Just before daybreak of September 18, 2016, four terrorists cut the wire fencing of Uri garrisonand attempted to sneak into the camp. Seeing a sentry post ahead of them, they retreated. About 200 meters away, they found a relatively safe spot and cutting the fence again, gained entry. As they moved into the garrison, they came across rows of neatly lined tents, with soldiers sleeping inside.
The soldiers were from a newly inducted battalion which was on its way to replace a unit that had completed its field tenure. The new unit was to spend a few days at Uri to drop off its heavy stores before moving on foot to its high altitude posts, some above 13,000 feet.
Uri garrison is the headquarters of an infantry brigade and has sufficient accommodation only for stores and a few men of the infantry battalions that are deployed along the Line of Control. Tents had been pitched for the additional soldiers.
The initial attack was a complete surprise. The attackers were armed with rifles, grenades and an incendiary chemical mixture. As the firefight raged, the tented camp and surrounding barracks were completely gutted. By the time the terrorists were gunned down, 19 soldiers had been martyred.
In the afternoon, I accompanied General Dalbir Singh, who had flown from Delhi to Uri. As we picked our way through the ash of burnt tents, it was clear to both of us that a strong and swift response to this terrorist attack had become inevitable; to restore the pride of the Indian Army if for no other reason.
The Commanding Officers (COs) of the two Special Forces (SF) units in Northern Command were tasked to prepare a tentative list of terrorist targets which could be struck across the Line of Control. Meanwhile, I flew down to Delhi for a discussion on the scope, aim and purpose of the planned cross-border operation. It was necessary that there was clear political guidance to the military plan.
In Northern Command, we had been planning for a strike on terrorist camps since the last 12 months. Information about targets had been gathered and broad plans prepared. However, there is a difference between theoretical planning and the real thing.
Suddenly, responsibility weighs heavily, worries about failure and casualties are constantly in the back of your head, and small bits of missing intelligence become magnified. In this uncertainty, what gave me assurance was the total confidence exuded by the COs in their ability to successfully complete their tasks.
The operation was complicated — multiple targets had to be hit across both Jammu and Kashmir regions. Hours were spent in discussing, debating and finalising the plans. For reasons of secrecy, the planning team was small, but that did not limit the scope, quality and decibel level of the deliberations.
Views were freely expressed and no information was considered too small to be ignored. The safe return of our soldiers, after having carried out the strikes, occupied a lot of our time and attention.
Perfect intelligence is almost never available. One target (Camp A) was particularly challenging. It was the deepest in Pakistan territory and the most heavily guarded. The route involved crossing a number of Pakistan Army posts.
After a lot of discussion, it was decided to send a reconnaissance party across the Line of Control to confirm the path to be taken by the strike team. It was a risk but deemed worth taking. A small team slipped across the border, scoped out the route and returned without detection. This was a tremendous help in finalising the plan.
On the night of the ‘surgical strike’, we were watching live images of the attacks on terrorist camps playing out on a large screen in the Udhampur operations room. As daylight approached, all strikes had gone in except Camp A. As we waited anxiously, we could make out a sudden flurry of movement in the camp. Terrorists were running around and had started carrying out some speculative firing. We still do not know if they had sensed something, but at this time it required nerves of steel by the SF team to wait this out. At 6:12 am, we saw the black plume of a rocket launcher shell exploding against a hut housing the terrorists. The attack had begun.
There are many ways to measure victory but a key component is always the protection of your soldiers. A soldier readily puts his life at risk, but in the Army, we always put tremendous premium on how this life is lost. To me, one of the biggest successes of the surgical strike was the fact that everyone returned safe.
There is an old saying that ‘victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan’. There is no doubt that many contributed to the success of the surgical strikes, from the political will displayed to those who assisted in preparing a brilliant plan.
However, the main credit must go to those officers and men who put their lives on line when they stepped into hostile territory. They were not looking at some future gains or rewards. They did it simply in obedience to the orders given to them. They are the real heroes.
SOURCE: Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda | NEWS18
(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)