A lot has been written about the surgical strike carried out by the Indian army deep inside Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) on September 29th. Media reports have indicated that India is likely to share more details of this daring operation. But first things first. India needs to be congratulated on the planning, flawless execution, post-strike information and media management of a surgical strike that changed everything about India forever. It was a retribution for the attack on the Indian Army Brigade Headquarters at Uri in which 19 soldiers were killed. It was a punishment that a resurgent India handed out that Pakistan will not forget for a long time to come. Experts believe the strikes are only a preface to more such operations that India will impose on Pakistan.
Concern has been raised in the media about Pakistani response. There are justified apprehensions about possible tactical nuclear strikes. While nothing can be taken for granted, there are reasonable grounds to believe that a possible retaliatory nuclear strike would have been factored into India’s strategic calculations. India’s readiness to respond would be a given.
How Pakistan reacts, and suffers the consequences of its response will be seen in the coming days. For now, they clearly seem to have been severely whipped. It has also left the door wide open for future cross border strikes by India.
A central piece to this episode is the message it has delivered. The optics of the strike itself have unambiguously broadcast India’s larger strategic intent to the world - Pakistan in particular and through it, China.
Some analysts have expressed the view that India has turned a new leaf only after the dastardly attack in Uri. A closer observation of available pointers paints a different picture. In fact, the writings were on the wall soon after Prime Minister Modi took office. Many may not even recall that Modi’s first visit outside Delhi in June 2014 was to the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. He also spent Diwali with the Indian troops in the rarefied heights of Siachen Glacier.
Modi’s top priority was to focus on India’s military strengths and vulnerabilities that play a pivotal role in his grand vision to transform India, particularly the economic transformation. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he became painfully aware that any such vision would be susceptible to terror campaigns from across the border.
It was no surprise then that Modi upped defense spending making India the world’s largest defense buyer. The massive arms purchases have yielded important diplomatic dividends – a huge leverage with major powers that came in handy in pursuing India’s regional and global strategic agenda. The recent US smack down of Pakistan, for voicing a nuclear threat against India was no accident. It was a well-deserved end result of two and a half years of dogged diplomacy.
In retrospect, the twin focus - building military competence and refurbishing diplomatic ties with key nations and international institutions - was a deeply thought out strategy that became a keystone to Modi’s pet initiatives.
Many only see Modi’s focus on rapid economic growth and miss the underlying twin focus. But a sufficient and necessary condition for India’s economic transformation is military might and relief from cross border terror.
While the painstaking preparations were afoot over two and a half years, the killing of Indian soldiers on Myanmar border in the east created an opportunity for India to test its new doctrine. The much acclaimed ‘defensive offense’ mandated a new normal involving hot pursuits and strikes on foreign soil. But Pakistan failed to see the writing on the wall and continued to live in a la-la land of bogus nuclear deterrence. They even mocked India retorting that “Pakistan was no Myanmar”.
The Uri attack provided a perfect opportunity for India to execute an already fine-tuned and tested doctrine on its western front. It was ripe and ready for whipping Pakistan and calling its nuclear bluff. However, it has to be mentioned that the Uri brigade camp had shown surprising incompetence in allowing the attack – given that post-Pathankot, there was sufficient intelligence to up the vigil.
On another front, India’s self-imposed taboo on mentioning Balochistan, POK, Gilgit, Pashtun etc. together with the lobby of peaceniks, Aman ki Asha types, et al had succeeded in holding back the country. But Modi’s Independence Day speech on August 15th this year actually broke this shackle. It succeeded in opening the flood gates of discontent in the local population in those areas, encouraging them to rise against an oppressive state. It has provided India a new set of levers against Pakistan.
The optics of the surgical strike referred to earlier, as well as the Independence Day speech, have helped launch the country into a new international orbit. This molting of India has provided three key visuals for Pakistan, China and the West, in that order.
First, India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Any future terror attacks on the country will invite retribution that will impose high costs on Pakistan. However, there is no guarantee that Pakistan will cease and desist its cross border terror. But there is no doubt that there will be a befitting retaliatory strike deep inside its territory.
Secondly, it had a powerful message for China. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) runs through territory over which India has legitimate claim. China is investing over US $46 billion in the project and has been concerned about the constant security threats from unrest in Balochistan and POK. By raising the Balochistan issue, India has successfully put a spoke in China’s wheel. It has raised serious doubts about the security and hence the very viability of the project. It is a warning for China not to fish in troubled waters. Again, it has opened new bargaining positions for India against China.
Striking deep into enemy or foreign territory is a capability that currently only the US and Israel are known to possess. The surgical strike into POK announced India’s entry into this elite club. India can execute hot pursuits or deep strikes in enemy territory to enforce its regional agenda and achieve strategic objectives.
India’s surgical strike shows a new and assertive paradigm where terror attacks will no longer be business as usual, notwithstanding Pakistan’s nuclear fig leaf. Burying the now dead self-imposed ‘strategic restraint’, India seems determined to act upon safeguard its strategic interests.