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Surgical strikes are good theatre, but stop there

The best form of attack is political theatre. It satisfies the bloodlust of enraged domestic audiences without causing serious military damage to the other side, thus limiting escalation.

India’s supposed “surgical strike” on seven terrorist bases across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir has produced more guffaws than outrage in Pakistan. An official there sneered, “How is it possible that the target of a surgical strike has no idea it took place? This was simply an episode of cross LoC fire…small arms and mortars were used, similar to what was used before…we gave a befitting response.” He said India was inventing surgical strikes to mollify its domestic audience.

“Surgical strike” suggests cutting a limb, crippling the enemy and deterring terrorism. Pakistan’s response shows nothing has been cut off or deterred. It will keep aiding Kashmiri militancy.

That militancy is homegrown. Pakistan assists it, but the problem arises from India’s human rights abuses in Kashmir. The Valley is more anti-India than ever. Until that changes — and it could take decades — Kashmiri militancy, and Pakistani assistance to it, will continue.

India claims its strikes destroyed “launch pads” for terrorist infiltration into India. This misuses military terminology to paint a picture of victory. Launch pads are used by missiles, not guerillas, who are very mobile and infiltrate wherever opportunity beckons. They are not stationary targets (like missile launch pads) that can be destroyed by bombing.

Yet such political theatre can be a good thing. It is a relatively low-risk way of satisfying domestic demand for retaliation against Pak-assisted outrages in Uri and Pathankot, while minimising the chances and extent of military escalation.

Had India tried to aerially bomb important military targets, as some jingoists want, its planes could well be shot down by well-defended Pakistan. Even a tank-led attack could lead to humiliating setbacks. No, better by far is artillery shelling from Indian soil across the border — our guns can fire several kilometres into Pakistani territory. Manned missions a kilometre deep will take just a few minutes before hurrying back.

Even this carries risks. India may get away with this as an occasional tactic. But if used too often, or causing too much damage, Pakistan will be obliged to retaliate. After that, tit-for-tat escalation could lead to a pointless, bloody war.

The best way of limiting escalation is to fire from Indian soil and exaggerate the impact. Jingoistic populists in India will lap up such “surgical strikes” even as Pakistanis sneer. Opposition parties will go along with such exaggerations for patriotic solidarity. Domestic honour will feel assuaged.

The UPA government had earlier followed a policy of “strategic restraint” in the face of Pakistani provocations. It avoided conventional military retaliation, which would carry major risks. Strategic restraint gained global sympathy for India, but not isolation of Pakistan as a terrorist state (it remains a vital supply route for international assistance to Afghanistan). Some analysts suggested retaliation through overt support to Baloch insurgents in Pakistan. But the UPA rejected overt support since India could not simultaneously lambast Pakistani aid to militants in Kashmir and yet aid militants in Balochistan. Instead, it opted for strategic restraint.

This was politically feasible because India suffered from so many sorts of domestic violence across states, that violence in Kashmir seemed mostly routine. Pakistan’s notion of ousting India from Kashmir through “a thousand cuts” failed because the cuts were no more than pinpricks in a violent land.

However, the recent attacks on Indian military bases in Uri and Pathankot are not routine militancy. They come close to acts of war. The Indian public demands retaliation, not strategic restraint.

Modi and the BJP are hawks. But even long-time doves like me sense that Uri and Pathankot have raised the ante, and require a retaliatory strategy.

Boycotting Saarc summits is not enough. Maximising water use allowed by the Indus Waters Treaty makes sense, but is not punishment: it simply gives Pakistan its due share. Modi has opted for strikes across the LoC, amidst much cheering from most Indians.

As a dove, I will go along reluctantly, but highlight the risk of escalation. Minor Pakistani retaliation should be shrugged off. Escalation is best curbed by India using carefully calibrated force only occasionally, and by using fancy terminology (like “surgical strikes”) that Indians cheer even while Pakistanis sneer. If both Indians and Pakistanis feel good, that is the best insurance against escalation.

1 thought on “Surgical strikes are good theatre, but stop there”

  1. Mr Aiyar, I am a regular reader of your column and enjoy and silently support most of your arguments.

    In today’s TOI there is a response to this article by Col Ashok Purandare, which attempts to find fault with your reasoning. He says that you should “appreciate that the strikes were … a necessary symbolic gesture which have had a tremendous impact.” He has, in fact proved your point of “raising national confidence”, created “symbolism” and “dispelling doubts about the potency of the nation’s fighting forces”!

    While I am in no position to dispute his military knowledge, the term “launch pads” has been bandied about by the media long before you wrote the article.

    I fully agree that PM Modi has “calibrated” OUR response to the cross-border terror export with a view to achieve all of the above. After all, how long can one allow your neighbour’s dog to come and spoil your garden without a response? 30 years is long enough!

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