Author : Deepak Sinha

Originally Published 2019-03-06 09:37:03 Published on Mar 06, 2019
Reaping the whirlwind: Pulwama and Doklam

Despite the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistani custody as a good will gesture, obviously under intense International pressure, the Government seems ambivalent about de-escalation continuing to insist that it remains focused on the issue of Pakistani sponsored terrorism. Then there is the fact that cross border firing across the LOC has only intensified over time. Yet, there is no denying the fact that Abhinandan’s capture allowed Pakistan to change the narrative and push for de-escalation, something that suits the international community as well, as direct confrontation between two nuclear armed states is a recipe for disaster.

While the continuing tension may well help the BJP politically in the coming elections, especially given the competent manner in which the response to the Pulwama attack was orchestrated. It still remains a high risk option, if hostilities were to break out and body bags started coming in. In such circumstances the Government would do well to de-escalate, if it wants to retain the kind of diplomatic support it has been able to generate over the past two weeks. Moreover, at the end of the day, to be realistic, given that our military capabilities are severely constrained, it will be the effectiveness of our diplomatic efforts to isolate and the economic squeeze we can bring to bear that will force Pakistan to abandon their weapon of choice.

Inspite of the fact that some international media agencies have been critical as to the efficacy of the attacks, the Government, for reasons we are unaware of, has yet to put credible evidence in public domain. Doing so would certainly enhance its credibility, especially if rumours suggesting that Masood Azhar has been killed are true. However we should not forget that it is this same media that made a hue and cry over Saddam Hussein’s non- existent WMD programme leading to the Second Gulf War and instability in the Middle East. It is also worth emphasizing that even if the raids were not as effective as we may have thought them to be, may be due to faulty intelligence as some have suggested, nobody, including the Pakistani establishment, doubts that twelve aircraft penetrated deep into Pakistan air space, approximately 100 Kms from Rawalpindi, on an offensive mission to strike against terrorist targets without being detected, let alone intercepted. While this speaks highly of our planning capacity and the skill of our pilots, it would be true to say our capacity to carry out such attacks is fairly limited given the acute shortage of modern aircraft available. On the other hand it does certainly show the PAF in poor light.

Off course, there is also the issue of domestic response. For one, opposition politicians like Derek O’Brien and Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, are casting aspersions on the raid, using reports in the international media. As a matter of fact they are no different from the likes of Mr. Yedyurappa and some others in the ruling coalition, desperately attempting to use the raids to garner political advantage. Fundamentally, despite what they may publicly state, politicians neither trust the military leadership nor treat them with anything other than fearful contempt. For them it is difficult to comprehend that there are people who are not solely guided by purely personal motives. Military leaders do not put their men at undue risk and most certainly do not demand the ultimate sacrifice for cheap and selfish political ends.

Then we have liberal civil society, led by the likes of activist Arundhati Roy, who have made no secret of their vehemently opposition to the ideology that Mr. Modi represents, and seem to be willing to go to any length, even compromise national interest, to ensure peace with Pakistan at any cost. To them the sacrifices made by soldiers mean little because, just like politicians, they see soldiers as mere mercenaries and paid retainers. They have yet to realize that the Pakistani deep state cares little for peace and has only one aim, to avenge the humiliation of 1971 by bringing India to its knees.

Leaving ideology and politics aside, this operation has also brought back the focus on the manner in which the Pakistan Army has been intimately involved with terror groups for decades. It has used them to conduct proxy war, not just against India, but also Afghanistan, Iran and even further afield. No amount of spin can change that fact. Thus, by its bold response, the Government has shown its clear intent to actively pursue terrorists, even if they are being protected by the Pakistani state, regardless of consequences. Thus, there is the very real likelihood that in the coming summer months when the Pakistan Army moves Jihadis to their mounting bases close to the LOC we may attempt to disrupt their efforts by launching cross-border preemptive attacks. While we may hope to impose extreme caution on the Pakistan Army, that may just turn out to be wishful thinking. This is because over decades we have been regularly shooting ourselves in the foot by deliberately allowing our military capability to deteriorate.

