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India's surgical strikes ops: Just sufficient and right on time

By Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain
October 03, 2016 16:39 IST
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The current trans-LoC operations is a trailer projected to the Deep State that India can throw caution to the winds and calibrate its response, says Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retired), former commander of the Uri Brigade.

Exactly the opposite of ‘too little, too late’; the Indian Army’s response with surgical strikes on the terrorist bases across the Line of Control should be classified as ‘just sufficient and right on time’.  Yet, a credibility gap is now taking shape regarding the actual conduct of these multiple operations and the level of damage inflicted. These are the type of operations hardly witnessed anywhere else in a continuing military stand-off between two armies.

The reason why few can realistically relate to such operations is because the LoC remains a grey zone as far as information is concerned. On our side hardly do any scribes, political leaders or any other personalities ever visit the ‘real’ LoC? They usually do so as part of conducted tours, by helicopter to selected posts which are dominating and have a good view. Or they proceed by road to landmarks such as Kaman post near the Aman Setu or the Chakan da Bagh crossing point in Poonch.

There are hundreds of posts along the LoC, in eyeball contact, in areas completely devoid of, or with negligible population, at foreboding heights or with jungle and broken terrain; posts which no non-uniformed person has probably ever been near. The characteristics of the terrain and the defensive posture on the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir side is similar except that in many places special exclusion areas have been created to conceal terrorist holding camps many of which are co-located with the Pakistan Army. Assessments are therefore being made on pure guesswork or by querying a few veterans who too may have had little exposure to the LoC environment. 

There is a history of surgical strikes in the LoC environment of north and south of Pir Panjal going back several years and particularly after the launch of the proxy war by Pakistan in 1989. However, ownership of these has never been taken by either side leaving the other to usually respond in kind and with denial. The objectives have usually been small static posts, domination patrols moving between posts or logistics elements on foot undertaking maintenance.

The nature of these operations has been characterised by swift, shallow missions undertaken by small teams by day and night with presence across the LoC in adversary territory for just a few hours. In the case of Pakistan, these have been launched invariably by a combine of regulars and well-trained terrorists and are called Border Action Teams. In the recent past, attempts on our facilities a little deeper have been made in Tangdhar, Poonch and Uri.

A review is therefore called for, to answer a few questions about the surgical strikes. In a typical cryptic military approach to analysis, we may ask what the planning considerations were. Further, what were the objectives and what was the desired effect?

Add to the above questions, issues related to the Pakistani claims that there were no trans-LoC strikes and only firing occurred in which two Pakistani jawans were killed. A large Pakistani media delegation was apparently taken to the LoC on October 2 and briefed, including an interaction with some villagers. The conclusion -- there were no strikes, surgical or otherwise.

With its reputation at stake, the Indian Army’s options to avenge Uri were manifold. We have encountered such a situation before too. It could have been a single large scale offensive action against a Pakistani deployment on the LoC, resulting in some surprise, some Pakistan Army casualties with no terrorists struck at all; the ignominy would also be casualties to own troops. Second guessing from experience planning considerations would probably have been as follows:-

>> Multiple strikes by small bodies of troops with officer intensive composition, to a distance dictated by necessity to move to, execute and withdraw within six hours on a dark night.

>> Silent operations with contingency planning for failure of surprise.

>> Selected area to be devoid of population or sparsely populated.

>> Known history of presence of terrorists in vicinity of or in Pakistan Army posts in second or third tier. The month of September is advantageous as concentration of terror groups enhances in order to exploit the season preceding the extreme winter.

>> A deception plan following up the lulling operations undertaken at the strategic level.

>> Whether the ownership taken by the political authority in India wished to put on display the same through calculated revelations remained a choice as per the dynamics of the envisaged political-diplomatic game.

>> Facilitation of Post-Strike Damage Assessment would be necessary.

The aim would have been to neutralise maximum terrorists without sustaining casualties. If interference from Pakistan Army came in the way, the targeting of Pakistani troops and equipment would be considered as authorised. Otherwise the meaning of ‘surgical operations’ is understood as an operation specifically targeting an objective in depth of the periphery (in this case the LoC) without collateral and any diversion. The choice of units to execute the operation was between regular Infantry units and Special Forces. If the desired effect was to be in the strategic domain, SF was the natural choice, being a strategic asset.

