From the time grenade explosions, gunshots and shrieks filled in the night air of September 28, 2016, across the Line of Control with Pakistan, the noise has not died down. The chest-thumping, criticism and analysis continue as intensely a year later.
Whether Pakistan or the virulent critics of the Modi government deny the efficacy of the strike, it is difficult to refute that it has profoundly changed India’s time-worn image of a soft state. Seen along with the military action on Northeast insurgents in Myanmar in June 2015, and the obdurate resistance to Chinese bullying in Doklam, the 2016 surgical strike gives India the image of a nation one should think twice before messing with.
Since the brilliantly successful 1971 war against Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, India had lapsed back into benign Nehruvian diplomacy and aversion to tough action. Our keenness to avoid hitting back at all costs, even when attacked, became predictable.
The surgical strike has changed that. It has given us a new strategic unpredictability.
One of our topmost national security bosses recalled in a private conversation recently that after Pakistan-trained terrorists’ attack on the Uri military base, action was the only solution on the table.
The PM and NSA Ajit Doval both wanted security officials to come up with solutions instead of listing challenges. The clear instruction was: “Focus on action. Too much analysis causes paralysis.”
Before the strike, a team had gone inside Pakistan to all the four locations which were to be attacked. The entry route was to be different from the exit route. Indian intelligence had its moles inside the Lashkar camps. Information was so pinpointed that the forces knew which places had been landmined. Only one soldier was injured when his leg was trapped in an anti-personnel landmine.
The whole operation was monitored by satellite imagery and drones which were capturing the action.
The national security officer said the terror camps could have been destroyed by flying Mirages from the Adampur airbase or using heavy artillery. But India wanted to send Pakistan a message.
The PM wanted a flawless and safe operation with minimum collateral damage. Doval was the first to inform him about the success of the mission in the morning.
Armies have carried out focused hits for centuries, mainly because these take the enemy by surprise, restrict the conflict locally, and steer clear of escalation or unnecessary losses.
Sun Tzu’s advice in his iconic The Art of War is evocative: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
The most-celebrated surgical strikes in recent history were by Israeli commandos storming Entebbe Airport to rescue hostages in 1976, Israel precision-bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak in 1981, and the US Navy Seals taking out Osama bin Laden in a 2011 raid on his Abbottabad hideout.
For years, the US has also weighed a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear assets. In "Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike is the Least Bad Option", Matthew Kroenig wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine: “A preventive action would need to target the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan, the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and various centrifuge manufacturing sites near Natanz and Tehran, all of which are located above ground and are highly vulnerable to air strikes.”
He suggested that the US should conduct a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and then seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis. “Addressing the threat now will spare the US from confronting a far more dangerous situation in the future.”
India has a similar looming threat from its hostile neighbour. We have lost thousands of lives in the wanton terror Pakistan exports. The message from the PM and the NSA’s decision to carry out surgical strikes is much larger than the bodies Pakistan had to count on September 29, 2016, morning.
One finds an echo of that message in Sun Tzu’s lines: “Who wishes to fight must first count the cost.”