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‘Surgical strike’ and aftermath

| | in Oped
‘Surgical strike’ and aftermath

India needs to track not just Pakistan but China and Russia too. The last name may seem incongruous in the company of the other two, but Moscow apparently believes Pakistan is important to the new security architecture it is constructing with Beijing

Within days of the Indian Army’s much publicised ‘surgical strikes’ or counter-terror operations inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Advisor, Sartaj Aziz, disclosed that the two National Security Advisors had established contact to reduce tensions on the Line of Control (LoC). He, however, added that the Kashmir resolution was necessary to reduce border tensions. Given this, what purpose was served by India’s ‘surgical strikes’?

India’s counter-terror strikes were queer, to say the least. Within hours of the strikes, India’s Director General Military Operations, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh took two actions not associated with the Special Forces: He confirmed the operations, and said no more would be done.

Contrast these operations with ones after the forced withdrawal of the Pakistan Army from occupied territory to end the 1999 Kargil conflict. For example, on January 22, 2000, fighting in the Chhamb sector left 16 Pakistani soldiers dead. While both sides blamed the other, the truth was that Indian troops, in strength, attacked a Pakistani post and overran it. Similar instances occurred in Akhnoor, Mendhar, Kotli, Naushera and Pallanwala between January and August 2000.

Before the ceasefire on the LoC came into effect on November 26, 2003, artillery fire, raids and surgical strikes by the two Armies were not uncommon. In a tacit understanding, while the senior brass in Kashmir looked the other way, the Indian Army units adopted a calibrated offensive action across the LoC to engage the Pakistan Army and to sanitise areas of infiltration. Formations commanders on the LoC justified the need for such action on grounds that that Pakistan Army must face local military defeats. It was argued in private that body bags going home under the glare of cameras would compel the Pakistan Army to re-think its proxy war in Kashmir. Local artillery commanders said that in addition to punitive raids by infantry commandos and Special Forces on Pakistani posts, more Bofors regiments should be inducted into Jammu & Kashmir. Heavy artillery pounding of Pakistani positions in areas where infiltration occurred would be a morale booster for Indian troops.

Given this situation, the Army chief, General VP Malik, in August 2000, said that chances of a war with Pakistan were high. His assessment was based on the thinking that Pakistan might, in anger, retaliate in strength which could result in a full-scale limited war. The Army chief’s public statement was enough for the Indian political leadership to get alarmed. It was realised that military retribution, however limited, could spiral into war, since escalation has its own dynamics. Thus, except for stray incidences by Border Action Teams (mix of Special Forces and commandos from local units) crossing the LoC to hit specific targets, the unstated calibrated offensive action policy was over by April 2001.

While conscious that no immediate military options exist to end the Pakistan Army’s proxy war — these have nothing to do with nuclear weapons as is commonly believed, but with credible conventional prowess — India gambled this time by suggesting that this Special Forces’ action was indicative of conventional war strength or even Special Forces ‘stand-alone operations’ capability of striking deep inside enemy territory for strategic affect. The three aforementioned operations are as different as chalk and cheese. Let alone the needed equipment and training, the Army has huge ammunition deficiencies in all categories to fight an intense war even for 10 days. Moreover, deep covert operations are undertaken by nations with credible conventional war capabilities. However, with the political leadership in jubilation and the national mood in upswing, perhaps the purpose of the strikes was achieved.

What will the Pakistan Army do? Two things: It will not end the November 26, 2003, ceasefire, and, having shown capability to spring surprises — 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament, 1999 Kargil conflict, and 2008 Mumbai attacks — it could mastermind something spectacular using its proxies. In the meantime, it would be violent and enervating winter not seen in decades for security forces especially the Army in Jammu & Kashmir. 

Ending the ceasefire — the use of long-range artillery in addition to mortars and small arms being used now — does not help Pakistan politically and militarily. Civilian casualties and their displacement from homes to escape Pakistan’s artillery fire might weaken the peoples’ growing alienation with India. Moreover, Pakistan would want to prove India’s pre-emptive action of moving thousands of villagers within 15 km of the Punjab border during the harvest season to safe places in the hinterland wrong.

In military terms, with ceasefire called off, the Indian Army would be compelled to bring out its artillery (stacked in sheds since over one decade) and perhaps go back to conventional war-training and capacity-building. Instead of counter-terror operations with fence on the LoC as the limit, which are expected to rise, the Indian Army would review its tasks. Regarding India’s recent Special Forces’ operation which took the Pakistan Army by surprise, corrective steps have been taken. There are reports of the Pakistan Army having moved terrorists’ launch pads further away from the LoC; additional regular forces (up to three brigades) have been moved ahead to strengthen forward defences against tactical surprises; and the Army chief, General Raheel Sharif was recently in Mangla to review his offensive forces’ punch. 

Where does the sudden NSAs contact fit into all this? By itself, the contact, unless compelled by outside powers, will lead nowhere since the talking points of the two sides are at total variance. However, with the Brics summit to be held in Goa around the corner, China and Russia have stakes in lowering the LoC temperature. China would not want an escalation of hostilities because (a) it would affect completion of time-lines of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and (b) it would further diminish the possibility of finding common ground between Beijing’s ‘One Belt One Road’ and India’s Act East policy since China would be obliged to support Pakistan politically and militarily in a war with India.

Russia’s case is equally difficult. On the one hand, it would not want to upset India which is its biggest defence arms importer. Moreover, despite growing ties between Moscow and Islamabad, India and Russia retain traditional comfort of the Soviet Union era. On the other hand, Pakistan, at the strategic level, has emerged as an important nation for the new security architecture being built by China and Russia in Asia.

The recent remarks by the Russian Ambassador in India, Alexander Kadakin, supporting India’s surgical strike into PoK, should be viewed in this context. With President Vladimir Putin due in India for the annual summit meeting, Kadakin was keen to dispel India’s unhappiness over the recent first-ever counter-terror exercise between Russian and Pakistani Armies in Pakistan. His statement paved the way for Russia to counsel India in private to start talks with Pakistan to ensure the success of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (as a part of the new security architecture) that both would join as full members in 2017. Thus, talking with Pakistan is perhaps the way for India to both manage Pakistan’s proxy war and its ties with Russia.

(The writer is co-author, with Ghazala Wahab, of the book, ‘Dragon on Our Doorstep’, to be published by Aleph Book Company in winter 2016)

 
 
 
 
 
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