India’s “surgical strikes” aren’t a brave new idea, and they won’t stop Pakistan from backing terrorism

Quartz india
Quartz india

India’s admission and celebration of an alleged “surgical strike” against “terrorist launchpads” across the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan-administered Kashmir is a serious cause for worry.

Not because there is something wrong with taking responsibility of your actions, especially when they involve violence. For, that reflects maturity and control over the situation. Even enjoying the sense of security that sensible use of force instils among the people of a nation, which is frustrated with a neighbour unwilling to stop supporting militants, is also understandable.

The problem begins when the political and military leadership confuses its ways and means with strategic ends.

Let’s first contextualise this strike from a historical perspective.

Ever since the 1949 ceasefire, the deployment of militaries along the LoC, which is not a legally recognised border, has increased with regular spikes after the 1971 war, the 1984 Siachen conflict, the advent of insurgency in Kashmir after 1988, and most prominently after the 1999 Kargil conflict.

For instance, the 80-kilometre stretch along which the Kargil conflict was fought was traditionally defended by one brigade i.e. approximately 3,000 troops. Today, it is manned by nearly a division i.e. approximately 10,000 troops. Not just that, after the 1971 war, the Indian army added a new term to its training curriculum—Line of Control Warfare. And after 1989, counter-infiltration operations were added to the list.

 Such engagements across the LoC have been taking place since (at least) the 1990s. 

Given the complementary increase in force-levels at the LoC, where Indian and Pakistani posts are in close proximity for tactical reasons, local duels by specially trained and motivated troops have been a common feature (a local revenge cycle is created). Such engagements, historically, have involved not just small arms fire, but also artillery shelling and regular (at times on a daily basis) cross-border raids on small and isolated posts that are within operational reach of infantry battalions. Not surprisingly, LoC deployments are termed “no war, no peace” postings, according to Indian army manuals.

How does this game of tactical one-upmanship at the LoC work?

Since 1989, the Pakistani posts have been used as launch pads for militants aimed at targeting Kashmir and other parts of India. It is common for Indian intelligence agencies to collect information about these groups (often between 20 and 100 militants) and alert the military in advance. In fact, the first, most basic training of officers from the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s primary foreign intelligence agency, is undertaken in border areas. Depending on local military context, and the national political climate, these units take pre-emptive or curative measures to halt infiltration, including setting up ambushes or undertaking cross-border raids. Such engagements across the LoC have been taking place since (at least) the 1990s.

Since 2003, after months of a near-war scenario, India and Pakistan decided to enter a ceasefire at the LoC. The following reduction in cross-border attacks was a result of this political settlement.

This latest “surgical strike”, then, is actually an old phenomenon being heavily reported by the media as something new. That such cross-border firing happened in early 2015 (leave aside pre-2003) and did not reduce the actual threat of cross-border infiltration, which has generally been on a downward trend over the past few years, is also being missed.

Nonetheless, terming these old-style tactics “surgical strikes” is surely new, and mostly is in response to the demand for such strikes by those seeking revenge.

So, what exactly is a surgical strike?

  Terming these old-style tactics “surgical strikes” is surely new, and mostly is in response to the demand for such strikes by those seeking revenge. 

A surgical strike, according to a widely accepted definition, is “a military attack which results in, was intended to result in, or is claimed to have resulted in only damage to the intended legitimate military target, and no or minimal collateral damage to surrounding structures, vehicles, buildings, or the general public infrastructure and utilities”.

On the face of it, India got the “surgical” element of the strike right. After all, what collateral damage is one to expect at a border post along the LoC?

Capability crunch

But if the aim of this highly-celebrated “surgical strike” was to convince Pakistan to abort the use of cross-border terrorism, then this operation did nothing to alter that calculus. And Pakistan’s response is a clear testament to that. The Pakistani media is now claiming that it has killed eight Indian soldiers in return, and captured one alive.

There is no guarantee that Pakistan would halt using non-state actors to execute Uri, Pathankot, and Gurdaspur-style attacks. Then, the best such strikes do is to heat up the LoC, where both countries have concentrated their military infrastructure over the decades. And the sad truth is that firing bullets and shells at each other on a contested border, as history shows, is a road to nowhere, and least of all a way to deter Pakistan from engaging in asymmetric warfare.

