Battle-ready still

Print edition : March 02, 2002

India is firm on keeping its troops in deployment mode, indicating that the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Pakistan will continue for as long as it takes.

THE tough military-political posture India has adopted towards Pakistan shows no signs of a thaw. From all indications, Indian troops will continue to engage their Pakistani counterparts in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation for the foreseeable future. India states categorically that its forces will remain stationed along the border for as long as it takes or until the other side blinks. Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, on the other hand, stated in the third week of February that he would not make any more concessions to India and that it was India's turn to "respond".

Defence Minister George Fernandes, here at the Defexpo India 2002 arms exhibition in New Delhi along with Minister of State for Defence Hiren Pathak. The cost of keeping the entire Army on alert for an extended period is an enormously high one.-PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI/ REUTERS

Before he made the statement, there were reports in the U.S. and Pakistani media that Islamabad had disbanded two major units of its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), reducing its staff strength by around 40 per cent. According to the reports, the Afghan cell of the ISI was completely disbanded while the Kashmir cell was turned into a mere intelligence gathering department.

However, New Delhi is far from impressed with the steps taken so far by Islamabad, though Musharraf continues to receive accolades from the West. The Indian political establishment claims that it has concrete proof that extremists and mercenaries are regrouping in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). Indian officials claim that they include Al Qaeda and Taliban activists who fled Afghanistan in the wake of the United States' military action. At the same time, they concede that the level of infiltration across the line of control (LoC) has come down. The Indian side feels that Pakistan is viewing the current phase as an "interregnum" in order to prepare the ground for an escalation of infiltration at a later period.

Although the level of infiltration has come down, the killing of civilians in Jammu and Kashmir has shown no decline, officials point out. India continues to hold Pakistan responsible for the December 13 attack on Parliament House and the January 22 shoot-out outside the American Centre in Kolkata. They say that very few countries would tolerate the kind of civilian casualties that India has suffered.

India continues to attach great importance to the "list of 20" it wants extradited from Pakistan. It feels Pakistan should not have any problems about handing over the majority of the persons on the list as they are Indian citizens. Pakistan has been saying that those on the wanted list holding Indian passports are no longer in Pakistan and are either in the United Arab Emirates or in western European countries. Indian officials describe Islamabad's attitude as extremely uncooperative. India's External Affairs Ministry cites refusal to share information relating to Syed Ahmad Umar Sheikh as the latest illustration of this. This showed that Islamabad had "something to hide", a spokesperson of the Ministry said.

In fact, New Delhi has asserted that the arrest of Umar Sheikh in connection with the kidnapping of the U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl is further proof that Pakistan is the hotbed of terrorism in the region. India maintains that Pakistan has an obligation under the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 to share with others information relating to international terrorism. Umar Sheikh has spent time in Indian jails on charges relating to terrorism, including the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu in December 1999.

India had earlier rejected Musharraf's plea for U.S. mediation in the matter. Although Islamabad and Delhi are vying to outdo each other in swearing fealty to Washington, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has formally ruled out third party mediation on Kashmir. New Delhi has also rejected the American offer of "facilitation" to expedite talks between the two countries. But there is considerable behind-the-scenes activity by the U.S. to kickstart the stalled dialogue.

Indian authorities continue to claim that they are under no pressure from Washington to de-escalate tensions along the border. Senior officials insist that India, unlike Pakistan, is not at the "mercy of the U.S." But indirect U.S. mediation has helped defuse Indo-Pakistan tensions on earlier occasions, most notably during the Kargil war some three years ago. Musharraf has been claiming that U.S. "facilitation" will help de-escalate tensions by the middle of the year.

A Pakistani Army commander watches Indian positions at the Line of Control at Chakoti, some 45 km from Muzzafarabad.-AFP

Indian officials assert that India's new "strategic relationship" with the U.S. does not adversely affect its independent foreign policy. They claim that there is no pressure of any sort from the U.S. to withdraw troops from the border. On the contrary, they say that India's concerns about terrorism in the region are appreciated in Washington. The U.S. has agreed to sell weapons-locating radars, which will be effective in detecting the presence of militants in the virtually impenetrable mountain ranges along the LoC.

Several Indians, including retired Army Generals, have questioned the rationale behind the continued deployment of troops along the border. They feel that coercive diplomacy has its limits. The presence of U.S. troops in Pakistani military bases is seen as an added insurance for Islamabad. There is also talk that the U.S. would be allowed to set up a permanent naval facility in Karachi. "India has a new neighbour in the region - the U.S.," former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral said recently.

THIS is the first time since Independence that the Army has been sent to the borders with the express aim of waging war unless certain conditions are met. Since the deployment in December, Musharraf has taken several steps to address India's concerns to the accompanying cheers of the international community. But the Indian troops continue to remain battle-ready. There are also worries about the morale of the troops during a long sojourn on the border. Besides, the cost of keeping almost the entire Army on permanent alert has to be considered. Highly placed Defence Ministry sources say that Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha has given an assurance that the Ministry's needs will be taken care of, even if it exceeds the budgeted figure.

The Pakistani Army is also preparing for a long haul. According to Indian Army sources, the Pakistani Army has been bolstering its defensive positions by building concrete bunkers.

Senior Indian officials insist that the continued deployment of troops has a purpose. Despite the tensions, the Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of both sides talk to each other every Tuesday, reducing the risk of war, they say. The implicit message is that the Indian troops can hunker on the border indefinitely, waiting for the other side to make concessions or blunder into a confrontation. Besides, according to knowledgable Indian officials, it costs the cash-strapped Pakistan government $600 million a month to keep its troops on the border.

The officials admit that it costs India "slightly more" to keep the troops in deployment mode. Pakistani officials, on the other hand, claim that India is expending a lot of resources to stay battle-ready. They point out that Indian soldiers have to be transported from the length and breadth of the country, whereas Pakistan's Army bases are by and large situated near the border.

The Iranian Army had massed in strength along its border with Afghanistan a couple of years ago after Iranian diplomats and journalists were killed by the Taliban militia after the fall of Mazhar-e-Sharif. The Iranian deployment was called off in less than a month, after the Taliban government apologised for the incident and ordered an inquiry. New Delhi, on the other hand, is apparently preparing to dig in for an extended stay. Air-conditioners and other appliances are being sent to the forward areas as summer is set to arrive. Officials, however, insist that the priorities have not changed in the last two months. According to senior Defence Ministry officials, the government's directive to the Army "was to mobilise and take control of the border".

Senior BJP leaders tried to whip up jingoism during the run-up to the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and three other States by highlighting the tensions along the border. Some of them went to the extent of saying that a defeat for the BJP would be construed as a victory for Pakistan and would demoralise the troops on the forward lines.

The Indian Air Force began conducting exercises near the Pakistan border in the third week of February. The Army is expected to conduct fresh manoeuvres along the border soon. These exercises are intended to send a message to Pakistan that withdrawal from the border is far from imminent. Defence Minister Fernandes, speaking at the inaugural of an international defence exhibition in Delhi, ruled out a pull-back until Islamabad fulfilled the conditions laid down by New Delhi. "The forces were moved to the border in a certain situation and the situation still exists," he said.

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