Surgical Strikes - Wrong Questions, Right Questions

Author - Anil Chawla

If you live in India, you could not have missed the debates about the two surgical strikes conducted under the dynamic leadership of our macho (56 inch chest) Prime Minister. The first surgical strike was announced on 29 September 2016. Government of India claimed that militant launch pads across the Line of Control in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir were attacked and significant casualties were inflicted. Let us call the 2016 surgical strike as SS16.

Second surgical strike, often called in the media as 2019 Balakot airstrike, occurred on 26 February 2019 at around 3.30 am. Twelve Mirage 2000H jets of Indian Air Force crossed the Line of Control and delivered a payload on a terrorist training camp. Let us call the 2019 air strike as SS19.

Rajnath Singh, Home Minister of India, recently claimed that there has been a third surgical strike without giving any details of the same. Let us not talk about either the claim or the secret third surgical strike.

Not surprisingly, Indian and Pakistani accounts of both SS16 and SS19 vary greatly. What is however, acknowledged by both sides is that the Indian forces crossed the Line of Control and inflicted some damages on the Pakistani side. Propaganda is an essential instrument of war and one should not expect any side to be completely truthful. In fact, there are instances when information bombardment has achieved better results than canons and fighter planes. So, if India is indulging in blowing her own trumpet we as Indians must join the exercise and not take to pointing holes in the story.

Let me give an example. When twin towers were attacked in the USA on 9/11, it took the USA less than 24 hours to conclude without an iota of doubt that the attack was by a well-identified enemy even though those who hijacked the planes were mostly citizens of the closest allies of the USA. No trial was conducted or demanded. As a lawyer, absence of any legal processes and jumping to indisputable conclusion seems ridiculous. But, no one in the USA seemed to mind even though the country has more lawyers per million people than anywhere else in the world.

Indian opposition parties have largely cooperated with the Government and have played along their part as patriotic citizens. However, some questions and doubts have been raised by opposition leaders as well as by media about success of the two surgical strikes. This should be avoided at the moment. Indian people have to learn to live with failures. There are occasions when the best planned military operations go wrong. For example, in SS19 failure could have come from wrong intelligence inputs, technical failure of equipment, human error and such other causes. It is neither appropriate for the opposition to blame the government for a botched-up operation nor is it correct for the leaders of ruling party to thump their chests for the success of any military operation. Both need to show restraint.

There is also the issue of number of people killed by the surgical strikes. SS19 happened early morning at 3.30 am. By 6 am, Indian TV channels, fed by formal and informal briefs from government were claiming that more than 300 persons had been killed by the raids of Indian fighter planes. By the end of the day, the figure had jumped to 400 persons. Pilots of the attacking fighter planes would not have known whether their bombs landed on the intended targets when the government was already feeding stories about the number of dead. Armed forces would have needed time to get inputs from their sources in enemy territory to estimate the casualties. By giving out estimates in less than four hours, the Government of India made itself a laughing stock of the world. It is acceptable to indulge in propaganda to achieve war objectives. But the one golden rule is that it should be done without harming one's own credibility. Sadly Government of India lost its credibility significantly when it indulged in this amateurish exercise of giving out an estimate of dead almost immediately after SS19. Damage was further done when the Chief of Indian Air Force said that the Air Force did not count dead bodies. Of course, the Chief was right. It was the political leadership that had acted in haste.

Talking of number of dead is indeed morbid and displays a sick mentality. A professional army or air force officer is taught that every operation should be carried out in such a manner that the number of dead (a) on one's side and (b) on the enemy side is as low as possible. Indian army has never been accused of genocide or rapes. Indian army is not a killing machine. Indian armed forces move to capture or liberate strategic assets – killing enemy soldiers or civilians and getting one's own killed is a necessary evil that happens to be necessary to the objective at hand. In the seven decades since independence, Indian armed forces have never moved or acted solely with the objective of killing.

Sadly, it seems that both SS16 and SS19 lacked any clear strategic objective other than killing. In both cases the aim seemed to be to kill as many as possible. At least the subsequent chest-thumping by political leadership gave the impression. If indeed the objective was merely to kill and not to capture or liberate any strategic asset, it deserves the most severe condemnation. The damage that has been inflicted is not as much on the enemy side as on our own side. A professional army that starts to behave like a killing machine can be dangerous for the country. Indian armed forces take pride in their glorious traditions and emphasis on aan-baan-shaan (loosely translated as "honor and glory"). An Indian soldier never looks at himself as a murderer par excellence. If he loses this perspective of himself, our country would have lost something that we have been proud of.

