On the intervening night of September 29 in 2016, the Indian Army conducted a surgical strike in Pakistan. The operation that went on for over five hours not only dealt a blow to terrorists planning attacks in India, it also avenged the Uri attack where 19 Army personnel were killed. This writer explains what India has, and has not achieved over the last one year.
A year has passed since the much vaunted ‘surgical strikes’ across the line of control, in the wake of the Uri debacle, in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed before the four attackers could be neutralized. Divergent claims have been made regarding the impact of the strikes beyond the initial claims of “significant casualties, caused to terrorists and those providing support to them.” Unconfirmed reports indicate that at least 50 terrorists and two Pakistan Army handlers were killed in these strikes; there were no Indian casualties.
No strategic or tactical initiative can be correctly assessed for its success or failure unless its original and intended objectives are clearly known. In November 2016, the government had informed the Lok Sabha that the strikes were conducted to target “launch pads along the Line of Control(LoC)”, where terrorists had “positioned themselves to carry out infiltration and conduct terrorist strikes in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and in various metros in other States. The operations were focused on ensuring that these terrorists do not succeed in their motive to cause destruction and endanger the lives of our citizens.”
At least part of this reasoning was specious. Few attacks in "metro cities of other states” have been the result of infiltration across the Line of Control, with the exception of occasional ‘overflow’ incidents in Punjab. The principal targets of terrorists from the launch pads in Pakistan occupied Kashmir lie within J&K. The pre-emptive and preventive impact of the surgical strikes
– if it is to be assessed objectively – must be evaluated in terms of the trends in Pakistan-backed terrorist activity principally in this state.
No available index suggests that the surgical strikes
had any enduring impact on these trends. Indeed, terrorism-linked fatalities in J&K have spiked significantly, with at least 332 fatalities recorded by the South Asia Terrorism Portal database (till September 27, 2017), since the strikes, including 53 civilians, 80 Security Force (SF) personnel and 199 terrorists. In the 12 months preceding the surgical strikes, total fatalities stood at 245, including 10 civilians, 78 SF personnel and 157 terrorists. While SF fatalities have risen marginally, there was a 27 per cent rise in terrorist fatalities and a more than five-fold increase in civilian fatalities.
Violations of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) of 2003 and exchanges of fire across the Line of Control and International Border have, moreover, escalated dramatically. At least 673 incidents of CFA violation by Pakistani Forces have been reported since the surgical strikes, till September 27, 2017. The total number of CFA violations by Pakistan in 2016 was 449, of which, 315 occurred after the surgical strike.
At least 57 Indians (33 SFs personnel and 24 civilians) have died as a result of CFA violations since the surgical strikes.
By contrast, the fatalities in nearly eight years between 2009 and September 29, 2016, totaled 77 Indians (41 SFs personnel and 36 civilians).
Protecting “the lives of our citizens” is certainly one objective that has not been met.
Every violation by Pakistan, repeated statements by Indian political and military leaders suggest, provokes a disproportionate response from India. No reliable data relating to frequency and quantum of retaliatory fire from India, and the casualties inflicted on the other side, is available. What is clear is that both sides are now locked into a cycle of escalating and bloody exchanges, with no evidence of any visible strategic gain to either, and no way to back off without losing face.
The terrorists operating within J&K have, of course, come under extraordinary pressure in the post-surgical strikes
phase; but the operational intensification against them was initiated shortly after the Burhan Wani killing on July 8, 2016, and the stone pelting campaign that ensued. SFs had been stymied by a continuous dilution of their mandate in the preceding years, after terrorism-linked fatalities in the State fell to a low of 117 in 2012, and a crescendo for the withdrawal of the Army and Central Forces, and of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, made effective operations increasingly difficult. Worse, a polarizing politics poisoned the environment, creating widening opportunities for extremist mobilization and Pakistani mischief. SFs have now been given a clear mandate to target and neutralize the terrorists, with intelligence-driven operations successfully taking out much of the top leadership in the State. Operational spaces for the terrorists have been dramatically contracted, information flows from the public are improving, and the extremists are finding few places to hide. Crucially, the over-ground separatist leadership has also been brought under pressure by investigative agencies that have finally been given the authority to implement the law on money laundering, terrorist financing and the vastly disproportionate wealth these facilitators have accumulated through their malfeasance. None of this, however, has an integral link to the surgical strikes.
The bare truth is that the surgical strikes
were a revenge attack for the humiliation the Army suffered at Uri. They fell into a well-established tradition of retaliation, which was not publicized in the past. In this case, they were milked for political advantage, but they were no different in their strategic impact from earlier cross border strikes. All these are mere incidents – of greater or lesser magnitude – within a long chain of actions by SFs in the protracted war against Pakistan. Their impact can be no more than transient unless a sustained strategy of attrition against Pakistan is implemented over the years and decades.
The author is Executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.