What India’s surgical strike achieved, and what it didn’t?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Having introduced an uncertainty in its response, it is perhaps better for India to reduce the vulnerability of its military establishments.

In the wake of the attacks on the Indian army base in Nagrota, familiar uncomfortable questions have come to the fore: is it the lack of intelligence support that’s making such attacks recur? Has the fragile situation in the Kashmir valley helped rejuvenate terrorist networks? Or, are obsolete security mechanisms making military installations vulnerable to repeated attacks? Despite the recent spate of attacks on military infrastructure, these sticky, fly-papery questions still haven’t found responses that will make them dissolve away.

Nevertheless, the Nagrota attack throws up a completely new question: what did the “surgical strikes” of 29th September achieve — is there a need to replicate such strikes after the Nagrota attacks or should that option be dispensed with?

To answer this question, let’s assess what the surgical strikes achieved, from the lens of the three affected parties — the domestic Indian audience, the Pakistani military—jihadi complex, and the Pakistani civilian leadership.

For many Indians, a consciously coordinated action involving various parts of the administrative machinery — military, diplomatic, and political — was a signal that India will now respond to terrorism at strategic or operational levels, and not merely at a tactical level. Given that the earlier response — a carefully calibrated “strategic restraint” policy had failed to attenuate the attacks from Pakistan, a more forceful quid-pro-quo alternative became a cause of hope for some, and of aggressive chest-thumping for others. After the Nagrota attacks, some groups in this domestic constituency will demand similar strikes, with an aim of institutionalising this strategy.

Second, the Pakistani military—jihadi complex (MJC) was taken by surprise — it was anticipating a tactical response, but not a coordinated operational response. Moreover, the publicly declared cross-LoC Indian raids largely received a thumbs-up from the international community, weakening the complex’s narrative.  Within the complex, the jihadi node was specifically targetted. However, the shallow raids didn’t dent the terrorists’ capacity in any significant manner — there are no terrorist camps at such small distances from the LoC, merely a few launch pads to help terrorist squads in their transit. The operation also did not cause any major loss to the Pakistani army and hence it chose to deny the incident rather than escalate immediately. Overall, the surgical strikes served a signalling purpose against the MJC, rather than a concrete blow to its capacities; it flustered the MJC but hasn’t deterred it. It proved to the MJC that India is capable of maintaining a dynamic conventional threshold and that India is not just limited to the option of tactical retaliation.

Third, the Pakistani civilian leadership was able to utilise the surgical strikes against the dominance of the MJC. Unsurprisingly, a news report claiming that the civilian government has directed the military leadership to act against militants came out immediately after India’s raids. Meanwhile, the civilian leadership kept championing the anti-India rhetoric — such posturing continues to remain popular in Pakistan, regardless of who is in the driving seat. The army’s carefully cultivated image as the ultimate protector of Pakistan’s ideological and geographical frontiers took a dent, and the civilian leadership cashed in on the opportunity.

What will be the impact of another cross-border raid on the three affected parties?
Projected as a strong rejoinder to Pakistan’s use of terrorism, the Indian government will be able to garner domestic support from many quarters to a repeat strike. However, the border states of Punjab and J&K will have to bear the brunt of any further escalation, threatening livelihoods and economic prospects in these states.

The MJC and the Pakistani civilian establishment will now be better prepared in anticipation of another Indian strike. So, it will be very difficult for India to inflict any damage using the same level of deployment. Other options of this nature include using artillery against bunkers from a vantage point while avoiding collateral damage, or the use of air to surface strikes or using short-range cruise missiles to strike terrorist hideouts. But each of these alternatives is likely to result in significant escalation on both sides.

Having introduced an uncertainty in its response, it is perhaps better for India to reduce the vulnerability of its military establishments. Recommendations of the Lt Gen Philip Campose Committee, constituted after the Pathankot attacks, need to be implemented. There is clear indication that the MJC has altered its strategy over the last two years, focusing on high-value Indian military establishments rather than cause large-scale civilian damages. The sub-conventional warfare level, where terrorists operate, has clearly narrowed across the world. A conventional response to a terrorist attack having mass civilian casualties will now be seen as a necessity to curb terror. The surgical strikes have helped reinforced this viewpoint. A variant of the strikes can be used to target high-value terrorist infrastructure if Pakistan returns to its policy of causing mass casualties.

For now, it is better that India focuses on its defences. Ultimately, India is better off putting both — a grand rapprochement or a full-scale war — on the back burner, while expending available capacity to launch economic reforms, rendering Pakistan irrelevant.

Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.

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