Triumph of India’s ‘surgical strike’ was in finding an ‘exact sweet spot’

The reasons why the Uri attack demanded an immediate and muscular response.

By Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.

WASHINGTON, DC: On Thursday, September 29, around noon time, Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh, India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), in a joint press conference with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), announced that New Delhi had successfully conducted a “surgical strike” across the Line of Control (LOC) in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) during the previous night. Indian commandos had pushed into POK from multiple locations along the LOC and destroyed many assembly points where Pakistan-based jihadi terrorists were getting ready prior to their intrusion into India.

The terrorist launch pads were between 1 and 3 kilometers away from the border. The Indian military operation began at midnight and ended at 04:30 hours in the morning. It came as a complete surprise to Pakistan when the Indian DGMO informed his Pakistani counterpart about the pre-emptive strike once all Indian troops involved in the mission had returned safely. The message was conveyed that once the operation was over Indian commandos had withdrawn from POK, and the operation had a focused objective of denying Pakistan based terrorists from entry into India. It was also emphasized that the action was not against the State of Pakistan.

The Indian operation, when measured in military terms, was rather modest. While details are still not fully public and considerable speculation exists in media, I believe India’s military triumph was in finding an “exact sweet spot” where it could undertake a military operation against Pakistan and yet not cross the threshold of provoking direct Pakistani military response.

From a careful reading of the Indian description of the military operation and Pakistan’s reaction to it, I believe Indian commandos crossed LOC in small teams by foot with the main objective of securing precise target locations of the terrorist camps; marking and locking such locations with lasers; and subsequently calling in artillery strikes from the Indian side of the LOC. India used laser guided munitions to destroy all marked terrorist camps.

Pakistani military initially assessed these Indian artillery barrages from the Indian side of the LOC as the usual randomly imprecise cross-border firings, and were therefore unprepared for the message received from the Indian DGMO on 29th September. Pakistan’s Defense Minister took to the airwaves immediately and called the Indian surgical strike a hoax (my information is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in London on that day), but reality sank in soon thereafter. India killed a sizeable, but precisely unknown number of terrorists, and Pakistan, by its own admission, lost two senior Pakistani military personnel (presumably acting as advisors).

In India there was jubilation all over the country. Even the head of India’s opposition, Sonia Gandhi, made an impromptu comment congratulating the military and the Modi government for conducting the operation. India had finally shown the spine to respond to Pakistani sponsored acts of terrorism and violence in India by more than rhetoric and verbal threats. India’s self-imposed restraint regarding inviolability of the LOC, put to a severe test in July 1999 during the Kargil War, was now history. Prime Minister Modi had indeed found a path for retaliation, which was both precise and non-escalating.

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But there is more to this story than what one sees on the surface. India missed a golden opportunity to strike Pakistan after the Indian Parliament was attached by Pakistani terrorists belonging to Lashkar e Toiba (LeT) and Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) on December 13, 2001. The U.S. Ambassador to India during that period, Robert Blackwill, had personally made the case in Washington that an Indian response to the dastardly attack was justified and hence the U.S. would have supported any military response from India.

But the Vajpayee Government lost the nerve even after marshalling military forces on a “war footing” along the western border, in effect giving in to threats by Gen. Musharraf that Pakistan will retaliate with nuclear weapons. Later analyses would indicate that these were empty threats as Pakistan had not, at that time, effectively mated their nuclear weapons with a delivery system. The morale in the Indian military sank as a result of this debacle, and most political leaders in India, including some from Vajpayee’s own party felt that a golden opportunity to hit back at Pakistan had been lost.

The next such opportunity would rise again on November 26, 2008, when a team of 10 Pakistani terrorists belonging to Lashkar e Toiba (LeT) massacred 166 nationals from 17 countries, and injuring hundreds more belonging in all to 23 countries, over a 3-day period in Mumbai. One terrorist was caught alive. International investigation teams, including the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), determined that masterminds of the operation were not only from Pakistan, but also Pakistani handlers were in real-time communication with Mumbai terrorists during the attack. Justice is still pending in that case, but a combination of many factors, including Indian military’s inability to provide satisfactory options for retaliation, as well the influence of a number of political leaders within the ruling Congress Party that have consistently championed for India-Pakistan bonhomie even after repeated Pakistani misdeeds, resulted in India abandoning any military retaliation at that time.

So what changed after the Uri attack? Is it simply that there is a new government in New Delhi led by the “strong man” Modi? But before the Uri attack, Pakistani terrorists belonging to Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) attacked the Pathankot military garrison on January 2, 2016. The attackers, wearing Indian army uniforms, killed 8 personnel, including a civilian, over a period of 3 days. In contrast, while 19 security personnel died at Uri, only 4 actually felled to terrorist bullets whereas the rest died from a fire sparked during the operation that could have been avoided had the army garrison designed their fuel storage facilities with safety in mind. After the Pathankot attack, India’s political leaders from Modi and down were breathing fire and brimstone, but there was no military retaliation against Pakistan.

