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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

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An ambush loaded with meaning

The assault at the Line of Control appears to be a well-planned ambush. It comes at a time when India and Pakistan are tentatively inching closer. It is a message not only to India but also to the Pakistani civilians keen on better relations with India, writes Firdaus Ahmed. 

13 August 2013 - The Border Action Team of the Pakistan Army's Mujahid Battalion deployed across Indian defences on the Line of Control probably picked the time to strike quite tactically. News reports suggest that the casualties were soldiers from the Bihar and Maratha Light Infantry regiments. Usually such a mix of troops is seen only when one battalion is handing over defences to another, prior to leaving for its next place of posting. At such junctures, troops are most vulnerable since the new ones do not know the terrain and procedures, and the old ones are looking forward to some well earned rest. Also, in such a situation, the two units do not know each other well enough to mount a cohesive counter.
The forces opposite can discern such change-overs from preceding activity, and use the opportunity for an ambush. Therefore, it is not so much Pakistani prowess but Indian vulnerability that resulted in the tragic loss of lives.


Contrary to the now popular position, the ambush was a precise one carried out, as successful ambushes usually are on the LoC, by a few well-prepared members of a cohesive ambush party. Their cohesion in action implies they were of one body of troops and not an assortment as we are now being led to believe.
They could well have been Pakistani special forces, but then they would not need to number up to 20. Therefore, the two 'facts' put in the public domain by the army are contradictory, calling into question the credibility of its reporting. The ambush appears a typical one on the LoC, and part of the series of tit-for-tat exchanges that have been going on since last year, including the beheading incident of January. Therefore, for the government to have initially wanted to continue on its path of resetting relations with Pakistan was entirely plausible. However, the manner in which it has been deflected from this intent suggests that the ambush has had a consequential strategic impact.
The ambush comes at a time when India and Pakistan are tentatively inching closer. Nawaz Sharif had became the first third-time prime minister in Pakistan after its first democratic change-over. He has been associated with bids to rein in the military in his earlier terms; the last such attempt leading to his displacement by Musharraf in a military coup. With Musharraf currently behind bars, it seemed a portentous moment for India to rework its Pakistan strategy.

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The last time Nawaz Sharif attempted to reach out by inviting Vajpayee to Lahore, the Pakistani army spiked the initiative by its Kargil intrusion. This time round they appear to be sensitising Sharif once again to going slow on relations with India.
Alongside, the message to India is that the mending of relations cannot be India's way, in which the Kashmir issue is sidelined in favour of other more promising issues as economic opening up. Perhaps more important and urgent for the Pakistani military is the timing of the ambush to coincide with the Taliban's attack on India's Jalalabad Consulate. The message is that India must let up on any veto over Pakistan's Taliban-mediated ambitions in Afghanistan once the US departs in 2014.
India is aware that such a reversion is possible in Kashmir. The recent interception and killing of 19 infiltrators in Kashmir signifies the upswing in attempts by 80 per cent over last year. It continues to hold Kashmir in the grip of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, despite periodic assertions against it by the chief minister in Srinagar. That this keeps Kashmiri resentment simmering is evident from the spontaneous challenge to the highhandedness of a BSF search party in Gool that resulted in killings of six civilians.
India is in a 'wait and watch' mode in the geopolitical theatre, waiting for the 2014 denouement in Afghanistan to play out. While refusing to arm Karzai, India is attempting to strengthen the Afghan National Army that is to take on the expected Taliban onslaught once the American's draw down.
Politically, the opposition has come into high gear to roundly sound off the government on its Pakistan policy. Since its champion prefers a 'strong man' image, strained relations with Pakistan would serve the opposition's campaign better in order to present its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, as the appropriate choice. The government, aware of the nuisance value of these lobbies and unwilling to hand over yet another election year stick to the opposition to beat it with, has promptly revised its intent to proceed further on the Pakistan front. Its interlocutor, Nawaz Sharif, is also ambiguously positioned since his support base in Pakistan comprises assorted fundamentalists who he cannot take on, leave alone tame.
India's decision to wait out Sharif's lame duck predecessor is proving costly. While waiting for the polls in Pakistan to throw up a new leadership, the Indian government has run out of time for reshaping relations with Pakistan, since it is itself looking at polls in less than a year's time.
The call for an early resumption of meaningful engagement between the two states by the co-chairs of the India-Pakistan Track II Chaophraya dialogue, Sherry Rehman and Amitabh Mattoo, in their joint article in The Hindu, "Seizing the Opportunity" (see this link, appears premature. While it may be worth doing, expecting this government to run the gauntlet, beset as it is on multiple fronts commanding more immediacy such as Telangana, is wishful. The best the government can do under the circumstances is to ensure that the status quo does not degenerate further, either with Pakistan over Afghanistan or in Kashmir. In this it is unlikely to find its own institutions, including the army, any more helpful than the Pakistanis.
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The LoC incident calls for self-regulation by the army
By Firdaus Ahmed
The divergence between the press release of the defence ministry and the defence minister's statement in parliament has hogged headlines and primetime. The contretemps owes to the government in its wisdom, and perhaps rightly so, privileging the opening up to Pakistan's newly elected Nawaz Sharif dispensation over the tactical details of the incident. The army for its part appeared more intent on getting the message implicating the Pakistani army across. 

