India-Pakistan escalation: Surgical Strikes or Information Warfare

Can we unravel what really happened or is that anti-national?

India-Pakistan escalation: Surgical Strikes or Information Warfare
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Just in case we forgot, Saturday October 1 is the 86th day of Kashmir shutdown. According to Additional Director General (Criminal Investigation Department) of Jammu and Kashmir Police SM Sahai, 2,096 incidents were reported till Friday (September 30), in which 69 civilians have been killed and 8,678 were injured. Sahai told Newslaundry that two security forces have been killed in clashes and 4,011 have been injured. Fifty-two buildings have been damaged and 44 have been set on fire.  What started as an azadi agitation on the streets following the killing of a Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, a local Kashmiri, has now escalated into a war-like situation between India and Pakistan. In that smokescreen, Kashmir is no longer visible.

Since Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech this year, India has made considerable gains diplomatically and strategically. After risking the ‘B’ bomb and successfully bringing Balochistan back into the Indo-Pak ‘narrative’, the Uri suicide attack killing 19 Indian soldiers, allegedly aided by Pakistan, became a turning point in India’s Pakistan policy of “strategic restraint”. There was anger in the country and the PM who rode to power vowing to avenge Pakistan knew he had to walk his talk and appease the domestic constituency. But he didn’t give in to impulse and weighed options, consulted agencies involved and brought all political parties on board.

Since then India has been on a consistent diplomatic offensive from sharp rebuttal of Nawaz Sharif’s speech at United Nations General Assembly to PM Modi’s effective address at Kozhikode and Sushma Swaraj’s calm and hard-hitting speech at the UNGA. From campaigning that Pakistan should be declared a terrorist state to having south Asian nations boycott the SAARC, it has been advantage India in the first round of this diplomatic war.  

In its shift from “strategic restraint” policy, the perpetrators had to be “punished” and 10 days after the Uri attack, India announced that “surgical strikes” “along the LoC” were carried out at seven terror “launchpads”. It was the first ever public acknowledgement by India of such strikes and very well worded. It did not connect Uri to the attack nor did it give away the locations. All it said was it was a pre-emptive strike at terrorists waiting along the LoC to enter the country and carry out attacks. 

Indian media went ballistic celebrating the attack. It was a moment the country had long waited for after suffering repeated terrorist attacks with no response other than diplomatic moves and more stress on dialogue. But does that mean that there should be no questions or clarifications? The majority of the Indian media took the information the government generously gave them without question. Is that how journalism is supposed to work?

The scenario created ensured PM Modi was cast as the hero of a terror-hit nation. The pressure was such that Pakistani actors in Mumbai returned home and at least one channel took off Pakistani serials from its schedule. Social media was retributive and spared none who dared to question the success of details of the operations. My Twitter handle was like a warzone of abuses. 

Though there is still no clarity about what happened at those seven locations, the media’s analysis has been deep and detailed, never mind if that was all fed by “sources”. Resident experts explained what “surgical strikes” mean and concluded on the extent of heavy casualties. Apparently, 38 men were killed that makes more than double of Uri and good meat for political chest thumping in the coming Uttar Pradesh elections. Two days, later the army released some video of the operation that will be difficult to authenticate. Pakistan too is circulating a video of injured Indian soldiers (that is in my possession), but again it is difficult to understand where that came from. 

Back in Pakistan, the media again fed by the Pakistan army and government, interpreted the ‘strike’ as firing on the LoC. They quoted Prime Minister Sharif condemning the ceasefire violation by India as an “unprovoked and naked aggression”. 

Dawn’s headline was  “Escalation or brinkmanship at LoC?” India, it said claims its troops made ‘surgical strike’ across LoC, Pakistan rejects it. The story is placed alongside a picture of Kashmiris in ‘Indian-administered Kashmir’. They reported Kashmiris offering funeral prayers in absentia for Pakistani soldiers killed in overnight firing by Indian forces on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. 

The Nation reported that India failed to sell ‘surgical strike’; it had Pakistan Army rubbishing Indian claims and the warning that any bid to cross into Pak territory to be responded forcefully. 

Other publications like Pakistan Today dismissed the ‘surgical strike’ as India bragging, quoting the DG ISPR saying that Pakistani armed forces will strongly respond to any Indian mischief. Express Tribune called it a “’Surgical’ farce” and a fabrication of cross-border firing. The News said India’s claim of surgical strikes was delusional and carried the news of eight Indian troops killed and several checkposts destroyed. Karachi newsrooms, however, were apathetic and unlike what was being published or aired, the reporters were sceptical of claims by both countries. 

