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Lightning, thunderclouds and war scenario

Praveen Swami

NEW DELHI, May 25

"I SEE clear skies," the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said in Srinagar on Thursday, "I do not expect lightning to strike." It is widely known he wasn't ruminating about the weather. But the Prime Minister's choice of metaphor holds out not just the prospect of peace, but also clues to the potential timing of a future India-Pakistan war.

Confronted with intense international pressure to avoid sparking off a full-blown war, Indian military planners are considering strategies to ensure military engagement with Pakistan remains limited in time and space. Lightning and thunderclouds, as the Prime Minister perhaps inadvertently suggested, play a key role in the new military thinking.

Sources in the Army told Business Line that plans for limited monsoon-time air attacks on terrorist training camps in Pakistan are now being actively considered. The monsoon has traditionally been considered an impossible period to wage war in South Asia, because the movement of tanks and heavy artillery becomes near impossible. The number of days on which full-scale air warfare can take place is also restricted. These factors are, paradoxically, making the idea of a monsoon strike attractive to the Army's top brass.

Pakistan, Indian military thinking suggests, would seek to respond to any Indian attack by escalating both the scale and intensity of conflict as rapidly as possible. An Indian attack restricted to Pakistan-held Kashmir might, for example, be met with assaults toward Poonch, and into Punjab. Such an escalation would ensure a massive Indian response, which, in turn, would allow threats of nuclear retaliation to be held out by Pakistan.

Even if no actual nuclear exchange took place, international intervention in the India-Pakistan would become inevitable. This is an outcome Pakistan believes would work to its long-term interests in Jammu & Kashmir.

But by late July, the hundreds of small rivulets that cut across the international border in Jammu will have become treacherous rapids, and the tank-battle terrain of Punjab and Rajasthan will have turned into quagmire. Pakistan's options when faced with a small Indian attack would then be limited. Air or missile attacks by India, officials argue, would be countered only with similar, low-intensity responses.

Indian troops have, interestingly, been expanding minefields in Punjab and Jammu, a defensive tactic intended to block a Pakistan offensive. Several new units have also been deployed in offensive postures facing Pakistan-held Kashmir.

The Indian Air Force would have a key role if such a war scenario were to come about. Officials contacted by Business Line said they understood air strikes on training camps in Pakistan-held Kashmir would have limited military value. "We would be using bombs that cost tens of thousands of dollars to hit tents worth ten dollars at most," one senior officer argued, "but the hitting of those tents would not be the point of such attacks. The idea would be to raise the costs of backing terrorist groups for Pakistan. It would have to respond to our attacks, and we might both loose some aircraft or ground assets in the process. Pakistan will be less able to suffer and sustain those losses than India."

Several officials raised the issue of raising costs for Pakistan during the meeting of the Unified Headquarters that preceded the Prime Minister's Srinagar press conference. Both 15 Corps Commander General V.G. Patankar and 16 Corps Commander General J.B.S. Yadava are believed to have made clear that while the Army was prepared to wage a prolonged battle of attrition, decisive results in their counter-terrorist campaign could not be expected unless the support given to terrorist organisations by Pakistan ended.

Both officers also said the failure to respond to the Lashkar-e-Taiba killing soldiers' families in Kalu Chak had a severe impact on troop morale. Officials from both the Intelligence Bureau and Research & Analysis Wing, for their part, briefed the Prime Minister on recent escalations in both levels of terrorist violence and trans-border infiltration.

In the months before the monsoon, the Union Government hopes Western pressure on Pakistan will obtain the results it wants without a war. Army sources based in Jammu confirmed that the intensity of border fire had declined since May 24. Observers, however, point out that the US has had limited influence in shaping events this year. After the December 13 attack on Parliament, the US had given tacit consent to India's border build-up, hoping to use it as a tool to underpin their diplomatic activities in Pakistan.

Their bluff, as the Kalu Chak killings illustrate, was decisively called. "Another major provocation," points out a senior officer, "will most certainly provoke an Indian military response. We just cannot afford to let things continue in this way."

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has shown signs of responding to US prodding, promising to end terrorist activities in the part of Jammu & Kashmir that country controls.

At least some, however, believe he has little leverage of terrorist groups, who have the backing of the powerful Islamist formation in the Pakistan officer corps and intelligence services.

But if Gen Musharraf fails to find the means to ensure at least a significant de-escalation of terrorist activities, pressure on the Union Government to retaliate militarily could become unbearable. In that event, this monsoon might provide no respite from the scorching summer heat.

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