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Tension with India is the best distraction for Pakistan

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
October 10, 2014 13:35 IST
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The border near Suchetgarh in Jammu'The incidents have remained confined to the paramilitary forces on both sides with both the armies scrupulously avoiding getting involved.'

'While this incident has been going on, the LoC has been reasonably quiet. Cross border firing achieves no tactical or strategic aims and is more a symptom of hostility.'

'Unfortunately, India has to learn to live with this. Like Israel, we must construct shelters for the border populations and be ready to retaliate in kind,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

Almost to the day a month ago, on September 5, on a private visit to the US, I had discussions with Washington-based think-tanks and defence analysts.

The emerging situation in the subcontinent in the wake of the American withdrawal was the main topic of discussion. I shared the widely held Indian view that there was the likelihood of a proxy attack/border tension since it would be a 'win win' situation for the Pakistan army who needs an excuse to get away from anti-terrorist operations in North Waziristan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who is facing agitators in the capital asking for his ouster.

Tension with India is the best distraction for both as they can then evoke the fear of India and unite the Pakistani people.

I was on the right track.

Sure enough, a major armed confrontation has erupted across the International Border between Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. Many civilians on both sides have lost their lives and a lot of property has suffered damage.

Border firings are not a unique occurrence between India and Pakistan. I was in the Rajouri-Poonch sector in the early 1970s and remembers that on an average close to 200 odd firing incidents used to take place every year.

Most of the firing used to be confined to small arms or machine guns. But on rare occasions mortars and even artillery was used. The 2003 ceasefire agreement put an end to it and the incidents of border firings have indeed come down.

The current firing incident has some unique features. It is mostly confined to the International Border to the west and south west of Jammu in India and to the east of Sialkot in Pakistan. This border is manned by the paramilitary force -- the Border Security Force, the BSF, on the Indian side and the Pakistan Rangers on the Pakistani side.

Other than the Akhnoor sector, the area on the Indian side is comparatively thinly populated. On the Pakistan side, the areas of Punjab (not Pakistan occupied Kashmir) are thickly populated and are the political 'heart' of Pakistan. Thus, the degree of damage on the Pakistani side would be far greater and also its impact.

This area is also the recruiting ground of the Pakistan army, and insecurity here will adversely affect the Pakistani soldier's morale directly. Given this relative weakness, in the last 50 years of conflict with India, Pakistan has generally avoided activating this sector.

Since this is part of the International Boundary and not tbhe Line of Control, LoC, the cause of current exchange of fire cannot be a 'border dispute' as the United Nations secretary-general seems to think.

According to unconfirmed reports the firing incident started when Pakistan lost a hockey match to India in the Asian Games! Bizarre as it may sound, many like me who have served on the border in these areas can quite understand it. It has indeed happened in the past.

This still leaves open the question as to why and how all this started?

For understanding the current stand-off it is necessary to see the wider context of India-Pakistan relations. Ever since the Modi government took charge it has made some major changes in the policy approach as far as India's neighbouring countries are concerned.

Unlike the previous regime, the new government has implemented a 'zero tolerance to provocations' policy. Thus, while it invited the Pakistan prime minister along with other SAARC leaders, it cancelled the foreign secretary-level talks when the Pakistani envoy in Delhi followed the 'usual' practice of inviting and talking to the Kashmiri separatists.

The Modi government followed this up with ignoring Sharif in its interactions at the UN General Assembly session, where Modi met the Bangladesh and Sri Lankan heads of governments.

This was a clear break from the past as the Manmohan Singh government had a policy to continue dialogue at all costs. Even after the Mumbai terror attacks that emanated from Pakistan, the previous government de-linked the peace talks from terror incidents/border provocations.

Even worse for Pakistan, has been India's rise on the international stage as signified by Modi's visit to Japan and the US. The fact that the president of Pakistan's 'all weather friend' -- China -- skipped visiting it recently seems to have rattled the Pakistan establishment. It seems it reacted the only way it knows -- to make a nuisance of itself to get noticed.

I see a silver lining in all this, though it may seem callous when many of our and their border citizens have suffered losses. The fact of the matter is that the incident has remained confined to the paramilitary forces on both sides with both the armies scrupulously avoiding getting involved.

The firing has also been confined to small caliber mortars and neither side has used its heavy guns. While this incident has been going on, the LoC has been reasonably quiet. Cross border firing achieves no tactical or strategic aims and is more a symptom of hostility.

Unfortunately, India has to learn to live with this. Like Israel, we must construct shelters for the border populations and be ready to retaliate in kind.

In the long-term perspective it is indeed good that the new government is laying down clear 'Red Lines' that Pakistan must not cross if it wants peace with India. Previous governments including Mr Vajpayee's government has been guilty of not responding forcefully to Pakistani provocations.

Even during the Kargil conflict of 1999, the Indian response was defensive and we did not even symbolically cross the LoC. All this has set a dangerous precedent, especially since this encouraged Pakistan to test the limits of Indian patience.

The 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai was a clear fallout of this lack of aggressive response. The danger for the future in all this was that Pakistan may well miscalculate the next time around and the region gets on a 'slippery slope' of escalation leading to the use of nuclear weapons.

Throughout the Cold War and nuclear confrontation between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union, both sides maintained admirable restraint at sensitive spots.

The reason for this 'armed peace' was the conviction that a conflict could escalate to nuclear war that would have no winners and therefore should never be fought.

Pakistan is yet to imbibe this basic truth of the nuclear age. The worrying aspect is the remark by an American who regularly deals with Pakistani military officers. Even their senior officers are delusional, the American said, unaware of the reality and live in a bubble.

Indian policies of the last ten years are responsible for this as the peace lobby ignored Pakistan's bad behaviour. Contrary to the 'moralistic' tone and stance, this has endangered peace and could in future bring on a nuclear catastrophe due to miscalculation.

The Pakistan military also needs a reminder that while they believe in the myth of 1 Pak soldier being equal to 10 Indians, the reality is that during the Bangladesh war, at Bhairab Ghat on December 14, 1971, over 3,000 Pak soldiers surrendered to 120 Indian soldiers!

A strong response to provocations and clear 'red lines' are the best guarantee of nuclear peace in the subcontinent. This incident goes to underline the vulnerable geography of Pakistan.

Nearly 70 percent of Pakistan's major cities, population and agricultural land all lie within 150 kilometres from Pakistan's eastern border with India. Pakistan has no strategic depth and it is time its military elite realises it.

Image: Security posts along the border between India and Pakistan in Suchetgarh near Jammu. Image: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

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