India’s recent attack on militant groups operating out of camps in Myanmar has created considerable excitement within sections of India’s strategic affairs community, the media and politicians of opposition parties. All of them question the wisdom of the Modi government going public with details of this ‘covert’ operation and stating that this was a message to our neighbours (read Pakistan). Both these points need to be addressed before we examine other issues. To begin with, this was not a covert operation in the classic sense. It was a special forces military operation, like the US did to eliminate Osama bin Laden. These are kept secret only till their execution. Didn’t President Obama himself announce the elimination of Osama? A ‘covert operation’—like the Israelis are known to undertake—needn’t ever be announced nor admitted and their possibilities are endless.
The point to understand is that this operation was meant to convey a message at several levels. For the military, it was meant to be a morale booster, since there were complaints that politicians in New Delhi didn’t care for soldiers, whether they were dead or alive. For India’s masses, it was a message that the Modi government’s promise of a muscular foreign policy was now there to see. And, for India’s neighbours, both in the east and the west, the message is that India had now adopted a new approach towards cross-border attacks.
And this message, that India is now willing to pre-empt terror threats, even from across the border, has certainly been received by Pakistan, going by the number of statements that were immediately issued by the Pakistani establishment, warning India that Pakistan was not Myanmar. Indeed there are differences. Pakistan is militarily more powerful and has nuclear weapons. And, unlike Myanmar, Pakistani generals have used their ‘nuclear umbrella’ to harass and attack India for the past 25 years, with terror groups that are trained, armed and housed in Pakistan.
Myanmar, on the other hand, had given India permission to carry out the strikes, even though it has not pursued a policy to counter anti-India insurgents for the past two decades because of its limitations. (It is another matter that because of its political compulsions, Myanmar’s junta now says that permission was neither sought nor given for this raid.) In fact, India’s borders with Myanmar are a base for a range of insurgent groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), which had apparently ambushed the troops and vehicles on June 4, and many others which have come together to launch attacks on targets in Manipur and Nagaland.
India has ‘credible intelligence’ about 60 camps in Myanmar, along the border, and the insurgents are said to be receiving arms and mentoring from external forces, like the Chinese. New Delhi thus has no option but to plan and execute more such attacks, to cripple these insurgent outfits. But each cross-border operation will require, as the June 9 strike did, meticulous planning and execution, with several ministries working very closely. And, as the recent attack has shown, this could be a turning point in India’s strategy to deal with external threats.
However, it is nobody’s case that an identical model can be applied on India’s west, across the Line of Control, where a large number of anti-India terror groups and their 'jihadis’ are based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The elimination of such camps will be a daunting task, as these are much deeper inside PoK, and are either based alongside Pakistani army units or in heavily populated civilian areas. And, any use of helicopters would draw instant military retaliation. But there are still ways to deal with them. What the Myanmar strike has shown is that India might finally be willing to call Pakistan’s bluff.