At a joint press conference with the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs Vikas Swarup on September 29, Director General of Military Operations Lt Gen Ranbir Singh announced: “Based on very credible and specific information which we received yesterday that some terrorist teams had positioned themselves at launch pads along the Line of Control with an aim to carry out infiltration and terrorist strikes in Jammu and Kashmir and in various other metros in our country, the Indian army conducted surgical strikes last night at these launch pads”. However, a lot more information than what was conveyed during the press conference has been leaked to selected journalists.
Based on these accounts, it would appear that seven terror launch pads were destroyed by the Indian Special Forces drawn from 4 Para, 9 Para and Ghataks. The Indian Special Forces were grouped into five teams, each consisting of less than 20 and they operated at Kel, Lipa, Hot Spring and Bhimber sectors, ning a distance of nearly of 200 km. Helicopters (ALH Dhruva) were used to transport the forces to the LoC. Precise satellite imagery was provided by Cartosat 2. The launch pads were located between 500 metres and 3 km inside PoK from the LoC. Details of weapons and explosives the Special Forces carried have also emerged. Carl Gustav 84mm rocket launchers and automatic grenade launchers were used. The number of militants killed is estimated at 38. Mi 35 attack helicopters were on standby but were not used, presumably because the Special Forces did not need additional back up. The incidents were recorded though the images have not been released. After a four-hour long operation, all the soldiers returned back safely by 0430 hours.
Pakistan has denied that Indian forces carried out any cross-LoC operation. They have maintained that India engaged in artillery shelling of Pakistani positions and as a result, two Pakistani soldiers were killed. Their funeral ceremonies have been since held with local politicians and media being present.
India’s action has been interpreted by many commentators to imply that India has brought in ‘a paradigm shift’ by discarding the earlier policy of ‘strategic restraint’. Pakistan’s denial has been explained on account of preventing ‘loss of face’, though Pakistani retaliation is anticipated and the Indian authorities have taken certain precautionary measures.
Analysing Indian response
A careful reading of the facts would indicate that ‘strategic restraint’ is still in place. The ‘surgical strikes’ were needed to relieve the growing domestic pressures for punitive military action. Fortunately, the two couriers who had been apprehended after the Uri attack on September 18 had provided useful information about the launch pads which were then placed under surveillance. These launch pads are invariably forward located bunkers where groups of infiltrators assemble 24-48 hours before the attempt to cross the LoC. In each case, the infiltrators are assisted by Pakistan army personnel. Once the presence of these groups was confirmed, political clearance was given and the operation had to be mounted quickly. It was fortunate that none of the Indian soldiers were either captured or killed in the operation.
What is significant is that on
September 29, before the press conference, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh also spoke to his Pakistani counterpart to apprise him of the developments; he also sought his cooperation in preventing any further infiltration attempts. Lt Gen Ranbir Singh clarified that this was a one off operation and no repeat was envisaged. This is widely interpreted as a measure of de-escalation. Incidentally, before this conversation, Pakistani authorities had already announced the death of the two Pakistani soldiers in the artillery shelling during the night.
Further, given the fact that the Uri toll is now 19 and only two Pakistani soldiers have been killed, the Indian response can only be described as a measured response and not a provocative one. Other important facts are that the strikes targeted potential infiltrators at launch pads and not Pakistan army units or installations. In terms of shaping international perceptions, it was also important to highlight that the potential infiltrators had assembled and that infiltration attempts were imminent and the cross-LoC attacks therefore were justified as defensive in nature.
It is also known that hours before the attack, there was a telephone conversation between NSA Ajit Doval and his US counterpart Susan Rice. It is likely that the nature of the operation may have been shared to reassure the US that this was a limited strike and not the beginning of the escalatory ladder. The US statement after the conversation – “Highlighting the danger that cross-border terrorism poses to the region, Ambassador Rice reiterated our expectation that Pakistan take effective action to combat and delegitimise United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including LeT, JeM, and their affiliates” -- has been seen as a highly supportive statement designed to put pressure on Pakistan.
Analysing Pakistan’s response
On the Pakistani side, the denial offers the Pakistani army time to plan a response. A denial also serves to de-escalate the situation, easier because Pakistan army casualties were limited to two. The Pakistan army is also under some US pressure because the fact that the Uri attackers came from PoK across the LoC is reasonably well established. Further, a direct response across the LoC is in any event out of question as it would be seen as reckless and escalatory.
What is significant is how the Pakistani army calibrates its relations with the jihadi groups. Most curious is the fact that these groups have not yet claimed the dead as ‘martyrs’ to the Kashmir cause or organised elaborate funerals and put up inflammatory material on social media. Could it be that the Pakistan army is using its influence to keep the emotions under check till it determines its next course of action? In any event, the Pakistan army is assured that a repeat strike by India is not going to happen.
If the Pakistan army needs to put pressure on PM Nawaz Sharif, it can easily use Imran Khan who has been making threatening statements. Gen Raheel Sharif’s tenure ending in November is also a factor that the corps commanders will be factoring into their decision about the response.
Back to strategic restraint
Many commentators are arguing that the ‘surgical strikes’ represent a new paradigm. However, it is clear that this was a one shot operation. A couple of intelligence breaks played in India’s favour, enabling this operation ‘along the Line of Control’. Deeper air or missile strikes still remain beyond India’s capability, both in terms of C4
IS and military hardware. Also, suppressing Pakistan’s air defence to permit an air strike remains a challenging objective. If this operation involving shallow incursions across the LoC serves to address the domestic pressures for decisive punitive military action, while the international community remains convinced that the Indian response has not been provocative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have achieved his objectives, giving him the room to go about expanding the diplomatic isolation of Pakistan.
PM Modi has successfully ensured support in the region and the SAARC summit scheduled for November in Pakistan has been postponed. A warning has been issued regarding the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Without announcing Indian abrogation or withdrawal, the government has indicated that future meetings regarding the implementation of the Treaty have been suspended. The fact is that India has not fully exploited its entitlement of the three western rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) as the upper riparian under the Indus Waters Treaty.
The threat to review the grant of MFN is unlikely to yield much advantage, but raising the issue highlights the lack of reciprocity on Pakistan’s part. Flagging Balochistan, Gilgit and Baltistan raises the pitch, but using covert actions requires building and deploying assets which needs both time and resources. Providing asylum to Baloch leaders is a political gesture which is under active consideration and would be consistent with the new pronouncements.
PM Modi is cleverly using his communication skills, a controlled rhetoric and a shallow cross-LoC operation described as ‘surgical strikes’, to show that he can take risks while managing escalation. He has also reached out to all other political party leaders, including the Congress leadership, to take them into confidence. This is a positive development and something that had been lacking. It gives him an opportunity to present a united front. More so, it enables him to get around to crafting a new policy on Pakistan which so far has oscillated between two extremes – jhappi (hugging and bonhomie) and katti (no talks and threats of retaliation). Given the fractured nature of Pakistani polity which is unlikely to change soon, such a new policy should provide multiple options and consequently, permit exercise of leverage. Most important, PM Modi can use his authority to tighten up the poor border management and perimeter security lapses that have been exposed in Uri, and earlier in Pathankot and Gurdaspur attacks. The most effective means of preventing another attack is not to expect a change of behaviour on the part of Pakistan army and the jihadi groups but to improve our own defensive capabilities and ensure greater coordination between the relevant agencies.
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