The Pakistan electronic media like their Indian counterpart was rabid and jingoistic. It verged on the farcical when ARY News ran a news report as part of its bulletin about Google search for namakharam was apparently throwing up India as the top search. Express News channel ran the tagline “Bharat rona band karo” (India, stop crying). 

But there were the likes of Mazhar Abbas, a well-known journalist who had a measured analysis on Geo News. He said that both countries should be shown images of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Asma Jehangir, well-respected Human rights activist and lawyer, and a vocal critic of the army, tweeted: “Epidemic of insanity hits India and Pakistan again. No one wins a war End terrorism and violence against each other and within our countries” 

The Pakistani strategy, according to Khurram Shahzad a journalist based in Islamabad, is to wait for an attack and then respond strongly by using the opportunity to damage as much as possible while being defensive. In other words ‘we’ should not expect an attack from Pakistan but a heavy-handed retaliation in case India fires even a single bullet. But India claims they have inflicted heavy casualties. Pakistan denies that.  

The military especially under army chief Raheel Sharif has ensured that Nawaz Sharif is weakened. And with Panama Papers leak he has become even more vulnerable. Friday was a test for the Punjab government and Sharif as Imran Khan and his party PTI decided to go ahead with Raiwind march despite India-Pakistan tension. Raiwind is the residence of Nawaz Sharif and the march was to pressurize him to come clean on Panama Papers as promised by Nawaz earlier. 

A mammoth crowd was organized and Imran Khan took the stage but only to announce that he won’t go ahead with the proposed march since soldiers are on the border defending the country. He, however, didn’t let go of the opportunity to make a dig at Sharif telling Modi that everyone is not like Nawaz Sharif.   

Raheel Sharif meanwhile has issued a statement: ‘Pakistan Army is the most battle-hardened army in the world and it is primarily due to the highest standard of physical fitness, professionalism and motivation of our officers and men who face the challenges dauntlessly.” DG ISPR Asim Bajwa did a lot of talking and his office issued quite a few statements for the media’s consumption.  

But what really is a “surgical strike”? It is a covert operation with precision, taking the target by surprise and minimizing collateral damage. Usually it is airstrikes. This strike, if true, is not the first one and will not be the last. “Launchpads” are actually two room sets along with Pakistani army posts that are used as transits by terror groups operating out of bases in Pakistan. The terror bases are at least 30 kilometres inside the LoC. The first line of defence are minefields and then PPs (protective posts) of four or five soldiers. What probably happened that night was a BAT (Border Action Team) action that both countries have which comprise 10-15 soldiers. That was accompanied by artillery shelling that can go as far as five kilometres. These are used for revenge actions and have been going on for years. Pakistan strikes with SSG commandos. Usually when units hand over the strikes take place. These are simple cross over of the LoC on hilly ‘nullahs’ or drains. These actions are for kills and often to bring a head as proof of accomplished mission. In January 2013, Lance Naik Hemraj Singh was beheaded. Later that year, five Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush in Kashmir, in a joint “surgical strike” by Pakistani Special Forces and terrorists. 

Pakistan by now is used to “surgical strikes” by US drones hitting for years. Post 26/11, India set up a unit TSD that was meant to carry out covert strikes inside Pakistan but was eventually disbanded after two years. There were around eight actions that were carried out inside Pakistan including one on ISI Eastern Division office at Faisalabad. None of these can be proven or substantiated and there won’t be any evidence left. Despite new age technology the Indian claim of “surgical strike” too will be very difficult to prove unless spy satellite pictures are leaked at some point or the government decides to show to the world what it means by “heavy casualties”. The pictures available so far are not convincing enough.  

In December 2003, when Bhutan carried out Operation All Clear to bust 48 terror camps of Indian armed groups based there, I was reporting the operation that went on for a month. Indian army was very much there carrying out the strikes but denied it completely and all that I could film was artillery moving in and out and aircrafts hovering (once they dropped five masked men) but not a single photograph was ever released of the very successful operation that changed the course of insurgent movement in the region.  

But the latest buildup in India and Pakistan is more than a sum of all this. What we are witnessing is really information warfare that combines electronic warfare, cyber warfare and psy-ops (psychological operations) into a single fighting unit. This is how all warfare will be in the future. That would also mean coopting the media and aren’t we seeing that already? 

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