal. India should, however, expect and be prepared for terror attacks in the major cities and the hinterland.

There are too many vulnerable areas and soft targets, the intelligence agencies and the police have to now live up to the task at hand and mitigate this threat. The security forces and police should also be fully prepared to thwart high visibility strikes in the major cities. In spite of the chances of escalation being low, the armed forces should be fully prepared and ready for war. Operational preparedness and readiness is a must for war prevention. The armed forces should also review and beef up the security of the vulnerable administrative installations and bases especially so in the vicinity of our borders, as these will be the likely targets.

The army, mostly for political-diplomatic considerations, has shied away from including ‘punitive’ and ‘pre-emptive’ cross LC operations as part of their sub conventional war fighting doctrine. The surgical operations are a game-changer and the armed forces will do well to now include these as an integral part of the doctrine and build further capacities and refine its capabilities. Ad hocism has its own pitfalls and just because it has succeeded once, it does not imply that the capabilities and structures are optimal.

It is now an imperative to raise the Special Operations Command (SOC) and synergise the Special Operations Forces (SOF) to meet future challenges. The structure of SOC is an indicator of a nation’s will and capabilities to safeguard its interests and assets, the capability to project hard power and political signalling, as these operations have international ramifications, the national polity needs to comprehend the options and the associated risk sensitivity compared to out of proportion results and limited escalation dynamics.

An integrated organisation composed of SOF of the three services with dedicated lift and insertion capabilities, a formal interface with intelligence agencies, and more importantly a procurement wing empowered to equip the SOF with state-of-the-art weapons and equipment is a prerequisite. The role, tasks, organisation and command and control structures have been detailed in the April 2015 issue of FORCE magazine.

To the credit of Modi government, the response to Uri has been well orchestrated, synergising all elements of national power, ie the diplomatic, informational, economic, political and equally important the military. The military response is essential as it is visible and showcases a nation’s resolve to protect its interests. The elephant has finally struck. As the army says the battle is won, the war continues.

(The writer is a former DGMO and colonel of the parachute regiment. He is currently director, CENJOWS)


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