The nuclear-armed archrivals India and Pakistan’s relations have been at a low ebb since February 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been chanting phantom surgical strikes for domestic consumption, especially before the state and national elections, from September 2016. In reality, in response to the Indian Air force’s breach of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty on February 26-27, 2019, Pakistan Air Force shot down two Indian fighter jets and captured one pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. The aerial skirmish had upped the ante between India and Pakistan with dangerous consequences. Appreciating that war was not the answer to end the standoff between nuclear-armed belligerent neighbors, Islamabad returned the captured pilot to India as a “gesture of peace” on March 1, 2019. Instead of responding positively, the Indian ruling elite rushed for warmongering and irresponsible nuclear compellence rhetoric. Though anti-Pakistan xenophobia contributed to the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in the 2019 general elections, it failed to scare Islamabad. Pakistan Armed Forces’ befitting cum restrained responses desisted the Indian leadership to escalate the post-Pulwama military standoff. Ironically, once again, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his clique are covertly planning to conduct phantom surgical strikes against Pakistan to divert attention from the country's internal mess. Admittedly, these political gimmicks may temporarily provide relief to the shaky Modi government at the domestic front. Still, it will be having lasting repercussions for the Indian Ocean and South Asia's strategic environment. These destabilizing developments raise three interlinked questions: Does the probability of surgical strike exist? Why is the Modi government frustrated to use a surgical strike stratagem as a recipe? What exactly is India’s surgical strike stratagem and its background?
The following discussion is divided into three sections. The first section critically examines the factors which predict the probability of surgical strikes. It is followed by the determinants which have been frustrating the Modi government and compelling it to take extreme measures such as surgical strikes. The third section precisely defines surgical strike strategy and also spells out India's surgical strike stratagem. It is followed by a brief description of Pakistani forces' preparedness to defend the sovereignty and geographical integrity of the state.
Probability of Escalation of Tension
The current trends in the Indian domestic polity, developments in the global and regional strategic environment, and deadlock between Islamabad and New Delhi alarm the probability of escalating a conflict between India and Pakistan. On December 18, 2020, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi stated in a presser in the United Arab Emirates that he had just received intelligence information that India was planning surgical strikes against Pakistan. He said, “This is a serious development, and I have also learned that they have tried to seek tacit approval from who they consider being their partners.” Is Mr. Qureshi’s prognostication about India’s surgical strikes realistic? For comprehending Mr. Qureshi's statement, one needs to be mindful of a few facts about the Indian polity, especially India's strategic enclave's perception about conflict determination and prevention. The Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces-2017 (JDIAF-2017), released in April 2017, stated: “Conflict would be determined or prevented through a process of credible deterrence, coercive diplomacy and conclusively by punitive destruction, disruption and constraint in a nuclear environment across the spectrum of conflict.” This article of the doctrine manifests that the Indian policymakers are inclined to use coercive diplomacy and punitive, destructive military means to pursue their internal and external pursuits.
Second, the unrest in India’s politics about the purchase of Rafale fighter jets needs proper attention. On July 29, 2020, the induction of five dual capable Rafale fighter jets in the 17 Squadron of the Indian Air Force, which is also known as Golden Arrows, was declared by Modi government a big achievement at the strategic chessboard. Rafale is an advanced fifth-generation aircraft. The Modi government viewed the introduction of Rafale as a sign of relief after the deterioration of its economic policy and dent in India’s military reputation in February 2019 and again in June 2020. However, since 2018, Modi and his associates have been encountering corruption charges in the Rafale deal. For demonstrating the vitality of Rafale jets and demeaning the oppositions' allegations, the Modi government could stage a drama of surgical strike.
Third, the critical analysis of the BJP election winning strategy since the mid-1980s alarms the probability of the Modi Government's imprudent political gimmicks. The common factors in all these election campaigns were: increasing the anti-Pakistan propaganda; target Muslims and their cultural artifacts in India; publicize Hindus' historical and current victimhood; and strengthening Indian armed forces to punish India’s archrival Pakistan and deter China. These factors were debated intensely during the election campaigns to muster the support of Hindutva forces and neutral nationalists. The Modi Government’s performance is currently unimpressive, therefore, for the forthcoming elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJ&K), BJP has invigorated its election strategy.