The desired effect was reasonably clear; keeping escalation under control, cause attrition to the terror resources and infrastructure. That was the tactical domain. It would have remained at that if the government did not wish to stake a claim of having conducted the ops and kept them limited to the covert dimension.

The moment the government gave sanction and wished to take ownership, the strategic dimension was breached. For Pakistan to admit that the Indian Army could infiltrate undetected  through five or six LoC gaps and strike at specific terrorist holding camps/launch pads, would be a major dent to its military ego especially when the army chief is due to retire in seven weeks.

Secondly, it would place public pressure on the Pakistan Army to retaliate within an acceptable time frame. The retaliation at Baramulla’s 46 Rashtriya Rifles camp appears to have been the handiwork of resident foreign terrorists from the Handwara-Rafiabad belt probably hurriedly tasked by the Deep State so as to gain some time for a more coordinated response. So more attacks will follow and the choice of alternating between the LoC and the hinterland remains with the Deep State.

Let us see the credibility of Pakistan’s denial against our credibility of claimed success.

Firstly, would a nation of 1.3 billion and its political leadership risk reputation and credibility by fudging a military operation? Would that make sense in relation to an army battling terror for 27 years in the same region and coincidentally with an army chief also superannuating in three months. The Indian Army is very high in the honour index which when connected to operations leaves simply no scope to claim what it has not done. Agreed that denial in hybrid war is a weapon but that isn’t much a part of the Indian Army’s DNA.

Secondly, the UN Military Observers who have disclaimed any Indian intrusions are on the other side of the LoC and are deployed in pockets extremely far apart. They have no locus standi with us. It is also not as if every area is under observation. Thirdly, the Indian Army has mapped out potential minefields along the LoC and knows how to skirt these. In spite of this, the only casualty occurred due to mines during exfiltration. Fourthly, as is the norm villages anywhere near the target area are avoided due to dogs and presence of farmers in the fields. In most areas there was no population so the villagers being interviewed by Pakistani media are indeed telling the truth -- they heard nothing, saw nothing.

The intelligence agencies and all security forces will have to get their act together, change tack from the street turbulence back to counter-terror operations. 
 
 

The question anyone should be asking is when will India release footage or any other evidence to confirm that the strikes took place. That is probably currently in a decision loop. Some kind of videography and other physical evidence would be there but would probably be immediately contradicted by Pakistan. Only third party technical evidence put out by a nation such as the United States or Russia would have credence. In many ways, therefore, release of any evidence with India may be construed as insufficient and India may make no effort to release it.

Is Pakistan in denial for a strategic advantage or simply for ego because its army chief’s about to end tenure? Denial gives it multiple options. A kind of moral ascendancy, and yet scope for planning more strikes. The Baramulla sneak action on 46 RR is a failed attempt to project how quickly it can get its act together and that the Deep State’s presence in the Valley is still very much sufficient to make a difference.

Denial is also a message to the street demonstrators and rabble rousers that India’s capability to respond does not exist. India does not have to prove anything to the Kashmiri people. It demonstrated its capability sufficiently in Kargil and memories of that still linger. Its current trans-LoC operations is a trailer projected to the Deep State that India can throw caution to the winds and calibrate its response.

The sneak attempt on 46 RR may trigger more such desperate actions to put the army on the back foot. The same was attempted in 1999 in the wake of Kargil and that phase lasted till almost 2004. The intelligence agencies and all security forces will have to get their act together, change tack from the street turbulence back to counter-terror operations. The army in turn has to ensure that infiltration attempts in the period leading up to the winter remain fully under control.

The hybridity of the nature of operations demands that there be no let up on any front. The diplomatic gains must be nailed and the efforts unrelentingly continue. The information operations being well played out must also continue receiving attention. It’s still a long battle ahead.

Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retired) commanded the Uri Brigade, the Baramulla Division and the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps. He is now associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation and Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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