The new normal after India’s surgical strikes

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The surgical strikes that the Indian Army conducted across the Line of Control (LoC) last week had two broad objectives which had to be achieved while adhering to two constraining factors. The first objective was to soothe public opinion and the second to institute some kind of deterrence for cross-border terror attacks. Of the constraints, the first was to contain escalation as far as possible and, the second, to manage global opinion.

The very fact of making such surgical strikes public was essential to soothe public opinion. The information could have just been relayed by the director general of military operations (DGMO) to his Pakistani counterpart without making a public announcement. But the decision was taken at the highest political levels to release the information to the public because it was now becoming essential to inform the citizens that India is not entirely helpless in responding to frequent and increasingly audacious terror attacks. The political dividend that could be reaped from the public announcement would have also played a part in the decision.

The second aim of instituting some kind of deterrence for terrorist attacks could not have been achieved in just one operation. Pakistan has a long history—going back to the year of its formation in 1947—of using ‘non-state actors’ to achieve its extra-territorial ambitions while maintaining plausible deniability. Launching a few surgical strikes to eliminate a handful of terror launch pads is hardly enough to achieve the desired long-term deterrence. This is a much longer-term project and will involve a multitude of economic, diplomatic and military means.

The public statement that the DGMO Lt Gen Ranbir Singh made on Thursday is most notable for how it conveys India’s attempt to contain escalation. The operation was not framed as a revenge for the attack in Uri, but as a pre-emptive move to stop terrorists from infiltrating into India. It was also played as an anti-terrorism operation as opposed to one targeting the Pakistani military. This is in contrast to foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s address to the UN General Assembly last Monday where she essentially erased the distinction between state and non-state actors in Pakistan.

Also, the DGMO statement carefully mentions the area of operation to be “along” the LoC. While indeed the Indian operation did not go very deep, but, spread over an arc of 250km, it was—as Sushant Singh of The Indian Expresspointed out—“much bigger in scope and extent” than earlier operations across the LoC that have never been officially acknowledged. To add to the de-escalation package, the DGMO said: “We do not have any plans for further continuation.”

The other constraint was to manage the opinion in several capitals across the world. Both foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and national security adviser Ajit Doval have done an admirable job here even if the conduct of Pakistan over the years had made the task easier. While Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan had decided to boycott the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit in Islamabad before the surgical strikes, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives have joined after them. More importantly, all their statements forthrightly condemn terrorism in solidarity with New Delhi. While Beijing’s stance has been less than clear, the statements coming from Washington eschew neutrality and even name Pakistan-based terrorist groups.

With both the constraints met, at least one objective fulfilled and some progress made on the other, is there much room for criticism? Some have pointed out that the operation should not have been made public. But that would have meant ceding the narrative to Pakistan and its increasingly puerile nuclear threats. This operation has proved that there is space for military response below the nuclear threshold regardless of Pakistan’s acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons.

It is true that previous such operations were not announced and hence had a de-escalation package inbuilt into them. But a new normal has been found. Pakistan’s denial of the strikes has allowed them a face-saver. India has shown no hurry in releasing video footages of the strikes as that would force escalation. As Pakistan has kept probing India’s threshold of strategic restraint, now India can probe Pakistan’s threshold for remaining in denial. This will introduce a larger number of variables into Rawalpindi’s calculation.

Another criticism is that these strikes will not change Pakistan’s behaviour—that Rawalpindi will continue to employ terrorists to attack India. This argument will come back more strongly as soon as the next terror strike happens. But nobody claimed that these surgical strikes comprised the entire solution to the Pakistan problem. Equally, there cannot be a solution without military options. Pakistan’s politicians and diplomats will come around to a realistic view only if the cost for Pakistan Army and its jihadi networks are increased. The surgical strikes were a step in the right direction.