Surgical strikes – understanding the strategy behind going public with information

Any military operation has clear aims. These differ at different levels, with the aim at the lower level contributing towards (but not necessarily fulfilling) the aim at the higher level. For example, the aim for a battalion commander could be to capture Hill ABC. For his GOC who assigned him the task, the capture would be a step towards securing his own, larger, aim – say the capture of Area XYZ which includes the Hill. So the capture of Hill ABC could, for example, prevent enemy reinforcements moving into Area XYZ, thus helping the GOC’s in achieving his overall aim. This nesting of aim within aim goes all the way right up to the level at which the operation is ordered. Achievement of aim at the lower level is not and end in itself, but means of achieving the aim at the higher level.

In this context, let’s look at the recent Surgical Strikes across the LoC to try and understand what would have been the aims at different levels. At the bottom of the ladder, the commander of each strike team would have been given a specific target. His aim would have been to destroy the allotted target – cause maximum damage, kill as many terrorists as possible.

At Army Headquarters level, the aim would have been to carry out strikes at multiple locations to destroy terrorist launch-pads and kill terrorists waiting to infiltrate into India.

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At the level of the government, the aim was probably to send a clear message across to Pakistan as part of its larger strategy of dealing with state sponsored terrorism. The move to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, review the Indus Water Treaty and Most Favoured Nation status would be some other components of this strategy, which seems to have come into play after the terrorist attacks on the army camp in Uri.

The call from DGMO to his Pakistani counterpart to inform him of the successful completion of the raids, and the subsequent press conference to announce the same to the world, would be an essential part of sending this message. Translated into plain speak, the message would read something like this – “Having failed to convince you through other means to desist from providing support to terrorists, we now reserve the right to take appropriate military action in retaliation to cross border terrorism. We will do so at the time and place of our choosing, and we are not intimidated by your threat of nuclear escalation.”

A simultaneous message was sent across to the people of India. That the government they elected is capable of responding to terrorist threats, responding to violence with violence, not content with lodging diplomatic protests and handing over dossiers. And to the world at large, the message was “We have given peace a reasonable chance. We reached out to Pakistan multiple time and at the highest level. We have even allowed their investigative team to visit the site of terrorist attack in Pathankot in an unprecedented move. Yet terrorist strikes backed by Pakistan are continuing in our territory. We now reserve the right to retaliate.”

Looking at the bigger picture, shorn of the messages sent across by the government publicly owning up and talking about them, what would be achieved by the Surgical Strikes for which the brave soldiers risked their lives? Elimination of scores of terrorists and destruction of their temporary structures would be cathartic for the soldiers who participated and those who were in the know that such operations took place to avenge the lives of their comrades at Uri. But beyond that, it wouldn’t make any difference at all. To Pakistan, the people of India and the world community. The jihadi factories across the LoC can replace the loss within no time at all. The world would continue to see India as a ‘soft state’, and Pakistan would continue to laugh at our faces. And the people of India would continue to live in fear.

Instead, Pakistan is confused – swinging between denying any strikes took place and vowing to hit back. Director General of the infamous Pakistani intelligence agency ISI has been unceremoniously replaced. Its repeated rattling of the nuclear sabre has been exposed as false bravado. Countries across the world, with the exception of China, have supported the action taken by India to safeguard itself from terrorist attacks.

In this light, let’s take a look at the belated owning up of similar strikes in the past by the Congress and UPA. Without disputing that they did take place and without trying to compare their scale and scope with the present operations, I would like to know what prevented the government of that time to publicly acknowledge them? While the tactical aims would be similar to the latest strikes, what were their strategic aims, and what was achieved at that level? What was their impact on Pakistan, the people of India and the world?

In the absence of any clarity on this, it would appear that these were operations planned and executed at the local formation level by the army. They were aimed at avenging the lives of Indian soldiers, and restoring the morale of the local units. They may have been carried out either with prior approval of (as opposed to on the orders of) the government, or it is even possible that the government could have been informed of it post facto. Possibly the government wanted plausible deniability in case of things going wrong, and preferred a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy.

Whatever be the case, the operation carried out on 28 Sep was certainly with a clear cut strategic aim, and public acknowledgement of the same by the government was a step towards achieving that aim.  The previous strikes would therefore appear to be lost opportunities. Had there been clearer strategic thinking around them, possibly the Pathankot and Uri attacks would never have taken place, and these strikes wouldn’t have been required.

(Author is a former army man. The article first appeared on his blog)

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