Surgical strikes: A face-saving move or planned retaliation?

Amid the self-congratulatory noises emanating from the BJP government and the satisfied snorting of the media commentators in the aftermath of the “surgical strikes” on jihadi targets 2-3 kms across the Line of Control (LoC), several contentious issues have come to the fore.

In the context of a ramped-up Hammurabi Code voiced by the BJP general secretary Ram Madhav who promised “jaw” for “tooth”, the strikes by heli-lifted special forces on seven staging areas in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) were fairly tame, retributive, actions of the kind routinely undertaken by frontline units of the Indian Army in response to some Pakistani provocation or the other. The present strike seems like a scaled up version, for instance, of the shallow penetration and ambush on July 28, 2011, in the 15 Corps sector of a transport carrying Pakistani troops proceeding home on Eid leave, culminating in five heads being taken as trophy. This was retaliation in kind to a Pakistani attack in the previous days on an Indian post and the beheadings of two Indian soldiers.

Such tactical level actions often involving regimental izzat and inconclusive artillery and small arms duels are par for the course. So there was nothing particularly novel or new about the attack this time around by Indian para-commando. What was innovative, however, was the follow-up move by the Director General, Military Operations, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh to apprise his Pakistani counterpart of the successful Indian operation and to request Pakistan army’s cooperation in eliminating the jihadis. It, in effect, has prevented Pakistan from escalating. But the lapse in time between the Uri attack and the riposte suggests that the commando action was more an after-thought and a face-saver for the government than a thoroughly prepared action.

This is because of absence of an in-place system facilitating instant, automatic and, depending on the situation, proportionate or deterrent response to Pakistan army-driven terrorist events. The evolving international norm is for punitive, anti-terrorist actions, to be launched in the immediate wake of an egregious terrorist incident accompanied by official assurance (such as by Ranbir Singh) about such strikes being limited response to specific provocation, while indicating readiness to deal with any military reaction and possible escalation.

This requires that India, embroiled in an asymmetric conflict prosecuted by an adversarial Pakistan, have strike platforms at the ready at all times, primed by continuously updated intelligence and information about prioritised targets and target coordinates, and Pakistan’s military preparedness, etc, so no time is lost for the punishment to get underway. Lacking such a system, each terrorist incident is treated anew and initiates the same rigmarole of bureaucratised consultations up and down the government and the laborious process of conceiving and fleshing out options, this despite two decades of experience of fighting the jihadi-terrorists, who constitute an irregular arm of the Pakistan army.

The system of automaticity of proportional and punitive retaliation linked to anti-terrorist intent will do two things: Compel Pakistan to carefully think through the kind of terrorist event it may, at any given time, be planning. If it tips over, inadvertently or otherwise, into something big, General Headquarters, Rawalpindi (GHQR), would inadvertently face a situation spiraling out of its control — something it doesn’t want.

Second, with major provocations and escalation thus pre-empted, the situation will stabilise at low, mutually tolerable, levels of insurgency-counter-insurgency operations. This is not an ideal situation, but India and Pakistan could live with it until fatigue of the Kashmiris combines with good sense in GHQR to end the turmoil in the Srinagar valley and a compromise is implemented with Pakistan along the lines agreed upon by President Pervez Musharraf in the mid-2000s.

A more worrying aspect pertains to the Indian armed services’ characteristic unpreparedness for immediate retaliatory action. It forced AB Vajpayee after the December 2001 attack on Parliament to order the more wasteful “general mobilisation for war” once the Army chief General S Padmanabhan intimated him that the military was not in a position to take immediate action, and left Manmohan Singh in 2008 with the alternative of doing nothing after he was informed by the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Fali Major that IAF did not, just then, have target coordinates of terrorist camps in PoK.

It is also the military’s complacency and, apparently, habitual laxity about perimeter security that have permitted terrorist intrusions and incidents to happen in the first place. The attack on Mumbai in 2008 occurred because the loose, in theory multi-tiered, maritime security allowed the seaborne attackers to slip through. Pathankot happened in January owing to base security being reduced to a joke. And now the Uri event obtained because the jihadis sauntered to the Army camp by taking the un-policed path between the Army and Border Security Force camps that stretches to the LoC.