Talking of strategic objectives let us for a moment, assume that the objective of destroying terrorist training camps was indeed the purpose of the two strikes. Once an objective is defined, the next question is the use of right machines and men to achieve the objective. It is not clear why in both cases, missiles were not used. India has a large number of missiles in her arsenal. The lowest capacity missiles in Indian arsenal are Prithvi-I with range of 150 km and payload capacity of 800 kg, Dhanush with range of 350 km and payload capacity of 500 kg, Agni-1 with range of 700-900 km and payload capacity of 1000 kg and Prahaar / Pragati with range of 150 km and payload capacity of 200 kg (estimated range and payload, not based on official releases). It is indisputable that the targets of both SS16 and SS19 were well within the range of the lowest capacity missiles in Indian arsenal.

Right question that Indian people must ask their Prime Minister and the political leadership is not about the number of dead Pakistanis but (a) strategic objective sought to be achieved and (b) reasons for not using missiles and endangering the lives of Indian men in uniform whether in SS16 or in SS19. It seems that Indian leadership is fighting a twenty first century war with a mindset of mid-twentieth century. They seem to be scared of powerful weapons in their arsenal due to fear of aggravating the war. We have seen this earlier in 1962 when Jawaharlal Nehru refused to permit use of aircraft in 1962 India-China war. India lost the 1962 war due to Jawaharlal Nehru’s folly. Is the history repeating itself more than five decades later?

In any military operation, timing is critical. In 1971 Indira Gandhi wanted to attack East Pakistan in summer. She was persuaded to wait for winter. India attacked in winter and rest is history. We, the people of India must ask our leadership whether the time selected was correct time to launch first SS16 and then later SS19. Also we need to ask why there was no follow up to SS16 for more than two and a half years.

India lost 47 security personnel in 2014, 39 in 2015, 82 in 2016, 80 in 2017 and 91 in 2018 to terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. Obviously, SS16 had failed to reduce the number of killings of our soldiers in the months that followed. Indian people must ask our government why it chose to not respond to more than 170 deaths of security personnel after SS16 but woke up from slumber when 33 soldiers were killed in February 2019 at Pulwama. Is it that Government of India has no objections to small incidents of attacks on Indian forces but wakes up with a knee-jerk reaction when more than x number of security personnel are killed? As an Indian, I am not willing to accept this logic.

If Indian armed forces have the intelligence inputs and strike capacity to attack and destroy terrorist training camps like they claim to have done in SS19, why was it not done during 2017 and 2018 when security personnel were being killed by the dozens? Were we waiting for more than thirty of our brothers to be killed in a single action? Would it not have been better to plan a coordinated campaign of missile attacks on every single terrorist training camp in Pakistan occupied territory and Pakistani soil starting from 2015/16 when the terrorist organization changed their strategy and started attacking security establishments? Who was scared of such a coordinated well-thought-out planned elaborate campaign involving extensive use of missiles and, drones with minimum use of fighter planes and foot soldiers?

Any discussion on timing will have to take into account the political realities of elections in a democratic country like India. Any serious strategic action against the enemy must be carried out when the government of the country is stable and faces no turbulence on account of forthcoming elections. SS19 has come at a time when the country is not in a position to implement a well-planned medium-term strategy.

SS19 seems to be a knee-jerk reaction by a government that gave the impression of sleeping when more than 200 of our brethren were martyred. It does not appear to be part of any well-planned long-term or medium-term strategy. Right question that we, as people, must ask our leaders is about the medium-term or long-term strategy that they have in mind to stop martyrdom of hundreds of our brethren. Machoism or jingoism or fiery speeches cannot be a substitute to well-planned and executed strategy. Let us not be satisfied by tokenisms like release of one pilot when scores of our brothers continue to be killed every year.

War is too important a matter to be left to generals and even professional politicians who cannot look beyond the next elections. Let us, the people of India, rise up and start asking the right questions about matters of national security.

Anil Chawla

10 March 2019

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer (B.Tech. (Mech. Engg.), IIT Bombay) and a lawyer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and an advocate, insolvency professional and strategic consultant by profession.
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