Beating the retreat

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

On the end of Operation Parakram and the post-election security scenario in Jammu and Kashmir.

THERE were no bugles or fanfare as almost half-a-million Indian soldiers began their march back to the barracks from the Pakistan border. The Union government's October 16 decision to pull back troops from the western frontier marks an end to arguably the most ill-conceived manoeuvre in Indian military history. Intended to signal India's willingness to go to war if Pakistan continued to aid cross-border terrorism, Operation Parakram ended as an ignominious retreat after having failed to secure even its minimum objectives. But the worst maybe yet to come. Pakistan has called India's cards, and discovered that its much-hyped hand contains no aces. Now, a new government in Jammu and Kashmir could face a significant escalation in cross-border violence: violence to which the security establishment has yet to consider how it might respond.

As late as August 3, Defence Minister George Fernandes had told soldiers at Sharifabad, near Srinagar, that there was no question of a troop pullback until "the situation returns to normal". The subsequent collapse of Operation Parakram needs to be read in the context of the objectives that impelled it. Speaking in Washington in January 2002, less than a month after the attack on the Parliament building, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K. Advani had spelled out a four-point agenda for de-escalation. Pakistan, he said, had to hand over 20 key terrorism suspects, 14 of them Indian nationals red-flagged by Interpol. It had, he continued, to issue a "categorical and unambiguous renunciation of terrorism", and close down training camps for terrorists, choke their finance lines and weapons supplies. And most important, Advani demanded that Pakistan "stop the infiltration of men and supply of arms into Jammu and Kashmir".

Operation Parakram was intended to act as the mailed fist behind the velvet glove of international intercession; as the sword arm of what bureaucrats in the Ministry of External Affairs refer to as coercive diplomacy. Data generated by the Ministry of External Affairs itself show how little effect the mailed fist in fact had. Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, publicly promised to end infiltration into India but continued the country's long-standing policy of encouraging terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. While the estimated levels of infiltration fell between January and September 2002, as compared to 2001, it was actually higher than the level recorded in March, April and May last year. More important, the level of infiltration remained adequate to replace the numbers of terrorists killed by Indian security personnel. Terrorists numbering 1,295, for example, were killed between January and September this year. A similar number of terrorists made their way across the Line of Control to maintain the numbers of cadre active in Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian military forward deployment, as a coercive gesture, also did little to deter terrorist attacks against the election process in Jammu and Kashmir. Eighty-four political worker-participants in the elections were killed between January and September this year, a figure that already exceeds the previous high of 75, through all of 1996. The data on violence directed at civilians show that the numbers killed and injured in terrorist violence by the end of September by far exceed the figures for any previous year since the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance came to power. While these killings were not directly election-related, they do show a distinct upward trend from July, when it became clear that elections were to be held. As such, it seems fair to suggest that they were intended to provide military muscle to the terrorists' anti-election campaign. Despite the supposed success of Indian coercive diplomacy, then, Pakistan-backed terrorist groups felt free to act as they wished.

FOR military strategists, the collapse of Operation Parakram has underlined a particularly worrying fact. Put simply, India's conventional military superiority does not operate as a deterrent against Pakistan's sub-conventional offensive in Jammu and Kashmir. Secure in the knowledge that its nuclear capabilities will deter any Indian conventional response to low-intensity war in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan can escalate hostilities to levels that it might have considered inconceivable in the early 1990s. Since 1998-1999, Pakistan has pumped in increasing numbers of well-trained and well-equipped terrorists recruited directly from that country, and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan, countries of West Asia and Central Asia, instead of depending on locally recruited cadre. In recent years, the data show, the numbers of foreign nationals crossing the LoC far exceed those of ethnic-Kashmiri recruits sent from the pools available in training camps in Pakistan. Indeed, if Indian intelligence estimates are accurate, the exfiltration of locally recruited cadre for training has dwindled to near-insignificant levels. According to estimates, almost half of all terrorists who are active in Jammu and Kashmir are of foreign origin.

Pakistan's offensive posture is also reflected in the recoveries of weapons made since 1997. Experts believe that these recoveries are a mirror image of the kinds of war materials that actually make their way across the LoC. If, for example, large consignments of rocket launchers are supplied to terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, some of it will be recovered by Indian security personnel. Indian official data make it clear that since 1997 there has been a marked upward trend in the recoveries of heavy weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank mines. The amount of lethal Research Department Explosive (RDX) and electronic detonators discovered by Indian security personnel has also increased in the same period. The effects of this sustained upgrade have been sadly evident. Although the number of terrorists killed has risen each year since 1997, the figure masks a disturbing reality. In 1997, the ratio of terrorists killed to each Indian security force member killed stood at 1:0.17. Last year, that figure was 1:0.30. Put simply, more soldiers are laying down their lives to eliminate each terrorist than before.

