On the night of 28 September 2016, several teams of the Special Forces of the Indian Army crossed the Line of Control (LoC) walked stealthily through gaps in the forward defences of the Pakistan army.
The highly trained commandos quietly made their way across some of the most difficult mountainous terrain in the world under the very nose of Pakistani soldiers. Their targets were terrorist launch pads across the LoC in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The operations were meticulously planned and brilliantly executed.
The strikes were launched at six to eight terrorist launch-pads across the LoC and a large number of terrorists were killed. Pakistani soldiers who were in these launch-pads were also killed. The commandos struck with deadly effect and carried back photographs and video recordings as evidence.
Then, as quietly as they had come in, they exfiltrated back across the LoC. Lady Luck was with them and the personnel of the Special Forces did not suffer any casualties, except one mine injury. In carefully measured words, the DGMO said during a press briefing on September 29 that India’s Special Forces had “inflicted significant casualties” on the terrorists and their infrastructure in surgical strikes the previous night.
From the interviews published in newspapers and recent books and reports of Pakistani radio chat, it is evident that 70-80 terrorists or their handlers were killed that night. There was panic on the Pakistani side. The army denied that the surgical strikes had taken place, but the Pakistani media soon nailed the lie.
The army was placed on a high state of alert and the leave of soldiers was cancelled. Hafiz Saeed and Azhar Masood, chiefs of the LeT and JeM terrorist organisations respectively, went into hiding and were not seen for a month. Since then, India-Pakistan relations have deteriorated steadily and plumbed new depths. This was evident at the UN General Assembly session in September 2017.
While Pakistan described India’s presence in Jammu and Kashmir as the “worst example of foreign occupation”, India called Pakistan “Terroristan” and a “jihad factory”.
The informal cease-fire on the LoC is being observed more in the breach and artillery exchanges have been frequent. On the diplomatic front, the SAARC summit that was to be held in January 2017 was cancelled. And, the “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” process with Pakistan remains suspended. There has been a sharp increase in the number of ceasefire violations and the attempts made by Pakistan’s ‘deep state’ ~ the army and the ISI ~ to infiltrate terrorist groups across the LoC.
The number of incidents of violence in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has gone up. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of terrorists killed and the casualties suffered by Indian security forces. Six months after the surgical strikes, Home Minister Rajnath Singh had said there had been a 45 per cent drop in infiltration attempts. Over the summer months infiltration levels increased.
The Home Minister said at Jammu recently that more than 400 infiltration attempts have been made this year, a figure that is much higher than last year’s.
Citing government sources, Sushant Singh, a defence analyst, has written, “Since the surgical strikes, 178 militants have been killed, both in the Kashmir Valley and on the LoC… (while) thirty-eight army personnel were killed between January and September last year ~ including 19 who died in the Uri attack ~ since the surgical strikes, the army toll has gone up to 69.
While there were 228 ceasefire violations on the LoC last year, the number till September 14 this year has already touched 444.” What, then, has been gained from the surgical strikes? In order to analyse the net gains, it is necessary to first examine the aims and objectives.
Despite grave provocation from Pakistan ~ the attack on Parliament in December 2001, multiple terrorist strikes at Mumbai in November 2008 and several other incitements ~ India showed immense strategic restraint. Knowing fully well that the remaining roots of militancy in J&K are now in PoK and Pakistan, for almost three decades India restricted its counterinsurgency campaign to its own side of the LoC.
By not taking the fight across the LoC into PoK, India avoided the risk of escalation to fullfledged war with Pakistan with nuclear undertones. While this strategy succeeded in ensuring uninterrupted economic growth, it failed to create any disincentives for Pakistan’s deep state to force it to stop its war for Kashmir through asymmetric means.
Hence, besides revenge for the terrorist attack at an army camp at Uri, the aim of the surgical strikes was to send several messages to Pakistan. The foremost message was that with the terrorist attack at an army camp at Uri, India’s threshold of tolerance had been crossed. Secondly, India signalled that self-imposed restrictions in its counter-insurgency operations will no longer be observed and that terrorists will be hunted down wherever they are found.
The aim was to warn Pakistan to expect an even more vigorous response for every act of terrorism that its entities perpetrate on Indian soil. The essence of the message was that so far India had been reactive in its response to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism; now onwards, India would be proactive.
It would have become clear to Pakistan to expect that in future India will progressively raise the cost for waging a war for Kashmir through asymmetric means. At another level, India showcased its ability to launch multiple strikes by Special Forces simultaneously across a well defended front.
Through these strikes Pakistan was given a glimpse of the full range of India’s military capabilities. Lt Gen D S Hooda, then Army Commander, Northern Command, said in a recent interview: “The surgical strike goals were not really about finishing terrorism in Kashmir or drying up infiltration. It was about the range of our response to terrorism emanating from Pakistan. The signal that we wanted to send was that we would not limit our actions only on our side of the border but also hit Pakistan in their territory. This message was sent successfully and we scored a definite moral victory.”
The surgical strikes dealt a hard blow to the morale of trained terrorists who were waiting to be inducted. Also, the Pakistan army was forced to move the location of the terrorist launch-pads well behind the LoC. This has imposed costs on the terrorist organisations and their ISI handlers in terms of the logistics of induction and infiltration.
India exercised a range of political, diplomatic, economic and military options in conjunction with the surgical strikes. Efforts to isolate Pakistan and designate it as a state sponsor of terrorism were initiated and are making progress.
The thinking of policy communities across the Western world has changed. In his policy speech on Afghanistan in late-August 2017, US President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of working with “agents of chaos” and said things “will have to change.”
Finally, the credit for the spectacular success of the transLoC raids goes to the leadership and the brave warriors of India’s Special Forces. The political leadership also deserves to be complimented for showing firm national resolve for the first time since the 1971 war with Pakistan.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi)