When Pakistan took Loonda Post

Print edition : August 31, 2002

There is trouble again along the Line of Control. Among several serious incidents that have occurred, the fall and re-capture of Loonda Post in the Machil sector illustrate that the border management problems exposed by the Kargil war persist.

SEVEN months after India and Pakistan started massing strike formations along their border, are both countries again pretty close to a full-blown war?

Speaking in Islamabad on August 23, Pakistan's military spokesperson Major-General Rashid Qureshi alleged that India had attacked positions in the Gultari sector of Kargil in the course of the night. Qureshi did not say where exactly the offensive had occurred, but claimed that scores of Indian soldiers had been killed when Pakistani troops retaliated. The Indian Air Force, he claimed, had bombed Pakistan's forward positions in support of ground troops.

Army Headquarters in New Delhi denied that anything of the sort took place, and said it suffered no losses in the time period Qureshi was talking about. The denial is plausible, for Qureshi suffers from a well-known credibility problem. His briefings during the Kargil war were often economical with the truth, and sometimes outright dishonest. The timing of Qureshi's statement - to coincide with the visit of United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage - was not lost on anyone. Nonetheless, several recent events make clear all is not well along the Line of Control (LoC), notwithstanding the public perception that the risk of war has passed.

The last two months have seen intense fighting over disputed peaks in the Kargil sector. Last month, after eight weeks of skirmishes, India reoccupied Point 5070 in the Drass sector. Point 5070, named for its altitude in metres, dominates the strategically-vital Mushkoh nullah in the Drass sub-sector. The Mushkoh nullah was a key infiltration route in the Kargil war, and saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the 1999 war. Highly placed sources told Frontline that fighting continues over Point 5303 in the Marpo La area, another key gateway into Drass; its re-capture was a key objective of the Kargil war. The continuing conflict led to intense artillery exchanges on August 19 around Kargil, and small-arms fire to the south in Bhawani, Kanachak, Khour, Akhnoor, Ranbir Singh Pora, Samba and Pallanwalla. Sixteen military personnel - seven soldiers and nine high-altitude porters - have died in the Kargil fighting so far.

On July 29, India used air power for the first time since the end of the Kargil war to attack Pakistan-held positions at Loonda Post on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the Machil sector. Eight Mirage 2000 aircraft dropped 1,000-pound precision-guided bombs to obliterate four bunkers occupied by Pakistan, while 155-millimetre Bofors howitzers hit troops dug into forward trenches prepared by Indian troops in earlier years. At least 28 Pakistani soldiers, military intelligence officials believe, were killed in the fighting. The daylight air assault was intended to demonstrate that India would not hesitate to escalate the conflict if provoked, a belief that is gaining ground among the Pakistani military.

The fall and re-capture of Loonda Post illustrate that the border management problems brutally exposed by the Kargil war persist. Army Headquarters insists that freak white-out conditions caused by rain and fog in late July allowed Pakistan soldiers to occupy the position. However, it is unclear how they were able to do so in such conditions. The failure was particularly serious since Loonda Post overlooks the forward town of Kel, a key infiltration route in the Neelam Valley. As in Kargil, the intrusion was detected only when a patrol of the Sikh Light Infantry was ambushed. At least three soldiers died in the fighting, but unofficial estimates put the size of casualties at four times that number.

Unlike in Kargil, the 15 Corps responded promptly. First, troops pinned down the Pakistan positions around the Post with mortar fire, and called for artillery support. A massive bombardment of the Neelam Valley was initiated, in which, the Pakistani media claims, several civilians were killed. Bofors howitzers were moved up to Loonda to support two successive Indian ground counter-attacks. Helicopter gunships were used to pin down the Pakistan positions. There was some hesitation about the use of bombers, however, and the Air Force insisted that Defence Minister George Fernandes himself be consulted. The Army hesitated, perhaps realising that this would mean an admission of failure, but eventually did as it was told, in order to prevent heavy casualties.

Pakistan, predictably, complained bitterly to the United States about the air strikes. India, in turn, made it clear that it reserved the right to respond on its own soil as it wished. Pakistan maintained a stoic silence on the issue, and it is possible that Qureshi's remarks on the fighting in Gultari were a belated response to the use of Mirage bombers at Loonda Post.

Qureshi may also have made his claim of an Indian attack to deter strong action of the Loonda Post kind. Highly placed sources told Frontline that the Army has been lobbying for two years for a full-scale assault on Point 5353, the highest feature in Drass. Troops fighting to take Point 5353 have been struggling in the face of sustained fire from the higher position. Pakistan occupied Point 5353 at the end of the Kargil war, as a result of tactical failures by the Drass-based 56 Brigade. After news broke of the loss of the peak, George Fernandes variously claimed that it was not on the Indian side of the LoC, and that it had not been lost to Pakistan. To order a full-scale assault on Point 5353 would involve making an embarrassing admission of past failure - to avoid which Fernandes evidently believes is worth getting soldiers killed.

Interestingly, Qureshi's polemic came just a day after External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha ruled out troop pullbacks or diplomatic dialogue unless Pakistan halts cross-border terrorism. Indian diplomats have also been telling the string of foreign dignitaries recently in New Delhi that they would again consider military options if Pakistan did not restrain terrorist activity directed at sabotaging the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

IN some senses, the ongoing fighting might be attributed simply to the routine peak-grabbing campaigns that take place each summer along the LoC, with both sides fighting to dominate key features as the snow melts. This time, however, the situation is particularly fragile. Had India failed to evict Pakistani troops from Loonda Post, it inevitably would have come under pressure to widen the conflict. Pakistan's occupation of Loonda Post was probably motivated by the desire to ease pressure on Neelam Valley, on which India has a stranglehold.

Few figures in New Delhi seem to have any clear idea about how to address the problems thrown up by the Loonda Post experience or the ongoing fighting in Kargil. Great faith is being placed in a new U.S surveillance system now being tested along the LoC. Past tests, in Jammu, of competing Israeli systems had little success because the presence of significant human and animal populations along the border often triggered false alerts. That could eventually lead to troops ignoring warnings from the electronic systems. Although officially the Army insists that it does not believe that negligence led to the Loonda Post fiasco, an inquiry has been ordered. Informed sources told Frontline that pending its outcome the commanding officer of the local unit, Colonel V.K. Mahajan, has been removed from his command.

Sadly, there are no signs that Generals in either New Delhi or Islamabad are ready to learn the larger lessons of this month's clashes.

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