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Indian military’s surgical strikes unit should come with a ‘handle with care’ tag

The former Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General (retd) D.S. Hooda’s comments about the “surgical strikes” have triggered another bout of political recrimination. However, the furore over the general’s observations on “overhype” and politicisation of military operations has drowned out his more important points about the challenges and limitations of such “surgical strikes”.

These are well worth pondering, especially in the light of the government’s recent plans to create a new special forces unit dedicated to carrying out such operations. This move not only underscores the risks that General Hooda warned of but could also exacerbate the institutional problems confronting the special forces.

For starters, the general clarified that from his vantage point, the main objective of the operation was retribution – not inducing a change in Pakistan’s behaviour. As he put it, “When we were planning it, there was no thought in our mind that Pakistan will stop doing Uri-like incidents… You may call it revenge, but this had to be done.” There is nothing unusual about retributory strikes. Indeed, they are the norm in bringing to bear artillery fire across the Line of Control. As long as the political and military leadership’s expectations are accordingly calibrated, such “surgical strikes” can be useful in restoring an operational balance along the LoC. The problem starts when the political or military leadership begin to think that such operations can have a strategic effect in deterring Pakistan from resorting to terrorism.

Here, the domestic overselling of the operations becomes problematic. All strategic actions are aimed at multiple audiences, including adversaries and domestic constituencies. The desire to “do something” is often a strong driver of strategic choices. Even terrorist outfits carry out ineffective attacks merely to show their state-sponsors that they are active.

Nevertheless, an excessive concern about pandering to domestic audiences is counterproductive. In this case, the government has convinced itself that “surgical strikes” not only go down well with its constituencies at home, but also promise precise effects at low cost and little risk of escalation. This is the dynamic that General Hooda warned of: “if you hype a successful operation, then even success has its burdens”.

In fact, the history of special operations throws up ample warnings of their dangers. In the first place, the allure of these exceptionally trained and talented units leads to their frequent misuse. As Eliot Cohen argued in his seminal study Commandos and Politicians, special forces have always been a temptation for political leaders. They are often assigned missions that are more appropriate to larger conventional forces.

The experience of the Indian Army’s para commando units in the early stages of the intervention in Sri Lanka amply bears out this point. Further, special forces are particularly vulnerable to a bit of bad luck. This is true even of special operations units that are far better equipped than ours. Recall the failure of the mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980 or the infamous “Blackhawk Down” mission in Somalia in 1993 – both of which tragically unravelled owing to the problems with helicopters.

In the wake of the successful operation of 2016, the government is tempted to regard special forces as the answer to the strategic conundrum of dealing with Pakistan’s resort to terrorism against the nuclear backdrop. But this conclusion at once overrates the strategic impact of special operations and underestimates the potential costs should an operation go awry. The latter includes not just military costs, but political costs with domestic audiences.

The government’s plans for a special forces unit solely for “surgical strikes” is riddled with other problems as well. The new unit will reportedly be formed out of the best trained and most experienced soldiers from the Army’s special forces, the Navy’s marine commandos and the Air Force’s Garuds. The milking of existing units will invariably denude them of talent and leadership. And these are not easily or quickly replaced in any special forces outfit. This is bound to exacerbate their problems. In their book on history of the special forces, Lieutenant General P.C. Katoch and journalist Saikat Datta argue that the Army’s attempts to expand these units has consistently been plagued by the lack of quality manpower and officers as well as equipment.

Then there are the issues of command that have affected the deployment and efficacy of special forces. Several reports, including the Naresh Chandra Committee, have recommended the creation of a special operations command to effectively harness the capability of these forces. The government has yet to sign-off on this proposal and in the meantime, the new outfit will be placed directly under the control of the Army chief. Instead of tackling existing problems, the government’s plan will create fresh ones.

The experience of other countries points to another subtle problem of relying heavily on special forces. These units are easily valorised in public perception –especially by political leaders who are taken in by the mystique and romanticism of covert operations: think of Winston Churchill, John Kennedy or Moshe Dayan. More broadly, the special forces’ proximity to political leadership leads to conventional units worrying about the dilution of their importance. This can have deleterious institutional consequences. It is worth recalling that even in the Indian Army there was considerable resistance from the Parachute Regiment to hiving off the special forces units into a separate regiment.

Special forces undoubtedly have an important role to play in dealing with cross-border terrorism. But history suggests that they come with a “handle with care” tag. Nor should the euphemism of “surgical strikes” obscure their reality. As McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security advisor, put it: surgical strikes, like all surgery, are blood, messy, and you may have to go back for more.

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