In December 2017, for example, the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, Major General BC Khanduri, former Chief Minister of Uttar Khand and respected elder statesman of the BJP, placed before Parliament the Committees’ 36th Report on action taken by the Government on observations and recommendations made by the Committee earlier. Broadly speaking, in this no holds barred report, the Committee had pointed to the pathetic state that our Armed Forces were in and the lack of substantive measures to rectify the situation. It emphasized that not only was the military desperately short of manpower, especially within the officer cadre, but was also gravely impacted by the poor state of its weaponry and equipment, 75% of which fell in the vintage/obsolete category. It was also afflicted with an acute shortage of ammunition and did not have sufficient reserves to fight for over ten days. Furthermore, no attempt had been made to implement critical reforms in the higher defence management, crucially with regard to the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff, already approved by the Cabinet nearly two decades ago.

Most devastating of all, was the Committee’s comments on the impact of insufficient budgetary allocations, the lowest in decades, that had all but reduced modernization efforts to a farce. The Committee had gone on to suggest the necessity for raising the defence budget to 3% of GDP, double its present levels, if the three Services were to halt and recover from their rapid deterioration in defence capabilities suffered over the past decade and a half. Disinterest and lack of will on the part of the political establishment, aided and abetted by a bureaucracy bent on stymieing all attempts at reform and integration because of its own blatant grab for power and one-upmanship. The resulting breakdown in civil-military relations, degradation in service conditions, demeaning of ranks and creeping politicization at the highest levels, along with the contemptuous treatment of military veterans, had clearly impacted discipline and morale within the rank and file.

While it is ironical that Modi is today blaming the previous government for delaying the Rafale contract by four years, his actions have been no different than that of the previous leadership. As a matter of fact, in September 2018, he went one better and did exactly what most small-minded, egoistical and vindictive leaders tend to do when confronted with unpalatable news that shows them in poor light; he, euphemistically speaking, shot the messenger! In an unprecedented move, he peremptorily sacked General BC Khanduri from the Chairpersonship of the Standing Committee for the superlative work done on focusing the spotlight on the abject state of the military.

Now, less than five months later, the Prime Minister finds himself confronted with the twin- headed monsters of Chinese adventurism at Doklam and Pakistani revanchism in Kashmir, with elections just around the corner. While we may still be able to deal with the situation confronting us with regard to Pakistan’s involvement in Jammu and Kashmir, what is of far more concern is the lack of clarity with regard to the resurgence of Chinese activity in the Doklam Sector. There are credible reports that the PLA has now constructed a road across the Doklam Plateau up to the river at the base of the Jhamperi Ridge that falls within territory under dispute with Bhutan. Notwithstanding the fact that this may purely be a defensive measure to improve his tactical environment in the Chumbi Valley, it clearly crosses one of our red lines.

Even limited occupation of the Jhamperi Ridge provides the PLA with the capability to interdict the strategic Siliguri Corridor, and if they so desire, interfere within Bhutan. Yet just as Bhutan has not responded publicly to the PLA incursion into its own territory, nor have we. Obviously, Modi’s attempt to woo President Xi at the Wuhan Summit to avoid just such a situation prior to the elections has not paid off. Modi’s actions are clearly reminiscent of the manner in which Nehru deliberately denied Parliament and the general public information available to his government of Chinese road construction activity within our territory in the Aksai Chin Region in the early Fifties. It would be worth recalling that once this information was out in the public domain Nehru was forced to respond aggressively in order to protect his reputation and Prime Ministership. This ultimately was not an insignificant factor that led to the ill-fated confrontation of 1962. One hopes Modi does not place us in a similar situation in order to protect his own skin.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Deepak Sinha

Deepak Sinha

Brig. Deepak Sinha (Retd.) was Visiting Fellow at ORF. Brig. Sinha is a second-generation paratrooper. During his service, he held varied command, staff and instructional appointments, ...

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