The Inside Story of India’s 2016 ‘Surgical Strikes’
The never-before-told details of what went into India’s “surgical strikes” against Pakistan-based militants in late-2016.
The following is an excerpt from Nitin A. Gokhale’s new book, Securing India the Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and More.
For Col H and Col K (names withheld), the moment of reckoning arrived on the afternoon of 18 September 2016. Throughout that morning, the Commanding Officers (COs) of two separate Para (Special Forces) battalions were like most of their colleagues posted in Kashmir Valley, following the increasingly grim news coming out of Uri, the garrison town not very far from Srinagar. Well-trained and well-informed terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) had infiltrated across the Line of Control (LoC) and attacked an administrative camp in the 12 Brigade HQ located in Uri with deadly effect. At least 19 soldiers of 6 Bihar battalion, camping in tents — days before they were to take their assigned positions along the LoC — were killed in the early morning attack. Majority of the soldiers died in their sleep, resting as they were in highly inflammable tents. Although all the four terrorists were neutralised eventually, they had set off a chain of events that would culminate on the morning of 29 September.
In Udhampur, Northern Army Commander Lt Gen DS Hooda was distressed. He had been the GOC-in-C for over two years and witnessed his share of successes and setbacks as the head of India’s most active Army command. Nevertheless, this was possibly the worst moment of his long and distinguished career, spent fighting insurgencies and terrorism in the north-east as well as Jammu & Kashmir. “It was terrible. Very difficult to justify what happened. There were definitely lapses on our part,” Hooda says in retrospect.
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But an Army Commander doesn’t have the luxury of wallowing in his own state of mind. He has to set an example by leading from the front. As he accompanied Army Chief Gen Dalbir Singh to Uri, Hooda knew the time had come to implement a plan, the seeds of which had vaguely taken shape in his mind some fifteen months ago. Even Gen Dalbir, aware of how the Prime Minister’s mind worked, was thinking of something different.
Gen Dalbir was drawing on his experience during the cross-border raid in Myanmar more than a year previously when the PM had quietly authorised the strike against north-east militants holed up in the jungles of Manipur-Myanmar border after killing 18 Indian soldiers. Gen Dalbir had a hunch then that the Prime Minister may demand a Myanmar-like action if push came to shove in J&K. Cut to mid-June in 2015. In June 2015, it was under his watch as Army Chief that the soldiers of a Para SF unit of the Indian Army, based in the north-east, had carried out a precise attack on an NSCN (K) camp located inside Myanmar and eliminated at least 60 insurgents in the process. While the cross-border raid inside Myanmar was making waves and dividing opinion (see separate chapter), discussions in TV studios in India centred around the possibility of similar raids against Pakistan. Minister of State of Information & Broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Rathore told TV anchors that the option of cross-border raids against Pakistan are a possibility. He also told Indian Express in June 2015: “This is a message for all countries, including Pakistan, and groups harbouring terror intent towards India. A terrorist is a terrorist and has no other identity. We will strike when we want to.”
The success of Myanmar operations had planted the seed of thought about a surgical strike in Pakistan in everyone’s mind. Once during his visit to the Northern Command, then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar too had exhorted top commanders to be prepared for every eventuality. “Although I didn’t spell it out explicitly, I knew some day a grave provocation by Pakistan may require a Myanmar-like operation. So I told the Army Chief and his senior commanders to look at every possible response,” Parrikar recalls. On his part, Lt Gen Hooda called the two COs (Col H and Col K) and told them that they needed to start looking at targets across the LoC, although frankly at that point in time (June 2015) neither Gen Dalbir, nor Lt Gen Hooda or the political leadership would have thought of such an eventuality arising. Till then, the thinking at the highest levels of India’s political and military leadership was any major trans-LoC strike would be deemed escalatory. Remember, in Kargil, the Vajpayee government had imposed the strict restriction of NOT crossing the LoC in spite of a grave provocation.
“I thought to myself, if tomorrow someone asks us to go, how can I, as Northern Army Commander say we are not prepared?” Hooda remembers thinking. Gen Dalbir says: “From my experience in planning and executing the Myanmar raids, I wanted my commanders to make sure that any cross-border raid should be carried out with minimum casualties. My instructions were, not one single soldier should be left behind in enemy territory even if we suffered any setback.” Hence, in the immediate aftermath of the Myanmar operation, the two COs were told to seriously plan to hit targets inside PoK. Other senior officers in Northern Command’s planning staff also held discussions a couple of times with the MO (Military Operations Directorate at the Army HQ). They identified targets, looking for more intelligence inputs on them, and consolidating a thought process in the presence of the Army Chief and the Northern Army Commander.
