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Surgical strikes: Why disclosure of sensitive ops is neither in military nor national interest

The cinematic glamorising of plain military actions, to make them appear 'Rambo-like', is regrettable.

POLITICS  |   7-minute read  |   04-07-2018

The din won’t and mustn’t die down. Informed critics are questioning the Indian politico-military leadership’s sagacity in choosing to disclose sensitive information pertaining to the Army’s actions in September 2016. When you use a military action for short-term, tactical and political gain, a blow back is but inevitable.

It is churlish and most unfortunate that the present dispensation has chosen to politicise a purely military success. I would not like to contradict the people of my own fraternity, because it is obvious they have acted under political dictate as never before; everyone would like to cover their backs and protect their positions.

But, with my knowledge of remote sensing systems, I have to admit that the footage that’s being splashed across television channels as proof of the strikes throws up more doubts than clarifications. But I’m not wont to analysing the material as others have, for it serves no purpose.

Still from the 2016 surgical strike video released now. [Photo: Screengrab]

The term surgical strike has been bandied about with such reckless abandon by journalists pretending to know much more than they do, and by a political brass so hungry for recognition, that I won’t be surprised if it conjures images of our troops engaging the Pakistanis with “surgical” scalpels.

The charade has become almost comical. For the sake of clarity though, we must note that these actions were nothing more than shallow tactical raids into PoK. A raid differs from an attack by nature of the aim — it is meant to be clandestine, of short duration, carried out by lightly armed groups, as quickly as possible, to cause maximum damage, ending with safe return to one’s own territory. The narrative we’re being sold right now is basically old wine (raid) in a new bottle (surgical strike). The cinematic glamorising of plain military actions, to make them appear “Rambo-like” is regrettable, and I am sure there are many of my colleagues who agree with me entirely.

Our military must desist from this glory-seeking path; it can only lead to grief at the hands of the media.

By the way, the Army has a “glossary of military terms” — a bible if you may say — describing terms to be used for such actions. “Surgical strike” and “shoot and scoot” (popular during Kargil operations) are not in the vocabulary. Shallow, medium and deep penetrative raids are — and they are part of military planning and teaching, with the intent of keeping the enemy off balance and, in situations like on the LoC, to issue a warning. Fancy and embellished monikers popularised by the Americans sound great, but they do not heighten the importance of the action — in essence, the September 2016 strike was a routine operation, aimed at avenging the barbarity of Uri, with added technical inputs.

The word routine here is important — the Army could have carried out a similar operation with or without political intervention.

At a personal level, I’m quite sure the raids were carried out; Army headquarters would not risk being found out. What remains a matter of speculation though, is the damage caused — remember Pakistan has been totally dismissive of reports pertaining to the raids. Also, it is unimaginable that retaliation has not followed which is a standard Pakistani response; it is possible the latter is waiting for an appropriate, strategic/tactical opportunity to hit back.

For me the underlining factor here is this: disclosure of sensitive operations, no matter what name you brand them with, is neither in military nor national interest. Even the most basic and elementary military teaching mandates that you never disclose details of an ongoing, or recently concluded, operation. Doing so puts the life of soldiers at risk, reveals carefully honed tactics and jeopardises future operations.

To my mind, revealing the details of this operation was unprofessional — military commanders should have defied any and all political instructions to make the footage of these actions, public.

Was there no push back?

The very least I can hope is, that there was resistance from the military brass, if and when it was asked to accede to the ruling dispensation in publicly declaring these actions.

With the publicity though one also loses the advantage of escalation at a later date. Heretofore, all such actions were dealt with under a simple term — "plausible deniability". A quiet, but stern message to the Pakistani DGMO should have sufficed to convey that our “threshold of tolerance” had been crossed. Instead we’ve witnessed loud proclamations to the world, a chest-thumping most unfortunate.

Frankly, the whole episode must act as a lesson to our military brass; an old one that needs learning and re-learning from time to time: political parties are nobody’s friends — their aim is to use the system only for political mileage.

Our military brass owes it to the profession, and to the women and men they command, not to put the latter in harm’s way, only because it raises some political leader’s stock. A commander must be convinced of the military necessity and chance of success, before acceding to an operation — to not to do so, amounts to dereliction of duty and moral responsibility.

They have to advise the political brass on military matters even if it is disadvantageous and distasteful — do remember what happened in Germany when a political leader overrode military advice. In fact, there are examples aplenty of military leaders not succumbing to pressure abound — there is the case of Field Marshal Alan F Brooke spurning the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s advice (even though the latter was a former military man himself); closer home Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw famously resisted pressure from Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1971, as did General AN “Tappy” Raina, who refused to mobilise the Army despite Mrs Gandhi’s directions during the Emergency in 1975.

Quite frankly I find that too much is being made of the September 2016 raids — a professional military force never reveals its modus operandi; it is sacrilegious to do so. Airing footage of it two years on, is obviously to bolster a flagging political image; we’d be fools to think otherwise.

The tragedy is that this revelation of intimate details for short-term gains is advantageous for Pakistan; next time it will be ready and waiting.

It’s also important to note here that such raids have taken place in the past, only without the accompanying hullabaloo of this time. They’ve been undertaken on numerous occasions by regular troops and with telling effect.

In November 1999, for instance, India faced a new brutality. A Pakistani BAT ambushed, killed and beheaded seven Indian soldiers at a forward post on the LoC, in Nowshera sector. These heads were barbarously brandished as trophies in Pakistan. Suffice to say that the Army was seething and baying for revenge. And avenge its soldiers it did in February 2000 when a post, deep inside Pakistani territory, was attacked and 16 of their soldiers killed.

But, the question that has to be asked in each case is this: what is the purpose? Will it stave off further attacks, or will it start off a cycle of pointless violence, in which we Indians have more to lose (since we use our own troops) than Pakistan which employs hired mercenaries.

To the chagrin of those who brandish their so-called nationalism on their sleeve, and consider any and all action against Pakistan a measure of true patriotism, I have little to say. Unfortunately, newsrooms and studios seem to be the hotbed of "nationalism" these days.

For the more rational thinking beings, that I believe still populate this great nation of ours, I say this: for any military action to be successful, several factors need to be analysed. How deep across the border can you penetrate, for how long, in what area, for what purpose, and how often? Till such time each of these questions doesn’t receive a satisfactory answer, the action is ill-perceived.

If it is still carried out and achieves a measure of success, we do the latter a great disservice by parading it on national news, as a symbol of political will, or to be used for electoral mileage.

A most unfortunate turn of events.

Also read: Stop being farzical — this is about avenging India

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