Last week, the government unveiled its plans to celebrate surgical strike Day on 29 September, to commemorate the cross-border operation India had carried out against terror camps in Pakistan two years ago. Almost on cue, the Indian army chief general Bipin Rawat called out for another “stern action" against Pakistan to avenge the recent death of Indian soldiers on the border, alluding to another surgical strike. At the same time, the opposition has attacked the government for accepting an invitation for an India-Pakistan dialogue, partly contributing to India pulling out from the talks at the last minute. These developments are indicative of a fundamental transformation of India’s strategic culture—New Delhi now seems to be making strategic choices based on psychological gratification rather than to achieve well-thought-out goals. This is a dangerous trend that is likely to further worsen the already deteriorating security situation in South Asia.
To be sure, celebrating the surgical strike day—the day India gave a “strong answer" to Pakistan, according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi—may prove to be politically popular and an opportunity for self-congratulation. However, from a goal-oriented perspective, the choice to carry out the strike has proved to be an abject failure. One does not need to walk through the embedded strategic logic to see this; a simple assessment of outcomes would suffice. In the last two years since the strike, India’s security vis-à-vis Pakistan has degraded by all metrics.
The Kashmir insurgency has worsened since the strikes. There were 358 insurgency-related fatalities in 2017, compared to 267 the year before; estimated infiltrations went up to 406 in 2017 from 371 in 2016; civilian deaths increased by 166% in 2017. By all indicators, Islamabad’s covert support for the insurgency has also ramped up in the last two years. This period has seen several Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks on the Indian armed forces, which specifically replicated the Uri attack which had prompted the surgical strike. Meanwhile, border violence between Indian and Pakistani armies has become disturbingly brutal and regular like clockwork. India-Pakistan ceasefire violations more than doubled in 2017, compared to the year before. All the while, both sides are employing weapons of higher calibre than the prior years.
So, if the objective of the strike was to teach a lesson to those who “export terror", it doesn’t seem to have worked. This is not surprising. It is a well-known fact but worth repeating that India had always had the military capability and the political wherewithal to successfully pull off something like the surgical strike. The reason why the previous administrations chose not to carry it out (or at least carry it out publicly) was because they were considering a different question. Rather than ask themselves how India can “avenge" a particular terror attack, they wanted to know how India can compel Pakistan to not carry out any future attacks.
This line of goal-oriented questioning logically leads one to one of the two paths. If the decision-makers think that the conditions are favourable, they may use a diplomatic approach and bring international pressure upon Pakistan to change its policy. India employed this route in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack. Otherwise, the decision-makers may choose to precipitate a crisis by threatening Pakistan with a disproportionate military action in order to compel it to change its ways. India tried this strategy in 2001 after the terror attack on the Indian Parliament, in what is today known as the Twin Peaks Crisis. As New Delhi has learned by experience, both of these options are fraught with risks and other problems. However, they are aimed at achieving certain security goals. In contrast, an operation like the surgical strike, which is really just a half-way measure, does little to enhance India’s security, although it does provide instinctive gratification. Indeed, in the long run, it ends up harming India’s overall security by eroding the credibility of its deterrence. One may allow for the possibility that there may be some subtle strategic rationale behind the surgical strike that has eluded outside observers. However, if there is one, the government has refused to walk us through it.
Strategic futility of the surgical strike aside, the decision to celebrate it now contributes to another long-running problem of Indian security—the weakening normative sanctity of the line of control (LoC). Much of India’s security problems in Kashmir today stem from the fact that over the decades, the legitimacy and inviolability of the LoC has been steadily collapsing. Rather than see it as a concrete reality akin to an international border, we are coming to see it more like a ceasefire line in a war, subject to persistent changes and transgressions. It is precisely this cheapening of LoC’s notional value which allows Pakistan to run elaborate cross-border terror networks, support constant infiltration, engage the Indian army in a continuous low-intensity conflict, and repeatedly challenge basic facts on the ground in international forums. Perhaps the most extreme instance of this is the Kargil war, in which Pakistan tried and nearly succeeded in convincing the world that the LoC simply did not exist in Kargil.
Indian policy should be to constantly prop up the normative strength of the LoC and insist on its legitimacy and unassailability. Instead, successive governments have unwittingly gone along with Pakistan in reducing the LoC’s value. Celebration of surgical strike Day would be another egregious step in this direction. After all, essentially what India would be celebrating is its decision to violate the LoC. In effect, it would be admitting that LoC is not a sacred border endowed with all the legal and normative strengths of an international boundary, but rather simply a frontline that either countries may choose to violate whenever they please.
Celebrating something requires one to reflect on its legacy. However, this cannot happen in a vacuum. To truly celebrate this military operation, one must put it in the larger context and ask if it has proved to be good or bad for India’s security in the long run.
Sandeep Bhardwaj is a researcher, Centre for Policy Research.
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