Monday 25 December 2023

 Martyrdom in Bafliaz 20 years ago……. and now - Kashmir Times: Oldest English NewsPaper Jammu, Leading Newspaper Jammu Kashmir, Latest News about Jammu & Kashmir

Martyrdom in the Sauni Cauldron

Amit Sharma was always the life of the party. His sense of timing was so perfect that any gathering in the officers’ mess was continually in splits. Such gatherings much needed his tonic since the days battling terrorists in the Bafliaz bowl in Surankote were grim.

When on the tracks of terrorists Amit was to the fore. Even if not nominated as the lead, he’d nevertheless be present in the radio conversation on what to do and what to avoid doing when trapping the quarry, the terrorist in his den in the Behramgala-Poshana belt.

His nature to step up and deliver as the occasion demanded led to his leading his team into a gun fight at exactly the same set of hair-pin bends at which the terrorists struck only late last week. This was exactly 20 years back.

I was leading an operation in which Amit was participating. We were to clean up Chamrer bowl, immediately to the west of the Sauni jungles through which passes the ill-fated Dera ki Gali-Bafliaz road.

As we trudged up through the pines, my team was ambushed. We barely made it out of the killing ground, but in the process lost touch with the rest. The commanding officer – coincidentally also named Amit - rushed up from the base, while Amit held fort.

Even as the terrorists made a dash out of the cordon thrown together in quick time by the two Amits, who in fleeing downed one from the CO’s party, Amit was hot on their trail. Little did he realise that the terrorists had left a stay-behind man in their wake. This terrorist accounted for Amit’s scouts before Amit leveled him. Amit was awarded a posthumous Sena Medal.

When twenty years later another set of good men die at the very same spot in the Sauni jungles, it is worth asking if the sacrifice of the five of 12 March 2004, including that of Amit, was at all worth it.

By when Amit departed, the ceasefire had come into play along the Line of Control and Vajpayee had signed on the Islamabad Declaration with Musharraf, that had potential to reset India-Pakistan adversarial relations.

Some have it that had Vajpayee stayed on, then he’d have seen his Lahore initiative to its logical conclusion. This counter factual ignores that his next try at rapprochement, the Agra initiative, was spiked by Advani, who’d have taken charge if India was indeed ‘shining’ back then.   

Manmohan Singh, who took charge, flattered to please. He was more fixated in fixing relations with the United States, even staking his government’s fate in parliament on it, rather than mending fences with neighbours. He got a perfect excuse in the Mumbai terror attack to stall on the composite dialogue, making a typically hesitant outreach in his lame duck second term.

To be fair, he was outflanked by the right-wing that had by then gained a messiah, provincial stalwart Narendra Modi. The manufacture of the Hindu Hriday Samrat was a campaign with intelligence fingerprints all over it, having as it did both propaganda by deed (black operations passed off as terrorism to implicate Muslims) and propaganda plain and simple (that Hinduism needs saving by its messiah) as its thrust lines.

Coming in with a strong-man image – especially one when contrasted with the much-maligned Manmohan Singh – Modi fell victim to his own propaganda. Believing that he had Pakistan suitably over-whelmed by his own image, he invited Nawaz Sharif over for his swearing in – quite as having satraps over at a crowning.

This - a second opportunity – was stymied soon enough over an insignificant invite to tea at the Pakistan high commission of Kashmiri separatists. Hoping to revive the opportunity, Modi over-extended his embrace of Sharif by turning up at the latter’s doorstep. The Pakistani establishment lost no time in showing Sharif – compromised by the visit - the door.

A third opportunity was after the Chinese came knocking in Ladakh, triggered by Amit Shah’s taunt in parliament that he’d wrest Aksai Chin back, as he would Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. India hastily revived the ceasefire on the Line of Control. The ceasefire had fallen to bad days after spells of shelling across it had started in earnest after Modi took over, it being a safe place to show off his 56” chest. 

Two raids had taken place across it, one by land and one aerial, both boosted to ‘surgical strike’ status by supplicant strategists and a pliant media. Fictional results were ascribed to both, allowing Narendra Modi to inveigle his way into the imagination of nationalism-deluded India for a second time.

With the Chinese dragon posturing on the Line of Actual Control, it made sense to have the other front -against Pakistan - dormant. This enabled India to switch forces over to the China border, including from the Pir Panjal, from which one Rashtriya Rifles division-equivalent Force rushed up to high altitude.

Not having read Naravane’s forthcoming book one does not know if he bought into the line that the voiding of Article 370 had somehow solved the Kashmir issue; thereby enabling the thinning out along the mountain fastnesses. Clearly, Amit Shah’s rationale of his action - ending terror and separatism – is yet another big lie of the Modi regime.  

The reiteration of the ceasefire bought India time, with Pakistan – itself plumbing economic and political depths – playing along, pretending to believe Indian promises on elections in and a revert to statehood of Kashmir.

Logically, India could have used the asymmetry to buy off Pakistan with hollow and false promises. But the regime that believes Pakistan is but a push away from failed state status and India itself is but one step from super-powerdom hasn’t been able to follow through on the promise of the ‘secret’ talks between the national security establishments of the two sides.    

Though seemingly master of all he surveys, Modi thinks he still needs the prop of Muslim bashing to keep his flock together.  Kashmir, Pakistan and India’s Muslims – in one breath – are therefore to be kept alive for use to extend his stay in power and the sway of right-wing ideology.

