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After the ‘Surgical Strikes’

by Ejaz Haider
An Indian paramilitary trooper in Srinagar, Sept. 29. Tauseef Mustafa—AFP

An Indian paramilitary trooper in Srinagar, Sept. 29. Tauseef Mustafa—AFP

The Uri response and Modi’s commitment trap.

In the intervening hours of Sept. 28 and 29, the Indian Army attempted shallow incursions at four points on Kashmir’s Line of Control.

At two points, they were detected before they could cross over, were fired upon, stopped, and thereafter the points settled into an exchange of small arms, light weapons, and mortar fire. At the two other points in the south, they came very close to the Line of Control and there was direct engagement. Units on the ground, dug into their defenses still, report direct engagement, with at least 14 Indian troops killed, while losing two noncommissioned officers to hostile mortar fire.

So far, that’s the information from Pakistan’s side. Officially, it has given no information on Indian casualties. The narrative is simple: the Indians opened fire and the Army responded effectively. In the coming days, we should expect more information.

Predictably, the 24/7 news cycle was hogged by this Indian attempt. India’s director-general of Military Operations, Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh, and the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs held a joint press conference in New Delhi—“joint” only to the extent that the spokesperson opened the presser and handed it over to Singh, who, after reading out a statement in English and Hindi, did not take any questions. That, however, did not prevent the Indian media, barring exceptions, to declare this a huge event, one that constituted a befitting response to the Uri attack and a paradigm shift, i.e., that the Modi government will not sit on its rear end while Pakistan continues its alleged terrorist attacks on India. The din of ‘celebrations’ since the presser is incredible, though not unpredictable.

What should one make of this? What did India achieve? This is what Pakistan should be concerned about. And this is precisely what is being ignored here, with focus only on an attempt that clearly failed in military terms.

There are two levels at which the current Indian government is playing: domestic and international. At home, Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived on the scene with his broad chest, metaphor for a dynamic leader who could do what his predecessors, especially those from the Congress party, could not do. A man who has a tryst with destiny, he is to turn India into an economic and military giant. Then Kashmir erupted. It is now the 85th day of an uprising that refuses to go away despite terrible state repression. Relations with Pakistan, already strained, have spiraled. The icing on the cake was the Uri attack, a major setback for the Indian Army. Pro forma, Pakistan was declared complicit within hours of Uri. Modi’s constituency began talking war, even nuclear war. His political opposition hit back, pooh-poohing his chest. Something needed to be done, but what?

The dust and heat of mobilization circa 2001-2002 is a nonstarter. Aerial strikes are a desire which first needs pigs to fly. Missile strikes are a dangerous escalation because who can determine whether an incoming missile has a tactical or a strategic warhead?

Now, imagine yourself in the Situation Room with Modi and his team. There’s the option of covert war, which India is already waging in Balochistan and through the Afghan National Directorate of Security in Pakistan’s tribal areas. That can and will be ratcheted up. But the problem with covert war is that you can’t own up to it. You might even ‘avenge’ something, but if you declare it, you lose deniability. So, while that front remains hot, it is cold politics domestically. The terrible political question of what Modi has done to ‘punish’ Pakistan remains. This is a particularly nasty question in view of the 2017 polls in Uttar Pradesh.

You decide on a course of action that can be packaged and marketed to both the domestic audiences and the international interlocutors. That is where “surgical strikes” come in. As I noted, Singh’s copy doesn’t seem to have been drafted at the Army HQ or the Military Operations Directorate. It had a visible South Block stamp on it. “Surgical strikes” were conducted “along [not across] the Line of Control” on “terrorist launch pads.” The operation has ceased [after achieving its objective]. “I spoke with Pakistan’s [director-general of Military Operations] and informed them of the action taken by us [or words to that effect].”

Let’s deconstruct this narrative: it was not a military operation against the Pakistan Army but an antiterrorism operation against terrorists—this fits the Indian hand perfectly in the Western antiterrorism glove. It assures the West (read: the U.S.) that India has no intention of escalating with Pakistan while throwing in for good measure the ‘fact’ that this antiterrorism operation was conducted on territory controlled by Pakistan. Corollary: Pakistan supports and encourages terrorism from its soil against India and is in clear violation of its 2004 commitment. This last bit was clearly spelled out in Singh’s statement.

The Singh statement, by mentioning Uri, strengthened India’s original position—also stated by its foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, at the U.N. General Assembly—that Kashmir is troubled because of Pakistan. In doing this, it takes the gaze away from the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination as well as the state repression by India to focusing the issue as an India-Pakistan problem and one that is underpinned by Pakistan’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism.

It should be evident that Singh gave Modi a winner. The statement threw in the term “surgical strikes” and balanced it with “along the LOC.” In a charged partisan atmosphere, with a media waiting to jump on just about anything, few people have the time or the inclination for nuances. The Indian Army also knew that what it did will not be escalated by Pakistan because the latter has no immediate reason to do so. An action, desiring shallow incursions, which was effectively stopped in its tracks doesn’t need to be escalated.

That said, the trend cannot entirely be predicted. The mood can be read two ways: satisfied or craving for more. Going by the cacophony in India, it seems to have settled for more. That creates a worse commitment trap than the one from which Modi has tried to extricate himself.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has to read the situation at all levels, not just at the level of any military response. The central point of Islamabad’s strategy should be to bring back into sharp salience the Kashmiris and their struggle. This is precisely what tends to get lost when the issue is pushed back because of heightened India-Pakistan tensions. How to go about that requires new thinking.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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Amar Nath Reu September 30, 2016 - 7:30 pm

If it is a border skirmish, then why the meetings of top brass in Pakistan, why the troop movement in Rajasthan?

