Home > News > Columnists > Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
The Lessons of Op Sarp Vinash
June 04, 2003
The Indian Army's Northern Command has conducted a complex terrorist camp-busting operation called Sarp Vinash with remarkable skill and precision, easily one of the landmark counter-terrorism operations in J&K.
Unfortunately the overzealous local commander spurred by an equally inspired group of journalists exceeded his brief by conveying the impression that the terrorist hideouts in Hillkaka had existed there for four years and there was an insufficiency of troops to mount operations earlier to clear it.
It is still to be confirmed whether it was the commander who said so in so many words or some journalist who interpreted it in this manner. Regardless of who made the judgment, both contentions are flawed.
Any comparison of Hillkaka with another Kargil (or even a Karnal?) and failure of intelligence is misplaced. Some in the media have criticised the army instead of commending it for busting Hillkaka. The forests and jungles in J&K are home to terrorists infiltrating and exfiltrating for operations.
Hillkaka was no Kargil but merely a staging post for immigrant terrorists. You can call it a base, transit or training camp or even a launch pad with relevant infrastructure to support and sustain the terror campaign. In that sense there are dozens of other Hillkakas bigger and smaller, many of which have been located and destroyed. For any terrorist or insurgency movement, such strongholds are necessary not just in J&K but anywhere the secessionists are at work.
The unintended consequence of the commander's briefing and the journalists' interpretation has caused disquiet about the state of the counter-terrorist grid.
As a seasoned soldier with layered counter-insurgency experience, let me set the record straight. The army is fit and kicking. In fact it has done not too little but too much of jungle-bashing. Still it requires to keep the pressure on the terrorists but work only on hard intelligence. This is what Chief of Army Staff General N C Vij told the Cabinet Committee on Security when he briefed it for 90 minutes on the Hillkaka operation.
While infiltration may be looking down, acts of terrorism in J&K have not subsided. This will only happen once the swamps and pits of terrorist infrastructure have been dried and destroyed, permanently and irreversibly. This is easier said than done. The Indian Army early last month launched one of its biggest terrorist hunting operations in recent times in the Surankote forests in a place called Hillkaka on the southeastern slopes of the Pir Panjal range which separates the Srinagar valley from Jammu. In the old days, in summer, the Mughal caravans from Delhi would cross over the Pir Panjal pass into Srinagar.
Operation Sarp Vinash was a division-size operation involving seven battalions and two brigade headquarters. Spearheaded by 9 Para Special Forces, six other units of 163 Infantry Brigade and 12 RR sector took part. These were 2/4 Gorkha Rifles, 15 Garhwal Rifles, 4 Garhwal Rifles, 16 and 20 Rashtriya Rifles. It is estimated that up to 100 terrorists were in and around the Hillkaka hideout spread out in the forest when Special Forces struck in the initial raid.
They gunned down 13 terrorists and captured two of whom one died later. In subsequent combing operations which lasted 10 days, 4 Garhwal Rifles ambushed seven terrorists near Haripur while they were attempting to cross over into Srinagar. Altogether, 45 terrorists were killed against a loss of four soldiers killed and two wounded. Substantial recoveries were made.
Approximately 60 caches and hideouts were busted yielding 20 AK 47 rifles, 5 PIKA guns, two sniper rifles and unspecified quantities of grenade launchers, self loading rifles and 45 kg of plastic explosives. In addition substantial quantities of radio sets, and other communication equipment was also recovered besides rations enough to feed 500 men for two weeks. How important and successful the operation was can be judged from the fact that General Vij flew into the area of operations and congratulated the troops for an excellent job. It is very difficult to stage-manage large-scale counter-terrorist operations as the movement of troops compromises operational security. Many more similar operations need to be conducted in order to keep the terrorists on the run.
But these have to be based on hard intelligence and properly staged. Given the fact that the usual eyes and ears of the army in this region -- the Bakarwals -- were not permitted to go up and the army busted Hillkaka using its own resources is even more important. The Bakarwals were given Rs 7 crore as compensation this year by the state government for staying away from the hills.
