The Definition and Politics of ‘Surgical Strikes’
The term "surgical strike" has now truly entered our lexicon, with an entirely different connotation. Now even the Bengal BJP president wants to do a surgical strike on Jadavpur University.
This misuse of terms is quite typically Indian. We call loudly dressed police guards with carbines commandos when commandos are special warfare troops capable of operating behind enemy lines. We use the term trouble-shooter to describe a trouble-maker, when it actually means a person who gets rid of a problem or trouble.
The Modi regime celebrates the "surgical strike" as one of its high points. The dictionary describes a surgical strike as an attack (usually without prior warning) intended to deal only with a specific target. In other words it is an attack that is intended to seize or inflict serious damage on or destroy an objective. It is a swift and targeted attack with the aim of minimum collateral damage to the nearby areas and civilians.
The neutralization of targets with surgical strikes also prevents escalation to a full-blown war. Surgical strike attacks can be carried out via air strikes, airdropping special operations teams or by swift ground operations by sending in commandos or even regular troops.
The great strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart described a surgical strike as being akin to a single arrow shot by Paris (the fellow who seduced Helen that caused the war.) at Achilles' heel, which was the only vulnerable spot.
In modern times a surgical strike is a single action that decapitates or significantly reduces the enemy's capability. The 1967 Israeli surprise air attack that destroyed most of the Egyptian air force on the ground was a surgical strike.
On the morning of December 14, Indian intelligence intercepted a message about a high-level meeting of the Pakistani civilian administration at the Governors House in Dacca. Within 15 minutes an IAFs 28 Squadron launched a strike with four MiG21 fighters. No sooner the meeting started the MiGs blasted the Governors House with 57 mm. rockets, ripping the massive roof off the main hall and turning the building into a smoldering wreck.
The Governor of East Pakistan, A. H. Malik, was so shocked after the incident that he resigned on the spot and renounced all ties with the West Pakistan and fled to take refuge at the InterContinental Hotel under UN flag as a designated safe haven. Now that was a surgical strike.
At another place on the spectrum was the slaying of Osama bin Laden by US SEALs in a helicopter borne attack. The June 2006 US attack that killed Abu Musab-el- Zarqawi was by a single F-16C dropping two 500 lb guided bombs on a safe house in the village of Hibhib near Baqubah in Iraq’s Diyala province on very specific information; and the single Hellfire missile launched by a CIA drone that killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the 5000 fighters strong Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in August 2009 were classic surgical strikes to decapitate enemy leadership to demoralize his forces.
Surgical strikes are also undertaken on a larger scale. The bombing of Baghdad in the initial stages of the first Gulf War, Operation Shock and Awe, was a well coordinated set of surgical strikes on government offices and military and communication installations to cripple the Baathist regime. It clearly had a very specific objective and succeeded.
On the other hand the carpet-bombing of Dresden that set that historic city on fire was clearly not a surgical strike.
A successful surgical strike has a devastating effect. By these measures what happened post Uri doesn't qualify. Instead the Pakistan backed terrorists struck back three days later at Baramulla. The Pakistan Army too has resorted to firing at several places. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi of Pakistani Punjab and Syed Salahuddin (Mohammed Yusuf Shah of Sohibug in Kashmir) still sleep soundly and safely every night with their many wives. They still give press conferences. To pin them to a place and time is not very difficult. Even the IAFs Mirage 2000 attack on a terrorist training camp in Balakot did not have a salutary effect. The terrorists attack in Kashmir with the same regularity and the Pakistan Army quite openly covers their infiltration with artillery fire.
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 across to do this job. The IAF and even the Indian Navy have missiles of great precision. The fear always cited by many military men is that Pakistan will react with strikes of their own as they did in the aftermath of Balakot.
The PAF put up a big air show with over a dozen fighters and lured an IAF MiG21 Bison into close combat, after its Su30MKIs were unable to close in due to a serious missile ranges mismatch. This had been gamed many times but yet the IAF was caught unprepared as the file for approving new long range air-to-air missiles rested in the MoD.
There is no doubt that the Indian Army sent forces across the LoC and hit several places where terrorist foot soldiers were gathered. But they have done this several times in the past without any accompanying fanfare. As a matter of fact the decision to do this was delegated to the Corps level. It was the government’s policy. There is no doubt that this time too they drew blood and took no prisoners as has been happening for several years now.
By misusing a nomenclature to describe the action to be something bigger and major is sheer charlatanism. Maybe it was Ajit Doval’s vivid imagination formed after “several years as an undercover agent in Pakistan”, as his many hagiographers claim? If they had gone in and took out Salahuddin or brought him back it would have qualified to be called a surgical strike.
If Ram Madhav said it was a surgical strike and an achievement of the Modi government then we might all loudly applaud it. But why the then DGMO described it as that when it is not that is something I am unable to fathom?
I have known several DGMO’s and they were all distinguished soldiers with great integrity and very precise in their speech. A DGMO has always got to be that. The job demands that they are 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. However one retired DGMO loudly exclaimed it was a brilliant surgical strike to be rewarded with a paid sinecure as head of a military think-tank.
Calling what happened as surgical strikes is clearly political. How a bunch of cross border raids became surgical strikes is still a story waiting to be told? But the term surgical strike has gained a currency, like counterfeit notes often do.