Print edition : February 02, 2002

India and Pakistan maintain their military build-up and political postures even as international pressure grows to de-escalate the situation. A look at the strategies and scenarios.

THE 800,000 troops massed on India's western frontier could break out across the Cholistan desert, and seek to cut the Pakistan province of Sind into two.

Indian troops on alert along the Line of Control at Mandi in Poonch district.-RAJEEV BHATT

They might place Lahore under siege, and then demand in return that Pakistan surrender the part of Jammu and Kashmir that it now controls.

Helicopter-borne special forces from the Army could attack the 50 to 60 major terrorist training camps in Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir, backed by Mirage 2000 and MiG-27 combat aircraft.

Or, troops might engage in a series of punitive raids across the Line of Control (LoC), harrying Pakistan's regular forces and imposing costs that would make it impossible for that country to sustain the low-level war in Jammu and Kashmir.

Or, again, they might do nothing, and just sit on the frontier hoping that sooner or later Pakistan will begin to feel the pinch of the financial burden.

Or, yet again, with the Uttar Pradesh elections out of the way, they might be ordered back to their bases.

No one other than the key members of the Cabinet Committee of Security is supposed to know the answers. But, if truth be told, it seems as if none of them knows either.

Six weeks have passed since the government ordered perhaps the largest post-Second World War military build-up, sending some three-quarters of India's 1.2 million soldiers on to offensive positions on the border. Leaving aside the very significant risk of any war leading to catastrophic nuclear exchanges, and the considerable international pressure on India to de-escalate, it is clear that the chances of any sharp, short offensive have declined.

The reason is simple. Both armies by now know the locations of their enemies' strike formations, and have built up defences in response. Neither side is in a position to wage a long-drawn-out campaign, or start a war which will not end in an unequivocal victory.

Pakistani soldiers fix an anti-aircraft gun in Hyderabad in Sind.-YOUSUF NAGORI/ AFP

Pakistan is not taking chances, and has moved 10, 11 and 12 Corps from their Afghan frontier locations near Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Quetta to its eastern frontier. But ordinary people on the Indian side of the border seem to have sensed the impasse. People who had evacuated their homes in the border district of Poonch told Frontline last fortnight that their central fear was of a terrorist attack, not a full-blown war. Fishing boats have been seen again in the waters of the Hussainiwala barrage reservoir in Punjab, even though its banks are heavily mined. People in the State have started returning home where their fields have not been mined. And while soldiers on the ground say they are prepared for battle, there is evident resentment directed at the politicians of the National Democratic Alliance for having dragged them forward to wage a war that most believe will now not be fought.

Another major sign of India's unwillingness to take the build-up to its logical conclusion was the removal of Lt-Gen. Kapil Vij from his command of 2 Corps, now located in Rajasthan. 2 Corps, headquartered at Ambala in peacetime, is the most important of the Indian Army's three armour-intensive strike formations, and its task in case of a war would be to cut across the Cholistan desert towards Jacobabad, cutting Pakistan in two. Vij's mistake, sources told Frontline, was to take his war mandate seriously. His armour was pushed close to the border, and the soldier protested instructions from Western Army Commander Lt-Gen. Surjit Singh Sangra to pull back. The decision to pull back was possibly the consequence of pressure from the United States, which has personnel stationed at the strategically-important airbase at Jacobabad. Sangra, interestingly, is in line to become the Chief of the Army Staff if General S. Padmanabhan is appointed the Chief of Defence Staff in the coming months.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee with the three service chiefs, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, Admiral Madhavendra Singh, and General S. Padmanabhan.-

"NO ONE," Defence Minister George Fernandes proclaimed in New York on January 20, "has the right to ask India to pull back." Whether he is right or otherwise, the fact is that the Vij episode illustrates just how willing Fernandes and his Bharatiya Janata Party allies are to do as they are told. Pressure from the U.S., however, is not the only reason for India's unwillingness to play the card it held out in the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament. For all the gung-ho posturing in General Padmanabhan's January 11 speech, there is some doubt about just how decisive India's conventional superiority over Pakistan in fact is. On paper, India's 33 military divisions neatly outnumber Pakistan's 24, but those figures, dissenters within the defence establishment say, are misleading.

For one, as defence commentator Rahul Bedi has repeatedly pointed out, the Indian Army is curiously "Mughal" in character. The ratio of personnel in non-combat supporting roles to those who would actually fight is exceptionally high. By some estimates, India's real advantage over Pakistan in actual military terms is as low as 1.25 to 1, and perhaps even worse. Pakistan's single-point military control gives it greater flexibility of action than the Indian Army, and some Western expert accounts suggest that its modernisation programme has been more effective than that of India's. For example, Pakistan has already taken delivery of 320 Ukraine-manufactured T-80 UD main battle tanks, with orders for 250 more, while just 10 of India's new-generation T-90 tanks have arrived. The T-80 UD tanks have now been deployed in Sind, to counter a strike corps built around India's numerically superior, but technologically inferior, T-72 armour.

General Padmanabhan's speech contained a perhaps-inadvertent admission of this near-parity, when he spoke of a war as a fight between two wild bulls. The fact that three Indian divisions have been moved from the China border to the west affirms the proposition further.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that Pakistan does not have its own serious problems. Its Air Force, now conducting exercises to prepare for wartime destruction of landing strips, has been crippled by sanctions imposed by the U.S. after the Chagai nuclear tests. But the fact remains that a decisive Indian victory, even leaving out the prospect of a nuclear showdown, is in at least some doubt. Although both India and Pakistan claim to have war-wastage reserves of around 45 days, and say that stocking is complete, few people believe that any conflict would last a full week. The main reason for this would be pressure from the international community to avert a nuclear calamity, and the fragile economies of both countries.

