Politicising Surgical Strikes

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Politicising Surgical Strikes

Political parties desire populist, quick and ostensibly spectacular results with an eye on elections. But what the ruling party wants is not what the army leadership should do.

Here’s a sobering thought to reflect upon as India celebrates the anniversary of the ‘surgical strikes’ in which the Indian Army’s special forces (SF) stealthily crossed the Line of Control (LoC) and neutralised a handful of terrorists who would have otherwise infiltrated into Jammu and Kashmir: the more the government politicises the army by using its sacrifices to further its electoral objectives, the more it erodes the the army’s potency, and hence its deterrent value.

The tragic part of this celebratory charade is that the army leadership appears complicit in its own emasculation. It needs to be understood that armies are never politicised, they follow command. It is the army leadership that gets politicised with adverse implications for war preparedness. It is, therefore, a truism that armies are as good as its leadership. So when the army leadership decides to support what the ruling political party wants, its missions – militarily – make less sense. For instance, army chief General Bipin Rawat’s recent call for another surgical strike was not his business; it is prerogative of the political leadership. He should worry about genuine strikes pivoted on preparedness, should the need arise.

Political parties desire populist, quick and ostensibly spectacular results with an eye on elections. But what the ruling party wants is not what the army leadership should do. Otherwise, (a) it demoralises its command since military outcomes are not what they should be, (b) the emphasis shifts away from modernisation, which is a sustained long-term goal, and (c) training for war takes a back-seat. The command ultimately loses respect for its leadership, leading to command break-down. Military leaders, therefore, should question and not blindly acquiesce to political opportunism.

Militarily, the September 29, 2016 strikes made little sense for three reasons. One, surgical strikes are the prerogative of the air force; the army, at best, conducts raids and hot pursuit. Surgical strikes – meant to influence the political and war-fighting levels by its shock and awe effect – are undertaken by the air force after certain preparations to contain a probable escalation. These include using aircraft to jam the enemy’s communication systems, and, by activation of own air defence capabilities, to cater for retaliation by the opposing air force. Given their its strategic effects, surgical strikes are always done by nations with political will and military preparedness. For example, after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, the Indian Air Force had suggested surgical strikes without crossing the Line of Control to the then government. After mulling for a few days, the government had rejected the suggestion.

Two, the strikes done by the army were not even raids, since they are done against legitimate military targets (in this case, the Pakistan Army) to minimise collateral damage. They were not even hot pursuit, which as the term denotes, is about chasing the enemy back into its own territory. They were what the then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar called them: “Target-specific, counter-terrorist operations (CI ops) across the Line of Control which the army had done in the past too, but this is the first time the government has gone public about it.” He said this to the Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Three, genuine strikes of this nature are always denied to keep the enemy in strategic suspense about the next move. In this case, India first informed Pakistan and then publicly declared that no more strikes were planned and that the mission was over. It was extraordinary for the army to admit operations by the Special Forces and to announce that there “were no plans for further continuation.” By doing so, India conceded its unpreparedness for – let alone war – even heightened tactical level engagements for fear of an escalation. The strikes were evidently not meant to be an army mission but a political one to create a perception of a first-of-its-kind spectacular operation.

The idea of surgical strikes came from the raids done by the Indian Army in Myanmar in June 2015 which had boosted Modi’s ‘macho’ image. This was confirmed by the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who said the preparations for the surgical strikes (in Pakistan occupied Kashmir) started 15 months ago when specialised equipment for SF was purchased from abroad.

On June 4, 2015, the Myanmar-based NSCN-K had ambushed an Indian Army convoy, killing 18 soldiers. The then 3 corps commander, Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat, after clearance from the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) and with support from the IAF (helicopters were kept on stand-by for extrication of Special Forces), conducted raids by SF at two militant sites inside Myanmar on June 10, killing around 100 terrorists. As the government of India publicly celebrated the successful raids inside Myanmar, projecting them as evidence of the Prime Minister’s political will and determination, the Myanmar Army decided to not react, even though the government mildly protested the violation of its sovereignty.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Daily Report and is published from The Wire.)

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