Uri payback: Decoding the role of Indian Army’s surgical strike

NEW DELHI,SHWETA DESAI : Days after terrorists stuck at an Army camp in Uri on September 18, a group of the Army’s Special Forces (SF), acting on specific information, crossed the Line of Control between the Rajouri and Poonch sectors into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to attack the launching pads where terrorists had positioned themselves.

This is not the first instance of surgical strikes or cross-border raid operations, but it is one of the few times when the Indian military has publicly owned up to the operation. Last year, the Special Forces had crossed into Myanmar and targeted the Naga insurgent group NSCN(K) following the strike on an army convoy in Manipur killing 18 soldiers.

In military circles, the Special Forces are called the ones that act on a ‘quid pro quo’ basis. Highly trained to not only cause a surprise direct military attack, they also carry out covert operations in enemy territory, making the SF — force multipliers. They do not hold ground. They are employed in small groups to a minimum of five men and operate independently.

dna spoke with Lt Gen P C Katoch, a retired Special Forces veteran who has fought in the 1971 war and commanded the Special Forces Unit in Sri Lanka. He had also authored a book on India’s Special Forces to help readers know more about the Special Forces, the cross-border operation in PoK, and what role are they tasked for.

Can you elaborate on this surgical strike?

The cross-border operation was a tactical raid. After the Uri attack, the Army had selected its targets and they were put under constant surveillance, waiting and looking for the opportunity on when to strike. The SF, attached with the Northern Command, were given these targets. The strikes were not conducted in one location but were widely dispersed in four different areas in the South and North of Pir Panjal where the 25 Division, 28 Division and 19 Division is deployed.

How did the SF enter PoK?

The SF were dropped in low-flying helicopters on the Indian side and then they crossed the LoC and entered PoK. They went in the dead of the night and before the break of the first light, came back. Till the operation got over their activity was monitored. Only after the SF’s came back to Indian territory, did the Pakistan front line open firing. They were taken by surprise because they never expected India to react in this matter. And now the political and military leadership is in a quandry and in denial.

There is always an element of deniability when SF are employed in operations.

Yes, that’s right. These are only short cross border raids. The SF also provide the government with an opportunity to be employed at the strategic level on politico-military missions. In covert operations, you cannot put your signature. This is so that no one can point fingers at you. SF operations are all ambiguous signatures.

How long does it take for such a raid to manifest from the planning stage to actual operation?

In the case of cross-border raids, targets are already chosen beforehand and it doesn’t take more than 24 hours to deploy the SF. But in the case of the operations on Thursday, where the target terrorist camps keep shifting, it may take some time to mark the exact location. There is no point in conducting a cross-border raid to a launchpad when no one is there. Post the Uri attack, the terrorist camps were moved backward and the forward launch pads kept shifting from the LoC. Heavy surveillance, including the use of satellites, was made to locate the movement that was taking place in the target area. So it’s hard to say when the strike would be made. Once the targets are chosen, there are rehearsals for the operation, ammunition is stocked and men are earmarked.

What is the SF tasked out for?

Special Forces are used in half political-half military missions at strategic levels. Direct action, like a cross border tactical raid, is just one of the tasks that the SF is trained for. The other is to carry strategic surveillance of areas important to you, mostly done through human intelligence which is of prime importance. The second is to get hold of the fault lines of the adversary and the third is to mould the perceptions in your favour.

The SF do not create insurgencies but they fan insurgencies to suit the national interest. For example, today the biggest problem for India is that the Pakistan military is out of control conducting sub-conventional warfare in our territory. And we want them to be totally involved in only their country. How do we do this? By creating situations, where they will fan out there. By sending trained terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir Pakistan is keeping the Indian army tied up. The SF is thus acting as a quid pro quo.

What is the role of SF in full-time conventional war?

During the Kargil war, the military was not allowed to cross the LoC. In case of a conventional war the SF will help in military operations, some of which would be already on the enemy side while others would be tasked as cross-border once war is declared. In the 1965 war, the SF went across to the Pakistan side and raided the gun area and again in the 1971 war, there were raids across East Pakistan. Today, though I must say, India has not made the optimum utilisation of the SF. They are force multipliers, they will not hold the ground. They do the job and move out or do as tasked upon.