Fourth, the Indian forces deployed in the Indian Illegally Occupied Kashmir along the Line of Control (LoC) and the Working Boundary (W.B.) have continuously been involved in punitive destruction and disruption. They have been targeting civilian populated areas with artillery fire, heavy-caliber mortars, and automatic weapons. For instance, in 2020, the Indian military has carried out more than 3,012 ceasefire violations, resulting in 28 shahadats and severe injuries to 253 innocent civilians.
Finally, the increasing Hindutva forces in India have soured on Pakistan amidst the domestic emergencies. Modi government’s irrational policies — the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the scrapping of Article 370 that guaranteed autonomy to IIOJ&K, tepid response to COVID-19 and the recent set of laws concerning the agriculture sector, which farmers from all over the country are opposing — have unleashed internal unrest amid the economic recession.
Modi’s Diplomatic Cataclysm
The Indo-U.S. cementing strategic partnership and extreme pro-U.S. BJP ideologues compromised India’s seven decades old cherished strategic autonomy, distanced it from Russia and Iran, and deteriorated its relations with China. Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, opined: “However, India is currently an object of the Western countries' persistent, aggressive and devious policy as they are trying to engage it in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called "Quad" while at the same time the West is attempting to undermine our close partnership and privileged relations with India. This is the goal of the U.S.' very tough pressure on New Delhi in the MTC area.” Modi government's attempt to demonstrate India's military posture towards China since 2017 resulted in the killing of twenty Indian soldiers in a border conflict with China in the Galwan valley, Ladakh region on June 15, 2020.
The increasing tension with China immensely improved India's strategic convergence with the United States. On October 27, 2020, after meeting with the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in Delhi, the U.S. Secretary of State Mr. Pompeo announced: "The U.S. will stand with India in its efforts to defend its sovereignty and its liberty. Our nations are committed to working together into expanding our partnerships across many fronts." Presently, the Americans are transferring the state-of-the-art weapons and sharing geospatial intelligence for military purposes with New Delhi to pursue their strategic objectives in Asia-Pacific, including balancing China's steady rise and strengthening India's role in the Indian Ocean region. Indeed, it serves the American global strategic agenda but immensely compromised the Indian business community’s interest in the region. It is an open secret that the Indian business community lost opportunity of the billion dollars International North-South Transport Corridor Project extending from Chabahar via Afghanistan to Central Asia and the undersea Iran-India gas pipeline. Besides, their business opportunities in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics have been compromised.
Prime Minister Modi’s wishful thinking to isolate Pakistan diplomatically in the community of nations dashed miserably. New Delhi’s anti-Pakistan campaign was exposed by the European non-government organization EU DisinfoLab. New Delhi created and funded hundreds of fake media outlets and organizations to feed inaccurate information in the European Union and United Nations bodies to discredit India’s rivals, including China and Pakistan. On December 22, British telecoms regulator, Office of Communications (Ofcom) fined Worldview Media Network £20,000 after its Indian channel, Republic Bharat TV, aired a program that contained "hate speech" against Pakistanis. Indeed, it was a big blow to India’s three decades’ soft power image in the international community.
Pakistan’s hosting of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of China’s President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), enables the country to function as the Zipper of Eurasia. Moreover, its success against the transnational radicalized terrorist syndicates restored the image of the law enforcement agencies of the government. Consequently, many countries appreciate Pakistan’s growing global geostrategic significance and contemplate working with it to pursue their strategic and economic interests.
