By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Aug 13
Defence Minister A K Antony's statement in Parliament on Thursday does not backtrack substantially from his heavily-criticised explanation on Tuesday, which held Pakistani "terrorists" primarily responsible for killing five Indian soldiers on the Line of Control (LoC) near Poonch.
While Antony has implicated "specialist troops of the Pakistan Army" in his statement, he conspicuously avoids placing primary blame on the Pakistan Army. He merely states that Pakistani specialist troops were "involved" in the attack, and that such attacks involve "support, assistance, facilitation and often, direct involvement of the Pakistan Army".
Intriguingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has accepted this just two days after it attacked Antony for "providing an escape route" to the Pakistan Army. On Tuesday, the BJP had accused the defence minister of watering down the army's initial statement blaming "approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with soldiers of the Pakistan Army". Antony had changed that statement to "approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms". However, a day after the government met senior BJP leaders, the principal opposition party is content with a statement that the Pakistan Army was "involved" in the attack.
If Antony were correct, this would be the first instance of Pakistani Army regular troops playing second fiddle to jihadi elements in a confrontation with Indian troops. Since the 1990s, the Pakistan Army has often fired on Indian posts to facilitate jihadi infiltration. However, the Pakistan Army has avoided operating alongside jihadis, who lack discipline and training. It remains unclear whether the Poonch attack, if it were indeed a joint operation featuring primarily jihadi fighters, was local tactical expediency, or a strategic shift in the Pakistan Army's employment of its longstanding, non-state instruments.
While jihadis often cross the LoC, that de facto border has always been held by regular army troops from both sides, with low-threat areas held by paramilitary "Mujahid" battalions on the Pakistan side, and Border Security Force (BSF) battalions on the Indian side, both functioning under the army. Effectively, many tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers, backed by heavy weaponry, are deployed eyeball-to-eyeball, at hair-trigger alert, along the 776-km LoC.
Before the 2003 ceasefire, both sides occupied themselves in an unending, unprovoked duel to gun down or kill with mortar and artillery fire as many opposing soldiers as possible. Tens of thousands of bullets were fired everyday, and the casualty count on either side often crossed a hundred soldiers each year. To put the current year's count of 57 ceasefire violations in context, each day before the ceasefire would see those many exchanges of fire.
Bizarrely, an occasion like an India-Pakistan one-day cricket match would see soldiers get killed or wounded. Each wicket taken or boundary hit would see intense celebratory gunfire - directed at a nearby, or especially vulnerable, enemy post.
Even with the current ceasefire, the daily operational routine on the LoC carries the risk of confrontation and conflict. Military ethos demands that a unit in contact with the enemy - and the Indian and Pakistani armies certainly view each other as that - conducts aggressive patrolling, ambushes, and operations to establish "psychological and moral dominance" over the enemy. This game flashes out of control, when casualties occur and retribution follows. The Indian Army will almost certainly retaliate for the Poonch killings.
Confrontation is also inherent in the counter-infiltration deployment posture that Pakistan has forced on the Indian Army by training and infiltrating jihadis to sustain the Jammu & Kashmir insurgency. To block jihadi infiltration, India has fenced the LoC with hundreds of kilometres of razor wire, floodlights, surveillance cameras, and seismic and audio sensors that are monitored from control rooms. But the fence must be physically monitored and so, small groups of Indian soldiers patrol the gaps between posts. These "area domination patrols" are particularly vulnerable whilst in the sliver of Indian territory ahead of the LoC fence. In Poonch, the patrol was ambushed ahead of the fence.
For carrying out such ambushes and for attacking small enemy posts in tactically favourable terrain, both India and Pakistan have contingency plans worked out and rehearsed. When one side needs to send a signal, or to retaliate, one of those plans is implemented at short notice.
During the Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999, an Indian Army platoon had crossed the LoC at the Munawar Tawi River near Jammu and wiped out an entire Pakistani post, triggering a vicious cycle of revenge killings and counter-killings. At that time, Pakistan refined the concept of "border action teams", or BATs, specifically earmarked for sneak killings along the LoC. Some BATs feature commandoes from Pakistan's elite Special Services Group (SSG), while others are constituted from local forces. The beheading of an Indian soldier in January has been ascribed to a BAT.
Ultimately, only LoC de-militarisation can eliminate the ever-present danger of an escalation of tensions. For India, de-militarisation would require a double assurance - first, that Pakistan would not ingress across the LoC, something it did in 1999, leading to the Kargil conflict. Second, Pakistan would need to assure India of an end to cross-border infiltration.
For now, neither assurance seems likely or tenable. Antony has sounded a warning: "Naturally, this incident (in Poonch) will have consequences on our behaviour on the Line of Control and for our relations with Pakistan." And if the Pakistan Army is now operating alongside the jihadis on the LoC, it could become even more of a flashpoint.