A Mysterious Attack Across the LoC

NB: 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.

Ten 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 for war.

The 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.

Pakistan 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.

India 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)".

This 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.

However, 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 killed?

Does 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?.

A week after the alleged incident, some of these questions still remain unanswered, or at best ambiguously answered. And thereby hangs a tale!

The 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.

All these factors underscore the potential for an escalation of the present India-Pakistan standoff to war, including nuclear war.

Going 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.

According 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.

If 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.

If 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?

The 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.

Such 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.

This 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.

And 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.)

One 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.

Qureishi 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.

However, 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 a "mini-Kargil".

Indian officials expect Pakistan to "parade" the "debris" from this bomb attack as "evidence" of the August 23 incident.

Other 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."

The 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)

The 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".

This 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.

The 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 the claim."

A journalist quotes a military intelligence officer: "This is war – an information war – and India conceded a walkover."

The 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."

However, 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 the issue!

Evidently, 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.

In 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.

There are also allegations of a nuclear weapons-centred crisis in 1993. But these remain unexplored and unproved.

Excessive 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.

Read more by Praful Bidwai

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau’s Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.