New Delhi is very upset due to the bolstering strategic cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad. China and Pakistan are currently engaged in furthering their armed forces' interoperability by increasing sophisticated joint military exercises, which are considered vital to increase combat readiness of both countries to face the emerging geostrategic challenges. On December 18, 2020, addressing the participants of Pak-China Joint Air Exercise “Shaheen-IX” General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) said: “The Joint Exercise will improve combat capacity of both Air Forces substantially and also enhance interoperability between them with greater strength and harmony.” Earlier, during Chinese Defense Minister, General Wei Fenghe’s visit, they signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to improve cooperation between the two countries’ armies. These developments are viewed negatively towards India's strategic and economic interests in Asia.
The Indians have been equally disturbed due to increasing trust between Pakistan and the Russian Federation. Russian Federal Duma delegation in the first-ever six-nation Speaker’s Conference in Islamabad held in December 2017 supported Pakistan's stance on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. The joint declaration issued at the end of the Conference stated, “We agreed that for ensuring global and regional peace and stability, the issue of Jammu & Kashmir needs peaceful resolution by Pakistan and India in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.” Besides, Russian troops participated in the military exercises organized by Pakistani armed forces. On December 10, 2020, the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet also announced that it planned to join in next year's multinational AMAN-2021 naval drills hosted by Pakistan.
India’s Surgical Strike Stratagem Farce
The term surgical strike is usually used to describe a military attack involving airstrikes with surgical precision. It is exceptionally target-oriented to cause harm to the enemy so that there is no collateral damage, but the objective is achieved. The strikes are carried out covertly to destroy a specific target without harming other people or damaging other buildings near it. In other words, the ‘surgical strike' connotes small-unit raids or attacks enabled by intelligence and high technology. The strikes may achieve a tactical, decisive, or enduring effect by destroying the enemy's will or weakening the enemy to the point of ineffectiveness. Hence, 'Surgical Strike Stratagem' blends Special Forces capabilities with psychological warfare, air raids, and intelligence to provide a form of war closely linked to the concept of unconventional warfare. It is a new strategy in its conception, ancient in its origin, steering operations by ambush instead of by combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, and seeking victory by airstrikes eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him.
Since 2004, the Indian military strategists have struggled to institutionalize the Cold Start Doctrine and its successor, the pro-active military operation strategy. Therefore, they restructured their armed forces to fight a limited war without crossing the nuclear threshold. They chalked out a ‘surgical strike’ strategy aimed to degrade, suppress, and destroy, thereby break the will of Pakistan Armed Forces to retaliate. BJP has been using military buildup and a blatant act of hostility against Pakistan for mustering the potential electors' support. Prime Minister Modi has been struggling to prove that he dares to conduct a military operation against nuclear-armed Pakistan. Therefore, both BJP and the military establishment propagated a fictitious ‘surgical strike’ operation. The Indian officials claimed that their elite troops conducted ‘surgical strikes' on the intervening night of September 28-29, 2016, into Azad Kashmir and killed suspected militants preparing to infiltrate India to attack major cities. On September 29, 2016, the Indian Director General Military Operations (DGMO) Lt General Ranbir Singh announced in a joint press conference of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Defence: "Some terrorist teams had positioned themselves at launch-pads along the Line of Control… The Indian Army conducted a surgical strike last night at these launch pads… Significant casualties have been caused to these terrorists and those who are trying to support them." Officially, Pakistan outrightly dismissed and rejected these false claims by the Indian side about the conduct of any such action. Many Indian security analysts also concurred with Pakistan's stance and brushed aside the 'surgical strike' reports as a fabrication of the truth.
Moreover, the Indian opposition parties declared September 2016 strikes fabricated. They accused Modi government of using phantom 'surgical strike' to misguide the people and conceal his corruption, especially in military hardware contracts. The opposition parties grilled Modi over his illicit involvement in the 36 Rafale fighter jets’ deal worth $8.6 billion. The Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, dubbed the 'surgical strike' as "Khoon ki dalaali," for the sake of political mileage in the upcoming state and national elections.
