A surgical strike, according to a widely accepted definition, is “a military attack which results in, was intended to result in, or is claimed to have resulted in only damage to the intended legitimate military target, and no or minimal collateral damage to surrounding structures, vehicles, buildings, or the general public infrastructure and utilities”. On the face of it, India got the “surgical” element of the strike right. After all, what collateral damage is one to expect at a border post along the LoC?
India’s admission and celebration of an alleged “surgical strike” against “terrorist launchpads” across the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan-administered Kashmir is a serious cause for worry. Not because there is something wrong with taking responsibility of your actions, especially when they involve violence. For, that reflects maturity and control over the situation. Even enjoying the sense of security that sensible use of force instils among the people of a nation, which is frustrated with a neighbour unwilling to stop supporting militants, is also understandable.
The problem begins when the political and military leadership confuses its ways and means with strategic ends. Ever since the 1949 ceasefire, the deployment of militaries along the LoC, which is not a legally recognised border, has increased with regular spikes after the 1971 war, the 1984 Siachen conflict, the advent of insurgency in Kashmir after 1988, and most prominently after the 1999 Kargil conflict. For instance, the 80-kilometre stretch along which the Kargil conflict was fought was traditionally defended by one brigade i.e. approximately 3,000 troops. Today, it is manned by nearly a division i.e. approximately 10,000 troops. Not just that, after the 1971 war, the Indian army added a new term to its training curriculum—Line of Control Warfare. And after 1989, counter-infiltration operations were added to the list.
Given the complementary increase in force-levels at the LoC, where Indian and Pakistani posts are in close proximity for tactical reasons, local duels by specially trained and motivated troops have been a common feature (a local revenge cycle is created). Such engagements, historically, have involved not just small arms fire, but also artillery shelling and regular (at times on a daily basis) cross-border raids on small and isolated posts that are within operational reach of infantry battalions. Not surprisingly, LoC deployments are termed “no war, no peace” postings, according to Indian army manuals.
How does this game of tactical one-upmanship at the LoC work?
Since 1989, the Pakistani posts have been used as launch pads for militants aimed at targeting Kashmir and other parts of India. It is common for Indian intelligence agencies to collect information about these groups (often between 20 and 100 militants) and alert the military in advance. In fact, the first, most basic training of officers from the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s primary foreign intelligence agency, is undertaken in border areas. Depending on local military context, and the national political climate, these units take pre-emptive or curative measures to halt infiltration, including setting up ambushes or undertaking cross-border raids. Such engagements across the LoC have been taking place since (at least) the 1990s.
But if the aim of this highly-celebrated “surgical strike” was to convince Pakistan to abort the use of cross-border terrorism, then this operation did nothing to alter that calculus. And Pakistan’s response is a clear testament to that. The Pakistani media is now claiming that it has killed eight Indian soldiers in return, and captured one alive.
The simple answer is, no.