It can only come at a price well-regarded by now as a price paid by India’s institutions, including  the Army.

In a forested tract which we in our time there only traversed on foot, these days the army has been driving past hair-pin bends, though they’ve lost five each at precisely the same location twice over: not only 20 years back but also merely two years ago. But that is a benign symptom, amenable to tactical broth.

Not so the allegation – if true – that subsequent to the latest ambush, the army picked up some civilians and tortured three to death. While ostensibly victims of an over enthusiastic bid to extract information on terrorist movements, impunity in Modi’s India being such (recall the Amshipora murderer officer, the Machil and Pathribal false encounter perpetrators being let off) it could well be a reprisal. The memory of the deceased soldiers on the Dera ki Gali-Bafliaz stretch has been defiled by the army nursing cowards in its ranks.

It’s the price the military is paying for being complicit in extending Modi’s tenure in power, by inflating his image reliant on arguably false claims of military feats (giving China a bloody nose at Doklam and Ladakh), by succumbing to institutional defenestration (Agnipath) and parroting regime (the Naval chief’s words at Navy Day). Evidently, Amit Sharma’s sacrifice has been in vain.

Well after Amit attained martyrdom, the course get-together of the sixth course of the Joint Services Wing (present-day National Defence Academy) witnessed two retired veterans exchanging notes. My father attending the event learnt a course-mate had lost a son, Amit Sharma.

The least the surviving son, I, can do for the memory of the one who didn’t, Amit, is to shout out loud that the situation that allows for continuing hemorrhaging of good men must be stanched.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Expanding India's peacekeeping footprint

Peacekeeping is not the primary job of a military, but only the military can do it. It is no wonder peacekeeping is yet another feather in the Indian military’s beret. In the Army’s holding high the flag, it has contributed to the image of India, for long a leading Troop Contributing Country (TCC).

However, in light of India being a Rising Power, is there a case for upping its participation in the UN’s peacekeeping agenda, particularly in light of a ‘New Agenda for Peace’? What might be the contours of such a step up on India’s part?

Here I take up two ideas on how India can up its act. The first is through leveraging its forte, military professionalism, with a turn to ‘robust peacekeeping’ without the usual caveats. Second is in imagining peace interventions for crafting of innovative UN politico-military action, exercising India’s military forte.

Peacekeeping today

Today, UN peacekeeping is at a plateau. Military-strategic developments stemming from the global geopolitical flux have naturally impacted UN peacekeeping. For its part, the UN has responded with a shift towards a ‘political first’ conflict resolution strategy. The place of UN peacekeeping in conflict resolution is supportive and enabling.

The stand-off in the UN Security Council has led to no peacekeeping missions being authorized lately, while peacekeeping missions underway are facing calls for drawdown and exit. The Council appears to be leaning on Special Political Missions, under the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, for mediated solutions, rather than relying on boots on ground overseen by the Department of Peace Operations.

This is a departure from the post-Cold War practice in which a multidimensional peacekeeping arrangement, with an intrinsic military component, was usually inserted into conflict zones. The reduced scope for peacekeeping deployment opens possibilities of thinking on how to make peacekeepers pertinent in the extant milieu.

Peacekeeping can be visualized as a triangle with its three vertices depicting respectively peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Peacekeeping deployment was to provide a modicum of stability on the ground for early peacebuilding to progress, even as a negotiated agreement is arrived at through peacemaking initiatives. The assumption is that peacekeeper presence would instill confidence in the conflict parties on the peacemaking table, while enabling the international community fulfill an obligation of protection of civilians (POC) through provisioning security and early recovery.

This is a necessarily time-consuming approach. It exposes the peacekeeping operation to vagaries of the ground situation, including resumption of violence and tenacity of spoilers. Besides endangering personnel security, the mission mandate of POC gets impacted.

Robust Peacekeeping has been visualized as answer. This involves the UN military component in applying military force below the strategic consent threshold. Even so, there is a reasonable reluctance among some TCCs to take up ‘stabilization’ and extension of state authority tasks that involve ‘robust peacekeeping’ or the taming of armed groups through application of military force. On their part, TCCs have been skeptical of the political heft behind peacemaking, wanting more to be done politically so that the military is left only with deterring spoilers rather than taking them out militarily.

Fluid security situations have led to the external military forces, from the regional bloc or from their strategic partners, being inducted into mission areas. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the UN stabilization mission there turned to a Force Intervention Brigade in the 2010s and, lately, to a regional force of the East African Community. Likewise in the UN mission in South Sudan, a regional intervention force was envisaged in the revitalized peace agreement to support the return of peace.

Capable of offensive action, these forces are to whittle recalcitrant armed groups. Their action sometimes increases threat to deployed peacekeepers, with the violent actors unable to make out a distinction between the UN and the supportive forces. For instance, in Mali, successive French military operations, Operations Serval and Berkhane, till recently, operated along-side the Mission there; inadvertently increasing the risk to the deployed peacekeepers, making the Mali mission tote up the highest casualty figures.

The UN has responded with a heightened thrust on force protection by implementing recommendations in the report of General Santos Cruz, and shifting to the hitherto-taboo topic of operationalisation of the intelligence cycle. Not only are Mission Headquarters more dynamic but leaders better selected and trained. Missions have energized information analysis and sharing. Contingent equipping and training are priority.

