February 22, 2020
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The Midnight Surgery

Along with punitive measures against Pakistan—a diplomatic offensive, boycott of the SAARC summit and talk of an Indus waters offensive—comes the ‘surgical strike’ across the LoC. India awaits a response.

The Midnight Surgery
Mode Of Action?
Paratroopers rappelling down from a chopper
The Midnight Surgery

The spectre of another India-Pakistan war is a thought politicians, military chieftains, strategic thinkers and diplomats often ponder over warily—with a messy palette of sentiments. The scare scenarios associated with a nuclear event, and the wider domino effect of even a conventional war, ensures that they would rather keep it hypothetical. But with emotions running at fever pitch on both sides of the border after the Uri terror attack, events this week made that possibility look more real than ever.

On Thursday, a buzz of tense anticipation took hold of the subcontinent—and alarms went off in world capitals—as India announced it had carried out ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir at Pakistani terrorist training camps. What exactly was the nature and extent of the strikes? Ground troops? Paradropped commandos? Drone-enabled cross-border fire? Different versions did nothing to stop the swirling speculation. The Indian army’s DGMO, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, spoke at a media conference of “surgical strikes along the LoC”. Sources in the security establishment supplemented this, saying seven terror launching pads were destroyed—mostly within a 2-5 km range across the LoC, with the farthest being seven km across.

Naturally, Pakistan’s versions were at some variance—but even in their qualified denials, there were enough signals that something serious had indeed happened. “We condemn this attack, we are ready for the safety and defence of our country,” prime minister Nawaz Sharif told journalists. The Pakistani military’s media wing ISPR said: “There has been no surgical strike by India. Instead, there has been cross-border fire by India...which is an existential phenomenon.” It added that the “illusion being deliberately generated by rebranding cross-border fire as ‘surgical strike’ is a fabrication of truth.”

“The operations may have been covert but we are not going to be coy about them,” says an official.

Security sources, however, say planning for the strike began soon after the Uri attack, and was launched on Wednesday night as soon as pinpointed information was available. And not merely a symbolic strike—each target was carefully mapped and hit. “Significant casualties have been caused by these strikes,” the DGMO said. “(They) were aimed at terrorists and those backing them.”

A flurry of activity surrounded the news. Immediately prior to it, a high-powered security meeting was chaired by PM Narendra Modi. An all-party meeting was called soon after. Modi also kept the President, vice-president, his predecessor Manmohan Singh and J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in the loop. All the usual markers of rising tension were there: the Sensex tanked by over 500 points, the rupee too inched down gloomily.

In many ways, the DGMO’s clipped, surgical words came as the unveiling of the Modi regime’s new aggressive security template. “Our policy is going to be offensive and proactive, not defensive and reactive anymore. A new red line has been drawn,” disclosed a top security official. “We are not going to wait for trained terrorists to cross the LoC and then look for them. We will hunt them down across the border, neutralise them at source. So there could be more such strikes depending upon the intelligence.”

Clearly, the rules of the game have changed. It is not the first time the Army has carried out tactical raids across the border. The idea of ‘hot pursuit’ was much discussed during NDA-I; it was then home minister L.K. Advani’s pet theme. (The present NSA, A.K. Doval, then in the IB, was closely associated with the policy.) But with Kashmir in the global limelight, India had to give an assurance then that it would not go ahead with it. Later, P. Chidambaram as home minister is believed to have green-signalled several tactical raids across the LoC, but thought it prudent to keep them under wraps. It is a first for the government to actually announce the strike. The DGMO even called up his Pakistani counterpart to inform him about it. “The operations may have been covert, but we are not going to be coy about them,” says an official.

Ironically, an interesting near-endorsement of India’s tactics came from former ISI chief Lt Gen Mohammad Asad Durrani. On Wednesday, before the strike and almost anticipating it, he said, “I feel qualified to talk about a ‘semi-military’ option that would be of use: use of covert means to subvert and sabotage,” the former spymaster said. “Even if denied, it will provide some solace to those in India who are spoiling for retribution.”

Across the globe, however, another armed conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours would be the ultimate ‘black swan’ event. US Secretary of State John Kerry had in fact been in touch with his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, over the past few days, asking for India to show restraint. Even US national security advisor, Susan Rice, spoke to Doval, her counterpart, assuring redoubled efforts to persuade Pakistan to act against Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Modi too had reassured the outside world, through a speech at a recent public rally, that despite India’s deep frustration with Pakistan, his government was not thinking of an armed response. Instead, talk had shifted to ‘non-military’ options: including using ‘water as a weapon’. The pros and cons of “turning off the Indus tap” via a revisiting of the 1960 water sharing treaty were much discussed—the PM got an expert presentation—before realisation dawned that major tinkering was impossible.

But diplomatic warfare was unremitting, and turned to new territory. Mid-week, Modi announced he would stay away from the SAARC summit slated for November in Islamabad. In an unprecedented gesture, three other member-nations, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan, made common cause with India and said they too would stay away. Thursday’s dramatic announcement, therefore, came somewhat against the run of play.

A lot now depends on Pakistan’s res­ponse. So far, it has tried to play down the incident, dismissing it as routine shelling. But the hype in India may well force it to alter its response—any retaliatory strike at Indian positions could dangerously escalate things.

