December 31, 2001


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

More bark than bite

Can India teach Pakistan a lesson? Can it make Pakistan stop cross-border terrorism? Even after 9/11 and 12/13, the answer to these questions is, by itself: no, it cannot.

The talk by our leaders of a decisive war and at the same time a purely defensive deployment is both churlish and confusing for the soldiers who require clear orders. India does not have the military capability to defeat Pakistan -- not because of the nuclear overhang, but because to its failure to build a conventional deterrent in the hills of J&K and a decisive military superiority in the plains of Punjab and Rajasthan.

Over the years, India's defence spending has stagnated at an unacceptably low level at 2 per cent of the GDP. The 1965 and 1971 wars (except in East Pakistan) have shown that Indian mechanised and infantry thrusts have penetrated no more than 10 to 15km in key sectors of Pakistan. Similarly, recapturing Pakistan-occupied Kashmir -- a parliamentary military objective -- is a pipe dream, least of all when the two armies are fully deployed in battle locations and any tactical surprise is ruled out.

So if India does not possess the military capacity to make decisive gains either in J&K or across the international border, why this unprecedented mobilisation of armed forces ? Why Operation Sangram?

It can be argued that 9/11 presented a window of opportunity to engage Pakistan militarily overtly and covertly, especially while it had to counter hostile forces on the western front along the Durand Line. Two of its nine corps are still deployed there. Further, by the end of next year, Pakistan is likely to bolster its artillery with additional 155mm and 130mm guns, augment its tank fleet and acquire new fighter aircraft and ships.

Yet, India does not have the political will and military capacity to achieve its unstated politico-military objectives. Operation Sangram, therefore, has more bark than bite.

This is the first time that India has taken the initiative, following the full course of political and diplomatic steps and demarches while simultaneously deploying for war. The Army Day parade cancelled, Republic Day parade scaled down, leave stopped, postings held in abeyance and training courses suspended, reinforcement camps established, Territorial Army mobilised...

The preparation for war completed, commanders will have a hard time translating a clear set of orders and objectives from the government's political mission of making Pakistan see sense and give up cross-border terrorism, which it says is indigenous. However disingenuous this argument some countries in the West, notably the US, leader of the global coalition against terrorism, appear to believe it.

Despite the mood for revenge, it is clear the military can't do much on the ground and in the air at present that will impress General Pervez Musharraf. India will have immense difficulty justifying going to war against terrorism outside J&K across the international border.

Surgical air strikes across the Line of Control in PoK are the only available option. But their utility in moulding Pakistani behaviour is questionable, leave alone the threat of escalation of the conflict by counteraction by the Pakistani Air Force. Having occupied the moral and diplomatic high ground in Kargil by not crossing the LoC, it is debatable if it will be a worthwhile exercise now.

Nations go to war when they are certain the gains from doing so will outweigh the costs and that the situation that will obtain after the war will be decisively better than before it.

The 1965 war has minor resemblance to the build-up now. It also depicts a possible pattern of escalation that could spiral into war. In April of that year, Pakistan test-attacked in the Rann of Kutch, seizing several CRPF posts. The skirmish lasted four days with the British brokering a ceasefire.

The attack in the Rann led to Operation Ablaze, India's mobilisation for war. By early July, troops had pulled back on both sides except the armoured division. In August, Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar, an infiltration across the LoC by regular soldiers to instigate an uprising in J&K. This cross-border terrorism was met by Indian forces crossing the LoC and capturing the two main launch pads for infiltration at the Haji Pir Pass and Kishanganga.

This unexpected reaction unnerved Pakistan and forced it to launch Operation Grandslam across the international border in India's Achilles' heel, the Akhnoor sector in J&K. This left India with only one option -- Operation Riddle, the commencement of full-scale hostilities across the international border opposite Lahore and Sialkot. In less than 18 days Western powers had intervened to force a ceasefire on September 23.

Neither side used its air force in the Rann or initially in J&K. The air war started only after India called for air support in Chhamb Jaurian. The mopping up of infiltrators did not end till November with the recapture of Op Hill in the Poonch sector. The return of the Haji Pir pass, the Poonch road and Point 13620 in Kargil sector was a fatal strategic error. Haji Pir is the fount of cross-border terrorism.

Like in 1965, one of the options considered earlier this year was of carrying out a limited trans-LoC operation to seize the infiltration launch pads north and south of the Pir Panjal range to curb cross-border terrorism. Although this held greater symbolic and morale value, it could have been justified as an act in self-defence, especially after Pakistan failed to stop the 'jihad'. The decision not to undertake this operation was a wise one.

With the attack on Parliament on December 13, Pakistan crossed the red line. Three days later, M -- Mobilisation -- was ordered, without invoking W -- Warning. This has never happened before and caused some minor confusion in implementing standard operating procedures, as the build-up usually moves from W to M. It was clear to everyone that the mobilisation was the real stuff.

Not since 1971 has mobilisation been ordered on such a scale. The build-up for Brasstacks in 1986 and later in 1990 when the US spread the canard of a nuclear exchange were minimal by comparison. Even Kargil was truncated.

The current hot war deployment for the army can be sustained for the next six months, though the navy and the air force will have to be kept at lower levels of readiness.

The mood in the rank and file of the armed forces is one of ending the one-sided proxy war once for all. Unfortunately, a politico-military strategy to do this is still in the making.

Soon after Kargil, both the defence minister and the army chief spoke publicly that a limited war was feasible and possible. This was a signal meant to discourage cross-border terrorism, but Pakistan was quick to remind India, as it has done again now, that it reserves the right to first use of nuclear weapons for its survival. The space for limited war is more in the minds of commanders than on the ground.

Since waging a war is not a cost-effective option, Indian diplomacy is in top gear. A number of diplomatic options have already been exercised, leaving Pakistan with adequate space to back off. At the same time, the political rhetoric is shrill and mixed, reminiscent of the ranting after the Pokhran tests. But this time around there is some method to the madness.

Or is there? After much song and dance about mobilisation, India has now said that its deployment is purely defensive. Inconsistency can send wrong signals on both sides. Pakistan has not been served an ultimatum or given a timetable to comply with India's demands, which are in two parts -- action against perpetrators of the December 13 attack and ending cross-border terrorism.

India is not spoiling for a fight. It is assiduously creating a politico-military-diplomatic environment through which Pakistan, as a member of the global coalition against terrorism, is forced to act against its own terrorist groups to stop cross-border jihad. The battle cry is to create the scenario the West most fears.

Pakistan believes it has tacit US acquiescence to continue this proxy war as quid pro quo for its support in Afghanistan. It is using terrorism for political blackmail. This has to stop.

Soon India will go on an extended diplomatic offensive, the kind Indira Gandhi launched on the eve of the 1971 war. The manifestation of outrage, high-octane political rhetoric, the diplomatic forays and the threat of war are all part of coercive diplomacy which will, sooner than later, force the US to put the breaks on Pakistan.

It was Madeleine Albright who told Jaswant Singh that diplomacy works better when backed by force. Double standards aside, the last thing the US wants at this time is a war either by design or accident between nuclear India and nuclear Pakistan while its own war with Afghanistan is still being fought.

It is estimated that there are some 30,000 US troops in Pakistan who could get caught in the crossfire. Everyone is hoping that M will end as a useful rehearsal in mobilisation and the chapter on jihad.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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