New Details about 2016’s ‘Surgical Strike’

Indian Army soldiers training with their US counterparts in 2013. Image Credit: Michael J. MacLeod/ US Army via Wikimedia Common

In the early morning hours of September 18, 2016, four members of the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) attacked an Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri in the Kashmir Valley, killing 19 soldiers and injuring many more before meeting their own demise.

Just 10 days after the deadly attack, a select group of soldiers from the Para commandos slipped across the Line of Control and assaulted insurgent facilities deep behind enemy lines. Their raid would soon come to be known ‘surgical strike’, the term frequently being used as if it were a proper noun.

Some details of the raid emerged within the next few days. Others anonymously sourced accounts have since fleshed out the story, most notably, one from journalist Shiv Aroor in his new book, which largely focuses on the soldiers involved.

Yet another promising account comes from Nitin Gokhale, a highly experienced former journalist with ties to the BJP. An excerpt from Gokhale’s book, Securing India The Modi Way, which is due to be released no Friday, sheds some light on the decision making involved.

Gokhale makes three important points. Firstly, the Uri attack and the army’s response had a precedent the previous year. Less than a week after insurgents ambushed and killed 18 soldiers in Manipur, commandos from 21 Para attacked what was apparently an NSCN(K) cap in Myanmar on the night of June 9/10.

According to Gokhale, ‘success of Myanmar operations had planted the seed of thought about a surgical strike in Pakistan in everyone’s mind.’ Not long after, Gokhale reports, the Northern Army Commander, Lt. General DS Hooda called in the commanding officers of two separate battalions of Paras and tasked them with ‘looking at targets across the LoC’ that they might have to attack in retaliation to a terrorist strike.

Training for a potential raid into Pakistan-controlled territory began in earnest in the winter of 2015. The two battalions ‘trained as whole units after years of operating in small, agile teams against terrorists in J&K. This training was to prove crucial in sharpening the set of skills needed for raids across the LoC.’

The army’s senior leadership also prioritized minimizing Indian casualties. ‘My instructions were, not one single soldier should be left behind in enemy territory even if we suffered any setback’, Gokhale quotes then army chief General Dalbir Singh as saying.

Gokhale’s second major point is that the political leadership considered its retaliatory options seriously. The possibilities available to Prime Minister Narendra Modi included ‘downgrading diplomatic ties, revisiting the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty, mobilising international opinion by furnishing proof of Pakistan’s complicity in terrorist attacks, and of course punish Pakistan militarily.’

According to Gokhale, Modi decided on a military response five days after the attack, on September 23 2016. That day, Modi, national security advisor Ajit Doval, and senior army leaders discussed the options and potential Pakistani responses. Modi eventually approved the plan for a raid by the Paras.

Thirdly and finally, Gokhale stresses that Modi’s government was under immense pressure to do something after Uri. The army too, was eager for payback and the mood among soldiers was ‘full of frustration and rage.’

Was the raid unprecedented?

Gokhale acknowledges that the army had struck across the Line of Control before. By one count, the Indian Army has taken the fight into Pakistan occupied Kashmir at least three times since 2008. Another attack in 2002 involving the combat aircraft and special forces only came to light earlier this year. Besides these, there are reports and rumours of other raids dating back to the 1990s. Clearly crossing the LoC was not a novel experience for the army.

However, General Dalbir Singh told Gokhale, most previous operations were relatively small attacks on Pakistani posts near the LoC. The September 2016 raid on the other hand, ‘was much larger with greater ramifications’.

Despite this sense that the attack represented something new, it remains entirely unclear how many casualties the Indian attackers inflicted. Gokhale’s sources candidly tell him they do not know. Indeed, various estimates appearing in the press tend to vary wildly and the Pakistani government continues to insist the raid never took place.

Lastly, even if the raid was a success, was the government justified in making it public? Gokhale does not address this question in the excerpt, though it’s possible he does so in the book. This blog looks forward to reviewing both Gokhale’s and Aroor’s volumes soon.


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