Bottomline | Learning Wrong Lessons

Longer the army remains enmeshed in CI ops, faster it’ll lose its conventional edge

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

As August marks the 13th anniversary of the Kargil conflict (and ninth of the FORCE newsmagazine), it is fitting to reflect on the avoidable war. The immediate spur to do so, has been provided by the then chief of army staff, General V.P. Malik’s article in the Time of India newspaper (26 July 2012). His argument is that while troops had the spirit, they lacked the wherewithal (equipment and ammunition) to fight, and hence the high casualties. The entire blame has been heaped on the political leadership and callous bureaucracy who despite urgings by him did little on procurements. The general writes that ‘Pakistan surprised us strategically and tactically.’ He adds that, ‘the strength of a military force lies in the quality of its human resources, weapons and equipment, and its morale.’ Not once did he mention the army leadership’s role in the fiasco. I recommend the recently published General Colin Powell’s book: ‘It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership,’ to him; it could well be made essential reading for all defence services’ officers.

War is above all about leadership. This is nothing new that I am writing. My first lesson on joining the army more than three-and-half decades ago was on leadership, which means taking responsibility and not passing the buck. To my mind, Kargil was a failure of the army’s leadership attributable to its obsession with counter-terror operations (CT ops). While the army was embarrassed to have allowed the situation, where intruders dug themselves into Indian territory, to develop, it was hesitant to own up its egregious error. In the absence of the COAS who was away to Poland, his Vice-COAS, Lt. General S. Chandrashekhar approached the Air Headquarters to support them with gunship helicopters’ firepower without informing the government. He was so obsessed with CT ops that he could not think it would be a conventional war. (We reproduce our exclusive, the then chief of air staff, ACM A.Y. Tipnis’ first-hand account on the Kargil conflict that first appeared in FORCE October 2006 issue). Even today, the army does not admit to its leadership folly in the Kargil conflict. Were it to do this, the cardinal lesson would be driven home: The army’s primary task is conventional war and not CT ops, something it has come to believe, and ironically, relish. If any proof is needed, all one has to do is read General J.J. Singh’s autobiography, which FORCE has reviewed in this issue.

To understand why the army is hitched to CT ops, I need to start at the beginning, which was 22 years ago when Pakistan took India by surprise by its proxy war unleashed in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990. The then COAS, General V.N. Sharma is on record saying that he was prepared to retaliate with conventional war. Unfortunately, his army was not ready; Operation Pawan (Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka), Exercise Brass Tacks (against Pakistan), and Operation Trident (against China) had sapped the Indian Army. His successor, General S.F. Rodrigues, equally determined to teach Pakistan a lesson realised that the already fatigued army, without rest and relief, had to be inducted in large numbers in J&K to first restore the deteriorating internal situation. Pakistan instantly screamed from roof-top that the Indian Army had amassed troops on the Line of Control to start a war. To assure the world that this was not the case, I was asked by General Rodrigues (There was no television those days and I was defence correspondent with the Times of India newspaper) to travel along the Line of Control. I wrote a series of page-one articles exposing Pakistan’s lie; if anything, troops had been pulled inwards to assist in law and order.

By beginning 1993, the Valley was up in arms, the state police and administration had disappeared, and the Indian media was hysterically writing about ‘liberated zones’ in the Valley crawling with terrorists. The COAS-designate, General B.C. Joshi who was to assume office on 1 July 1993, was conscious that something drastic had to be done. Familiar with my writings, he called me for an extended meeting two weeks before he took command of the army (the meeting was arranged by his aide Lt Col. Anil Bhat, who became the army’s public relations officer). He told me that J&K could no longer be labelled a law and order situation. It was a proxy war by Pakistan, and he had decided to raise a large numbers of Rashtriya Rifles units (RR) for CT ops from within own resources, as he could not wait for government sanction. He wanted my support (I was defence correspondent with Indian Express newspaper), and assured me that the army would get back to its primary task soonest. From then on, the army’s focus was CT ops, and procurements for it became the priority; the internal situation had to be brought under control.

