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Surgical strikes changed the game for India

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
September 27, 2017 09:30 IST
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'The Pakistani denial was the greatest triumph of this strategy.'
'From now onwards Pakistan will always have to factor in the Indian reaction when it decides to back non-State actors like LeT,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

Soldiers patrol the LoC

Nearly 30 years ago, I was posted along the Line of Control in the Poonch sector, the area where much of the firing incidents have been taking place of late.

It was December, it was Christmas time and we had planned a party in the battalion! But what is a Christmas without a Christmas tree!

Just across the LoC opposite my post was a beautiful Christmas tree, the only problem was it was on the Pakistani side of the line!

Well, when one is young and foolish, one does a lot of things, and so I sneaked across the few yards and pulled out the young tree!

When my boss, the commanding officer heard of it, he was furious, but let me off the hook.

The sole reason to narrate this personal incident is to debunk the myth that India never crosses the LOC.

In that sense there was nothing really new in the cross border surgical strikes carried out last year in response to the Uri attack of September 18, 2016.

In fact in a television programme, the previous army chief, General Bikram Singh went on record to say that even during his time (2012 to 2014) the Indian Army had carried out successful cross border attacks.

General Singh lamented the fact that since the previous government was not in favour of publicising it, these attacks remained unknown. Many participants in these forays have gone public.

In the decade of the 1990s when the Kashmir insurgency was at its peak, local level retaliatory attacks across the LoC were even more frequent.

So it is clear that cross LoC attacks were not unknown. Yet the surgical strikes carried out on seven widely separated locations apposite Uri and Rajouri sectors were indeed a game changer!

Let me explain why.

The greatest achievement of the September 29, 2016 attacks across the LoC was that it conclusively buried the ghost of Kargil.

Pakistan had infiltrated the Kargil sector across the LoC and occupied some peaks in April 1999. When the Indian Army detected it, India used its full force including aircraft and routed the infiltrators by July 1999.

The political leadership was euphoric as for the first time, world opinion (mainly the West and particularly the US) gave India full backing as this was seen as dangerous 'brinkmanship' by the newly emerged nuclear power, Pakistan.

World opinion praised Indian restraint and maturity.

While India tackled the Pakistani infiltrators, our defence minister made a 'unilateral' declaration that India would not cross the LoC even tactically to deal with Pakistani infiltration.

Thus India made a virtual unasked and unilateral commitment to not cross the LoC even in case of Pakistani aggression across it.

I asked one of the major decision-makers of that time whether the long term repercussions of this were debated, and one was met with silence.

Obviously, the Kargil conflict virtually laid down the ground rules for the future.

Since both India and Pakistan are nuclear armed countries, an all-out conflict is out of the question. But in the low level confrontation in Kashmir, by our declaration we virtually gave Pakistan a free pass.

The Kargil Doctrine meant that we would deal with Pakistan's proxy war strictly on our side of the border and would not cross the LoC.

The declaratory attacks of September 29, 2016 changed that policy.

We have now asserted that we will cross the LoC in retaliation for attacks from across the border.

Incidentally, the UN charter gives the right to nations to cross international borders in 'hot pursuit', which is what the surgical strikes were.

Besides the declaratory nature of the surgical strikes of 2016, another difference from earlier attacks was the fact that these attacks were carried out over a wide front.

These were markedly different from localised affairs of the earlier times.

The Indians were very careful in targeting the launch pads of 'terrorists' of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba/Jaish-e-Muhammed and not the Pakistani army.

Thus, it was hoped to create a cleavage between the non-State actors and the Pakistan army.

The repercussions of these attacks are that the terrorist launch pads have moved deeper inland.

Most importantly, it has punctured the bubble of the Pakistan army's boasts of being superior to the Indian army.

The psychological effect of these attacks was understood in Pakistan and therefore contrary to normal practice where the victim of such attacks usually protest, Pakistan went to great lengths to deny them.

The Pakistani denial was the greatest triumph of this strategy.

From now onwards, Pakistan would always have to factor in the Indian reaction when it decides to back non-State actors like LeT.

Domestically, this enhanced the Modi government's credibility as being more pro-active on the national security front.

Combined with Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's reference to Balochistan, the strategy shift in Kashmir to surgical strikes is an indication of a major rethink of India's policy on Pakistan.

Successive Indian governments have been repeating the mantra that a united, peaceful and friendly Pakistan is in India's interest.

To this the Pakistani response was to launch a proxy war of a 'thousand cuts'.

With a proactive policy in Kashmir, no compromise with terrorists, willingness to cross the LoC and publicly intending to help Balochistan rebels, India has signaled a change that it is looking at alternatives to a united Pakistan and may well help its break up.

Pakistani strategists need to be reminded that when internal turmoil engulfed the Soviet Union, its thousands of nuclear weapons were of no use and could not save the USSR from disintegration.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian.

IMAGE: Indian Army soldiers patrol the Line of Control in the Pallanwal sector, about 75 kilometres from Jammu. Photograph: PTI Photo

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Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)