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January 23, 2002

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The Rediff Special/Josy Joseph


After American Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to South Asia last week, the war hysteria in both New Delhi and Islamabad has receded. Still, the possibility of an accidental war continues to exist -- and so it will, as long as troops face each other, eyeball-to-eyeball, all along the 2,912km India-Pakistan border.

If such an accident does occur, how prepared is India?

The Indian armed forces have completed their mobilisation, codenamed Operation Parakram. This is unparalleled since the 1971 war with Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh.

This time, however, it is not General Yahya Khan, with his nave optimism that India would not venture in militarily, who is ruling Pakistan, but General-cum-President Pervez Musharraf, made of 'wiser' stuff, with the unconventional wisdom of a commando, whose capabilities at deception have already been proved in Kargil.

(Click for details of the Indian and Pakistani armed forces.)

True to character, Musharraf, even as he called for peace, has completed his war preparations. Also, if India ventures into Pakistan, it will not be friendly Bangladeshis who will greet the army, but a hostile population. And that could make all the difference.

Still, the Indian armed forces are ready. The army's three strike corps -- 1, 2 and 21 -- have moved to the border from their bases. The Southern and Western Army Commands have shifted almost their entire force to the international border with Pakistan along Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Punjab. So has the Northern Command, along the border and the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir.

The number of army personnel in J&K has risen to an all-time high, with the deployment of at least two extra divisions, 6 and 39. Each has around 8,000 fighting troops.

Besides moving to the border its conventional fire capabilities, main battle tanks, artillery guns and air defence batteries, the army has also tactically deployed the Prithvi missiles, which can be mounted with nuclear weapons.

The army's chief of staff, General S Padmanabhan, has said that his force is ready for 'all eventualities', including a nuclear strike by Pakistan.

The present deployment, says defence expert and rediff.com columnist Major General (retired) Ashok Mehta, has cost the exchequer about Rs 5 billion. To maintain the posture, India needs to spend Rs 1 billion every month.

"This deployment," a senior army official said, "is capable of continuing for four months."

The army has also laid mines over 'hundreds of kilometres' along the border.

The navy, for its part, has mobilised its missile boats, destroyers, submarines and its one and only aircraft carrier, INS Viraat. Sources said several Indian vessels are in the north Arabian Sea, ready to strike at Karachi. But for now, they are staying behind the 66E longitude, beyond which lie 42 ships of the international coalition against terrorism.

The Indian Air Force has put its forward bases along the Pakistan border on high alert, with fighters ready to take off "in a matter of minutes", said a senior officer. The IAF has also moved up some of its assets from the east to forward bases.

Along the border, hundreds of villagers, both Indian and Pakistani, have vacated their homes. There, however, seems to be no organised plan for their temporary accommodation or long-term rehabilitation.

DESPITE the build-up, India's claims about its 'war-preparedness' do not quite hold.

For one, no rules of engagement have been given to the forces. As of now, they just seem to be an important tool in the diplomatic fight against Pakistan. Nothing more.

Thus, the War Book remains dated and Indian merchant ships are yet to be provided wartime codes to protect them should Pakistan targets India's economic interest in the seas.

There are more such flaws. But nothing demonstrates India's half-hearted attempts at war than the removal of Lieutenant General Pankaj Vij, commander of India's powerful 2 Corps. New Delhi packed him off on leave after the Americans and Pakistanis said he was carrying out offensive manoeuvres "too close" to the border.

"We are supposed to cool our heels at the border!" remarked a senior army officer. "No firing, no movement -- as for practice of war techniques, not at all!"

"His action would not have been without the knowledge of Army Headquarters," he continued. "It is for the political leadership to realise that your senior commanders are not meant to be kicked around because an American or a Pakistani feels uncomfortable. After all, are we ready to fight Pakistan, or are we at the border to show him we are ready?"

"The rules of engagement should be well defined to the forces during deployment," added an IAF officer, complaining that the forces do not know what to do in case of a skirmish. "Once they are deployed there is little time to explain it before the outbreak of war."

Thus, along J&K's volatile borders shelling continues even a week after Musharraf's speech. India's response is knee-jerk -- fire if fired upon; attack if attacked.

Lieutenant General J S Aurora, who led the Eastern Command in the 1971 war, said another Indo-Pak conflict should be avoided.

"The problem of terrorism may not be solved by all-out war. They could find someone else to carry out such clandestine operations later," he said.

Congress leader and former diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyar agreed. A solution can be arrived at only if both sides return to the negotiating table, he said.

"If we are deployed to fight Pakistan to finish, then it is a stupid proposition," an officer commented. "If we are trying to end cross-border terrorism for ever, then there are no signs of any headway."

A cross-section of army officer felt the present standoff would achieve precious little. India, they pointed out, is bending to international pressure. As for Pakistan, it seems to have started a process wherein it would claim that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is separate from Pakistan, and the support for insurgency is from PoK, not Islamabad, the officers said.

BESIDES the lack of proper definition of engagement rules, the subjugation of the military to politicians and bureaucrats has eroded India's war capabilities.

An example: The government undermines its army chief by going public with its 'maturity' on nuclear issues within hours of the general's statement that India would annihilate anyone who attacked it with nuclear weapons.

"He only spoke like a general," said one army officer. "If our government wants us to behave like politicians and babus, it is unfortunate."

Then again, more than 80 soldiers have died in the war that is yet to begin -- while laying mines. These accidents, experts warned, should not be brushed under the carpet.

Pointing out that the army handles modern technology and state-of-the-art equipment, a defence commentator said these acquisitions had been made "without the training and enrolment standards [of the force] keeping up".

Another factor that has blunted the army's fighting edge is the frequent fires in ammunition depots. This has brought down its war reserves massively.

INDIA last fought a war in 1999, in Kargil. It learnt several precious lessons there, which, unfortunately, the authorities seem to have forgotten.

In that fifty-day conflict, the army had desperately needed weapon-locating radar -- a need it religiously noted down. But, two years down the line, WLRs, which Pakistan possesses, are yet to be acquired.

The INSAS rifle, the personal weapon of the Indian infantryman, is outdated. Many were the defects it threw up in the cold of the Himalayas. After the war, the army asked for better rifles. Those too are yet to arrive.

The woes are not over: In case of a war, the IAF will be forced to rely heavily on the aged MiG-21 fighters. And its pilots are trained without the advantage of an advanced jet trainer, which is still to be bought, despite negotiations for more than a decade.

The navy too has several shortcomings, all of which could have been overcome with faster acquisitions and better coordination between the bureaucracy and the armed forces.

NOW, what if a stage comes when India needs to strike back with nuclear weapons?

That wouldn't be as fast as it should be. For, India is yet to appoint a chief of defence staff, the single-point military adviser to the prime minister, who will press the nuclear button. In the present scenario, thus, the government would have to rely on the complex bureaucratic network to fire its arsenal.

Then again, will the government order the navy, which has Klub missiles in a diesel-run submarine, to fire the first nuclear weapon? Or will the army be asked to fire the Prithvi? Or will it be the IAF that will fly over Pakistan with nuclear bombs?

And in case Pakistan strikes Delhi, will the political leadership have enough protected safe houses? It is only in recent days that the prime minister's security seems to have realised such needs.

Worse, the Indian prime minister does not have a 'nuclear button' to strike back in an emergency (as the American president has, for instance), which would bypass all other channels.

The suggestion that a senior uniformed officer accompany the PM with the country's nuclear button is still being debated.

The Rediff Specials

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