Even where India does have a decisive advantage, events have made its ability to exercise this edge complicated. Three-dimensional battle groups, made up of frigates, destroyers and submarines from both the Western and Eastern fleets, are now deployed off the Pakistan coast, within a few minutes' striking distance of Karachi. Vertical take-off aircraft that have been positioned to take off from the newly-refitted INS Viraat could devastate the port, which handles over 90 per cent of Pakistan's oil supplies. Such attacks would strangle Pakistan's military capabilities. With 43 surface warships, 17 submarines and an aircraft carrier, the Indian Navy has a massive advantage over its counterpart, which has just six frigates, two destroyers and seven submarines. But with U.S. carrier groups strung out across the Arabian Sea, India's ability to take an aggressive posture on the oceans has been severely limited. How these carrier groups would respond in the event of a war is anybody's guess.

President Pervez Musharraf with his troops at an undisclosed location in Pakistan near the forward lines on January 21.-PAKISTAN MINISTRY OF DEFENCE/ AP

And then there is the biggest guess of all: just if, and when, Pakistan might choose to exercise its nuclear deterrent. Journalists in Chandigarh still recall with glee the story of the Western Command public relations officer who was asked about Brahmastra, the exercises carried out in the summer of 2000 to game Pakistan's responses in the event of an Indian offensive. Asked whether the exercise would address a possible nuclear attack, he responded with a flat denial. When he was told that this seemed to be criminally irresponsible, he hung up. For the past three years, the defence establishment has been working on an offensive military doctrine, built around discarding five decades of defensive posture. But on just how this new doctrine will work, and what its consequences might be, India's Generals remain as confused as anyone else.

Brahmastra was built around a simple scenario, not dissimilar to that which has come about after December 13. If Pakistan raised terrorist violence beyond a certain threshold, India would respond with a limited military attack. That, in turn, would provoke Pakistan to initiate a much larger attack with its strike formations towards India's relatively weak defences in Akhnoor, Chhamb and even Poonch. Then, India would use its superior strike forces to cut through the Sind, splitting Pakistan in two and threatening its most important cities. The results, Army insiders say, pleased the Generals at least in theory. Since then, however, there has been little progress in realising one of the key premises of an Indian offensive posture, an effective joint service strategy. The Air Force, for example, insists that at least a week of intensive bombing is needed before ground troops can cross the border. The Army insists that no war will last long enough for such an extravagance to be useful. The sole joint service command in India, located at Port Blair, has been bogged down by Army-Air Force feuds, some as trivial over what share each should pay for the maintenance of the administrative headquarters.

Most important, the exercise threw up no definitive answers on how Pakistan would respond to a threat to its existence as a country. Sadly, as General Padmanabhan's speech suggested, much of the senior Army brass seems to cling to the facile assumption that Pakistan would simply not go nuclear because of the threat of a superior Indian retaliation. But Pakistan seems to be preparing for such an eventuality. U.S. intelligence has reported that at least five new launch sites for nuclear-capable mobile missile launchers have been built in eastern Pakistan. A convoy of some 95 trucks was reportedly spotted leaving Pakistan's key nuclear facility at Sarghoda, and M-11 missiles are believed to have been shifted to operational locations. India has also moved nuclear-tipped missiles to deter the use of these weapons, but the premise on which planners are working seems to represent far too large a gamble.

OFFICIAL Pakistan is clear just what would happen in the event of a full-scale war. "The military imbalance between India and Pakistan raised the prospect of reliance on nuclear deterrence by Pakistan," wrote Husain Haqqani, a former advisor to Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a Visiting Professor at the Air War College and the National Defence University, Washington, outlined the results of war games conducted with his students. "I've seen Pakistani commanders turn to nuclear weapons to fend off advancing Indian divisions," he wrote of the results. "I've seen New Delhi - a city of more than 11 million - destroyed and hundreds of thousands of its residents killed in a flash." Gardiner continued: "If Pakistan drops a relatively primitive nuclear weapon of 20 kilotons, 50 per cent of the people living within a one-mile radius of the blast would die immediately. Fires would ignite as far away as two miles, and blast damage would extend to buildings three miles from the point of impact. People 3.5 miles away would suffer skin burns and radiation could extend hundreds of miles, depending on the weather."

Army truck movement along the border at Mandi.-RAJEEV BHATT

Indian military planners have their own war-game outcomes, some not dissimilar to those Sam Gardiner has described. Some of them yield very different outcomes. The issue, however, is not the games, but their sheer unreliability. For years, Indian strategists comforted themselves with the thought that in the event of a war, the 40,000-strong Rashtriya Rifles would protect their lines of communication and supplies from terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. Made up of troops posted on deputation from the Army, the Rashtriya Rifles was meant to ensure that India's LoC divisions could do their job, engaging Pakistan, unhindered by guerilla action. But during the Kargil War India was forced to pull out the overwhelming bulk of its counter-insurgency forces, and even bring in 6 Corps from Bareilly, the reserve corps intended for use in only the direst of emergencies. Jammu and Kashmir was left open to terrorists and the costs had to be paid the next year with troops' lives. Now, 12 more Rashtriya Rifles battalions are being raised. Meanwhile, much of the Jammu region has been left unsecured again.

Those who advocate war have a simple line of argument: India cannot indefinitely tolerate a war of attrition in Jammu and Kashmir, which claims thousands of lives, civilian and military, each year. They are right, but their answers are not. For years, Indian intelligence experts, and the more perceptive members of the military establishment, have advocated the creation of an offensive covert capability, which would inflict real punitive costs on Pakistan without provoking a war. The problem is that a covert capability must be exactly that. It cannot win elections. And so, troops continue to be massed on the border, not to fight a war but to pretend that the BJP and its allies have answers to the challenges that Pakistan is posing.