The Indian military establishment made the aforesaid concocted phantom ‘surgical strike’ a salient feature of the JDIAF-2017. The doctrine specifies that the Indian armed forces are determined to use 'surgical strike' as a part of its preemptive punitive destructive and disruptive strategy. The JDIAF-2017 pointed out: "India has moved to a pro-active and pragmatic philosophy to counter various conflict situations. The response to terror provocations could be in the form of 'surgical strike' and these would be subsumed in the sub-conventional portion of the spectrum of armed conflict."1 India fictitiously operationalized its surgical strike strategy during the Pulwama crisis. The Indian Air Force’s 12 Mirage-2000 fighter jets carried out a pre-dawn airstrike in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on February 26, 2019. Indian Foreign Secretary V. K. Gokhale claimed that it “struck the biggest camp” and that a “large number” of terrorists were killed. He said: “Acting on intelligence, India early today struck the biggest training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammad in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and jihadis being trained were eliminated.” However, Pakistan responded by dismissing the claims of both Mr. Gokhale and the Indian news media. Several reporters visited India's Air Force bombing near the town of Balakot. They confirmed Pakistan's claim by saying that they saw several large craters and a few upended trees and found no casualties or damage on the ground. Pakistan Air Force undertook strikes from Pakistani airspace across the LoC in a display of strength on February 27, 2019. It successfully locked six Indian posts across the LoC, however, released the ammunition in near vicinity and did not destroy Indian posts/HQs. Air combat ensued between the Indian Air Force and Pakistan Air Force after the former violated Pakistani airspace over Azad Kashmir. Pakistani pilots hit two Indian jets, which downed — one in India and one in Pakistan. The Indian pilot ejected and was captured by Pakistani forces. Thus, Pakistan’s retaliatory strike punctured India’s Surgical Strike Stratagem and exposed the Modi government's 'surgical strike' mantra, which it has been repeating since 2016 for domestic consumption.
The makers of Pakistan's modern strategy are conscious of the Indian strategic enclave's thinking and therefore seem prepared to give a befitting response to the Indian military adventurism. They continuously solidify the country’s defensive fence through refurbishing its military doctrine and posture, equipping forces with the state-of-the-art weaponry, improving operability through restless inter-services military exercises to cultivate inter-services harmony and synergy for operational success. For instance, in December 2020, the Pakistan Army conducted a Comprehensive Layered Integrated Air Defense field exercise. Air Defense weapons of all regimes incorporated, and concepts related to optimum use of Long-Range Air Defense weapon systems and airspace management were practiced. According to the ISPR, “The exercise was particularly aimed at achieving optimum synergy amongst Air Defense elements, maneuvering forces and all aerial platforms including fighter aircraft, helicopters and drones, thereby mastering response against any misadventure by the enemy.” These exercises marked that India cannot achieve strategic surprise. Secondly, if India conducts a surgical strike, Pakistan can retaliate against its forces and bases or a combination thereof. On December 22, 2020 Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa reiterated that “Indian Army shall always get a befitting response to any misadventure or aggression.”
Pakistani leadership avows that it will immediately retaliate in kind to India’s surgical strikes. On December 20, 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that Pakistani armed forces were prepared to respond to Indian military adventurism. He tweeted: “I am making absolutely clear to the international community that if India was to be reckless enough to conduct a false flag operation against Pakistan, it would confront a strong national Pakistani resolve and be given a befitting response at all levels of the threat. Make no mistake.” Pakistan had already exhibited its commitment to its ‘quid pro quo plus strategy’ on February 27, 2019. Despite the clear retaliatory resolve of Islamabad, the Indian ruling elite has been contemplating to conduct surgical strikes against Pakistan to pursue its domestic and external objectives. Realistically, the Indian ruling elite’s hysterical warmongering rhetoric, maligning media tactics, and hints about surgical strikes' probability do not intimidate the people and armed forces of Pakistan. However, these actions spark red signals about the likelihood of a catastrophe in the region.
The writer is Professor at School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is also the author of India’s Surgical Strike Stratagem: Brinksmanship and Response.
E-mail: [email protected]
1. Joint Doctrine: Indian Armed Forces (New Delhi: Directorate of Doctrines, Headquarters Integrated Defense Staff Ministry of Defense, April 2017), pp. 13-14.
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