cross-border issues

What a surgical strike really is (and why the Army action across the LOC may not qualify as one)

Though it’s commendable that India has upped the ante against Pakistan, calling the cross-border attack a surgical strike seems like a political decision.

Over the last week, ever since the announcement by the Indian Army on that it had carried out cross-border attacks on terrorist camps across the Line of Control on September 28, the term “surgical strikes” has dominated prime-time debates, social media chatter and dinner-table conversations.

But what really is a surgical strike?

The technical definition of a surgical strike is “an attack (usually without prior warning) intended to deal only with a specific target.”

In other words, it is a swift and targeted attack with minimum collateral damage to the nearby areas and civilians. Neutralising targets using surgical strikes also helps prevent a conflict from escalating into a war.

Such attacks can be carried out through air strikes, by airdropping special operations teams, or through swift ground operations by sending in commandos or regular troops.

Military strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart said a surgical strike was akin to a single arrow shot by Paris (who eloped with Helen, queen of Sparta, sparking the Trojan war) at Achilles' heel, his only vulnerable spot.

Modern examples

In the contemporary context, a surgical strike is a single action that decapitates or significantly reduces the enemy's capability. The 1967, Operation Focus, an Israeli surprise aerial attack that destroyed most of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground was a surgical strike.

More recently, the killing of Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011, in Pakistan’s Abobttabad by helicopter-borne US Navy SEALS is another example of a surgical strike.

The June 2006 US air strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab-el- Zarqawi in his safe house in the village of Hibhib in Iraq’s Diyala province near Baghdad; and the single Hellfire missile launched by a CIA drone that killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the 5,000-strong Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in August 2009, are classic examples of surgical strikes to decapitate enemy leadership to demoralise their forces.

While all the aforementioned strikes had specific targets, surgical strikes can also be undertaken on a larger scale. The bombing of Baghdad in the initial stages of 1991 Gulf War, after Iraq had invaded Kuwait, comprised a coordinated set of surgical strikes on government offices and military and communication installations.

On the other hand the carpet-bombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II, which destroyed the historic city and set it on fire, was clearly not a surgical strike.

A successful surgical strike typically achieves its desired objective and has a devastating effect. By that measure, what happened post the Indian cross-border strikes does not qualify.

What makes this different

The September 18 militant attack on an Army base camp in Uri, which killed 19 soldiers, was succeeded by the so-called surgical strikes by the Indian military across the Line of Control. Just three days later, on October 2, Pakistan-backed terrorists struck at Baramulla in Kashmir, killing a BSF official. The Pakistan Army too has resorted to ceasefire violations at several places.

All this while, Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Syed Salahuddin of the Hizbul Mujahideen still sleep soundly and safely every night. They still give press conferences. To pin them to a place and time is not very difficult.

I have always advocated raising the ante with Pakistan by undertaking deep strikes at terrorist leadership centre’s to make their activity costly. It is not required that we send men to do this job.

The Indian Air Force and even the Indian Navy have missiles of great precision. But the fear cited by many military men is that Pakistan will react to this with counter strikes.

But we have no terrorist targets in India. We have plenty of military targets for Pakistan to pick from if they want to hit back. But any such attack is a disproportionate response, leaving the ball in our court to decide how and where to counter this. Any further escalation will only lead to Pakistan’s military annihilation. Nuclear war will result in their complete destruction. Therefore, rationality will prevail before Pakistan mulls such a response.

What really happened

I have no doubt that the Indian Army sent forces across the LoC and hit several places where terrorist foot soldiers were gathered. They have done this several times in the past without the accompanying fanfare.

But misusing a nomenclature to describe the action to be something bigger than it was is political charlatanism. Maybe it was National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s big idea derived after several years as an undercover agent in Pakistan, as his many hagiographers claim?

Instead, a real surgical strike would have been if they had hunted down Lakhvi or Salahuddin and brought him back.

If BJP leader Ram Madhav then lauded it as an achievement of the Narendra Modi government, we would all join in applause.

But what I’m unable to fathom is why the Director General of Military Operations Ranbir Singh described the the attack as something it was not.

I have known several DGMOs and they were all distinguished military men with great integrity and oratory skills. The job demands them to be clinically accurate in making an assessment and surgically precise in determining an action.

I have no doubt that this DGMO too is of that lineage. But sometimes, they have to act out a script.

Political call

The story of how a bunch of cross-border raids came to be called surgical strikes is one waiting to be told. To me, the decision to call this a surgical strike was clearly political.


That BJP workers have started putting up posters in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh lauding the military and the government for the surgical strikes, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s picture in the foreground and a soldier's silhouette in the background, gives this away.

Having not being able to bring about a nationwide development and economic miracle as was promised before the 2014 elections, the BJP has its back to the wall.

The government;s claims of economic growth are proving to be hollow – it does not take much to figure out that economic growth cannot take place without investments and the tax to investment ratio is dwindling. The demand for power is falling. And most importantly, jobs-creation has staggered. To compound the situation, food inflation is still, now at 7.62% year-on-year.

Consequently, the party's voter base also seems to be dwindling. And so, the BJP is in need of a (Modi) miracle. Hence, a new, false image is being created – one who can enthuse the masses.

But will it work? As Faiz once said, “Hum dekhenge, lazim hain ki hum bhi dekhenge” – We shall see.

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