Such improvements can potentially engender a greater ability and willingness to take on a combat role on part of peacekeepers – when warranted and in line with mission mandate. Reservations on robust peacekeeping could – and should - be selectively and progressively shed.

A turn to robust peacekeeping

India could consider a taking to robust peacekeeping with a greater sense of ownership. It would strengthen the UN’s hand in stabilization tasks. This is not advocacy of default use of force, as much as a configuration of force and willingness to use force. While such posture serves to deter, resort to military force must remain the last resort.

An ability to negotiate with the conflict parties and recalcitrant armed groups at the tactical level must be intrinsic with such a force. While the mission’s political and civil affairs resources are available, contingents must also have an ability to negotiate its way through hotspots. This presupposes knowledge of the human terrain and a felicity with the local language. Contingents would require to be duly equipped in requisite soft skills, for which specialized training could be imparted prior.

From their counter insurgency spells of duty, Indian military contingents are familiar with conflict environments and are well-versed in fraternization and community interaction. Indian contingents are in a position materially and morally to take to combat, though after due exercise of outreach that prevents such resort in first place. Needless to add, proportionality and discrimination must inform all military action. This is of a piece with the contribution of the Indian brigade in DRC, where it has resorted to tactical level action against rebels, including through heliborne operations.

Since robust action potentially puts troops in harm’s way, India must lobby for staff representation in the intelligence and operations branches of Force Headquarters, besides a fair share of leadership positions. Its battalion groups must have a balance of enablers, as Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance subunits, such as drones, besides potent firepower assets as attack helicopters. Alongside, it must have language and culture specialists, enrolled through the Short Service commission and Agnipath scheme.

Innovating Preventive Deployment

As behooves an aspirant member of the Security Council, India must contribute ideationally to expand the scope of UN’s relevance in the emerging world. It could do this by backing opportunities for showcasing its military prowess in the interests of the international community. For now, India’s bilateral and multilateral participation in military exercises with strategic partners and regional organisations is commendable. It must enlarge this to increasing the ambit of peacekeeping in terms of preventive deployment.

The UN has been emphasizing conflict prevention for decades now. Conflict prevention-related peacemaking – preventive diplomacy - could use the muscle of preventive deployment to enhance its efficacy prior to, at the cusp of and on the outbreak of conflict.

India could place such capability at the disposal of the UN, either stand-alone or jointly with like-minded member states. Hypothetical illustrations of the scope of the innovation are in order.

Take, for instance, the circumstance that obtained a decade ago, when Gaddafi’s forces were threatening genocide in Benghazi. The standoff led to intervention of the Western powers, and the rest is history. If a UN member state had made standby forces available for speedy deployment at Benghazi in a preventive mode, history might have been different. India was then at the horse-shoe table and could have inserted the option in Security Council deliberations directly, timely.

Take the circumstance preceding the Ukraine War. It was known for almost a month prior that the war would likely break out after the Winter Olympics. If a set of member states close to both sides were to have proactively offere a preventive deployment force, it is plausible that the Russo-Ukraine War could have been prevented. This could also have also been made available at a later juncture when the two sides proceeded with a few rounds of talks in the early period of the conflict. India was yet again in the Security Council during the period, allowing it a greater voice, enough to drum up a coalition of like-minded countries for a preventive deployment.

Another counter-factual illustration may help sell the possibilities and potential of preventive deployment. The period preceding the departure of the United States (US)-led West from Afghanistan witnessed protracted negotiations at Doha with the Taliban. Post-conflict stability through insertion of a preventive deployment force under aegis of a regional organisation, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, with the blessing of the Council, could have been thought through alongside. In the event, the UN special envoy, present at the side-lines of the talks was left with little to do.

India’s out-of-region capability is visible in its evacuation of citizens from foreign shores, such as from Ukraine and most recently from Sudan. This implies that it has the reach for also inserting troops with like alacrity. Its contribution to the UN Standby Arrangements System can be dusted up to facilitate such deployment on a short fuse.

Having the capability is not enough. There must be a willingness to offer it through diplomatic mobilization at the Security Council. Admittedly, India has a foreign policy that respects sovereignty of states and is mindful against external interference in internal affairs of states. Some conflict scenarios, that otherwise lend themselves to preventive deployment, can plausibly be viewed as internal matters. India is rightly wary of breaching the principle of non-interference. A case to point is its non-participation in the UN-African Union’s hybrid mission in Darfur.

However, it is evident that what begins in the domestic sphere often speedily spills over - and exponentially at that. India’s acceptability across a wide spectrum of the international community as a fair broker allows for a step-up to a larger role. Shibboleths should not hold India back. It must act the part of Voice of the Global South.

It cannot continue being counted as merely another prominent TCC, a club that also has Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. To break-out, India has to offer a capability for the UN that places it in a footing of its own and appropriate to its changed stature as an ‘emerged power’.

India must obviously retain a modicum of control over such deployment of its troops, for which a special envoy could be nominated for interfacing with the conflict parties, the mission and the regional stakeholders. A more active embassy, with additional staffing in such conflict zones, will help the ministry monitor and align the political prong of UN strategy with the military prong. The appointment of a permanent defence attaché at the Permanent Mission of India in New York needs being done, as also one to the African Union.  