All of this has alarming implications for the future of Jammu and Kashmir. When the National Conference took power after the 1996 Assembly elections, it was widely assumed that the government of Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah would be able to build on and consolidate the gains of an improved security situation. Years of offensive operations had succeeded, in the words of Texas University analyst Sumit Ganguly, in securing "order, if not law". For the first two years of the Abdullah government, the premises that underpinned the elections seemed to have been validated. Between 1997 and 1998, for example, the total numbers of terrorism-related violent incidents and attacks on security forces fell, along with the numbers of civilians killed and injured. Although the overall levels of violence remained appallingly high, it seemed that the coming of the new government had offered if not a window of opportunity, at least a small crack in the wall. Most people in the security administration believed that a responsive civilian administration would generate the kinds of developmental initiatives necessary to alienate terrorist groups from civil society.

Then came the Pokhran-II nuclear tests of May 1998, and the retaliatory tests at Chagai. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee proclaimed South Asia's new bombs to be "weapons of peace", which made war an impossibility in the region. The proposition was soon mercilessly exposed by the Kargil war. While nuclear weapons had indeed made any full-scale conventional engagement between India and Pakistan near impossible, paradoxically it had opened the door for an escalation of sub-conventional conflict by Pakistan. While both India and Pakistan had for long been known to possess nuclear weapons, the demonstration of their capabilities worked to impose new thresholds on the use of India's conventional capabilities. India could no longer respond to heightened sub-conventional warfare by threatening to go to war. The effects were evident in Jammu and Kashmir. The year 1999 witnessed a sharp escalation in every index of terrorist violence from the number of incidents of violence and security force casualties, to losses of civilian and combatant lives. Abdullah, over the next several years, was left carrying the can for New Delhi's nuclear follies: follies that he himself had cheerfully endorsed without concern for the consequences.

ESTIMATES of the cost of Operation Parakram run between Rs.2,000 crores and Rs.5,000 crores or anywhere up to Rs.3 crores a day. These figures do not include loss of life in the course of the operation owing to accidents in handling explosives, wear and tear caused to equipment brought out of safe storage or the still-to-be conducted return of material to peace-time conditions. It is hard not to conclude that the proceeds of the 4 per cent tax imposed to support Parakram in the last Union Budget could have been better used to upgrade counter-terrorism and surveillance capabilities. Portable surveillance radars recently purchased for Rs.350 crores from Israel, for example, could have been paid for with a fraction of the funds spent on Parakram. The El-Op manufactured radar, which can detect human movement at up to 4,000 metres, will be just a drop in the ocean. Troops engaged in counter-terrorist duties are still not routinely equipped with basic pieces of equipment like night vision devices. Even the supposedly elite Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir Police still depends on recycled Pakistani supplies made to terrorist groups, for night vision equipment, sniper rifles and rocket launchers. There is still no centralised database on terrorists, or a single worthwhile forensic laboratory in Jammu and Kashmir.

All this points to a deep malaise in the Indian security establishment: its failure to engage intellectually in any serious, long-term manner with Pakistan's sub-conventional offensive. Operation Parakram itself is a case in point. Despite repeated intelligence warnings that high-profile centres such as the Parliament building might be attacked, no initiative had been taken to plan responses to such incidents. Had Members of Parliament or Ministers been taken hostage on December 13, the security establishment would not have known how to respond. And, while the Indian Army had dozens of war-game scenarios for conflict with Pakistan, an apparently endless forward deployment was not one of them. At no stage were clear political objectives for the Operation conveyed to field formations. Indeed, Lieutenant-General Kapil Vij, the commanding officer of 2 Corps, a key strike formation, had to be removed from his command for pushing armour to war positions on the border something he might be forgiven for believing was his brief.

The retreat was conducted with the same lack of clarity as the offensive or, rather, the offensive that wasn't. The National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) members who met on October 16 to discuss the pullback, had before them no study papers on the subject, nor detailed research data on the potential outcomes of the move. It took the NSAB barely two hours to recommend that troops be pulled back; the body was not summoned before Operation Parakram was initiated. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) despatched the issue in all of 90 minutes, again without detailed consultations with top military officials or the internal security bureaucracy. While the Chief of the Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan, was able to hold some discussions on the pullback with senior colleagues on October 17, highly placed sources told Frontline that his headquarters had not received any formal communiqu from the Cabinet until that evening. Critics of the decision of whom there were not a few were offered no formal opportunity to put across their points of view.

Few people in the NDA or the security establishment, for that matter seem to have taken the time to consider where India might go from here. Events in Pakistan have given the question particular urgency. The far-right Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal has already called for the release of top terrorist Masood Azhar a sign of its intent. Terrorist groups operating from Pakistan will, for the first time, have access to overt political patronage, freeing them from any state control that existed over their activities.

The decision to pull back from the western border has received applause in the West, and given the fact that it was a move of little strategic value, there can be no purely military objection to the decision. Nonetheless, the problem that existed before December 13 remains. Should a major terrorist attack take place inside or outside Jammu and Kashmir, the NDA will have no real option other than begging the United States of America for redress. As the Prime Minister himself conceded, such appeals had been of limited utility on the ground. Speaking in London on October 13, he said: "The West finds its terrorism more serious, not ours. It has a double standard to measure terrorism".

He is right. Instead of bemoaning his fate, however, the Prime Minister will do well to apply his mind to just what he intends to do about India's problem of terrorism. Unless he and his colleagues start addressing the question, no number of elections will help address the murderous war in Jammu and Kashmir.

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