The magical effects of a good surgical strike

The retaliatory nature of counter-strikes between India and Pakistan shows them to be motivated more by optics than on accomplishing specific outcomes or effectively resolving the core bone of contention.

Updated - February 27, 2019 08:11 pm IST

Published - February 27, 2019 07:52 pm IST

The brave men of the armed forces are often instruments and casualties of state-sponsored bravado. | AFP

The brave men of the armed forces are often instruments and casualties of state-sponsored bravado. | AFP

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The good thing about the new surgical strike is that we will have another red letter day to celebrate like the other surgical strike divas — when was it September 21? Soon, our heads will be crammed with a jumble of dates celebrating retaliatory violence and this will seep into textbooks too. We will certainly have Bollywood making new movies, and we will have books with telling accounts and details. But here is the thing — the terrorists don’t seem to be watching the movies or drawing the lessons we want them to from the books. All the new surgical strike — kind of — confirms is that the previous surgical strike either did not work, or the magical effects were seriously overestimated. So, are we entering a zone of bigger, better, more beautiful surgical strikes with newer better state instruments? In Uri, the terrorists took 18 of India’s best soldiers. In Pulwama, they took forty. If by going a few kilometres further and taking out some terrorist types was supposed to prove to be a deterrent, it has not proved to be so. Yet, it is not about numbers or perceptible improvement of the situation. Far from it. It is about what diplomats, in background briefings, refer to as “optics”.

We had come to this situation previously, too. After the Parliament came under attack on December 13, 2001, which was a provocation of a very high order. The intent was to hit back. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was initially inclined towards it. The Intelligence Bureau had acquired Ikonos satellite images, of one-metre resolution, from Israel of terrorist camps in Muzaffarabad, Kotli and Bagh, which had a heavy traffic of terrorist elements; and a humint ( human intellegence source) identified the possible targets. The satellite images had roads, rivers, trees, buildings in graphic detail. The area those days used to teem with Lashkar-e-Taiba. The idea was to do a lightning strike and claim a pyrrhic victory that would assuage the sentiments in India — usually the area would be vacated of terrorists once a big attack happened. The idea was to fly into the area, release laser guided bombs and return — same as the Balakot air strike. Usually an operation like that would have planes that took in the bombing with special cameras to help in battle damage assessment, to determine how accurate and how successful the operation was, and what kind of collateral damage had occurred in the process. Everything then would depend on weather, the time of attack. A satellite passing over the area the following day would provide more clarity. There were two briefings that the then IB chief gave Vajpayee on the day following the attack and the day following that, and Vajpayee thought about it and decided not to put the operation in motion. Probably because Vajpayee had Kashmir on his mind in more significant ways than seems to be the case now. Perhaps he knew from the warmth he received when he travelled to Lahore in a bus with, of all people, Dev Anand, that the people of Pakistan were not all signed up ISI agents. Also, Vajpayee showed that he could work with the enemy, even though General Musharraf was behind the Kargil misadventure, even though the Agra summit turned out to be a spectacular failure, even though terrorist acts never really stopped. For all the broad-chested bravado, have they, now?

Surgery is no simple fix

After the 2016 surgical strike, Pakistan went into denial. It suited everybody. We told ourselves we had shown that we could be muscular in our response and that they would think twice before they ever ever dared to attempt anything like that again. Unfortunately, surgery is not a substitute for treatment. And, all said and done, it wasn't even much of a surgery. Surgery is usually a final step, one that is supposed to fix a problem. The order of surgery that is required to fix this complex entity called Pakistan is not a mysterious attack in a remote geographical location with uncertain outcome. This issue is layered and has goals to accomplish on multiple aspects. Has it hit Pakistan where it really hurts? Is this going to make the Jaish-e-Mohammed less motivated? Is it going to alter the behaviour of Pakistan's Deep State in significantly better ways? Will it motivate Pakistan to give up its campaign in Kashmir? Will it change the Chinese heart to have it swing our way? Will Pakistan’s Saudi brethren see it from New Delhi’s point of view? Will the Americans and the rest sign on the dotted line? Is it time to break open the champagne?

Unfortunately, in the end, the problem lies in Kashmir. The government hands out statistics of how many terrorists of foreign origin have been killed in the scorched earth policy and yet nothing has changed for the better. Somehow the more terrorists we keep eliminating in Kashmir the more seem to readily arrive on the scene there. As if it were some kind of inexhaustible akshayapatra of fighters. It seems like some kind of perfect equation of state. It is a grim, dirty battle that is going on there, one that is producing more alienation and sullenness. Take Adil Ahmad Dar, for instance. The young man who blew himself up so he could kill 40 CRPF troops was a nobody, a school dropout. This paper recorded that he was a "C" category militant, barely there on the radar. The categories go up to A Plus Plus for the more arrived terrorists. Adil’s parents say that he was humiliated, made to rub his nose on the ground, assaulted by security forces, not unlike thousands of other youth in Kashmir. The south western belt of Kashmir, right up to Srinagar, is restive, and likely to throw up more Adil Ahmad Dars the second they get the wherewithal. Given Kashmir’s narrative of violence, Pakistan doesn’t have to do much here.

The initial response from Pakistan was interesting. They admitted the planes crossed the Line of Control but said they did little damage to anything. From the way they phrased it, our airforce might as well have used dummy weapons on dummy targets. Subsequent Pakistani action is sure to give the government room for pause, and make Prime Minister Modi wonder if the path he was intending to take has become far more tricky and fraught with consequences.

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