The ongoing geopolitical stand-off threatens to relegate the UN system. The UN is the most significant and legitimate multilateral forum. The UN’s continued efficacy is in the Indian national interest. A member state as India that aspires to a global role, needs to step up to such a role. It will not be conferred on it by any strategic partner. Toting up the backing of the P5 for having India as an equal partner is not enough.

Imagination precedes innovation. Indian diplomacy that emphasizes multilateralism could use innovative ideas. The greater integration in the higher national security structure and higher defence management over past two decades allows for felicity in using the tools available – diplomacy and military.

Active participation in peacemaking, including conflict prevention, is necessary. This has largely been monopoly of the usual penholders in the Council and their First World allies. Offering a preventive deployment capability to the UN would enhance India’s profile, strengthening its peacemaking presence.

Additionally, peacebuilding could also see greater Indian financial contribution. Indian-origin International Non-Governmental Organisations should become a more visible and sought-after presence in conflict zones. The scope of bilateral developmental assistance and lines of credit could be expanded by a distinctive Indian aid agency, with working hands from an Indian ‘peace corps’ equivalent organisation.

India must bring innovative ideas to the table and a capability to back these up. Peacekeeping forte is not enough. Breaking out of the box requires participation in doctrine evolution and proactive partnering in peacemaking and peacebuilding. Though there is no call for India to be the global policeman, assisting the populace caught up in conflicts is eminently in the spirit of the slogan: ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. With international politics heading towards a deadlock, India must spot an opportunity for itself in the refurbishment of multilateralism, enabling the UN to reemerge as the principal forum.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Cost of neglecting conflict resolution in favour of conflict management is rather steep

It’s never too early to pick lessons from the wreckage of a conflict outbreak. As a conflict continues, subsequent — not necessarily more pertinent — lessons could otherwise over-write ones gleaned earlier. From the terror onslaught over the weekend ...

Since the war is set to continue, with Israel already at levelling much of Gaza and readying for a ground offensive in case the secret talks to release the hostages taken by Hamas fail, it is clear that costs of neglecting CR in favour of CM can be rather steep, not only for belligerents but also for the international community.

As with the military disaster suffered by the Israelis exactly 50 years ago at the onset of the Yom Kippur War, the Hamas has dealt a blow at the very outset. For the Hamas, the reckoning is underway. The aftermath will unfortunately exact a greater toll of innocent Palestinians, as Israel goes about choosing a more lasting landscaping than this time to just ‘mow the lawn’.

As for the region, the costs are in a hastily aborted putative peace initiative. There were indicators abroad over a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, in the spirit of the Abraham Accords. In return for a blanket security guarantee from the United States (US), rumour has it the Saudis were to jettison their hitherto commitment of not normalizing relations till Israel accepts a self-regarding Palestine as an equal interlocutor.

However, Israel used the cover of the peace initiative to unfurl a ‘grab what you can’ strategy to further the right-wing agenda of its hardline Netanyahu government. It feared a closing of the door on its agenda to restrict the post-normalization space for Palestinians.

Palestinians, who were subject to Israeli impositions in terms of a continuing land grab in West Bank and a creeping attempt to change the status of the Temple Mount complex, were skeptical of the peace initiative. Their fight back against Israeli repression has resulted in over 300 casualties this year, in part prompting the conflict.

Hamas reasoned that allowing normalcy over Palestinians heads would leave them out in the cold. They were also worried that the Palestinian Authority, run by their rival Palestinian faction, Fatah, in the West Bank, might succumb to the enticement from the promise of developmental support by the international community, in the form of the ‘peace support package’ discussed on the sidelines of the General Assembly high-level week, to buttress peace deals.

The reacted in the only way they know how: the launch of asymmetric war. Their expectation is that subject to such terror, Israel would resort to what could amount to state terror, placing it afoul of international humanitarian law since its reaction would be compounded by its unfolding also in occupied territory.

Hamas also rode on regional dynamics. The Iranians were worried that the Saudis position would stand enhanced with the backing of the US and Israel. Suspicion is that Iranian might have prodded Hamas on, given its own penchant for asymmetric war developed under late General Qassem Soleimani.  

In short, the CM approach that under-grid the mentioned peace initiative has been upturned. Conflict management puts a lid on conflict by eliding addressing of root causes. The time and seeming stability bought by the approach can vanish by some or other actor either taking unfair advantage, as did Israel by pursuing a right-wing agenda, or another acting as spoiler, as has Hamas in its terror attack. The limitations of CM are now obvious.

CR on the other hand addresses root causes. It holds the conflict parties to the table, incentivizing and pressurizing them into a negotiated resolution. The habits from engaging with each other act as eddies, expanding the space for possibilities and cooperation, termed in peace theory as conflict transformation. The cost of abandoning of this approach, that had a promising start in the early 90s with the Oslo Accords, is self-evident.

The lesson for South Asia is stark. The region nurses a territorial conflict for as long as the Israeli-Palestinian one has been on the table. South Asia appears sanguine with its own CM approach extant over the Kashmir issue. It is equally liable to be evicted from this comfort zone should it continue turning a blind eye to the attractions of CR, made explicit in Israeli Titanic hitting Hamas’ iceberg. 




