As the global news media resounded with earth shattering statements of the Indian Director General Military Operations, stating that India had taken the much feared step to discard its doctrine of “Strategic Restraint” for Pakistan and carried out military strikes inside Pakistani territory, all eyes turned to Pakistan’s civil and military leadership.
The world’s capitals were in a frenzy, international organizations mobilized at once and investors started pulling out their money as fast as they could. The press conference might as well have been a declaration of war, a nuclear-armed state had just breached the borders of another nuclear-armed state. The wanton callousness of this act alone would have immeasurable repercussions, not only for the region but for the world at large. The world looked eagerly towards Islamabad; offers for mediation and intervention were made but surprisingly, things in Islamabad looked unnervingly calm. If not calm, the civil-military leadership of the country seemed just as confused about the incident as the rest of the world. So what actually happened?
At a glance, the Indians’ claim for “Surgical Strikes” inside Pakistan is hardly a new one, the term was used widely after the Mumbai Attacks when calls were made for the Indian Airforce to target alleged “Terrorist Camps” inside of Pakistan. The idea received considerable traction in domestic circles but failed to translate into any actual engagements within Pakistan. The term was thrown around on and off, in sync with India’s domestic security situation but always seemed to be limited for pacifying domestic quarters rather than ever actually being seen as a worthwhile option for Delhi.
The potential dividends these strikes could offer never fully justified the hostility they would generate. The strikes were always understood to be a slippery slope, once the border has been breached, it’s open season, and limiting the hostilities might prove more troublesome than expected. India might be content with leaving it at surgical strikes but there would be no guarantee that Pakistan would exercise restraint and not respond with open hostility across the border frontage. And it’s been always understood that once the skirmishes begin, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to complete war in the conventional plane, which is already understood to be a “no-go” because as surgical strikes are a slippery slope to conventional war; conventional war itself especially between countries with asymmetrical conventional capabilities but largely equivalent offensive nuclear potential like India and Pakistan, could serve as a slippery slope to nuclear war itself.
What then could have compelled India to contemplate that these surgical strikes would be a suitable military option to exercise in this climate of uncertainty and friction? The most likely answer would be mere desperation. Modi rode into Delhi on a wave of nationalist fervour, he was the man who was going to stick it to Pakistan and it’s no surprise that a large portion of his national constituency felt he would be the man to put Pakistan in its place. “Modiji” was exalted by his followers when he made statements berating Pakistan. They gasped in awe as he met with Nawaz Sharif; “Modiji” was so astute; he was such a brilliant statesman! This fascination with “Modiji” was abruptly disturbed when the new Kashmir Intifada was pushed into gear after the killing of Burhan Wani, a charismatic young militant leader. “Modiji” blamed Pakistan for the uprising and the people were up in arms but then, “Modiji” went quiet, and the people were having none of it.
Narendra Modi found himself the captive of the very image of himself that had gotten him to Delhi. His people expected him to teach Pakistan a lesson, but Narendra Modi, the candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India are essentially two different individuals. The latter has to be more rational in his approach, he has to think beyond the corner and not just give into sloganeering. As his silence resonated across his nation, other voices began to question him. Modi’s politics of violence had left him with very little manoeuvring space and that’s where he exhausted all his options: the “Surgical Strikes” were his only way out.
On that note, it is essential to look into the alleged strikes themselves. When the idea first started making the rounds back in 2008, the concept was to strike deep inside Pakistan. At the time, the target was to be Muridke, the alleged headquarters of Hafiz Saeed and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which would be struck from Amritsar, about 65km away.
This time around however, the Indian Military has claimed that the target was merely 3kms away from the LoC, which would put it effortlessly within mortar range and therefore remove all rationale for the Indian military to even consider engaging in hostilities for a target that can easily be engaged from their own soil, without putting their men in danger and risking total war. If we assume that the Indian Military wanted to make this strike highly effective and execute it with pinpoint accuracy, they could have easily chosen to engage the so-called “launch pads” at stand-off range with a variety of precision-guided ground to ground as well as air-to-ground missile/artillery solutions available at their disposal.
Therefore, it makes no sense for the Indian military to abandon all viable solutions in order to pursue the most irrational one with a high probability of failure, losses, and subsequent diplomatic blowback. The only visible advantage this method had over any other was simply the raw public appeal that a supposed incursion into Pakistani territory by Indian soldiers would generate, this appeal of going in and doing the job yourself can never be rivalled by a missile or an artillery shell; those methods lack the charisma because they do not have a face and the stakes involved are highly depreciated.
India is increasingly marketing itself as a great power; their accelerated arms procurement, political manoeuvring and mounting successes in the space race are all steps towards the same goal, to establish India as the up and coming great power. The “Surgical Strike” might be a coming-of-age ritual close to the Indian establishment; they saw how the raid against Osama Bin Laden was seen as a unilateral declaration of unparalleled military capability and unprecedented access to their enemies anywhere in the globe. The Indian government might have felt motivated to taste some of the glory itself as it announced its arrival to an exclusive club of states capable of breaching borders with impunity without worrying about the repercussions that it would entail. However, India lacks the capability to develop and operate stealth helicopters like the Americans and that would explain why they were quick to retract initial statements which identified it as a heliborne operation and substitute it for a ground raid. The latter, however, is an equally unlikely scenario, given the geography of the area and the time frame involved.
These observations coupled with the lack of evidence presented, as well as the fluctuating statements of the Indian government/military point towards an inherent disconnect between the reality and the events being narrated by the Indian national leadership.
The most probable case here seems to be that the Indian government was coaxed into making this statement in order to ease the domestic pressure for action, silencing the opposition for the government’s lack of initiative and establishing consensus within the country by giving the people an event to get behind. The Prime Minister found himself in a challenging position where action would lead to war and the lack of it would lead him to be remembered as a paper tiger. His solution to this problem was simple, he moved to conjure up an event that would help him win domestic support but the fact that no actual hostility took place would not strain relations with Pakistan for too long and that way, his government’s position will be secured either way.