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Preventing another Pathankot: A soldier's solution

By Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd)
January 02, 2016 18:09 IST
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'Attempts at long-term rapprochement have been rather feeble from both sides. The primary cause of the lack of progress is that these efforts do not appear to have the support of the Pakistan army,' says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd).

Security operations near the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot. Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/ReutersDespite the political risk taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in stopping over at Lahore a week ago, terror strikes emanating from Pakistan soil continue unabated.

The attack on the air force base at Pathankot is only the latest example of Pakistan's continuing sponsorship of trans-border terrorism. Other recent incidents include strikes at Gurdaspur in Punjab and Udhampur in J&K.

The Pakistan army and the ISI do not appear to realise that a major terrorist strike could lead to military retaliation from India. Even though such retaliation would be carefully calibrated to avoid escalation, it would carry the risk of snowballing out of control to a full-blown conventional conflict with nuclear overtones.

Both nations need to move forward and ensure that conflict avoidance is accorded high priority. Existing Confidence Building Measures need to be implemented in letter and spirit and new ones need to be introduced to reduce the risk of conflict.

Though a few meetings have been held between the two prime ministers and between interlocutors of the two ministries of external affairs, since the Modi-led government came to power in May 2014, attempts at long-term rapprochement have been rather feeble from both sides.

The primary cause of the lack of progress is that these efforts do not appear to have the support of the Pakistan army. The trust deficit between the two countries has proved hard to overcome.

Perhaps the time has come to bring the Pakistan army into the talks as a direct participant to make it a stakeholder. A beginning could be made by instituting regular military-to-military contacts to reduce tensions and overcome the lack of trust between the two militaries.

The clearest justification for this channel to be opened is that each one of the previous agreements between the two militaries, particularly the two armies, has been honoured in letter and spirit by both sides. Hence, it is necessary to introduce new CBMs aimed at contributing to greater stability and the avoidance of conflict.

The 'Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue' process between India and Pakistan, earlier called first the 'Composite Dialogue' and then the 'Resumed Dialogue' (after it had been stalled for some time), comprises the following major issues: Peace and Security; Jammu and Kashmir; Siachen; Sir Creek; Tulbul/Wullar, Baglihar and Kishanganga; Terrorism and Drugs Trafficking; Economic and Commercial Cooperation; Counter-terrorism; Narcotics Control; Humanitarian Issues; People-to-people exchanges; and religious tourism.

Of the 12 issues that figure in the re-structured dialogue process, discussions on peace and security, Siachen, Sir Creek and terrorism would benefit directly from military-to-military discussions. To a limited extent, such discussions would also be useful in resolving the Tulbul/Wullar, Baglihar and Kishanganga issues.

Contrary to popular belief, the track record of the two militaries in dealing with each other has been reasonably encouraging. Two examples should suffice to prove this.

India and Pakistan successfully disengaged their forces from the Chumik Glacier in the Saltoro Ridge conflict zone, west of the Siachen Glacier, in 1989. The Chumik Glacier is an offshoot of the Bilafond Glacier, and is about six km in length.

In February 1989 hostilities ensued between Indian and Pakistani forces. Both sides competed to occupy the highest points in the Chumik Glacier area to dominate each other's positions on the Saltoro ridge and adjacent areas.

On May 13th, Brigadier Rustom Nanavaty, Commander of the Siachen Brigade, and Brigadier Bokhari, his Pakistani counterpart, reached agreement regarding the withdrawal of forces from their positions. The respective headquarters subsequently ratified the agreement reached by the field commanders. The disengagement was conducted successfully and the agreement has held till now.

In the spring months of 1999, the Pakistan army intruded across the LoC at several places in the Kargil district of J&K. India launched carefully calibrated ground and air offensive operations to evict the intruders. The Indian fightback succeeded despite heavy odds and one by one the mountains tops were taken back.

At the request of the government of Pakistan, a meeting was held between the Indian and Pakistani DGMOs at the Attari-Wagah border near Amritsar on July 11, 1999, to chalk out a time frame for Pakistani forces to withdraw from Indian territory. The Pakistani DGMO agreed that Pakistan would withdraw all Pakistani troops from the Indian side of the LoC. On July 26, 1999, the Indian DGMO declared at a press conference that all Pakistani intruders had been evicted from Kargil district.

The above examples clearly establish that military-to-military contacts have been useful in the past and provide grounds to believe that such contacts are in the national interest and will be beneficial in the future as well.

It would not be appropriate to advocate that since India is a democracy only the political leaders and the bureaucracy should interact with their counterparts in Pakistan.

While the Indian Army has always been subordinate to the will of the elected political leadership, the Pakistan army plays a unique role in Pakistan's polity. For most of the time since independence, the Pakistan army has been in power. During the remaining period, it has continued to call the shots on Pakistan's policies towards India and J&K, and nuclear issues among others. If the Indian armed forces were to deal directly with the Pakistan armed forces, it would be mutually beneficial.

Obviously, on the Indian side, the brief would be approved in advance by the government and representatives of the defence ministry and the MEA would be present at each meeting. The recommendations given below should be considered for early implementation.

  • The DGMOs of India and Pakistan should meet biannually at the Attari-Wagah border to discuss contentious military issues with a view to reducing tensions through negotiations. While the talks may be unstructured initially, these could be based on a prioritised agenda in later rounds. Issues like the demilitarisation of the Siachen conflict zone, the boundary dispute at Sir Creek and infiltration across the LoC could be taken up for discussion besides local border issues like incursions across the LoC. In due course, it should be possible to evolve a joint mechanism for humanitarian and disaster relief operations.
  • Regular flag meetings need to be instituted at brigade level along the LoC and DIG range level between the BSF and the Pakistan Rangers along the IB sector in the Jammu division, which Pakistan calls the working boundary. Such meetings will help to reduce the trust deficit resolve local issues.
  • A joint mechanism should be evolved to look into the incidents of violations of the cease-fire agreement and recommend measures to minimise future violations.

The two navies should consider the following maritime CBMs for mutual benefit:

  • Incidents at Sea Agreement (first proposed at Lahore, 1999).
  • Maritime disaster management.
  • Joint search and rescue at sea.
  • Mechanism to resolve incidents of fishermen straying into each other's waters.
  • The National Defence College courses of the two countries, which are attended by brigadier and equivalent level officers, should visit each other's capitals for an exchange of views on issues related to regional security and non-traditional threats to security that are common to both countries. In later years they may be permitted to travel outside the capitals as well.
  • Similarly, cadets under training at the three training academies could exchange visits to respective academies and participate in sports activities.
  • Both countries are major contributors of contingents for the peace-keeping missions of the United Nations and the experience has been that their troops get along very well on UN missions. Both have very good training facilities and would benefit by cooperating for UN peacekeeping training.
  • Participation in each other's sports and games would help to foster a spirit of healthy competition. The two Services Sports Control Boards can work out a mutually convenient schedule.
  • Joint mountaineering expeditions should be organised, especially on both sides of the AGPL in the Siachen conflict zone.
  • Contacts between old regiments should be gradually re-established and visits to each other's regimental centres permitted.
  • Joint events should be organised for the military bands of both countries for military as well as civilian audiences.

Military-to-military contacts will not be easy to establish and implement. There will be many hold-ups in the initial years. However, once these take root and begin to show results, these will raise mutual confidence by an order of magnitude.

Gradually these CBMs will become effective in reducing the present trust deficit so that the two countries can move towards long-term conflict resolution.

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd) is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

IMAGE: Security operations near the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot. Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

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Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (retd)