While it is well to criticise the government and the political class for their terminal indecisiveness, it is time the Indian armed services are held accountable for inexcusable lapses in preparedness and security. To continue to treat the armed services as holy cow is to fundamentally undermine national defence.
Published in the Hindustan Times, October 1, 2016, in the Net edition, at, and in the print edition as “Let’s call a spade a spade”.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Culture, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Internal Security, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, society, South Asia, Special Forces, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Surgical strikes: A face-saving move or planned retaliation?

  1. kaniskharsh says:

    Yep. Such an article can only be expected by arm chair Generals

  2. andy says:

    Re: “This requires that India, embroiled in an asymmetric conflict prosecuted by an adversarial Pakistan, have strike platforms at the ready at all times, primed by continuously updated intelligence and information about prioritised targets and target coordinates, and Pakistan’s military preparedness, etc, so no time is lost for the punishment to get underway.”

    You are absolutely right on this count,a system has to be put in place whereby the armed forces can retaliate swiftly,automatically and proportionately ,based on credible intelligence to planned or completed cross border terror strikes. The precedent already exists in the form of authorised ‘disproportionate’ retaliation by the Indian army to cross border firing by the Pakistani army.They shouldn’t have to wait for a political call to take action every time there’s a terror strike in India it’s just a time consuming and futile exercise.

    But when you recently had Army and Corps Commanders apologizing for soldiers having fired at a vehicle that ran a barricade in Kashmir,what message were we giving to the rank and file? By the same yardstick, what were the sentries in Uri expected to do? Perhaps, had they shot these Fidayeens just that bit early, they would have been ‘kicked in the butt’ by our own system that today has to keep a watchful eye on what goes down well with the electorate.The armed forces need to be told, just do what they think is right and the system will hold their hand.

    • andy says:

      The above is not to give a clean chit to the armed forces, who need to pulled up if the enemy succeeds in their nefarious designs due to any laxity on the Indian militaries part.After all the nations security is their job.But they do need to be given a free hand to do their job,without interference by the political class and Babu log.

  3. jagdish says:

    I suggest the writer visit the Indian armed forces and try to understand their ethos and capabilities better. He seems to be the kind of who constantly tries to undermine the will and efforts of the Indian forces and government.

    • ‘Am aware any criticism of the Indian military is frowned upon. But putting the armed forces on a pedestal is not a good thing for the Indian people and our democracy. The question to ask is: Is there an iota of untruth in the article? There isn’t.

      • Mr Karnad,

        I suppose the could the UN session have played a role in this delayed response/acknowledgement. I am sure the SFF etc have enough capability of action. Point should be not tribal revenge but gain from any action taken.

        I as a lay observer find this to be excellent coordination of diplomacy an force and very significant inflection point in untying the hands of our security forces. Would have sent a message to Pakistan’s friends. I am so far impressed.

  4. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Ref. 26/11/2008
    @BK – Re. “Manmohan Singh in 2008 with the alternative of doing nothing after he was informed by the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Fali Major that IAF did not, just then, have target coordinates of terrorist camps in PoK.”

    It was the intel agencies (aka political leadership) who did not have the immediate coordinates. Besides the Navy and Army too had backed out too. :
    “Lt General Naidu also said he would rather wait for the army chief to return from South Africa on November 28. The navy did not have a swift retaliatory option either. Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta said his forces were not ready yet and did not have a ‘Cold Start’ doctrine.
    The intelligence agencies were miffed at the navy for not acting on an alert which revealed the precise location of the LeT vessel while it was anchored off Pakistan’s coast waiting to infiltrate into India. Disclosures made by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had intercepted communications between the Lashkar boat and the LeT headquarters in Pakistan- occupied Kashmir (PoK) and passed the alert on to RAW on November 18, eight days before the terrorists actually struck Mumbai.
    Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major held out the only option for swift retribution. The IAF could carry out air strikes on terrorist camps inside PoK within 16 hours, he said. But for the attacks to be successful and avoid collateral damage to civilians, he would need the exact coordinates of the terrorist training camps. The intelligence agencies did not have such precise information. The military option was postponed.”

    During the same time we also had Fali’s junior saying this:
    “The IAF has earmarked 5,000 targets in Pakistan. But whether we will cross the LoC or the International Border to hit the enemy targets will have to be decided by the political leadership of the country,” P.K. Barbora, the air officer commanding-in-chief of Western Air Command, said in Guwahati today – datelined Dec. 24, 2008 –

    While here is Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major accusing the then Political leadership:
    “Q. The eyeball to eyeball confrontation between the two countries was clear after the Mumbai attacks. We all thought that India would go to war against Pakistan. What made everyone change their mind?

    Answer -Nobody changed their mind. In fact, the government never made up its mind to go to war.
    I know the sentiment of the entire country was that of anger and disgust.
    The Indian Air Force was ready to strike at Pakistan. We had our contingency ready and were well prepared. However, ultimately it depends on what the government wants.”

    Not much has changed since then. The inputs even if received from CIA are going to be used only against non-state actors even though it is the Paki State itself that is really controlling these non-state actors. This brings us to the old question would Paki State remain under the protection of USA forever. Even to move as much as we have it has taken since 1971 at least to convince the Americans.

    Anyhow, here’s Lady Clinton explaining and defending the American and Indian political leadership of the day
    “India conveyed to the United States in no uncertain words that a repeat of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks would force it to to carry out retaliation against Pakistan, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has written in her memoir, recounting her visit to India after the strikes in which 164 people, including four US citizens were killed.
    In her book, Hard Choices, Clinton recounts a meeting with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi in the summer of 2009 in which the duo explained “how hard it had been to show restraint towards Pakistan after the coordinated terrorist bombings in Mumbai the prior November.”
    “They made it clear to me that there would be no such restraint in the event of a second attack,” Clinton has written her book, published by Simon and Schuster that is to be released in India tomorrow.”

    Really it is all transparent. And this is just one case.

    • andy says:

      Now here’s a well researched and backed by credible sources write up put out by yourself,worthy of being read on a strategic affairs blog.It’s a sea change from the drivel being put out earlier,seemed as if you were just letting your imaginative faculties run wild.Wonder what this transformation? Doesn’t matter it’s all for the best.Keep it up.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        @Andy, people are expected to know these things if they are on a Strategic forum. I have seen your requirements too many times and ignore them. I thought this would be obvious.

      • andy says:

        Tch,Tch,Really are one of a kind aren’t you?Can’t even take a compliment.If you expect people to know everything what’s the point of writing anything?Better to give the keyboard some rest isn’t it?

  5. &^%$#@! says:

    Very fine article. The punch line is: “This is because of absence of an in-place system facilitating instant, automatic and, depending on the situation, proportionate or deterrent response….” The question is whether such a system is applicable within the Indian context where personal gain and petty/immediate political mileage far outweighs any National objective (if any exists in the first place).

  6. andy says:

    Wouldn’t a naval blockade of Pakistan’s harbours be a less risky venture in India’s quest to pressurize Pakistan the next time a terrorist attack takes place in Indian territory?Because as sure as night follows day there will be a terrorist strike in India that will be traced back to Pakistan. What will GOI do then?

    Much as I hate to say this, retaliatory surgical strikes across the border are highly unlikely to serve any major long lasting purpose ,except signalling intent.The effect will mostly be transient.Pakistan has an unending supply of terrorist elements, the loss of 40 or 50 such elements will not be a big detterant,sooner rather than later it’s going to be business as usual for the jihadis and their masters in the ISI and Pak army.
    See more: (Pakistani source)

    Plus there’s inherently a risk for the boys going into enemy territory.Luckily this time, there were no Indian casualties due to the complete surprise achieved, but the next time won’t be so easy,given that Pakistan would be ready and waiting.Any major loss of personnel during such punitive action would be a loss of face India cannot afford.

    Surgical Air strikes against terror camps would run into surprisingly robust Pakistani air defenses,plus the enemy has no way of knowing wether IAF aircraft are headed for terror camps or more high value targets,the danger of events spiralling out of control would be clear and present.Using air power by its very nature has escalatory hazards unless all out war is contemplated,otherwise it’s beat avoided.By all means these options can be kept open, but why unnecessarily get involved in actions where India could be dragged into a cess pool of action and counter action,while at the same time worrying about escalation of all out war ,a street brawl with a shameless and failed nation is best avoided.See more:
    PDF]Pakistan’s Air Defence – CLAWS › images › journals_doc

    A naval blockade would stop all trade to and from Pakistan really hurting them, also foreclosing any deniability of Indian action as has been happening this time.By its very nature, a Naval blockade is a measured and calculated step and the situation can be tweaked as events play themselves out.

    The best part is, Indian Navy doesn’t even have to enter enemy territory, a blockade can be achieved while sailing in international waters.The Indian navy outdoes the Pakistani Navy by a ratio of at least 8 to 1,that’s a pretty handy ratio to have while attempting a forceful reversal of Pakistan’s policy of state sponsored terrorism.Escalation in such a scenario would be Pakistan’s call.Of course they could open another front on land but would only run into the ready and waiting Indian military,also providing India the excuse to swing it’s three strike corps into action.Their nuclear bluff has already been called.
    See more: (Pakistani source)

    • A naval blockade, without declaration of general war, will be hard for India to implement. See how difficult China is finding it to impose an exclusive air and sea identification zone in the South China Sea. Yes, any land forces option will, more readily, involve loss of life, etc. But this risk is part of the military option is it not?

    • &^%$#@! says:

      @Andy: It’s a bit difficult to “swing [it’s] three strike corps into action”, when quite a bit of armor is lounging on bricks.

    • andy says:

      Major Arya writes the following regarding cold start,why is this option not on the table considering it was supposed to be exercised in retaliation for Pak sponsored terrorist attacks? Or is it considered too escalotory?

      “Some experts claim that Cold Start is still in the experimental stages. That’s not true. It may not have been battle tested because that needs a war, but for the past 12 years the Indian Army has been honing it to a fine edge.”

      Read more at:

  7. Pingback: A permanent platform ready to strike after each provocation needed | marshalsblogs

  8. Maximus says:

    ‘Am surprised to read that somebody dares to (constructively) criticize Indian army, while the creme de la creme of Indian media is going nuts after having taught the old nemesis “a lesson”. Well done BK, it’s not unfounded, and in a democracy there shouldn’t be a holy cow which is sacrosanct. While GoI may have made some browny points in the short term, it has to be seen if a relative peaceful LoC will flare up again. If it is going to be hot there, some more troops from the east may be called in- much to the comfort of China. Loved your Hammurabi comment.

  9. &^%$#@! says:

    If the media and people of all hues are running wild with joy at the success of what appears more and more a fairly localized operation, it is a reflection of the level of “dhimmitude” the society at large has reached. WRT to the Hammurabi Code , whenever I hear an Indian leader frothing at the mouth and threatening reprisals against some foreign entity for acts done against India, I am reminded of the lines from Macbeth:
    “……..It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.”.

    • What is significant is open recognition and declaration of Intent. It’s a signal to Pakistan’s friends.

      • &^%$#@! says:

        A believable TN test and a 10,000 Kms. canister launched MIRV’ed missile test are the best declarations of intent. . Both programs have been frozen. Rhetoric is a very poor substitute for them.

  10. It is the duty of the govt to ask army, navy, airforce to be in a constant state of readiness for an immediate strike , after big terror attack, Terror attacks are happening for 30 years, \Why didn’t the govts of the day asked army, airforce, navy to hv a ready plan for a counter attack. |IT IS STUPID TO SAY THE IA, IAF, NAVY ARER inept.

    It was the fault of vajpayee , UPA govts which didnot ask them to hv a ready contingency retaliation plan .

    NOW MODI HAS ASKED FOR A RESPONSE & army readily gave it back to the pakis, they are even ashamed to admit that they are being hit.

    Give the devil his due, Modi has rewritten the rules of engagement for future indian govts, whether you like it or not. No future indian gov can “feign” army, IAF, Navy didn’t hv this or that,

    SF is here for eons, Vajpayee, UPA could hv used them repeatedly & killed 100s of pigs, they didn’t hv the spine & now Modi has the spine & brain to give a hard kick at the paki army balls,

    Modi has silenced all his deceitful critics by completely isolating PAK from SAARC & denying them the supporting word from any major power.
    What is even more potent is the casual way in which he let the DGMO to announce the strike to PAKI counterpart, without beating war drums,

    This single act exposes the fact that it was the cowardice of the previous govts which prevented them from taking this step, not the lack of capability of IA, IAF, Navy.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      I wish to are right. Only time will tell. BTW, there was another terrorist attack in Baramulla.

      • andy says:

        As I mentioned above, India is going to be drawn into a cesspool of action and counter action.A surgical strike will just not have the long term impact on pakistan that we are are looking for,unless some big fish like Hafiz saeed or masood azhar are targeted,the terrorist elements are cannon fodder for the ISI and Pak army,the loss of 40 or 50 such elements will not deter them.

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