When Surgical Strikes Were a State Secret

First Person

When Surgical Strikes Were a State Secret

Illustration: Akshita Monga/ Arré

The timing of the Uri attack came as no surprise to me. The month of September is when tanzeems or infiltration factions are most active. It has always been the most fertile period for this sort of activity, because the rains in the prior months make it difficult to cross over. After October, as winter sets in, the passes become almost impenetrable. September offers the perfect window.

In my 35-year career in the Corps of Army Air Defence, I have witnessed more infiltrations and attacks than I care to remember. Most of my postings were spent in counterinsurgency ops and intel roles in the Northeast or close to the LoC around notorious infiltration staging areas.

But the events of 1988 stick out in my memory. They were almost a template for what has unfolded in these past couple of weeks. The big difference is that there was no media participation at every step of our war.

That year, I was officiating as the brigade major in the Mountain Brigade staff near Kohima, when we got dreadful news. A base had been attacked and 10 officers and jawans from 12 Assam Rifles had been killed by Naga insurgents close to Jessami. (You might remember it from World War II lore: It was the site of the first battle with Japanese forces on Indian territory.)

This attack was by far the worst. We sent in a Quick Response Team to the site of the attack, where we discovered that some of the soldiers’ bodies had been mutilated. Their hands had been cut off.

I knew immediately, that this was a grave provocation that would escalate. They had not only killed a significant number of soldiers but they had done it on our base, on our soil. Just like Uri, there was a compelling need to send out a strong message to maintain morale of the troops.

Our response was a surgical strike in retaliation to the bloodshed. You must understand that strikes from both sides of the border are an “existential phenomenon”. Every army man knows that they are not a “call for war” as it is interpreted by civilians and the media. While less frequent than cross-border firing, surgical strikes have always been carried out with the intention to neutralise the threat without collateral damage – and they go hand in hand with secrecy. I doubt there exists, beyond official records, any trace of a surgical strike in the Myanmar area in August 1988. I know this because I was a part of it.

We soon received orders from the highest authority. The task was to carry out a brigade-level operation to destroy Naga insurgent camps that lay almost 50 km along the international border, about 6-7 kilometres into Myanmar territory. These camps were what are today referred to as “terror launch pads”. We established a tactical headquarters close to the border, which served as the central point from where this operation was to be controlled.
We had about a week of preparation, during which to gather intel and decide on logistics in tune with the 36-hour window given to accomplish the mission.

We did not stay back to count the casualties – that was the least important part of the operation – but we did cause a big dent.

The operation was launched from three different areas. Troops from Gorkha Rifles, Mahar Regiment, and Sikh Light Infantry were pressed into service: Each of the three columns had close to 100 soldiers. No chopper movement is allowed in those areas as it translates to an airspace violation, which has very different ramifications – just the way the soldiers involved in the strike across the LoC had to be air-dropped close to the site of the attack and make the rest of the way on foot.

The jungles of Myanmar are very different from the terrain around Kashmir. Not only is it a thick, humid tropical forest with lush undergrowth, it was a poorly understood area. In 1988, several underground groups were controlling the territory. And then there was the military junta that used to control some parts of Rangoon (now Yangon). The border was extremely porous, which provided quick cover for Naga insurgents who were familiar with the forests. For troops unfamiliar with the area, saddled with enormous battle gear and ration, movement was a major problem.

Another difference between the two scenarios is that we were not fighting a proxy war with Myanmar since the state was not sponsoring terrorists. The Myanmar army had been informed of the operation, but we didn’t have any cooperation from them. They would patrol the border frequently and we didn’t want a clash with them. Our target was just the Naga insurgent camps.

In the dead of the night, our troops began to advance. The Sikh boys were carrying the heavy mortars, the Gorkhas leading the way through the forest, hacking at the growth with their machetes. We did not anticipate that the terrain would be so treacherous. The troops’ jungle boots wore thin; their porous haversacks, which included their hard rations of namakparas, were sodden through because of the rain. The Indian Army now has far better equipment: The INSAS or AK 47/56 rifles that our soldiers now use are far lighter than the 7.62 SLRs our men were carrying. Even the combat rations (some of which have been developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation) can support an operation for a longer duration.

The tactical command centre checked in on the troops at the designated calling time: Every odd hour, there was contact by column 1, and every even hour, by column 2, punctuated by periodic radio silence to maintain privacy. I saw that the troops in Kashmir went with night-vision devices and helmet-mounted cameras, unreleased footage from which lies with the government. Those were great advantages. All we had were AN/PRC-25 radio sets with GP antennas for extra range.

The troops reached the camps just as they were getting evacuated. The insurgents were fleeing deeper into the jungle and it was impossible to chase them further. But our boys, who were armed with 81 mm mortars, managed to engage them in combat. There was utter mayhem in the jungle that night, as the insurgents fled. Some of the men recall (with a fair bit of satisfaction) that they could hear their cries.

We did not stay back to count the casualties – that was the least important part of the operation – but we did cause a big dent. Just like the strike across the LoC, the intent of the operation was to send out a strong message and that’s exactly what it achieved. Soon after our boys came back, insurgency in the area went down dramatically.

That said, no military operation is ever pretty. The process of de-induction of the troops was very painful. The operation had stretched to 48 hours instead of the intended 36, and the men were exhausted. The weight of advancing through a tropical forest can take a real physical and mental toll. WW II literature is full of accounts of the fatigue that such terrain imposes. To make matters worse, one column had a nasty incident, where a soldier fell on spikes of freshly cut bamboo and injured himself badly. There was no helipad available to evacuate him, so he had to be carried by his fellow men for six hours until he could be air-lifted from an improvised helipad in a school playground. To replenish rations, a company of fighting porters moved from the logistic base at a forward post to meet the returning troops at the IB.

Thirty years ago, these logistical and communication hurdles had seemed almost insurmountable. In 2018, they no longer seem relevant. But military operations have different challenges to grapple with now. First, the constant glare of the media and satellite surveillance means that our wars are public. It is essential to own up. We didn’t feel any pressure to announce the Myanmar strike because it was considered business as usual. We would not have had that liberty today.

The dimensions and pressures of attacks have changed today. The LoC strike had to be announced because the propaganda machinery of opposing nations must be countered. The LoC strike also had to be denied by Pakistan because face-saving measures are an important part of national strategy. That doesn’t mean the strikes didn’t happen. What goes in our world usually stays in our world. Just because there was a press conference on the strike, it doesn’t mean that bodies must be presented as proof. Whether the rest of the narrative plays out on the world stage or not, there is reason to believe that just like Myanmar, the LoC now will witness a period of calm after all this action. Hopefully, this time it will last longer than usual.