But were not cross-border raids carried out earlier too, I asked Gen Dalbir. “Yes, they were,” he agreed “but most actions taken in our younger days were, what we call, BAT (Border Action Team) raids on specific post(s) as retribution for something that the Pakistan Army troops would have carried out on our position(s),” he said. “What we were now planning for was much larger with greater ramifications,” he explained.
For two months in the winter of 2015, the two battalions trained as whole units after years of operating in small, agile teams against terrorists in J&K. This training was to prove crucial in sharpening the set of skills needed for raids across the LoC.
In a way, it was like revisiting their basic tenets for the Special Forces men. And they loved it. Although no one could have anticipated that they would be called in to strike across the LoC, the very thought of crossing a line that was seen as taboo motivated the troops further. Indeed for over two decades no one at the highest political level had ever expressed willingness to sanction, or had demanded such an action inside PoK for the fear of escalation. “The two to two-and-a-half months that these boys spent together helped them hone their skills in surveying targets, mount surveillance, practising infiltration and exfiltration, which in the final analysis helped them achieve what was asked of them,” a senior officer in MO Directorate, privy to the development now agrees, looking back at that decision. As a result of the reorientation, by the time the summer of 2016 arrived, the two battalions had added an extra edge to their repertory of formidable skills. However, no one—not even the most imaginative scriptwriter in Bollywood — could have anticipated the events as they unfolded in September 2016.
Across the board, the langar gup (mess gossip) was full of frustration and rage. I remember speaking to some middle level officers posted in J&K in the immediate aftermath of the Uri incident. The anger was palpable. “If this is not the last straw, what is,” many of them wondered aloud when the possibility of the Indian army’s retaliation was discussed. NSA Doval too remembers Prime Minister Modi telling him: “This attack should not go without a response.” Gen Dalbir adds: “During one of the meetings in the immediate aftermath of Uri, the Prime Minister said the retaliation should be immediate to send an unambiguous message.” Parrikar, Doval and Gen Dalbir however knew they had to plan for several contingencies before attempting a Myanmar-style cross-border raid. For one, unlike on the Myanmar border, the Pakistani forces strung all along the LoC were on highest alert in the wake of the Uri attack. The terrorists would have also been told to lie low and shifted to camps located farther away from the LoC so that hitting those targets would have become harder. Moreover, no matter how remote the possibility, India had to wargame the likely escalation by Pakistan if retribution was ordered.
The Pressure Builds Up
The week of the Uri attack was also a testing time for the Prime Minister’s leadership. Modi, adept at judging the public mood, was aware that people expected him to “walk the talk” in acting tough against India’s implacable enemy. Public opinion in the country was inflamed. People were calling for an all-out war against Pakistan. Even saner voices were advocating at least some demonstrable retribution. Modi was aware of the public sentiment and the anger that was building up in popular perception. He vowed immediate retribution. “I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished,” he tweeted on the day of the Uri attack. Not many people took the statement at face value. After all, politicians and prime ministers in the past had pledged stern action against terrorists and their handlers many times, but had ultimately refrained from giving that final go ahead required to retaliate, urging restraint instead.
Amidst all the criticism, the Prime Minister continued to be unruffled. Recall his aides: “The PM went through with his daily routine and pre-scheduled appointments and programmes without any change, but made sure he had all possible options presented to him before giving the final go ahead (for a punitive strike against Pakistan).” All options, economic, political, and diplomatic were considered. They ranged from downgrading diplomatic ties, revisiting the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty, mobilising international opinion by furnishing proof of Pakistan’s complicity in terrorist attacks, and of course punish Pakistan militarily. But he was not about to be rushed into any hasty decision. The Prime Minister however made up his mind by 23 September, five days after the Uri attack. Later that evening, he and Doval, escorted by a Major General from the MO Directorate, walked the length of the South Block Corridor from the PMO to the Army HQ Ops room around 2100 hours, much long after the corridors had been emptied and offices had closed. Already present in the room were Defence Minister Parrikar, Army Chief Gen Dalbir Singh, DGMO, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, and a couple of MO Directorate senior functionaries. The PM sat through the briefing silently, listening with rapt attention. He was presented various options, shown targets that were planned to be hit inside PoK, and briefed on the possible retaliation/ reaction by Pakistan. Once the initial briefing was over, Modi had a couple of questions on other possible options like a precise air strike on terrorist camps, remembers a participant. Eventually, the Prime Minister agreed that a Special Forces raid across the frontier was the best possible course of action at that point, the participant added.
As one week passed after the Uri attack, the debates tapered off; people seemed resigned to live with the bitter fact that the situation in J&K and on the LoC would continue to be volatile with the Indian army unable to take any deterrent steps. Little did anyone know that India was about to unleash unprecedented and audacious cross-border strikes.
Once the political call was taken, the wheels began to move faster. In Udhampur, the Ops room was buzzing with activity. Now was the time to bring the two Corps Commanders of 15 and 16 Corps in the loop.
