Mysterious Attack Across the LoC
Claims and counter-claims by India and Pakistan about an August
23 intrusion across the border raise disturbing questions about
their communication links and their deterrent equation.
days ago, India’s new foreign minister Yashwant Sinha and Pakistan’s
recently appointed minister of state for foreign affairs Inamul
Haq warmly shook hands in Kathmandu on the sidelines of a meeting
of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Their handshake,
and their relatively rancour-free remarks to the media, generated
hopes of some "forward movement" in India-Pakistan relations,
for the first time since the two governments launched their eyeball-to-eyeball
confrontation eight months ago, with one million troops readied
hopes were set back just two days later on August 23, to be precise when
Pakistan alleged that Indian troops made a major "unprovoked"
incursion during the preceding night across the Line of Control
in Jammu and Kashmir. The site was Gultari, in the Kargil sector,
where they fought their last war three years ago.
Army spokesman Major General Rashid Qureishi claimed that 70 Indian
soldiers, backed by a Mirage-2000 fighter, launched an "unprovoked
attack" with plans to seize the post of Gultari, nine kilometres
inside Pakistani territory. Pakistan "successfully defended
the Gultari post and inflicted heavy casualties on the Indian troops".
He claimed that 16 Indian soldiers died.
described the charge as "false and malicious". Defence
minister George Fernandes said: "It is a total falsehood. There
could not be a greater lie than this. Such white lies have become
a habit (with Pakistan)".
incident happened to coincide with the visit to India of US Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Armitage could report little
progress in fraught India-Pakistan relations. Since then, the two
rivals have been in a slanging match over "cross-border"
terrorism and more.
was there an Indian attack during the night of August 22/23? Or
was the Pakistani claim a mere concoction? Did Qureishi lie when
he told Indian journalists on the phone in the afternoon of August
23 that Pakistani forces could see "the bodies of Indian soldiers
strewn on the heights" of the Himalayan range? Why would India
deny that there were casualties if some of its soldiers were indeed
the United States possess information, validated by satellite images,
of the alleged incident? Is there any truth in New Delhi’s charge
that Islamabad "raised the bogey of army operations by India"
primarily "to divert the focus from infiltration to mobilisation,
thus attempting to bring international pressure" on India to
demobilise its 700,000 troops?.
week after the alleged incident, some of these questions still remain
unanswered, or at best ambiguously answered. And thereby hangs a
uncertainties and the many shades of grey involved in the descriptions
of and claims about the incident bear testimony to the fragility
of the India-Pakistan strategic balance, including their appallingly
poor level of communication with each other, the frightening opacity
that prevails as regards their military manoeuvres and intentions,
and the mutual suspicion and hostility that mark their responses
to each other.
these factors underscore the potential for an escalation of the
present India-Pakistan standoff to war, including nuclear war.
by a number of accounts, it seems plausible, but not certain, that
an incident occurred on August 23. According to the "Star News"
television channel, Indian soldiers crossed the LoC, probably in
retaliation for a Pakistan incursion; and the Hindustan Times’
"sources" admitted to "a heavy exchange of artillery
fire in Gultari-Drass-Mushkoh area". However, no one reported
casualties on the Indian side barring Qureishi.
to a Pakistani diplomat, who insists on anonymity, Indian troops
did try to take the Gultari post on August 22/23, but "failed"
despite the use of warplanes. The American have "irrefutable
evidence" that the incident occurred, he says.
this view is correct, then the Indian response to Qureishi’s allegations
was disingenuous. But Qureishi too had little compunction in embellishing
the incident, in particular claiming that 16 soldiers were killed
when none was.
there was indeed a significant incursion by the Indians, backed
by airstrikes, which failed to capture the Gultari post, could it
have been ordered without approval from the "higher authorities"
in New Delhi, as would only seem logical in the South Asian context?