Dhruva War Memorial

Needless to add, the army’s primary task suffered. While all COAS’ after General Joshi approached the defence ministry on equipment and ammunition deficiencies, replacement of obsolescent wherewithal and need for upgrade and modernisation for a conventional war, it was not done as doggedly as the other two services, the air force and the navy did. The argument being that as Pakistan was waging a successful proxy war it would not opt for the costlier conventional war. India, on the other hand, had decided to merely thwart Pakistan’s clandestine war; the need to teach a lesson to Pakistan was no longer being talked about.

The army’s CT ops were succeeding and by 1997 the tide had turned in its favour. The following year witnessed two major events: the May 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, and elevation of General Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan’s COAS in October. The implication of Pakistan’s nuclear tests was that the Indian political and military leadership were no longer on the same page: the former concluded that war had become too dangerous an option; and the latter, not being in the nuclear policy-making loop, reasoned that nothing had changed for it. The army remained fixated on CT ops, renamed counter-insurgency ops (CI ops) to win over the people to help fight terrorists better. Notwithstanding murmurs of human rights violations, the army was winning accolades; the directorate of public relations in South Block and media cells in various formations of Northern Army Command were busy giving out number of ‘kills’ each month. Killing terrorists with minimal human rights violations became the criterion for successful command.

Unlike the Northern Army Command which is an operational theatre, the Army Headquarters with more responsibilities was certainly thinking about procurements for a convention war as well. On taking over as the COAS in October 1997, General Malik ordered a non-field force review, to find out how much of the tail ratio (non-combatants) could be pruned without disturbing the teeth ratio (combatants). He concluded that the army could be reduced by 50,000 troops; the savings being utilised for modernisation. Though much bandied about in the media, this was an inconsequential step; the need was for a field force review (operational rationalisation) which in view of the growing numbers of RR units and formations should have been done. This was a mistake for which the army was to pay dearly during the Kargil war.

Between 1995 and 1998, as many as six operational brigades (about 24,000 troops) were sucked into CI ops, mainly in areas which were hotbeds of insurgency; these were Kupwara, Rajouri and Poonch. Little thought was given to the fact that these were Northern Army Command’s reserves; a fact which comforted the Pakistan Army planning the 1999 Kargil occupation. This was one reason for the Indian Army to lose more lives in Operation Vijay, because these soldiers took time to reorient themselves from doing CI ops to fighting a conventional war. There were two other reasons for the avoidable casualties: the northern command was unaware for a long time about the numbers of dug-in terrorists, and the extent of Pakistan Army support to them. Unlike what General Malik writes, the conflict was a failure at the operational level of war. The other reason was total panic at the higher military levels; defence minister George Fernandes was told by the army that terrorists would be cleared in 48 hours which he announced, without the army’s higher command assessing what it was up against. Troops were given impossible tasks and were lost. It was akin to the ‘charge of the light brigade.’ Now, if this is not the failure of army leadership, then what is? (It was the army and nation’s good luck that the Pakistan armed forces did not openly join the war).

Were right lessons learnt from the fiasco? No. The army decided it needed more RR troops and headquarters to separate forces on CT ops and conventional role. Moreover, the year-long military stand-off with Pakistan (Operation Parakram) in 2002 convinced the army that the political leadership had little stomach to fight nuclear Pakistan. The much bandied about Vajpayee government’s ‘coercive diplomacy’ was really a bluff called off by Pakistan. The November 2003 ceasefire and erection of the fence on the Line of Control in 2004 dulled the army’s edges further on its primary task. CI ops became the army’s mantra, providing it with two advantages: medals and glory; and promotional avenues with plenty of officers’ vacancies available in RR formations. The present army is a picture in contrast to what it was in 1990. The army is so entrenched in its new avatar that only a determined COAS or defence minister can bring it back to the reality of the two-front military threat staring in the face.


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