Accordingly, Lt Gens Satish Dua and RR Nimborhkar, heading the Srinagar-based Chinar and Nagrota-based White Knight Corps respectively, were also brought on board.
Col H and Col K meanwhile were back to their respective bases. They had much to do. Both had finalised the targets, but the men had to be selected for different tasks, although in their mind they had already earmarked some key personnel the previous winter when the entire units were training together.
As Col H remembers, “Most of our reorientation took place in the mind; we were crossing a threshold that had been embedded in the mind: thus far and no further. Now we were being asked to do a job that had not been undertaken in decades.” Adds Col K: “Our boys always had the skills, but they had applied the skills to a different set of circumstances, not the task we were about to undertake. However, due to our practice and reorientation, they were at the peak of their skills.” They were, like many Indian Army Officers before them posted along the LoC, aware of one-off, shallow raids launched by different infantry units into PoK. But all of them were individual punitive actions and not large-scale planned operations like the one that was being contemplated now.
The tasks were diverse. Teams had to be formed accordingly. Over the past quarter century, the Indian Army had created a strong network of intelligence operatives in the valley and within various tanzeems based in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK). Post the Uri attack and around the time when the surgical strike was being finalised, Northern Command tapped a couple of sources in Hizbul Mujahideen, located in the general area of Anantnag, to obtain more information about the layout of Pakistani camps, and the possible routes that could be taken both to enter and exit PoK. These inputs were crucial to plan strategy and form teams for different tasks like mounting secret surveillance, raid the camps, and for guiding the troops back safely. They also had to do last minute rechecking of targets to make sure that the terrorists were still holed up there and launch pads were not emptied out after the Uri attack.
So what were the thoughts that were going through their minds as they prepared to launch the strikes, I asked the two Commanding Officers.
Looking back, with a quiet sense of pride in their eyes, both the officers recalled their state of mind: “We knew we had to hit the adversary so hard that he would be humiliated. There was no time for half-measures, no place for token gestures,” recounted Col K. His colleague added: “This is what we train for: That one chance to deliver a blow so lethal that the enemy will constantly think about it when planning any misadventure.”
Accordingly, the COs were told that the intent of the cross-border strikes was two-fold: inducing fear and extracting revenge. Simultaneously, total destruction of terrorist infrastructure directly opposite Uri was planned so that those who had launched the attack on 18 September would get the right message. “The idea was to let them know that we know where you are based and where you launch your attacks from and more importantly, we know where to hit you.
The message had to go up to Muzzafarabad (the capital of PoK),” Col H said, reflecting upon the week in the run up to the actual operation.
The wait was now getting shorter. It was finally over on 28 September.
That afternoon, Lt Gen Hooda signalled the launch of Operation X when he called both Col H and Col K. Separately, he wished them a simple “good luck” and told them to go ahead and complete the assigned task.
Teams surged forward by late evening, poised on the edge of the LoC, ready to cross over later that night.
Back in Delhi, Gen Dalbir briefed NSA Doval about the mission plan and worked out a mechanism to update him as and when he received inputs from the ground.
“The die was cast now. The onus was on the Army that I was leading to deliver. But I was confident of our success,” Gen Dalbir recalls. Parrikar, meanwhile, was separately briefed about the roll-out of the action plan by the Army Chief.
28-29 September 2016, J&K
From here onward, teams led by Col K and Col H were on their own. All of it depended on their skills, daring, ingenuity, and above all, determination to succeed in whether they would accomplish the task assigned to them.
There was no looking back now.
The operation, called Operation X in conversation but not officially named as such, was being monitored at Army HQ in Delhi, at the Northern Command HQ in Udhampur, and at Nagrota and Srinagar, the HQs of 16 and 15 Corps respectively.
As Prime Time television debates across different news channels were just about winding down, Col K’s teams were making their way to the LoC. Col K, assigned to target camps south of the Pir Panjal range, led his teams across the LoC around midnight. In four hours, they were in close proximity of the objectives. Having bypassed some of the outposts close to the LoC on the Pakistani side, the teams were now truly behind enemy lines.
Barring one minor injury, Operation X had gone off with clockwork precision. Complete surprise was achieved, resulting in the higher fatalities in the camps-cum-launch pads of the Pakistanis. It also validated many conceptual plans made over the years for trans-LoC operations.
So what was the death count? I asked the two COs.
Both were candid, admitting they didn’t stop to count the dead. “That was neither our remit nor the objective of the strike. We had been given a job to destroy selected targets to send a message. In light of which we performed to the best of our abilities. We can’t give you exact figures. No one can, but what we saw with our eyes in those moments, tells us that we would have accounted for at least 70–75 fellows combined,” both Col K and H tell me. Later that day, radio chatter from across the LoC reportedly confirmed at least 80 fatalities in the camps that were hit by Indian Special Forces