Indian Army is bracing for actively violent summer on the Line of Control
Pakistan Army’s recently concluded air-land exercise Azm-e-Nau (New Resolve) for the Indian front, which reportedly witnessed the biggest collection of tanks, combat jets and helicopter gunships since exercise Zerb-e-Momin in 1989, 21 years ago, has been a major achievement. It is not clear if all its operational objectives were met. However, it decisively accomplished three strategic objectives. One, an unambiguous message has gone to the US that notwithstanding its extraordinary financial and military largesse, Pakistan Army’s cardinal commitment will be to meet the Indian threat (whatever that means) than support the US’ AfPak policy. Two, by releasing the exercise location pictures showing the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani sitting with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the message from the Pakistan Army is that Gilani has its backing.
Wearing the exercise cap, Gilani blurted out that Pakistan’ military strategy is based on ‘credible minimum deterrence.’ While Gilani himself may not have understood what it meant, India and the US have registered that Pakistan’s nuclear declaratory policy will be an early use of nuclear weapons. It means that if a conventional war between Pakistan and India becomes prolonged such that the Indian military starts gaining at the operational level, a threat or actual use of nukes would not be ruled out. And three, it has been conveyed in clear terms that New Delhi and the US need to take Gilani’s repeated calls for resumption of the Composite Dialogue with India seriously; New Delhi should forget about 26/11, and Washington should help do so. Or else, it will be an extremely active summer along the Line of Control. To be sure, all indications suggest that despite the ceasefire on the LC, the infiltration in 2010 (and violence in the Valley) will be exponentially high. Sensing the writing on the wall, the Kashmiri separatist leaders, to stay relevant, have sought an early resumption of the Composite Dialogue. And, unless New Delhi does so, it has little hope of even a limited access to the Lashkar-e-Taiyabba operative David Headley held by the US.
The government and the Indian Army are conscious of the impending increased infiltration across the LC. The 2009-2010 Union home ministry’s annual report (based on RA&W inputs) says that infrastructure for training terrorists across the border remains intact. Defence minister A.K. Antony agrees with this assessment. The BGS, 15 corps, Brigadier Gurmeet Singh based in the Kashmir Valley, recently told the media that infiltration attempts across the LC will increase once snow melts. He, of course, did not give details; they demonstrate audacity of the Pakistan Army and the ISI in supporting infiltration. The ‘level of preparedness for infiltration is extremely high and the ISI has completely loosened its taps,’ a senior army officer told me during my recent visit to the Valley. While all existing launch pads (estimated to be over 45) have been activated, the training being given by regular Pakistani Army officers to infiltrators lays emphasis on high altitude aspects. This is a departure from the past. Until November 2003, when the ceasefire did not exist, the Pakistan Army could provide covering fire to facilitate more infiltration south of Pir Panjal range into the Jammu division. (Between 2003 and until 2008 when General Musharraf was in power, infiltration was a trickle as bilateral back-channel talks for Kashmir resolution were in progress). The infiltrators have been provided with state-of-the-art weapon systems and communication equipment including GPS. The guides that lead the infiltrators till the fence (on the LC) are motivated as they get Rs 30,000 against the earlier Rs 5,000 for each infiltrating group that successfully crosses into the Indian territory. To ensure that this actually happens instead of guides spinning yarn, each infiltrating group is accompanied by an ISI officer who waits up to two days near the LC to video-record the fence crossing. The determination of the infiltrators can be gauged by their infiltration attempt in Keran sector of the Valley on March 23. The infiltrating party was split in sub-groups of four, eight and eight, and they were attempting to cross over the LC at a point that had 14 feet of snow (the 10 feet fence was submerged in snow). Once the first lot was intercepted and shot dead near the LC, the second group attempted crossing the next night. Only after seven of the eight that crossed into Indian territory were also shot dead did the third group turn back from the fence.
As compared with 2009, this year the probing attempts by infiltrators started weeks early. According to senior army officers, up to 600 infiltrators are waiting to cross the LC. These are a mixed lot, hardened LeT foreign cadres and the indigenous Hizbul Mujahideens; only those HM cadres who have families in PoK are allowed to cross the LC. ‘The idea of sending a mix lot is to ensure that they keep check on one another and thus remain faithful to the ISI mentors,’ says an officer. This is important as the ISI knows that support within the Over Ground Workers (OGWs) in the Valley, who provide logistics and intelligence to infiltrators once they are in hinterland, has thinned substantially. The OGWs, even if they are reluctant to openly assist the terrorists for fear of reprisal as most are marked by the state police, do not mind exploiting the news hungry and largely partial media for terrorists’ benefit. (According to conservative army estimates, nearly Rupees 4.33 crores was pumped into the Valley in 2009 through hawala (illegal) means to keep OGW’s on the roll). OGW’s assistance has become crucial in the prevalent circumstances where most of the senior and middle level terrorist leadership in the Valley has been decimated. Given the ground reality, where prejudices shape public opinion, the state machinery invariably remains on the back-foot, and small incidents can lead to things spinning out of control with hardships for the common people. To avoid these situations, it is best if infiltrations get detected and are neutralised at the LC itself.
This is exactly what the army is focussing on, and has taken many defensive measures to do this. There has been a re-deployment of a few thousand army (Rashtriya Rifles) personnel from the hinterland to the LC. Instead of counter-insurgency, these trained soldiers are strengthening multi-tier patrolling on the LC. Next, existing surveillance devices have been readjusted to cater for the new ISI strategy of infiltration from difficult reaches, and new ones have been added. Both the UAVs (Heron, with long endurance) with the air force and the army have been pressed into service, and the army’s Advanced Light Helicopter squadron does daily morning sorties over likely ingress areas. This is not all. This year, all winter posts on the LC, which are vacated by the army during inclement weather, have been occupied early. And, senior army officers told me that even the fence on the LC has been resuscitated a few weeks early.
But what about offensive measures to deter the ISI itself? There is palpable hesitation amongst army officers, who till now were happy telling me about the defensive posture adopted to deter infiltrators. After some prodding and on condition of total anonymity, I am told that both land and air power can be used for the purpose. Drawing attention to post-26/11, I am told that the then air force chief had told the government that he had precision guided weapons that could, on accurate intelligence, hit the targets without collateral damage. Accurate intelligence, of course, depends on RA&W capabilities, and what interaction it has with the air force. Regarding the army, it has enough Para battalions in the Valley. These are extremely capable units and can be utilised for raids on the launch pads across the LC. Given that the launch pads are nothing more than training grounds that can be folded up at short notice; a successful offensive action would raise the morale of the army. Not to be understated, a powerful message would be sent to the Pakistan Army/ISI as well as the US that India’s patience is not unlimited. Without exception, all senior army and air force officers that I have spoken with on this issue feel that such an act would not automatically mean war. I would like to add that even if it was so, it is unlikely to be more than a tit-for-tat in POK; Pakistan Army is unlikely to enlarge the war theatre. The problem is that the political leadership does not want war, whatever the cost otherwise in terms of lost human lives. If such a situation comes to pass, which given the ground situation is waiting to happen, it would be the domestic pressure through an active media that would play an important role. Seeing the writing on the wall, New Delhi should either brace itself for an escalated activity on the LC which could lead to offensive measures, or should enter into the Composite Dialogue with Pakistan without ado. To expect Pakistan to do more about 26/11 is wishful thinking.