Surgical strikes better for surgeon than the patient

To combat severe spinal arthritis, I underwent major surgery on my back last year. The surgeon reconstructed three vertebrae using titanium rods. Alas, one and a half years later the pain is almost as bad as before. On every post-operation visit, he takes an X-ray of my back. He looks admiringly at his handiwork, almost as though he is in love with it. “It looks really good,” he says.

Sorry, I say, but the operation was supposed to end my spinal pain, and it hasn’t done so. Don’t worry, the X-ray shows you are doing fine, you will get better in due course, says the surgeon, giving the X-ray another admiring gaze. This operation has left the surgeon delighted, without curing the patient.

I was reminded strongly of my own sad story when the government decided to celebrate September 29 as ‘Surgical Strike Day’, on the second anniversary of its strikes on terrorist camps across the border. The University Grants Commission instructed all colleges to celebrate too. It seems that Surgical Strike Day may become a hardy annual.

In 2016, rising violence in Kashmir by Islamic militants culminated in attacks on Indian forces at Uri and Pathankot. This stoked public anger, and Narendra Modi’s strongman image was at stake. His party had always claimed to be the most patriotic and ultra-nationalist, the most committed to get tough with enemies. So, to retaliate against Uri and Pathankot, Indian troops were sent on September 29 that year across the Line of Control in Kashmir to hit various terrorist camps. The government called it a “surgical strike”. It created much elation in political circles and the media about having taught Pakistan a lesson.

Two years later, we must ask, what was the impact of the strike on Pakistani and militant activity? Did it solve or greatly mitigate India’s problem? The answer is disconcerting. Sandeep Bharadwaj of the Centre for Policy Research estimates that in Kashmir, the number of insurgency-related fatalities went up from 267 in 2016 to 358 in 2017. The number of estimated infiltrations went up from 371 to 406. And the number of civilian deaths increased by 166%.

Pakistani support for militants remained undiminished. Border violence also worsened. India-Pakistan ceasefire violations more than doubled in 2017 compared with 2016. And Pakistan has just elected a new prime minister, Imran Khan, who has long been cozy with both the militants and the Pakistan Army.

In sum, India is no more secure than before. Yet the government keeps crowing about how fabulous the surgical strike was, and how well it was executed. This reminds me of my own back surgeon. He too crows about how beautifully he did the operation, and how wonderful the X-rays look. In the case of both my back and Kashmir, the operation has done more for the surgeon than the patient.

The surgical strike in 2016 was short and swift, a hitand-return tactic. It was a shallow penetration, no more than one kilometre into enemy territory, killing and wounding a modest number of militants. Pakistan’s first reaction was to say it was unaware of anything more than the usual border incidents. Later it admitted, and independent foreign journalists confirmed, that the strikes were real. But they said they resembled a mosquito bite more than surgery. Pakistan declared that it would not be cowed by such tactics and warned India not to trifle with a first-strike nuclear power. Violence in Kashmir continued unabated.

The surgical strike was mostly political theatre. It made most Indians feel good, without greatly disturbing Pakistanis. Such an outcome has its uses.

Many Indians have long called for really tough retaliation against Pakistan, such as aerial bombing of terrorist camps across the border. However, Pakistan will not take this lying down and will retaliate, maybe by sending its own bombers into action. This could lead to dangerous escalation between two nuclear-armed countries. That should be avoided.

Surgical strikes may be political theatre, but that is far better than armed escalation. The Indian public has long wanted to teach Pakistan a lesson for supporting militant attacks. After Uri and Pathankot, something had to be done. The surgical strikes constituted a limited operation, doing enough damage to satisfy the domestic audience, without being heavy enough to stoke dangerous retaliatory escalation.

This is not a solution to the Kashmir problem. But it is a useful way of assuaging the Indian public and thwarting armed escalation. Whether it should be celebrated annually is another matter.

PS: I don’t celebrate the anniversary of my back surgery. It’s not even political theatre.

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