cross-border issues

Behind the scenes: How India went about planning 'surgical strikes' after the Uri attack

Nearly ten possible targets were identified across the LoC. Eventually, four were chosen.

After 18 soldiers were killed in the attack on the Army camp in Uri on September 18, the government made up its mind that it could not be business as usual with Pakistan, conversations with top defence, intelligence and diplomatic officials indicate.

Areas that are generally used to infiltrate militants across the Line of Control were studied. Around ten sites were identified across the LoC as possible targets. The military operations directorate finally chose four: Bhimber and Hot Springs in the Poonch-Rajouri sector, Leepa opposite Baramulla and Kel that faces the Kupwara sector.

The government decided that a strike would be carried out only if it detected plans to infiltrate militants across these four sectors. The Research and Analysis Wing chief and his key officer in charge of Pakistan were asked to gather intelligence from the ground, while the technical intelligence agency, the National Technical Research Organisation, was asked to monitor satellite imagery to detect any movement of the sort associated with infiltration bids.

Both agencies reported activity from these sectors, helping the army’s military operations directorate to firm up its plans to carry out its strikes by Tuesday. While strikes across the LoC have been carried out in the past, this was the first time that so much intelligence wherewithal was pressed into service to plan for the operations.

The Indian Army's 25th Division in Rajouri on the Jammu axis, 19th Division in Baramulla and the 28th Division in Kupwara were designated as the formations that would help stage this combined operation involving Special Forces teams with artillery and missile units, military officials said. Four teams from the two Special Forces units had been in the designated areas days in advance, in anticipation of the raids.

The strikes and after

In the early hours of Thursday, four teams from two Indian Army Special Forces units quietly slipped across the Line of Control in four places to carry out “surgical strikes”, according to informed officials. Between 18 to 30 militants and two Pakistani soldiers were killed in the cross-LoC raids, as per initial reports.

The strikes were made public by the Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, along with the Director General of Military Operations, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, at a press conference on Thursday morning. The last time India saw a joint press conference by the ministries of defence and external affairs was during the Kargil war in 1999, when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was heading the National Democratic Alliance government.

The decision to announce the surgical strikes was taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security on Thursday morning. The meeting was called after the army communicated to the government that the operation was successful.

While one of the Special Forces units is a veteran of similar operations in Jammu & Kashmir, the other unit was converted a decade ago and is relatively new. Four teams from the two battalions were transported by military helicopters to the launch areas a few days ago to ensure operational secrecy as well as to give them time to plan for the raids, senior military officials said.

Even the local military commanders were kept in the dark and only the Divisional Commanders were briefed in the initial stages, with the Northern Army Commander designated as the military commander on ground. Some of these plans were firmed up when the army chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag visited Northern Command after the Uri attack.

In New Delhi, the National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval held several meetings with the three service chiefs to ensure that the military had adequate “actionable intelligence” to carry out the strikes. Other major military formations in the Punjab and Rajasthan sectors were briefed on Wednesday, in case the surgical strikes led to an escalation.

The Indian Air Force and Naval chiefs were instructed to keep their forces on high alert in case Pakistan reacted to the planned strikes. In fact, all the villages within 10 kms of the international border have been evacuated as a precautionary measure to ensure that the Indian Army could react to any Pakistani escalation in this sector. The daily flag-lowering beating retreat ceremony at the Wagah border was also called off as soon as the surgical strikes were announced in Delhi.

Actionable intelligence

These surgical strikes are not the first of their kind that India has carried out across the LoC. While the Vajpayee government took a clear decision not to allow the Indian forces to cross the LoC during the Kargil war, Indian Special Forces carried out several raids between 2000 and 2003. However, after the November 2003 ceasefire, such raids had been called off. Some Special Forces raids were renewed after 2012 when Pakistani troops raided Indian army posts and beheaded Indian soldiers in some cross-LoC operations.

Most of the earlier operations were local military actions, held either at the Corps or Divisional level, with local intelligence units being assigned with gathering information before strikes. This time, the R&AW was specifically tasked by the National Security Advisor to gather actionable intelligence, which could be used to carry out pinpoint strikes with minimum casualties. A conscious decision was also taken to target militants rather that the Pakistani army to ensure that the situation did not escalate. The R&AW chief and his key team that works on Pakistan under an Additional Secretary spent days poring over reports and gathering intelligence that would finally shape the surgical strikes, conversations with officials revealed.

“We have had strikes earlier, but those were mostly local,” Lieutenant General Hardev Singh Lidder, a former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and a veteran Special Forces officer told Scroll.in. “This is the first time that strikes were carried out as a national policy, which is significant.”

Veteran Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who attended an All-Party meeting called by the government on Thursday evening, told news channels that Indian troops had “returned safely” after the operation, expressing satisfaction that Special Forces had carried out the raids, working closely with Indian intelligence.

Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh also called up his Pakistani counterpart, Major General Sahir Shamshad Mirza, who had taken over recently as Director General of Military Operations after his predecessor was promoted as a Corps Commander, to inform him that India had struck at militants preparing to cross the LoC and was prepared to do so again if there were further attempts, according to military officials.

Information warfare

The decision to go public with a high-profile joint official briefing by top defence and external affairs ministry officials was taken by the prime minister on inputs from the National Security Advisor. The decision was, in fact, bolstered by a call from the American National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, to her Indian counterpart Ajit Doval on Thursday morning, that was also prompted by the Indian action across the LoC. The idea was to send out a military and diplomatic message to the international community that New Delhi would no longer be held back by “strategic restraint” in the eventuality of further attacks.

The Indian ambassador had been briefed to inform the US State Department about the raids once it was complete and Rice called up Doval to ensure that there was no further escalation. Doval assured her that New Delhi would not take any further action if Islamabad did not escalate matters, according to government officials who were privy to the call. He also asked her to convey to Pakistan that India would be prepared to meet any eventuality.

In some ways, as a senior diplomat described the phone conversation between the two National Security Advisors, India was calling the Pakistani military’s bluff. It was also pointed out that American Special Forces had carried out a raid on Abbottabad to kill Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

The Indian military action is “legitimate in the eyes of international law", said Supreme Court advocate and Constitutional expert, Menaka Guruswamy. "It allows for surgical strikes against terror cells, including preemptive strikes, especially if [a] host [nation] has been warned previously,” she told Scroll.in.

It was also decided at the Cabinet Committee on Security meeting that besides informing other political leaders, the Army chief would also give a more detailed briefing to former chiefs and army veterans who write in the press regularly, to ensure that the narrative was consistent and factual.

In the coming days, it is almost certain that India will also withdraw the Most Favoured Nation status that was given to Pakistan. India will also intensify its diplomatic push, this time backed by a military resolve, to press for isolating Pakistan until it agrees to cease any further terror strikes.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.