Or have local commanders been given such extensive powers that they
can conduct such operations on their own?
first proposition raises disturbing questions about the rationale
and calculation behind launching the alleged attack in an extremely
tense situation. The second highlights the dangers of excessive
decentralisation of military command structures.
concerns are not imaginary. During the present military stand-off,
going back to December, there were two incidents in which local
commanders took extraordinarily high-risk decisions, which would
have all but precipitated a large-scale military engagement, with
a potential for escalation to full-scale war.
past January, Lt General Kapil Vij ordered his 2 Corps strike troops
into operations extremely close to the border. His moves were described
as "playing military poker" with the enemy. He was removed
from the Corps’ command.
in February, Air Marshal Vinod K. Bhatia unauthorisedly flew an
aircraft into Pakistani airspace. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft
artillery, and damaged. He could not give an internally consistent
account of his movements and was removed from his post. (If similar
incidents occurred in Pakistan, which is possible, they were not
reported in the media.)
could hypothesise a less likely scenario, in which there was no
border-crossing incident on August 23. Still, even this raises a
serious question about the Pakistani army’s willingness to "cry
wolf" and its intentions in doing so.
told "Star News" on August 23 that he had "evidence"
of India’s offensive operation and would soon present it. Later
in the day, it became apparent that the evidence would not be readily
available. Qureishi then promised to display the evidence "in
10-15 days". As of August 30, it has still not been released.
Indian officials have since added a new twist to the whole affair
by leaking to the media stories about an incident on July 29 in
which India recaptured a post. This post, codenamed 3610, overlooks
the Neelam valley. The post was occupied by the Pakistan Army "either
earlier in July, or as far back as May", when the snows melt
in the area, "without being detected by Indian troops."
The Indian recapture operation reportedly lasted till August 4 and
used Mirage-2000 planes to pound Pakistani positions and prevent
officials expect Pakistan to "parade" the "debris"
from this bomb attack as "evidence" of the August 23 incident.
reports also speak of the Baluch regiment of the Pakistani Army
still being in possession of a high "feature" near Kargil,
and of how it "may be directing artillery fire on Dras and
the arterial National Highway 1A." According to media reports:
"The location of the height, called Point 5353, is at the centre
of a dispute that has been freshly stoked after Pakistani allegations denied
by New Delhi during … Richard Armitage’s visit last week that India
had attempted a combined air and land assault in its vicinity."
Indian army claims its position in the sector is "militarily
sound" and "well under control". However, it has
not specified whether Point 5353 is "still under Pakistani
occupation… Point 5353 over which the Army’s statement has been
ambivalent was also subject to considerable confusion last year."
(The Hindu, Aug 28)
Indian Army, concluded The Hindu, has failed to "clear
the controversy over Point 5353. A senior defence ministry official
said: "the effort to revive the controversy appeared to be
motivated and would harm security interests".
kind of secrecy and dissembling is typical of the militaries of
South Asia. The opacity is aggravated by the fact that the media
cannot possibly have independent access to the remote, largely snow-bound,
Kargil region, when civilian movement is tightly restricted.
July 29 (according to one account, July 30) incident is only acknowledged
"unofficially" by the Indian Army despite its reported
"victory". It still seeks to downplay it, maintaining
that it was "just a patrol which had walked across". The
Indian Army’s refusal to part with and "use" information
has angered media supporters, who regret that on August 23 it futilely
"groped for a face to publicly contest Qureishi’s claim… All
that they could manage was a vapid, faceless press statement denying
journalist quotes a military intelligence officer: "This is
war an information war and India conceded a walkover."
Indian Army has been criticised for having been excessively "embarrassed"
by Pakistan’s capture of Point 5353 and having "kept the nation…
in the dark."
according to the Pakistani diplomat quoted earlier, there was "no
incident" on July 29/30. He says that the record of the weekly
exchanges between the Indian and Pakistani Directors-General of
Military Operations throughout July and early August is silent on
somebody is hiding something indeed, quite a lot. The fact that
such confusion could prevail for so long over a potentially escalatory
incident means that the two states lack communication channels to
each other and to the media. Absent transparency and mutual confidence,
a crisis could easily get out of hand with mind-boggling consequences.
the past, India and Pakistan have come close to war fighting out
of misperception or confusion over each other’s moves and intentions.
The most notorious crises occurred in 1986-87 and 1990. Although
documented in the media and by specialised institutions, they are
still not acknowledged by the two governments.
are also allegations of a nuclear weapons-centred crisis in 1993.
But these remain unexplored and unproved.
secrecy, leading to misperception, leading to adventurism, could
well precipitate the next India-Pakistan war. The longer their troops
remain ready to strike, and in such large numbers, the higher the
chances of a disaster.
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