Tuesday 19 September 2023

The Army's Leader-Manager Binary

Universally, there has been tension between the two leadership models in the military. If military leadership is imagined as a continuum with a ‘Leader’ at one end and a ‘Manager’ at the other, a military officer largely tends to one or other end, and has the option of adapting their style depending on the circumstance. 

Military history has examples of such contrasts, like the one between two field marshals in World War II: Erwin Rommel and Bernard Law Montgomery. While Rommel's primary identity was that of a military ‘Leader’, Montgomery is placed better towards the ‘Manager’ end of the proverbial continuum.

The contrast in style shows up in the encounter at Anantnag, which has been going on for more than 140 hours now.

The outset of the encounter shows the military ‘Leader’, while the latter part of the operation shows the hand of a military ‘Manager’.

That Colonel Manpreet Singh and Major Ashish Dhonchak identified as military leaders is clear from each having recently earned a Sena Medal (Gallantry). Their reaction to the intelligence received from Deputy Superintendent of Police Humayun Bhat, showcases their ‘Leader’ credentials. At the encounter site, the three were in the lead, and consequently were targeted by terrorists, advantaged by the forested mountain fastness.

The commander who stepped into Singh's shoes reflects the ‘Manager’ style in the way he has methodically squeezed the terrorists holed up in caves in the thickets. He not only deployed modern surveillance means, but also, using the cover of firepower, manoeuvred the cordon into place to corner the terrorists in their lair.

The encounter has gone on longer than usual since there are perhaps strictures that no further losses are affordable, given that the operation is unfolding under a national spotlight. Besides, it has been interrupted by distracting senior officer visits.

The Anantnag encounter shows the ‘Leader’ and the ‘Manager’ in action to the disadvantage of the former, since the price paid was rather heavy. However, the takeaway from the operation should not be that the ‘Manager’ identity should therefore trump that of a ‘Leader’.

While it is true that measured operational actions at the outset may have yielded better results at an affordable cost, this is to second guess the tactical leader on the spot. Singh was acting true to the ethos of the warrior leader ethic of the Indian Army at a tactical level. A trained, experienced, and applauded military leader, just as a leopard cannot change its spots, Singh could only be himself, a military ‘Leader’.

 This is of a piece with the standards of leadership of Chinar Corps set by its corps commander at the start of the Kashmir insurgency. He is reputed to have led a house clearing drill to take down holed up terrorists. While doing so a grenade splinter scraped past his head. When asked by the then Army Chief why he was so foolhardy, he replied, that since he was the seniormost present he was the leader on the spot and could hardly order people into harm’s way without himself stepping up. The Chief let him off by saying he’s sack him next time, if he survived.

 Manpreet Singh was only trying to fix the terrorists in place before taking them out. In the circumstance of fleeing terrorists, it is beholden on those closest to the scene to shadow and fix them, lest they disappear to cause greater harm later. Besides, there is a reputational cost to allowing terrorists to get away.

In contrast, the deliberate operations that have since unfolded are understandable, though their duration appears inordinately stretched. Risk averseness must not be to fore, since the sentiment seeps down the line, throttling tactical initiative.

While the operation unfolded, social media commentary kept pace. One line of thought had it that wresting the terrorist’s advantage of terrain is not worth risking lives. Since grey zone war is amorphous, the score could be settled later, the war set to continue indefinitely. It would be unfortunate if this logic prevails.

It should not be that the Anantnag encounter heralds the end of gallantry and a welcome to the ‘Techno-Manager’ as the dominant military leader. Military leaders must continue to steer between the two ends of the continuum, even if they self-identify as one or the other.

The lesson to anticipate in the ‘Anantnag After Action Report’ is that even if hybrid war is to persist, there is no case for abandoning the Manpreet-Asish style of tactical-level military leadership.


Monday 18 September 2023

The questions the prolonged encounter at Anantnag raises

As the encounter at Gadol near Anantnag in Kashmir drags on past its 100th hour, it begs the question why two terrorists remain holed up in a thicket for so long after inflicting four casualties, and possibly a fifth, on India’s premier counter insurgency force, the formidable Rashtriya Rifles (RR).

Clearly, at the outset of the operation, the RR was in its element. The colonel commanding the RR battalion accompanied by the major commanding an RR company were off tracking the terrorists down, along with the conveyer of the intelligence, a deputy superintendent (DSP) of Kashmir police.

Both the Army officers were recent respective recipients of the Sena Medal (Gallantry). In line with Army tactical leadership ethos inspired by the adage ‘the role of the Infantry is to close with the enemy, capture of destroy him,’ they vied for the lead.  In the event, they were felled, along with the DSP, by the initial volley from the terrorists.

Since the terrorists are advantaged by the forested redoubt, a methodical operation is currently on to eliminate them. The RR is leveraging firepower, as it closes the loop of the cordon in a glacial maneuver designed to deny the terrorists any further terrain advantage. Yet, it is curious the RR is taking this long.

It’s possible the RR was lured into an ambush by planted intelligence. That the initial volley of shots accounted for a police officer shows that a red-hot lead was being followed up, post-haste.

This possibility is lent credence in the claim of The Resistance Front - which is but a morphed Lashkar-e-Toiba outfit - that the ambush was to avenge the recent assassination of a terrorist leader across the Line of Control.

Apparently, Indian intelligence operations have drawn blood, accounting for some of the four terrorist leaders killed though in midst of their sanctuary across. Close as the ambush was on the heels of the latest assassination, the timing lends their claim plausibility.

On the other hand, the incident may well have been an opportunity ambush. Sometimes things do go awry in operations, not necessarily due to complacence but – as the doyen of strategists, Clausewitz, has it – the play of Chance. As all who’ve been in a firefight well know, the hobby of the capricious God of War is to play dice with lives.

While there is no second guessing the tactical level leaders on the ground, the operation does appear unduly prolonged. It flies in the face of the adage, ‘there is no obstacle for the Infantry.’ The RR is but Infantry.

It is inconceivable that the troops are not straining at the bit and operational level commanders so risk averse as to continue reining them in for so long, unless acting on instructions.

Has the military leadership been instructed by its political master to hold back for longer? 


The incident, purveyed on television, seized national attention. It had the potential to put a question mark on the Narendra Modi government’s Kashmir policy.

Did the regime unfurl the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner too soon?

Clearly, the problem in Kashmir and of Kashmir has not gone away, even if Article 370 has long been laid to rest. The encounter busts the myth that tourist footfalls are a measure of success of counter insurgency.

Mindful of this and ever ready to use military achievements to its advantage, has the Narendra Modi regime, as is its wont, turned a seeming setback into an opportunity? Hitherto it has lost no opportunity to snatch electoral dividend even from a reverse, be it Pulwama and Balakot or Doklam and Ladakh.

Nationalism has been deftly stirred up, with the cremations – and a burial - of the brave-hearts reframing the operation on social media. Another operation, accounting for three terrorists on the LC elsewhere, has timely evened the score. With elections nigh, nationalism is a potion to stir into the communal pot.

A prolonged operation was also necessary to wipe away the aftertaste of the images of Narendra Modi being feted at the ruling party headquarters for his stewardship of the G20 summit. The moment was reminiscent of Modi persisting with the shooting of a television episode at the Corbett National Park though informed of the tragedy at Pulwama. While saffron petals were showered on him at the Bhartiya Janata Party headquarters, the nation’s defenders received a shower of a different kind.

Modi’s national security minders know well that tactical operations can have strategic effects. Cognisant, they can be credited with manipulating the news cycle, denying the Opposition a handle, while preserving the Modi’s strongman image.

The unthinkable underside is if the military has lent itself as instrument to this end.





Tuesday 5 September 2023

Reminding the Chiefs of Fidelity

At a lecture at a Delhi think tank, the Air Chief recused himself from answering two questions in Question and Answer time. The two were on nuclear issues. He averred that these were out of the ‘ambit’. It is uncertain whether he meant that the nuclear issue was out of the ambit of the lecture or of his duties as Air Chief. The think tank nevertheless described the Q&A as ‘comprehensive’.

His presentation, ‘IAF at 100: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats,’ had a one-line mention of the nuclear issue, though the issue reasonably merited inclusion at a minimum in the sections on Threats. It’s possible he thought otherwise. On the other hand, if he believes that the issue is out of his remit, then the matter is rather more serious.

Using this point as entry here, I discuss aspects in the recent conduct of the three Service Chiefs. I proceed with first looking at the significant elision by the Air Chief, then the minor storm in the Army’s teacup and finally at the trivial matter of the Navy Chief’s social media postings. I conclude that the time is ripe to remind the Chiefs of the lodestar, Fidelity.  

The Air Chief and a major matter

Indian Air Force (IAF) operations with either prospective foe - China and Pakistan - will play out in a nuclear backdrop. The IAF provides the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) with both dedicated and dual role nuclear delivery platforms. It will package together the aerial forces necessary to reach air-delivered nuclear ordnance to the target. It will alongside conduct diversionary operations, air defence suppression, aerial refuelling, provide intelligence and surveillance and post-strike damage assessment. It may be called on for deliberate conventional degradation tasks of the enemy nuclear capability.

Its conventional operations could trigger off a nuclear threat if it inadvertently degrades the opponent’s co-located nuclear capability. Its air defences – both radar and kinetic - would be critical in intercepting enemy nuclear cargoes. Its own airfields could end up as counter military targets for the enemy and those hosting SFC assets counter force targets. It would be actively involved in post-nuclear strike(s) conventional and nuclear operations, while also facilitating first responders in emergency and humanitarian operations.

India has given itself a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), who in his capacity of Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC COSC) is in the reporting line of the Commander-in-Chief SFC and is the Military Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority. As PC COSC, he would be aggregating the counsel of the three Service Chiefs, including that of the Air Chief.

Incidentally, among the Service think tanks, the IAF funded think tank has acquired pole position on thinking on nuclear issues, dating to the days when the IAF wished for a Strategic Air Command. Today, it has now settled for being an Air and Space Force, the latter is inextricable from nuclear issues.

It is incomprehensible therefore for the Air Chief to believe that nuclear matters are out of his ambit. Excluding these from finding more than a passing mention in his talk therefore has a different impulse.

Missing nuclear matters

Over the Modi years, dwelling on nuclear matters has been left to defence ministers, who when doing so have shown up suffering from a foot-in-the-mouth infection. In any case, since the PC COSC only has an administrative lien over the SFC, the defence minister – to whom the CDS is military adviser - is not in the operational nuclear loop. The National Security Adviser has advisedly kept mum, unlettered as he is known to be on nuclear nuances, as was his mentor-in-khaki predecessor.

Clearly, India is missing a significant bit of transparency in governance. Its nuclear weapons’ relevant policy making is under wraps, after its last bout of transparency, when at the end of the last dispensation, of Manmohan Singh, not only had Singh called for No First Use (NFU) but had the head of his National Security Advisory Board explicate the doctrine in excruciating detail. For its part, Modi’s national security minders, after having received a rap on the knuckles for their exuberance in their input of the earlier manifesto of his party, have kept off dilating on the doctrine.

Its apparent that after the early nuclear doctrinal effervescence, designed to get the United States’ nuclear proliferation lobby off India’s back, India has lapsed into doctrinal taciturnity. Apparently, this ambiguity is deliberate, to obscure the direction of the deterrent.

And here is the catch. If there is no change in doctrine, then the situation is as dangerous as obtaining from a doctrine that has changed. Keeping from transmitting the status to the enemy might arguably be fine for ambiguity-based nuclear deterrence, but is yet another piece of evidence of the backslide in Indian democracy. The nation may not be interested in being defended to death.

Persisting with a doctrine that is twenty years old is good for consistency, if strategic equations have not changed in the interim. However, much water has flowed down the Indus since. Consistency is a virtue in regard to the NFU principle. Under threat from revisionists, its need against China is such that luckily it continues in place - officially and for the moment.

As for the plank of massive retaliation – even if read down to mean the infliction of unacceptable damage – it is oblivious to Pakistan’s move to Full Spectrum Deterrence. The formulation rejects the Pakistani belief that Mutual Assured Destruction is in play in South Asia.

In short, India expects Pakistan to suffer unacceptable damage without giving it back in some measure, though Operation Swift Retort should rightly have dispelled any such notion. Perhaps, India believes the Hindutva glue is strong enough to see India through Amrit Kaal despite nuclear exchange(s). Dispel any doubts: to be genocidal is to be suicidal.

Given that an unchanged doctrine is a national disservice, it is possible that there has been a doctrinal shift, but one kept from the public domain. The shift could be in making nuclear war fightable, if not winnable. With proportionality informing a graduated nuclear doctrine, it is possible to get off the nuclear horse – with some help from the other side. While nuclear war is eminently avoidable, it can be nobody’s case that Limited Nuclear War is not preferable to Total Nuclear War.

India’s doctrinal reticence is perhaps informed by the delusion that assuring Pakistan of wiping it off the map is better for deterring. This is delusion since it has not credibly answered the criticism (assertions not being credible) that such assurance will make Pakistan go for a dead-hand option - and earlier too while its capability is intact.

The unchanged doctrine predicated on unacceptable damage is fine in an equable strategic environment. When a nuclear use scenario is less likely to arise, promising the worst is safe since there would be no call for delivering on the promise.

However, the strategic environment in regard to both neighbours does not lend confidence. While the Army Chief characterizes the one with the northern neighbour as ‘stable but unpredictable’, the one with the western neighbour can only be predictably unstable. The Air Chief talked of ‘collaborative challenges’ posed by two together. Under such strategic circumstance, a subterranean change to graduated response implies an inordinate comfort level with both conflict outbreak and nuclear weapons’ advent.

From the foregoing it is clear that the Chiefs РCDS and Service - must level with the public. The assumption that political and military are separate compartments in nuclear matters is pass̩.

In the subcontinental context, the military will nudge the political. Denying people the right to know, reinforces the project of a patronizing State catering to the labharti rather than a democratic state catering to citizens with a need to know.

The Army Chief and a minor matter

In a response the Air Chief said that he was not going to discuss higher policies. He would not want to speak on a policy of the government gives the game away. It’s official: the Chiefs’ lips have been zipped.

While this is an unfortunate loss for democratic debate, the situation is worse when the mouth stays zipped even when within the corridors of power.

Take the strange case of the Army suggesting that soldiers partake of social service when they are on leave. For this, they are reportedly to be equipped with information on the plethora of Union development initiatives, which they could either lend a shoulder to or disseminate when on leave.

The Adjutant General (AG), no doubt with the authorization of the Army Chief, has sent out instructions to this effect and the output is to be reported on a quarterly basis to the headquarters. This implies neither has the AG remonstrated forcefully with the Army Chief and nor has the Army Chief put his foot down against the imposition with his boss, Rajnath Singh.

The matter is patently nonsensical, but the brass evidently does not have the gumption to deter. Attending the National Defence College is a prerequisite to get to three-star rank these days. It begs the question if the illustrious institution on Tees January Marg is delivering on its mandate to turn out apolitical brasshats.

If the general cadre has been reading the headlines lately, it must be aware that the Union government is in a face-off with some state governments run by non-Bhartiya Janata Party political parties. Knowledge of this would have alerted the brass on the hidden agenda of their political bosses, allowing them to stand firm against being used as a vehicle for the Union’s purpose against recalcitrant state governments. Both, ignorance of this and falling in line when in full knowledge of this, is an unwarranted play in political partisanship by the Army brass.

It can be argued that the Army cannot take a stand all the time and must pitch and roll as necessary. Doing so is a call for the Army brass to take. Its for the Army brass to pick its fight and not be harried into one by appeasing one or other faction in the veteran and strategic communities. This allows the Army to get what it can and must from the national cake.

