May 8, 2002


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

Op Parakram: the balance shifts

Operation Parakram is now into its sixth month, making it the longest ever military standoff against Pakistan. The unprecedented mobilisation is part of the strategy of coercive diplomacy described by some Western analysts as India's "playacting" to restrain Pakistan from its high-gain low-cost indulgence in cross-border terrorism.

Parakram is designed for raising both the costs and risks for Pakistan in pursuing terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy, especially in a post-9/11 environment. It also signals to the West, notably the US that is in the vanguard of the fight against global terrorism, the shrinking threshold of Indian tolerance in preserving the sanctity of the Line of Control. Emulating the Israeli model of instant retribution has become a talking point.

For India, Kargil represented a watershed in abjuring the use of force for altering the status quo along the LoC. The threat of limited war under a nuclear shadow intended to remove Pakistan's mask of immunity in waging terrorism has not been prosecuted due to the doubtful operational gains against the high risk of Pakistan's early and first use of nuclear weapons. The window of opportunity for a cross-LoC military expedition -- a reverse Kargil -- closed with the US intervention in Afghanistan, though it might have paid off confronting Pakistan last year when it was committed on two fronts. Pakistan's continued deployment in the east adversely affects the US war in Afghanistan.

Besides an assured presence in Central Asia, nearly 3,000 US combatants are deployed at Jacobabad, Pasni and Dilbandin air bases in Pakistan. In addition, the US is trying to acquire 20,000 acres of land in Baluchistan. Parakram held out -- at least till January 12, when the US forced General Musharraf to concede some of the Indian demands -- the closest threat to war since 1971. Coercive diplomacy in a sense had paid off.

The moot question is: could the desired political objectives have been met with the use of special forces and/or surgical air strikes even if it meant violating the LoC? Parakram retains the full range of escalatory options, though it has to be mentioned that Israeli retaliatory air strikes and surgical cross-border operations have not been productive.

The new ground reality in the region is marked by a perceptible shift in balance of power. Operation Enduring Freedom, despite 22,000 US air sorties consisting of 90 per cent precision-guided munitions, ended inconclusively, merely relocating the Taliban and Al Qaeda with 70 to 80 per cent of their fighters and 90 per cent of the leadership still intact.

The events in the Middle East and to a lesser extent Gujarat have defused the focus on terrorism. Musharraf seems to have gone back on his pledge to renounce terrorism in J&K. The US is no longer holding a gun to his head, but letting him eat the cake and have it too. His extension for five years as president by the sham referendum will harden his stand in J&K.

This has raised some ugly questions: is the US serious about its war against terrorism? For the record at least, after the December 13 terrorist attack, US officials made some positive comments: India is entitled to take whatever defensive action it deems fit; Musharraf will have to do more -- act on his words; and Pakistan will have to end cross-border terrorism for India to start a meaningful dialogue with it.

They're also saying that there are limits to US leverage over Pakistan and that India will have to show some "flexibility" -- whatever that means.

This is not how India reads the situation. After Musharraf's interview to The Hindu last month, he has gone back on the concessions he made in his so-called historic January 12 speech on cross-border terrorism.

Further, he has warned, "Neither are we Afghanistan nor should India think it is the United States." This could also be read as "neither is India, Israel nor Pakistan, Palestine". His interview would have gone down very well with his domestic constituencies: the ISI, army and fundamentalists. Musharraf in fact is acting along the lines of his Hindu interview.

A hundred days [up to May 1] after the January 12 speech, following an initial let-up, the level of violence in J&K has been fully reinstated. The number of incidents has actually increased [800 to 850] and the infiltration bids foiled are almost at a par with last year's figures for the same period [22 to 19].

The number of infiltrators who got through in April is 130 against 120 last year. The figure of terrorists killed is 770 to 630, while fidayeen (suicide) attacks have come down dramatically from 9 to 3.

There is a shift in terrorist tactics. The attack on the Raghunath temple in Jammu was designed to deter the nearly seven million tourists who annually visit the Vaishnodevi temple, and destroy Jammu's economy. Further, such attacks would result in a communal backlash.

Pakistan's terrorist doctrine in J&K is warped. Of the 50,000 persons killed in the last two decades, nearly 70 per cent are Muslims. For the apparent well-being of 3 million Kashmiri Muslims, it is sacrificing the well-being of 140 million Muslims in Pakistan.

There is a shift in strategy too. In order to give cross-border terrorism an indigenous colour, the ISI has ordered the reorganisation of banned terrorist groups and their merger with local groups in Jammu & Kashmir. Lashkar-e-Tayiba, now Pasban-e-Ahle Hadith, will merge with Tehriq-ul-Mujahideen. Similarly Jaish-e-Mohammed alias Tehriq-ul-Furqan has joined Al Badr and Harkatul Mujahideen has joined Jamaitul Mujahideen.

After Operation Anaconda (March 2-18) in Afghanistan, about 1,000 Al Qaeda men are known to have escaped to Pakistan. Of these, around 600 are believed to have been located in the Northern Areas around Gilgit-Skardu and nearly 200 pushed into J&,K reportedly cached in the upper reaches of the Pir Panjal. The induction of Al Qaeda in J&K could start a new ballgame.

Given the present indicators, come June-July, levels of infiltration and violence under a restructured ISI-led terrorist command are likely to shoot up. India will be faced with difficult choices: bite the bullet and pull back, or go to war and get the US and other Western allies in the global coalition against terrorism to make Musharraf stop infiltration, if not end terrorism. The first option is unthinkable -- an admission of the failure of coercive diplomacy a la IPKF.

It will do irreparable damage to the morale of soldiers, who for the last 11 years have been losing annually - 300-400 killed and 800 wounded. Sections of the Indian Army feel it would be wiser going to war -- it is arguably confident that it can defeat Pakistan across the international border -- than simply withdrawing without the reasons and demands for which it had deployed being met. A cross-LoC punitive expedition has re-emerged as a high-value option. At the recent army commanders' conference, a view was expressed that it would be highly dishonourable to withdraw from the borders without achieving the objectives.

Parakram was not for fighting. War was never a viable option, but given the political and geo-strategic dynamics, it can't be ruled out now. The economic cost for Pakistan of the military standoff so far is estimated at Rs 25 billion, which is roughly half the bill for India. In a best-case scenario, assuming the US can force Pakistan to stop infiltration at least for one season, India will still have to live with a minimum level of violence in J&K for some time to come.

Unfortunately Godhra and the reprisal killings that followed have diluted military deterrence and coercive diplomacy at one level and tarnished India's image internationally. The ISI may not be blameless in this episode. It is not just the loss of credibility of the playacting that is worrying but also the sign of a cul-de-sac.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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