It was making a mountain out of a molehill. Both the (Indian) Army and the media were complicit in this: One deliberately and the other out of ignorance. The recent anti-infiltration operations in Keran sector which were declared over after two weeks on October 8 by the Chief of Army Staff, General Bikram Singh, in Delhi and the Northern Army Commander, Lt General Sanjiv Chachra, in Srinagar were nothing more than a molehill.
Given such high-profile Army visitations, the media also decided to up the ante by searching for ghosts that did not exist. Did Pakistani soldiers intrude and occupy Indian posts across the Line of Control? Was another Kargil being replayed in Keran? Was the Indian Air Force using gunships to dislodge terrorists? Were recent talks between Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif in New York, which sought meetings between the two Directors-General of Military Operations, up in smoke? An English television channel even showed meeting with injured soldiers in Srinagar hospital as ‘exclusive’ news.
For the Indian Army, which has been battling Pakistani Army-backed infiltration since 1990, and is conversant with the LoC topography, the narration of events was, to say the least, bizarre. It started with the Srinagar-base 15 Corps Commander, Lt General Gurmeet Singh, holding a Press conference to announce that 40 to 50 heavily-armed infiltrators had entered the Keran sector, and deliberate operations to defeat them had been launched. Was it a coincidence that this was done the day terrorists succeeded in infiltrating the 16 Cavalry unit in Jammu and decimating its command? Next, the Army Commander himself took charge of informing the media about the progress of anti-infiltration operations. It was repeatedly said that the Indian Army was in full control even as sparse infiltration from near areas had begun.
Not once during the entire operation, the media heard or met the two commanders directly responsible for the action: The Brigade Commander of Keran sector and his boss, General Officer Commanding, 28 Division. These are the officers who would have got their marching orders if indeed the Pakistani Army had shown extraordinary audacity. To appreciate what actually happened, it is necessary to understand the area of operations.
15 Corps, covering a frontage of 450km, which is more than half the LoC, has two divisions — 19 and 28. The 28 Infantry Division, which is the largest division of Northern Command, is responsible for four sensitive sectors along the LoC, namely, Tangdhar, Keran, Machhal and Gurez. Since the 2003 ceasefire, these sectors, at higher altitudes, have emerged as established infiltration routes. During winter months, when snow in these sectors is between 20 and 25 feet deep, the fence on the LoC gets washed away.
To overcome this drawback, most of the stretch in 28 Division has a twin-fence, one behind the other to cater for regular and intense infiltration along the deep ravines here. In simple terms, while 19 Division is crucial for operations during war, 28 Division is important for counter-infiltration. Thus, the recent Keran operations should have been left to 28 Division commanders away from media glare until operations had got over.
What should concern 15 Corps and the Northern Army Commanders are two major Pakistani objectives in 28 Division area: Lipa valley and Bugina bulge in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (a term India uses for Pakistan-administered Kashmir). Lipa valley is surrounded by four mountain ranges: The Shamsabari, the Kafir Khan, the Kasinag and the Chota Kasinag. The most important is the Shamsabari range which India dominates. If Pakistan manages to get a foothold on this range, it would then be looking into the Valley from the top. This would help Pakistan to provide better support to infiltration from this area. Moreover, if Pakistan obtains a firm lodgment on the Shamsabari range, its troops could easily roll down into the valley at a time of its own choosing in war.
Given the importance of the heights on the Shamsabari range, if Pakistan indeed would have intruded here and occupied heights, as has been alleged, the Indian Army would not have hesitated to open artillery guns in direct firing mode. Pakistani posts here have air defense guns, and India has 75/24 and 105mm guns to hit posts separated by three to eight kilometers. The opening of Indian artillery would have been the definitive indicator of a Kargil-type operation by the Pakistani Army. This would have been the end of the 2003 ceasefire, something that the Pakistan Army did not want for fear of alienating Kashmiris.
Similarly, Bugina is an attractive objective for the Indian Army and is less difficult to capture than the Lipa valley. If the two Pakistani Battalion positions which overlook Bugina can be captured, India will have visibility beyond the formidable Kafir Khan range to threaten Pakistan’s Neelam-Jhelum valley hydro-power project built with Chinese help.
Unfortunately, instead of thinking aggressively at higher command levels, as Pakistan does, Indian troops in 28 Division have yet to overcome two serious operational shortcomings which impede their tactical tasks. First, Pakistani troops have far better night- vision and surveillance devices. They have Chinese-origin surveillance devices which get replaced and upgraded regularly. India procured surveillance equipment after the 2002 Operation Parakram mostly from Israel. These are now over a decade old and need replacement. Unfortunately, these were bought without adequate product support, and if it were not for the Army’s improvisations, it would have been impossible to stretch its battery lives for so long.
Second, Indian troops are rankled by the comparative state of defenses in this area. After the 2005 earthquake, Pakistan gave special attention to building good forward defenses, called the Steel Permanent Defense, all of which are connected by communication trenches. Given the accurate and long-range surveillance equipment, and lethal weapons available with both sides, the communication trenches will enable uninhibited troops movement between defenses. The Indian side lacks good communication trenches, and has a mix of SPD and concrete trenches which will get blasted by direct gun fire from Pakistan.
Given the ground realities, three things are evident: First, senior-most Army officers sidestepped their chain of command and interfered in tactical operation. Second, they managed to hoodwink the media away from the real issue of the demolition of 16 Cavalry unit command, not in war, but by a terrorist attack. And third, without much clue about the truth, the media raised the pitch for the DGMOs’ meet to be put on the back-burner. To do so would be a mistake. India needs to talk both with Pakistan’s Government and the Army to find a resolution to the Kashmir issue.
(The writer is a former Indian Army officer and now Editor, FORCE, a newsmagazine on national security)
This article first appeared in The Pioneer, a leading Indian newspaper. Click here to go to the original.
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