Questions about what constitutes a ‘surgical strike’ and whether the term is an apt descriptor for alleged Indian action across the Line of Control in have abounded since Indian forces claimed to have carried out such a strike on Thursday. Pakistan, however, claimed the action was cross-LoC firing. Dawn spoke to Zahid Hussain, a senior journalist, about Thursday’s events and whether India or Pakistan’s descriptions of the action accurately portrayed what had happened.
Q: While the Indian side is claiming they conducted a surgical strike, the Pakistani military insists it was cross-LoC firing. Is either claim an accurate portrayal of what happened?
A: It would be more accurate to say that there was an incursion, which means Indian troops may have crossed the Line of Control (LoC), but it cannot be called a ‘surgical strike’.
A surgical strike, as explained by many on Thursday, involves a specific target and the use of the air force and other forces.
It does not seem that the incursion on Thursday involved any specific target or the use of the air force. In addition, there are no details on what the Indians achieved.
A surgical strike by India in Myanmar is said to have taken place in 2015, in which India claimed to have taken out 38 Naga militants after an ambush on their troops on Indian soil killed 20 soldiers. The strike proved rather controversial in India.
Q: Why was the surgical strike in Myanmar controversial?
A: Not only did the government of Myanmar deny the strike, but there were also media reports in India that the camps the Indian troops had targeted had been cleared before the strike.
Q: If there was an incursion, why did Pakistan initially deny the event? Was it to stall for time to shape a measured response, or because it felt it would be embarrassed by admitting to Indian boots on the ground?
A: The Pakistani response was admittedly intriguing. The entire day, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) continued to deny that there had been anything more than cross-border firing. By evening, Hamid Mir, a television anchor, and [retired] Lt Gen Ijaz Awan, during a talk show, spoke of Indian soldiers having been killed and their bodies abandoned by their retreating counterparts at one place on the LoC.
Later at night, Pakistan’s high commissioner to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, confirmed that an Indian soldier had been captured by Pakistani troops, a piece of information which till then had been leaked to media outlets by ‘security sources’. But till Friday evening, the military’s media wing had been completely silent and had not confirmed any of this.
However, many have concluded or questioned if the capture of an Indian soldier indicates that there were Indian boots on the Pakistani side of the LoC. While, the situation will become clearer as time passes, one can hope that the initial denial from Pakistan was a sign that Islamabad did not want to overreact or react so quickly so as to cause a further escalation. The initial Pakistani response can be seen as a sign of maturity in the face of provocation.
Q: Has the Indian action set a precedent for much such incursions or pre-emptive actions across the LoC? Will we witness more such cross border action in the future from both sides?
A: We have very short memories; such incursions are not new. Just three years ago in January 2013, India and Pakistan had accused each other of incursions.
Pakistan accused Indian troops of crossing the LoC and killing two soldiers while the Indian army also [made the accusation] that firing by Pakistani troops had killed two Indian soldiers, and even severed the head of one of them.
Both sides, however, denied the other’s claim. Such intrusions or incursions were also the norm before the ceasefire agreement of 2003 and there would be periodic attempts to seize posts manned by the rival army. Perhaps, what we are witnessing at present is a return to that era.
The only new aspect of what happened on Thursday is how the Indian government and military portrayed the incident by claiming it was a surgical strike.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2016