The SAARC snub will hurt, being an index of Pakistan’s growing isolation in the region. Before that, something else left a trail of red faces in New Delhi too—news that India’s trusted ally, Russia, was going to do joint military exercises with Pakistan (see story on page 30). As the smell of cordite clears from the LoC, this event and what it connotes might prove to be the more durable factor. Russia inching closer to the China-Pakistan axis would mean Asian geopolitics itself getting reshaped.

Even so, a cancelled SAARC summit is not without diplomatic force. “Pakistan should have seen the writing on the wall,” says former Indian diplomat Sheelkant Sharma, who had a stint as SAARC secretary-general. “If it had passed on the chair to some other member-country, the summit could have been held.” But a beleaguered Sharif did not want to lose the opportunity to play host to the session, hoping the summit would shore up his stocks.

If that has now earned him some egg on the face, there were enough straws in the wind. A growing dismay among other members was apparent during the run-up meetings. A few months ago, when Pakistan hosted the home ministers’ meeting, it allowed militant groups to hold ‘anti-India’ demonstrations outside the venue, raising the hackles of the Indians and even others. Within SAARC, it lacks the economic clout to pull others towards its agenda; its reluctance to include ‘the fight against terrorism’ as a key point in the SAARC document only sharpened that alienation.

The cut and thrust of diplomacy and limited ‘warfare’ apart, some feel much of Modi’s verbal and policy moves are meant to assuage frustration among BJP’s core support base. “This is jingoism without going to war,” says former MEA secretary K.C. Singh. He argues that while the PM cannot go to war without jeopardising India’s growth momentum, he is mindful of the ire among BJP supporters.

“Modi is caught in a rhetorical trap. He can’t damage his image of a tough leader. He also can’t risk going to war. He will have to think of innovative ways to convince camp followers that he is taking steps to hurt Pakistan,” says Singh. This goes back to 2014, when Modi was projected as a leader who could respond fittingly in the event of a terror attack. However, since he became PM, there have been several att­acks by Pak-based terror groups on Indian assets in Afghanistan and India.

“The use of covert means to subvert and sabotage, even if denied, will provide some solace to those in India who are spoiling for retribution.”
Lt Gen Mohd Asad Durani, Former ISI chief

Modi’s own stated commitment to growth—for which stability is a prerequisite—is what complicates acting on his public image without hindrance. Especially because the two countries are in a sort of sibling feud that can, in a worst-case scenario, deteriorate to a nuclear conflagration. Those who rely on the idea of equal deterrence have reason to qualify their optimism. India has a declared doctrine of ‘no first use’, while Pakistan has been ambiguous on this. This week, Pakistani defence minister Khwaja M. Asif was heard lobbing dark hints. “If Pakistan’s security is threatened, we will not hesitate in using tactical (nuclear) weapons,” he asserted in a tweet. At other times, this would be read as sheer bravado. But banking on something as mutable as sentiment cannot be good policy.

Rivers are largely innocuous entities compared to nukes but, as the Cauvery dispute shows, an underlying animus can set even water on fire. When Modi said “water and blood cannot flow together” at a rally in Kerala, it signalled India was willing to open up another tricky front. India releasing less water from the Indus and its tributaries is something even Lashkar supremo Hafiz Saeed makes propaganda points out of. New Delhi, of course, cannot unilaterally abrogate the World Bank-brokered treaty. So it is looking at using up to 20 per cent of the Indus waters—something it is entitled to do under the treaty.

Again, Durrani foresees this. “Abrogation does not seem to be feasible, as it has serious implications under international law. What seems doable (for India) is control of water to make things difficult for the lower riparian (Pakistan)...unexpected discharges resulting in flooding and less release in drier periods. It has been done in the past,” he says.

India is entitled to campaign globally against Pakistan, says Durrani—“it’s a legitimate effort”—but he doubts its effectiveness, pointing to changed geostrategic priorities. “For the past decade or more, Af-Pak seems to have become the world’s centre. Then we have the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Istanbul Process.” (The SCO is a China-Russia-driven initiative in Central Asia; the latter is more Afghanistan-specific.) “Most importantly, some vigorous efforts by our diplomats have improved Pakistan’s relations with Iran and Russia,” adds Durrani. The Modi regime’s “main plank in this game, the US, too is stuck with us because of what is loosely called the ‘New Great Game’,” the former spymaster says.

All this attritional talk shows how contrasting the mood now is vis-a-vis the bonhomie of May 2014, when Modi invited Sharif at his swearing-in. Even later, when Modi landed in Lahore to greet Sharif on his birthday, it kept alive the paradoxical hope that a ‘strong’ PM could deliver peace. All such attempts at goodwill hunting seem to have fallen back on the beaten track of Indo-Pak relations.

“Every Indian PM goes through this route,” says former diplomat Vivek Katju. “They all come to the same conclusion: Pakistan is not a friend. It’s the turn of Modi to learn this hard truth.” Hence, the idea of causing ‘pain’. Among the options, there is also the idea of withdrawing Most Favoured Nation status. Pakistan had not conferred it back, but New Delhi allowed it to stand as a goodwill gesture. That now seems in doubt. Bilateral trade is negligible, so it’s a ‘symbolic’ gesture, says Katju. “But it’s better to try something.” The jury is still out on what degree of ‘pain’ will succeed—or boomerang.

By Pranay Sharma and Bhavna Vij-Aurora

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