Anatomy of a Surgical Strike

By Ashwin Tombat
24 March 2019 20:14 IST

India has suffered more at the hands of terrorists than most countries. The Mumbai attack by the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) in 2008 was the most horrible act of terrorism ever. Equally appalling was the recent Valentine’s Day suicide bombing by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) at Pulwama, which killed around 44 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

In response, 12 of India’s Mirage 2000 fighter jets, an airborne early warning and control (AWAC) aircraft system, a mid-air refuelling aircraft and a number of drones bombed and destroyed a JeM militant training camp at Balakot, 50 km from the border and 60 km north of Abottabad, where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in May 2011. Surgical Strike 2.0 was conducted with deadly precision between 3:45am and 4:04am on Tuesday 26 February.

The next day, the Pakistan Air Force attempted airstrikes in Kashmir. Though it claimed to have shot down two Indian planes that entered Pakistani airspace, it turned out that India had lost one MiG-21 Bison jet, while Pakistan had lost an F-16 fighter. The Pakistanis captured the MiG-21 pilot, Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

Are India and Pakistan heading for war?

Hopefully not. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's announcement releasing the pilot as a "peace gesture" has helped to calm down an otherwise rapidly escalating situation.

Wing Cdr Varthaman received a hero’s welcome as he crossed into India at the Wagah border on Friday evening. Military sources say he downed a Pakistani F-16 fighter with an R-73 air-to-air missile before his MiG-21 Bison was hit on Wednesday. For a ’60s-era MiG to bring down an F-16 is a truly remarkable accomplishment.  

The nation is celebrating the Balakot air strike. It is a military feat, and it shows the capability of our armed forces in striking the terrorists deep inside the territory of their sponsor country.

But will it give us the desired results? Will it bring down terrorism?

Let us take a look at the last such action undertaken — the 29 September 2016 Surgical Strike (1.0) against militant launch pads across the Line of Control, in response to a terrorist attack on the Uri Army base on 18 September.  That was widely celebrated too.

But, far from reducing, terrorism in Kashmir actually increased after the Surgical Strike 1.0. Insurgency-related fatalities went up from 267 in 2016 to 358 in 2017. Estimated infiltration went up from 371 in 2016 to 406 in 2017. Civilian deaths increased by 166 per cent in 2017. India-Pakistan ceasefire violations more than doubled in 2017. 

If the objective of Surgical Strike 1.0 was to teach a lesson to those who “export terror", it simply didn’t work.

Lt Gen (Retd) D S Hooda, who was the Northern Army Commander-in-Chief when Surgical Strike 1.0 was carried out, said at a panel discussion in Chandigarh on 7 December that the constant hype around the operation was unwarranted. Lt Gen Hooda said that in hindsight, it might have been better, had "we done it (the Surgical Strike) secretly".

Surgical strikes and air raids behind enemy lines are not meant to be media spectacles. The Israelis have carried out hundreds of air raids and missile attacks on what they say are Iranian targets in Syria, but kept most of them completely secret. Senior RSS-functionary-turned-BJP-leader Ram Madhav said the pre-emptive air strike on the JeM training camp on Pakistani soil meant that India has joined a league of nations that includes Israel. If the IAF had pinpointedly targeted Maulana Masood Azhar in an attack on the JeM HQ at Bahawalpur, India would be in Israel’s league. Not now.

If we are to genuinely celebrate Surgical Strike 2.0, we must assess it in the overall context. Will it actually teach any lessons to the JeM, the LeT and their backers, the Pakistani military? Will it bring down terrorism?  Will it be good or bad for India’s security in the long run?

It may turn out to be good for the ruling party in the coming general election. But if the 2016 Surgical Strike is any indication, terrorism is unlikely to reduce.

(Originally published on Sunday 3 March 2019, in 'Lokmat')

Blogger's Profile

Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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