Explaining India’s ‘surgical strike’


The offensive marks a critical departure from the country’s  Pak strategy, but there are caveats

For years, India’s Pakistan policy was fairly predictable. The overarching character of the country’s Pakistan approach was strategic restraint even though New Delhi never shied away from using force against Pakistan-controlled militants—namely the Kargil war or the occasional cross-LoC actions. India used force when it was compelled to exercise it. Or it went on the offensive discreetly — carrying out limited operations across the LoC and staying tight-lipped about the event. This approach was partly shaped by India’s traditional war-sceptic policy and partly by nuclear deterrence. But the problem with this approach was that Pakistan, via militant groups, always found ways to circumvent India’s deterrence. If India’s nuclear deterrence stopped Pakistan from escalating the conflict through direct military confrontation, it achieved zip in deterring challenges from Pakistan-controlled militants.
India, on the other side, tried to build an international pressure regime to force Pakistan to take action against militants operating from its soil. The country was relatively successful in this regard. It could influence the international public opinion and win the sympathy of the world’s major powers such as the US and European countries as a victim of terror. But the problem with this approach was that this pressure regime also had its limitations as several countries still viewed Kashmir as a disputed territory. Of course, Pakistan came under enormous international pressure after the 2008 Mumbai attack which primarily targeted civilians. But since then, Pakistan-based militants have changed their strategy. Instead of attacking civilians in India, they started targeting military bases in Indian Kashmir. This allowed Pakistan to continue to needle India while at the same time buck the world pressure saying that attacks on military bases were not terrorism but resistance by militants against “India’s occupation” of Kashmir. This was a dead end for India. No matter how hard New Delhi pursued the course of diplomacy, cross-LoC attacks continued.

This predictability in Indian approach allowed to Pakistan build an effective multifaceted approach towards India—talks at the political level, rhetoric at the military level and attacks through the militias. By conducting the cross-LoC strike and by publicly claiming that India carried out the strike, this time New Delhi has changed the unwritten rules of the game. It now seeks to add a shock doctrine to its strategic restraint. India may be hoping that the cross-LoC strike would bolster its deterrence against potential militant attacks for a few reasons. First, it sends a message to the Pakistani establishment that India would not hesitate to carry out limited retaliation in the PoK if militants from the region continued to attack Indian bases. In the DGMO statement, India was careful not to say anything on Pakistani army. The DGMO said terrorists and their handlers were attacked. And the operation took place in the PoK, which India considers its territory. So the nuanced message is that India did not violate Pakistani sovereignty, nor did it attack Pakistani troops, but only terrorists in the disputed territory were targeted. Secondly, India sends a message to the outside world that its traditional policy of restraint or secretive response is changing. Unless greater pressure is put on Pakistan to restrain militant/terrorist groups, the onus for any potential escalation is on the latter.

But still, the strike appears to be a gambit. In a conflict between two rational players, this type of shock doctrine will have a positive impact on the aggressor’s security. But the problem here is that Pakistan is an erratic player in South Asia which is increasingly dependent on asymmetric tactics to deal with its rivals, be it India or Afghanistan. From that point of view, India has just escalated the game of limited aggression. Indian strike might prompt Pakistan to target more locations in Indian Kashmir to test New Delhi’s resolve. Having already raised the bar, India will be forced to respond in the similar fashion in the event of future attacks. That’s the risk New Delhi has taken with the latest strike. If it fails to deter Pakistan-based militants, as New Delhi hopes it would, India should brace for a tumultuous period of violent cat and mouse game.

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