By Mohd Asim Khan
The Indian side was prepared for escalation -- in case Pakistan chose to do so -- while conceiving and executing the 2016 surgical strikes by crossing the Line of Control (LoC) along the Jammu and Kashmir border, according to the army general who oversaw the strikes.
"We had sort of war-gamed all the contingencies of what could be the impact of the surgical strike. And one of the things that we did consider was that in case Pakistan decides to escalate, then what do we have to do," Lt. General (retd) Deependra Singh Hooda, who planned and oversaw the execution of the operation as the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Northern Command, told IANS in an interview.
"And we had put plans in place of what is to be done in various areas. I can't go into details, but definitely it was something that we considered," he added.
On the intervening night of September 28-29, 2016 -- 11 days after the Uri attack by militants from across the border -- a group of Indian Army commandos crossed the LoC and in a pre-emptive strike destroyed several launch pads of militants in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The Army estimated that 30-70 militants and their handlers were killed in the strike The highly-decorated officer retired from the Army on November 30th, the same year.
Hooda also said they knew there would only be a "limited" kind of response from Pakistan side, if at all.
"I was clear in my mind that the surgical strike was not going to lead to something like an all-out war between the two countries. That wouldn't have happened because Pakistan military's capabilities in that sense are limited. So I am not sure they would have decided to escalate to that extent," Hooda said.
"But, yes, some local border incidents, in a kind of escalation, was something that we had in our mind," he added.
Hooda said that this was not the first time that such a cross-LoC operation was done -- in fact such things go on a "fairly regular basis" in a limited manner -- but the surgical strike of 2016 was different from earlier similar operations primarily in two ways.
"Similar operations had been done in the past on multiple occasions. It's been happening for years. It's not as if it was for the first time. The difference was that this time around the scale was larger, and more importantly, the government decided to own up and say yes we did it. Whatever had been done in the past was never officially accepted," Hooda said.
He said that it was a "very high risk" operation and he was worried about what would happen if something went wrong -- like a soldier being captured -- or how to evacuate a soldier if he was injured or killed.
"The exfiltration after the operation was actually a more risky task. But again, we had planned the contingencies. We had prepared to send more people across to get our boys out," he said.
He said that Pakistan kept saying the surgical strike had not happened, but in fact there was considerable panic on the Pakistani side.
"We were listening to their radio conversation after the strikes and there was a fair amount of panic on the other side. They cancelled their leaves, more high alerts were sounded, and they kept telling each other to be careful as ‘these guys may come across again'. There was psychological pressure on the Pakistanis," Hooda said.
After the operation, Hooda said, the morale of India soldiers went "sky high".
"You could have seen it in their faces. The fact that they had gone across the border, done the operation and came back successfully without anybody getting injured was a great feeling. It was a complex operation. There was a huge confidence that we can do it again, which is a big thing because if you have a failure, then there is always a doubt in your mind whether we should attempt something like this again," Hooda said.
The general, however, admitted that infiltration had neither stopped, nor had come down, after the surgical strikes. Instead, it appeared to have slightly gone up.
"They kept trying. And I believe there was a feeling that this has been done to us, we should try and do something back. Now, they can't do it conventionally because their army cannot do it. So they kept sending infiltrators," he said.
"Thousands and thousands of them (militants) are there. The Pakistani army thinks these are expendable chaps, toh inhe bhejte raho (keep pushing them across the border)," he added.
How does he feel when people raise questions on the veracity of army action or use of words like farcical strikes?
"Well, it's a bit disappointing. People should have no doubt when an army officer of the rank of DGMO (Director General Military Operations) comes in front of the camera on live TV and announces that this has been done. Officials at that level cannot give irresponsible statements," Hooda said.