Fahd hassan October 1, 2016 - 3:15 pm

Make sense out of it…indian ‘surgical strikes’ are an impossible event. First it was paradrops then it was heliborne and then heli evac having been on a highly militarized Pak ground for 30 minutes or so undetected by a highly sophisticated air and ground defense system in Pakistan…and then a retrieval from an indian minister..’no heliborne’ realizing heliborne cudnt have occured without being picked.

So what was it? Modi Play.

Saad September 30, 2016 - 9:49 pm

// The central point of Islamabad’s strategy should be to bring back into sharp salience the Kashmiris and their struggle. //

I must say this is an excellent advice.

Muhammad Ilyas October 1, 2016 - 10:58 am

Indian Government is in a blame game ignoring the real situation in Kashmir and the atrocities committed by forces. It’s a reality that Kashmir isuue has to be resolved as per wishes of the people. It’s a question mark for how long India can hold the situation. For a permanent solution and to avoid a war between two nuclear states Kashmir isuue must be resolved by India . The key is with India.

Azm Aftab October 1, 2016 - 2:54 pm

@Amar Nath Reu

One would be foolish not to conduct those meetings and not mobilize troops in the wake of the narrative your military is building.

Nazir Hussain October 1, 2016 - 3:06 pm

Pakistan is smelling something bad. Modi & his Generals may be conspiring something? It is precautionary.

ahmed October 1, 2016 - 3:10 pm

excellent article … exposing indian PM

faisal soofi October 1, 2016 - 5:05 pm

well written article, but……may i please ask what is really meant by ‘Kashmiris’ ? does the term include all flora and fauna species that once thrived in the Himalayas ? URI , GUREZ and its surroundings happen to be the last bastion of the famed ‘musk deer’ beaten to near extinction thru human interventions !! can anyone even start to imagine the disturbance and devastation being caused due to this ultra sensitive security electrified mine laden 600 mile plus dual fence !! only birds or rodents can sneak thru but they also, if caught, face execution on the basis of suspicion…..no offence, but the madness must stop immediately.

Salman Shahbaz October 2, 2016 - 5:32 am


India is obviously trying to project the issue to to be bigger than it is. The Indian strategy as I inferred from EH’s article has always been the same:
Escalate Indo-Pak tensions in order to put the Kashmir issue on the back burner.

This is a classic shadow game. If the world sees a probable war between Pakistan and India, it would look resolve the superficial crises rather the the deeply embedded one.. which is Kashmir.
Sadly tho, the primary issue will persist and six months or year from now all will be forgotten, only for it to rear its head with another uprising in Kashmir which began the current cycle.

Javed October 2, 2016 - 11:06 am

Clear strategy to avoid isolation at international level support Kashmiris at all forums surgical operation against all radical jahadi gps within Pak spec IS mind set/ cleansing of Taliban.
Be alert at international borders ,causes of fall of EP be analysed .

Umar Hayat October 2, 2016 - 3:27 pm

Good analysis. It may be useful to add that Indian machinations for diverting focus away from Kashmir by drawing attention elsewhere since creation of India and Pakistan (during last 70 year) couldn’t suppress the will of Kashmiri people for seeking independence. Same will happen in future as well if strategy for such temporary rescues continues. Hence what needs to be realized is solution of Kashmir as per wishes of people. India needs to take an early cognizance of this reality.

Reza Hasan October 2, 2016 - 4:38 pm

I am amazed at the level of intelligence of the Indians…either u guys are too dumb (which most likely appears to be the case) or are so overwhelmed by ur nationalistic feelings that u can’t separate fiction from reality. Who first started interfering in internal affairs of a country…India in Bangladesh, as openly admitted by ur PM. He also informed proudly that Indian agents are actively involved in Baluchistan (and we believe him as confirmed by recently captured Indian agent Yadav). Having said that….Pakistan deserves the right to pay back in the same coin..but isn’t the way it should. Has any one of u seen the fence along the border. It’s nearly impossible to infiltrate through it unless of inside help. Don’t be naive….u continue ur brutality in Kashmir and expect them to keep on taking it lying down. Wake up…we don’t need to do anything….u guys are urself creating problems for urself. And please don’t compare Kashmir and Baluchistan. Kashmir is a disputed territory…an unfinished agenda of partition.. Baluchistan is not. It’s an integral part of my country and yes you did try to create unrest over there and to a very small extent were successful also but now things are back to normal. Idiots like Barhamdar Bugti are nothing but puppets who have no saying among Baloch people. Regarding the people who attacked Uri…if they were actually sent by ISI….u think that world’s one of the best intelligence agency is so unprofessional that these people will go in with Pakistani food items, currency and other things. Wake up guys. Do you think we don’t know who is funding the TTP. As for the so called “Surgical Strikes”…the less said the better. If you really want to know what is a surgical strike…read history..military history. I am amazed at the audacity of the Indian DGMO…how can he come on national TV and tell a blatant lie…amazing. I can go ON and ON….but suffice it to say…Let’s not fool ourselves. WAR in no way is good for either of the countries. Jingoistic howling from both sides is not good….do not talk of war. Both countries r nuclear powers and shud not underestimate each other. For Indians my message is: ” Ghuss kay marnay wali baat bollywood tak tou theek hai per reality may bouhat mahangi paray gee…therefore stop taking panga…kyon kay …Jo bakri(india)nay mara ha Bakray ko seeng…phir Bakra (Pak) tou maray gaa bakree ko seeng”. For my countrymen…let’s tone down our war hysteria too and make ourselves stronger economically and start electing leaders who have the balls to call a spade a spade.


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