The return to a violent status quo at the LoC simply underlines that, despite its increasing material capacities, India is unable to address its “capability” crunch. That is, it is either incapable of accepting that Pakistan is proactively shaping its strategic environment and pushing New Delhi into making mistakes in dealing with dissent in Jammu and Kashmir; or that Islamabad cares little about international diplomatic isolation.

 If the message was meant for Islamabad—as it should have been—then it is futile to make it public without clear long-term strategic benefits. 

It also signifies that India finds it difficult to change its military doctrines and operational practices despite knowing its regional security environment well. This is an issue that goes to the heart of India’s tormented defence planning processes.

Even more worrying is the prospect that these strikes were conducted for domestic political consumption—similar to the June 2015 cross-border strikes against Naga rebels operating from Myanmar’s territory.

Although one can understand why it was politically expedient for the Indian government to declare its actions, the fact is that publicising such operations is tricky. It confuses who the target audience really is, and sets unwieldy expectations of the public, i.e. a desire for “revenge” risks becoming an end unto itself.

If the message was meant for Islamabad—as it should have been—then it is futile to make it public without clear long-term strategic benefits. Pakistan has been not been deterred in the past, and is unlikely to change its approach based on such strikes, which its army is used to. This, by corollary, means that people of India are no safer today than they were yesterday.

Yes, it can credibly be argued that this surgical strike came in combination with India’s proactive diplomatic activism to isolate Pakistan, regionally and globally. But then, does such a combination of diplomatic and military pressure, despite being potentially promising, translate into strategic benefits?

The simple answer is, no.

Interface state

From a regional perspective, India succeeded in garnering support from Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Afghanistan for boycotting the 2016 SAARC Summit, which was to be hosted in Islamabad. This is an important development that signals Pakistan’s capability of simultaneously making enemies with most of its neighbours; it is something for Islamabad to worry about if it really wants a way out of its current morass.

No amount of Chinese money and infrastructural development under the rubric of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can buy Pakistan peace

Yet, regional diplomatic isolation, though necessary, is not a sufficient condition to mend fences with Pakistan. At least not in the short run.

From an international perspective, despite calling it a state-sponsor of terrorism, India has largely been unable to isolate Pakistan. True, Pakistan’s credibility among the comity of nations is in tatters, and its exhortations of Indian perversion sounds hollow. But it is not isolated.

Pakistan’s geopolitical positioning, military culture, domestic socio-political tensions, and advanced nuclear capabilities, has made it internationally unavoidable (unlike, lets say, Myanmar before 2012). No big power, be it the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia, or China, would easily bestow the title of a pariah or terrorist state on Pakistan. The latest joint Russia-Pakistan military exercise is an indicator, whatever Moscow’s intent might be behind such defence engagement with Islamabad.

Pakistan is an “Interface State”, as Christophe Jaffrelot presciently explained, that is comfortable in building strong patron-client relations with world powers (first the US, and now China). This ensures Pakistan’s enduring strategic relevance despite domestic and external tensions.

 It is nothing more than old wine in, well, old bottles. 

Even though US financial aid to Islamabad fell from $3.5 billion in 2011 to less than $1 billion in 2016—a sizeable drop that signals Washington’s reorientation of strategic priorities in South Asia—it does not imply a breakdown in relations with Pakistan. Instead, such an action could very well be a transitory financial punishment. All it does is push Pakistan further into China’s embrace financially and strategically.

In this context, what seems like a great synthesis of diplomatic isolation and punitive military action by New Delhi is essentially an exercise in extending the due date of either all-out war (even if under the nuclear umbrella), or a policy compromise—where both neighbours reach uneasy ceasefires without sustainable long-term settlements.

But the simple fact is this: While unabashed celebration of such attacks without worrying about retaliation (which is possible given Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation) do give a sense of “new norm” and “fresh precedents”, it is nothing more than old wine in, well, old bottles.

If there was any doubt about India’s incapability to formulate a credible response to Pakistan’s provocations, and move towards a political settlement of bilateral disputes, this “surgical strike” and the way it has been presented at home (and abroad) puts an end to that debate.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search