It cannot be certain that there was active involvement of the Pakistani army as the press release of the defence ministry's PRO in Udhampur, now rescinded, would have us believe. A 20 man strong ambush in an area reportedly on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC), even if across the fence, is difficult to digest in light of the army's own publicity to its surveillance measures in place over the past decade. It is not impossible therefore that the ambush was carried out by a smaller party, as would plausibly be the case. 

Attributing the ambush to an ambush party numbering about a score owes perhaps to the army's embarrassment at being caught off guard and to explain away the high loss of lives. It is to compound the embarrassment to admit to terrorists getting the better of the army. It would be better from the military's institutional point of view instead to highlight the Pakistani army as an active participant rather than in a supportive role. 

It is also debatable whether the Pakistani army was directly involved. The army does not need to participate since it has its proven proxies to do the damage. It is also not interested in seeing a breakdown in the ceasefire, since it would put the army directly in the sights of the Indian army. The Indian army rightly prefers to have Pakistan's army directly pay a price for its proxy war. In case the Pakistani army involves itself directly, then it would lay itself open to retribution by Indian army - a circumstance it would prefer to avoid by having its proxies bear the burden instead. 

Without a doubt, there would be active connivance of the Pakistani army with it, if not active participation. The tit-for-tat at the LoC has been now on for some time if the incidents stretching back to the January beheadings are included. Armies typically, as the army chief reminded us on the last occasion are expected to be 'aggressive'. They also prefer the time and place of their own choosing to respond. This means that the latest LoC incident cannot be taken in isolation but must be seen as part of a series. Given that mutilation has figured earlier; the stronger possibility now of the direct involvement of the Pakistani army; and the numbers of dead in the incident increasing as of this time round, there appears an escalation on the LoC. 

In the event, the details of the incident and their veracity have proven political capital for the opposition. This owes to the political implications of the incident that are arguably the more significant. As rightly editorialised elsewhere, there are powerful political and institutional forces on both sides. A pattern has emerged in which such forces sabotage any possibility of warming of relations. It can easily be reckoned that the Pakistani army, standing to lose most from such a warming of relations, would be opposed to it and such incidents are a handiwork of that army. That certain forces in India too stand to lose in case of change is also well known. These can therefore be expected to take advantage of Pakistani army chicanery and lay the blame for the continuing of frayed relations on that army. The question raised here is not whether such forces have a constituency within the Indian army - which is patently not the case - but the utility of the army's position for political forces in India in the run up to national elections. 

The readiness of the army for identification of the Pakistani army as participant-perpetrator of the latest outrage on the LoC, thereby putting it at variance with the statement of its minister in parliament suggests more than just bureaucratic bungling. This time round instead of its traditional secrecy on identifications of units and access to the units in question on the LoC of the media, the army has instead behaved differently. It has not only given out the unit identifications, but also permitted the visual media access to posts on LoC for the media to do its rabble rousing bit. Taken along with the opposition tirade, this not only heightens the aspect of government incompetence but brings into question the government's recent policy tack reaching out to Pakistan. 

What emerges is that the army is a player in the bureaucratic game of influencing policy. Widely perceived by analysts and its own self-perception that it is not part of the proverbial 'policy loop', it is possibly exerting overtime to record its position on the issue in question. That in the process it is resorting to indirect means of pressuring the government makes it less than professional, and makes it, in this instance, certainly fall far short of its own yardstick of professionalism. No doubt, there is a case for including the army position in policy deliberations and there is a strong case for having its apex officials on all such bodies. Nevertheless, resort by the army to such measures is less than 'kosher'. 

The problem is in the fallout of such professional shortfalls, having origin in structural deformities in the Indian security establishment, on the 'Kashmir issue'. The army using the media adroitly for voicing its reservations on policy matters ends up exercising a 'veto'. Kashmir is no stranger to this in the internal security policy domain where the vexed question of AFSPA continues unchanged under what is widely perceived in Kashmir, and not least by its chief minister, an army veto. If the apprehension here of extension of the army's policy space to restrict government foreign policy initiatives holds any water, then some cautionary measures are called for.

Firstly, the army's case for inclusion in policy deliberations, that has wide backing in the strategic community, must be taken on board. The game by bureaucrats that keeps it out is apparently having a higher price than the nation can afford in terms of unintended fallout, such as in Kashmir. Secondly, there has to be a rap on the knuckles in this case. The army, using the cover of transparency, has served the media hysteria. In this it has flirted with the role of a political player. Leaving this unattended would lead to emergence of a marriage of convenience between the political opposition with elections in its sights and the army over a policy question of levels of proximity with Pakistan. This has to be nipped in the bud by the ministry, lest it resurface over the remainder of the election year. 

Lastly, the army could well do some soul searching. It is hardly likely that its minister charged with also untangling the Congress' Telangana knot, can also supervise it effectively. If the bureaucrats were to attempt to do so, it is more likely than not that the army will take umbrage that this is an instance of 'bureaucratic' as against 'political' control. Therefore, the army leadership has to be more circumspect. It is not politically savvy enough to know how information it lets out and its position will be manipulated by political forces in India advantaged by adverse relations with Pakistan. It needs to reappraise its apolitical credentials to ensure it remains equivalent of Caesar's wife. 

(The author writes at