So what made the Uri attack different that necessitated a more muscular response? The answer lies in the situation on the ground in the valley today. Kashmir has been on the boil since July 8, 2016, when a well-known and social media savvy armed terrorist named Burhan Muzaffar Wani (BMW), belonging to a dreaded terrorist organization, Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), was gunned down along with two of his associates in a shoot-out with security forces in Anantnag. The HM is listed as a terrorist organization not only by India, but also by the U.S. and the European Union (EU).

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However, India having a very elastic definition of national security did not prevent the organization from playing a key role in the last State Assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) held in 2014, where it covertly aligned with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to defeat the incumbent J&K National Conference (JKNC). Both PDP and JKNC, while claiming to be pro-India, are corrupt patriarchal organizations that have proved ineffective in providing good governance in the State, and incumbents rarely receive voter mandate to continue beyond their initial terms. PDP, playing a politics of appeasement towards anti-nationals, reached an understanding with HM and its local political face – Jamaat e Islami (JeI) – ahead of the State elections. In return for their support, PDP agreed to help separatist organizations by arranging release of some of their jailed leaders serving time for sedition and other anti-national activities.

After the State Assembly elections in 2014, the events took a very strange turn. PDP did not win sufficient seats in the Assembly to govern on its own and aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that had won the most seats in Jammu, to form the state government with PDP’s founding leader and a politician extraordinaire, Sayeed Mohammad Mufti, at the helm. The union of separatist leaning PDP and nationalist BJP made strange bed fellows, but from the perspective of HM/JeI it was a disaster. None of the pledges that PDP had made to them before the election could be realized. However, wily and astute Mufti kept the lid on internal discontent spreading within Jehadi ranks, and the Government sputtered along until his untimely death on January 7, 2016. There was a period of uncertainty following his death that lasted for 11 weeks (to the day) until Sayeed Mohammad’s daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, was nominated as his successor. The lost time was wasted in resolving internal quibbles within PDP, and strangely BJP’s central leadership in New Delhi was equally determined to see this coalition continue in spite of dysfunctionalities, both overt and covert, in such an alliance.

Mehbooba Mufti had neither qualities nor the experience that her astute father possessed and could not keep the lid on the discontent. HM/JeI began to express its anger against PDP openly for having backed down from its promises and fear gripped the valley with social media doing its part in spreading rumors and threats. Everyone in the valley could sense that Kashmir was sitting on a tinder box that could burn spontaneously with a spark. Finally that spark was provided when BMW, the poster boy of HM, was killed on 8th July. Kashmir burst in rage and HM/JeI began to rule the streets. Ever since that day, Kashmir has been boiling.

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At the local level, traditional separatist leaders have lost their luster, and street mobs are taking their cue from local Imams belonging to HM/Jei and Wahhabi funded Jamaat Ahle Hadees (JAH). Jehadi Imams are using loudspeakers of their respective mosques to announce and enforce disruption and insurgency programs using teenage youth from various rural areas. These Imams are local people working in tandem with the United Jehad Council (UJC) based in Muzaffarabad (POK) and run by HM supremo, Syed Salahuddin, originally from Budgam, Kashmir. State and Indian governments have taken mostly a defensive posture during this mayhem directing security personnel to defend themselves if attacked, but have not taken any major muscular steps to stop the reign of anarchy and lawlessness prevailing outside of the Srinagar city in the valley today. At the time of writing, the valley was in its 85th day of turmoil with no end in sight.

So why did the Uri attack demand an immediate response whereas in case of Pathankot the Modi government took a low key approach? There are many reasons. One being that unlike Pathankot, Uri is located in the valley, and the Modi government realized that ignoring an attack of this magnitude in the valley would have disastrous consequences. Unlike the Pathankot attack, where UJC initially tried to take the responsibility but real culprits were linked to JeM, in the Uri attack UJC along with LeT and HM were deemed to be active participants. In other words, even though Uri attackers were from Pakistan a large portion of their operational command was organic and directly linked to Kashmiri terrorists residing on both sides of the LOC. Under these circumstances India quickly decided to pursue a surgical attack to kill most of the local terrorists amassing on its borders. A collateral benefit came by way of demonstrating to HM operatives in the valley that the Government was prepared to pursue and kill them on either side of the LOC.

For a Kashmiri, the main concern today is when will peace, tranquility, and law/order return to the valley? The Uri attack was necessary, but is not sufficient, in securing that goal. The State Government and the Central Government have to work together and in tandem in order to wipe out the menace of terrorism from the valley with new initiatives that build on inclusiveness, transparency, political dialogue, good governance, and yes, even robust security measures. No option can or should be taken off the table. That is the new mantra.

(Dr. Sazawal’s is an expert on the Kashmir issue, and his commentaries can be accessed through the website He resides in the greater Washington ,DC, area.)