Op Sarp Vinash would not have been possible without hard intelligence and tactical airlift. Three MI 17 helipads were constructed for logistics, quick relocation of troops and maintaining the integrity of the cordon and stops around Hillkaka. In a striking departure from past practice, army aviation lancer attack helicopters were used. The army rarely uses helicopters in an attack role in counterinsurgency operations in J&K and elsewhere in the country. Field commanders have not wished to escalate the conflict by employing gunships that, due to visibility constraints, cause collateral damage. The only time the air force was employed against CIS was in Mizoram in 1964 when rebels had seized Aizawl and captured an Assam Rifles post.
French Ouregon attack aircraft were used to assist the army in its operations. IAF helicopters were also used extensively in attack mode against LTTE in Sri Lanka. It has puzzled many counter-terrorism experts as to why the Indian Army has been reluctant to use the attack helicopter, especially when dealing with terrorist camps in the uninhabited jungle hideouts of mountain ranges. Both the army and air force have fitted an impressive array of direct firing weapons and cannons on the helicopters for flushing out and suppressive fire operations. These need to be used more frequently, but selectively.
Op Sarp Vinash shows that while infiltration in J&K and into the valley is continuing, counter-infiltration and counter-terrorist operations are also in full swing, but not with the intensity and continuity required to deter and punish the terrorists. It is possible to considerably reduce the lifespan of a terrorist -- first, at the stage of infiltration, second while he is staging through (as in Hillkaka) and finally as he goes about his business of terrorising the people of J&K. It is also feasible to turn the tables by terrorising the terrorist. The resources and wherewithal can be mustered but the political will and stamina is lacking.
A strategy reconciling winning hearts and minds and reducing alienation with punitive operations against terrorists can seriously alter the balance of advantage in favour of the state. But conditions apply: centralised command and non-interference in operations. At present at any time there are around 3,000 to 3,500 terrorists, 80 per cent mainly foreigners in J&K. Pakistan spends roughly Rs 80 crore to maintain this force. Another 2,000 terrorists are waiting across the LoC at launch pads and training camps to be inducted in the pipeline to maintain the force levels. This costs another Rs 20 crore.
On an average, nearly 1,400 terrorists are disposed of to meet their maker every year. Approximately 200 to 250 army personnel are killed annually in counter-terrorist operations (this does not include the wounded). About twice that number of paramilitary forces lose their lives. The civilian losses are even more equaling the combined casualty of security forces. These are horrendous numbers and reflect the very low value index on human life in the country.
While the political process with Pakistan and the people of Kashmir must never be halted, the Indian State must think anew, on ways of defeating the terrorists and not letting Pakistan succeed in its bleeding war in which the military casualties suffered by security forces in the 15-year long proxy war has exceeded the losses incurred in all the war India has fought against Pakistan since 1947.
The social, human and economic cost of this war has never been calculated and must run in billions of crores. As the Indian state has not had the stomach to get to the roots and swamps of terrorism across the LoC, it can surely raise the cost of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism on its side of the LoC. The kill rate of terrorists vis-a-vis the army must be enhanced from the present 1:7 (it becomes 1:5 including other security forces) to 1:9 and similarly better results sought from paramilitary forces.
The army is doing a very difficult job with commendable achievements. But this proxy war has been going on for too long. It wants it ended. Messrs L K Advani, George Fernandes and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed need to sit with military commanders and intelligence chiefs to establish an operationally effective unified command headquarters to replace the halfcock in vogue in order to persecute this war.
The sense one gets is that the political leadership is not serious about fighting this war despite the routine threats to do so. National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra recently called for an axis of counter-terrorism between India, Israel and the US to root out the evil without getting bogged down with the root causes or definitions.
Let India first demonstrate resolve and determination in J&K. We have five special force battalions. This number must be quadrupled by the end of next year under a new special forces command. The war in Iraq was won by special forces. They must be equipped by the best men and equipment, given a clear mandate for operations in J&K under the overall command of the northern army commander in Udhampur. This gentleman must be appointed the overall theatre commander to fight the proxy war. Given the latest intelligence, hi-tech equipment and Delhi's full backing, he will begin delivering enhanced results. It is possible in two years' time to bring down the figure of exported terrorists to half and reduce their gene pool from 3,000 to 2,000 and abridge their longevity.
In five years terrorists should be down on their knees. We have wasted the last 15 years not getting on top of the scourge. Even now it is not too late to terrorise the terrorists.
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta