Tuesday, 22 January 2019


What do the echoes of Operation Kabaddi really say

Two unconnected headlines at the start of the week are connected in this article. In one, the spokesperson of the UN Secretary General expressed the limitations of mediation as a conflict resolution mechanism for the conflict in Kashmir, arguing that both sides – India and Pakistan - needed to be onboard for the secretary general to exercise initiative under his good offices mandate enabled by UN Charter Articles 98 and 99.

While Pakistan repeatedly brings the Kashmir question to the attention of the UN – most recently during the visit of the president of the General Assembly to Pakistan last week – India takes the cover of the Simla Agreement that buried the UN role in Kashmir by calling for bilateral settlement of the dispute. With India reluctant, there is little possibility of mediation figuring as a conflict resolution tool or the UN taking center stage in bringing to a closure its longstanding interest in the Kashmir question (To recall the second longest serving observer mission is along the line of control (LC)).

However, there is one situation that can potentially propel UN center stage. This would be so if actions hinted at in the second headline come to pass. Amongst the contents of a book by a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) academic, Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics, is reportedly a revelation of an Indian plan to capture a few posts along the LC in late 2001 in a operation codenamed Operation Kabaddi. Apparently the operation was aborted by the intervention of 9/11 and onset of the United States’ led Operation Enduring Freedom in the region.

The book has it that the plan envisaged capture of some 25-30 Pakistani posts along the LC in order to prevent infiltration of terrorists into Kashmir, after completion of preparations in end September. In the event, the plan could not be actioned even though there was a possible incident on 1 October that could have triggered the multiple attacks across the LC: the terrorist strike on the Kashmir legislative assembly in which some 38 people were killed.

The plan is precursor to latter day surgical strikes of end September 2016. The surgical strikes did not have the same scope and magnitude and with good reason. Any operation – even if not as ambitious as made out in the book – would focus the Security Council on the escalatory possibilities connected with the outstanding issue that remains on its agenda as the ‘India-Pakistan question’ since the passage of its resolution 39 (1948) on 20 January 1948. Mindful of the possibility of being forced to the table by a Security Council resolution, India sensibly restricted the scope of the surgical strikes, assuring Pakistan the following day that the operation had ceased.

Even so, the army’s ongoing reforms reportedly cater for leveraging its conventional advantage. After playing footsie with Cold Start - the freshly minted doctrine in wake of Operation Parakram in 2002-03 – by acknowledging its existence in fits and starts over its lifespan, the army owned up to it definitively early in the tenure of the current army chief. The army is currently engaged in a reform initiative in which the integrated battle groups (IBG) that found mention in the doctrine are firmed in. The idea is to dedicate formations – likely heavier than brigade sized combat commands - formed for territory centric or destruction tasks. Pre-designated and programmed and having the requisite – firepower and engineer - resources intrinsic, these would be in a position for an early launch from a ‘cold start’, as envisaged in evocative, if colloquial, name of the doctrine.

The JNU academic and author of the book mentioned, Professor Happymon Jacob, hopes to focus attention on the continuing escalatory possibilities resulting from the LC incidents numbering some 3000 last year and the need for formalizing the ceasefire dating to November 2003. The ‘ceasefire’ was not the result of an agreed document, but is an understanding. This only reinforces his fears of escalation, apprehensions that in light of the nuclear dimensions to war can only bring the security minders of the international community – the Security Council – down on South Asia in quick time. The international community has a genuine interest in preventing nuclear war outbreak, since consequences are potentially global.

While India would press for having Pakistan in the dock for provoking the conflict in first place by a terror incident or a series of incidents that it could interpret as an armed attack, there is no guarantee that the Security Council stops at that. This could release the Secretary General from his limitation encapsulated in the first news article referred to above, that incidentally was also voiced once earlier in April last year. India would require then to engage with Pakistan meaningfully over Kashmir, something it is loathe to.

India therefore needs to reappraise its hardline in regard to Pakistan and in Kashmir. The hardline creates the conditions for a bust up over Kashmir. The army chief among his numerous media interventions has indicated that India has options up its sleeve along the lines of surgical strikes, but of a different sort and order that he, keeping surprise in mind, did not dwell on in detail,. Any future such strikes cannot be as tame as the surgical strikes, fobbed off by the Pakistanis as a non-event.

Future strikes would require being of the order of the hype that has since attended them, quite like these have been depicted in the somewhat misnamed recent release, Uri, that dramatizes the surgical strikes. If the up-gunned IBGs are up and running by then - the exercises to prove their new design are due this summer – then their employment would have to reckon with the unintended outcome – international attention forcing India to the table to discuss Kashmir meaningfully.

For India, meaningful talks imply getting Pakistan to vacate its occupation of areas of the erstwhile kingdom of the maharaja. Keeping its claims alive, only last week India protested a Pakistani court order extending its sway over Gilgit-Balitistan as interference in India’s internal affairs. Its chief objection to the Chinese lifeline to Pakistan - the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – is that it trespasses Indian territory. While India’s contention would no doubt figure in the talks forced on India, the casus belli, that would likely lie in the tinder accumulated in Kashmir, would have to be reckoned with. Though distasteful to India, it would be a consequence of any Indian military action.

Proceedings at a book release function over the week end in the national capital organized by the Center for Land War Studies do not lend confidence that there is enough appreciation of the unintended consequences of military response. A significant reservation voiced by the speakers comprising retired members of the military brass who contributed to the CLAWS publication – Military Strategy for India in the 21st Century - was there is little government-military interface on the nature of India’s military options.

That this is little different from the criticism governments have faced over the past indicates that this government’s security mindedness has been little different from its predecessors, notable in light of its assiduous distancing from the past and its tom-tomming of the same. The difference is its hardline that can land the region in a soup in quick time, absent mechanisms - other than routine diplomacy - for engaging Pakistan.

While to peaceniks the unintended outcome of military action, in line with Operation Kabaddi – meaningful talks perhaps mediated by the international community - is not unwelcome, this is perhaps not an outcome sought by Ajit Doval’s team. In which case, Doval is best advised to read up the CLAWS publication on military strategy and, mindful of the inadvisability of military options, preventively defuse the conditions that keep Operation Kabaddi plans well dusted.