With Agnipath having been forced on the military, such rationalizing lacks potency anymore. It can yet be argued that the regime kept vacant the CDS office and had to retire the previous Army Chief before it went in for the makeover. A newly elevated Army Chief was too gobsmacked to take a stand, assuming he might have wanted to. But then, the assumption flies in the face of the rigour that attends deep selection. Besides, by letting the measure - soldiery as regime propagandists - go past, it is clear his deep selection stands vindicated.

WhatsApp groups are agog with the dangers. The (quasi-)non-governmental organization with country wide presence is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It would no doubt welcome a soldier getting into part time social service. With Agniveers soon to get into the groove of service life, they would be easy pickings for the RSS; and, when they leave the colours, available for deployment as a non-Manipuri Meitei Leepun or Arambol Tenggol. The dangers have been flagged when the Agnipath scheme was trotted out. It seems the path is being leveled for the dangers to materialize. Hindutva is setting up a State in an image of 2000 years back by setting upon a modernist State.

The Navy Chief and a trivial matter

Are generals blind to the rug being pulled from beneath their feet? It would appear Admirals certainly are.

A recent social media post on the Naval Chief shows him trudging on a path to a religious shrine housed in a cave. In an earlier instance, the shrine was visited by the previous lieutenant governor (LG) of the Union Territory with an entourage comprising the Corps Commander and the Rashtriya Rifles Force Commander in tow, besides an (unauthorized to LGs) lieutenant colonel as Aide de Camp.

It’s quite in the tradition of late of institutional heads making a beeline for the Gods, the most recent instance of which has been the Space agency Chief temple-hopping on national television in wake of Chandrayaan triumph, at the risk of dissonance over scientific temper.

The tempo of such in-your-face religiosity has been set by the prime minister himself, first at the unveiling of the Simha emblem atop the new parliament building and, next, in the installation within it of a scepter supposedly symbolising the transfer of power from British India to India while actually marking the transition from India to New India. Public religious displays are to culminate in the first session of parliament in its new building, rumoured for as early as the forthcoming Special Session. But the grand finale is being reserved for at the inauguration of a grand Temple built on a judiciary-appropriated land on which a mosque once stood.

What was the Navy Chief trying to project with his photos on social media depicting him striding along with other devotees? It could be a bit of soft power for the betterment of the Navy’s image. After all, the tall, lean Admiral in full stride does strike an imposing pose. It also shows that the Navy might be a maritime force, but then it is not unmindful of India’s mountain fastnesses where its troubled borders lie. Keeping in the mind’s eye of the powers-that-be through towing their line on religion worn on the sleeve does help with pulling resources towards the Navy, especially in a regime where sycophancy delivers results, as the appointment of the National Human Rights Council head suggests.

But then, the reason could be more prosaic: the Navy Chief was trying to inveigle himself into the consciousness of the ruling party, for reasons as a post-retirement sinecure. However, as his retirement is not nigh, is he instead setting new standards for naval officers to emulate; and, if so, at whose behest? It is no secret that senior officers visit the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine very often, but in a personal capacity, even if not on leave and using official facilities. But this has never been so openly done.

Be that as it may, the overt performative act on part of the Navy Chief – otherwise entitled to his religiosity – was unwarranted, since the media handle putting out the photos of a personal itinerary was an official one. Such public obeisance is part of the strategy to project the religious antecedents of Kashmir in order to strengthen India’s cultural case on its possession. This is also part of Hindutva strategy of saffronising India. The Navy Chief is not unaware, but is merrily playing his part.    

Fidelity as lodestar for Chiefs

The nation is ill served by Chiefs self-censoring. The next step is worse, if any gets to be regime spokesperson or mascot – as appeared to be the danger when Genaral Bipin Rawat was around. The Air Chief’s predicating his talk with Vikshit Bharat is an indicator of dangers ahead if the trend is not arrested.

Chiefs are exemplars. They represent the Service. Their mandate is the professional input of policy and overseeing the execution of policy and decisions. Clearly, if the input is slip shod, so is the policy and decision output they are charged to implement. This can prove a negative cycle.

Consequently, the most significant quality in Chiefs is Fidelity. It girdles a moral backbone.

The Google-thrown up meaning of Fidelity is just right for the purposes here: ‘(T)he quality of being faithful, especially to a wife or husband by not having a sexual relationship with anyone else.’  

It is said that the institution is an officer’s First Wife, his spouse coming in a distant second. By when an officer gets to the apex, the relationship with the First Wife grows in consequence – often at the expense of the Second.

Now that there is a shift to a uniform uniform for the brass, even the regiment cannot serve anymore as a Third Wife. Consequently, there is no scope for a three-some with a political party or ideology as a Third Wife. 

Fidelity, therefore, is to hold the institution, the Service, as the first - though not only - love. The Service interest is obviously to be embedded in the wider ambit of national security. The Service cannot supersede national security, but then national security compulsions cannot by default override Service interests. In case of deficit in upholding the latter, national security can only suffer.

The Chief is witness to and subject of the tension between national security interest and the Service interest. Managing this tension is their lot. They tend to let themselves and respective Service down in case of inability to distinguish between national security interest and a regime’s political interest – and, worse, a demagogue’s self-interest.