Cease firing at the ceasefire - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 19 August 2013

Cease firing at the ceasefire

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Aug 13

The sharp increase in firing between Indian and Pakistani posts on the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir raises the question: is the decade-old ceasefire of 2003 dead? If one side or both are staging cross border raids and fire is being exchanged daily, it might seem that the ceasefire has irretrievably broken down, even if New Delhi and Islamabad have not acknowledged so.

But only a complete memory blackout would lead one to conclude that the ceasefire is over. The firing today is a tiny fraction of what constituted everyday give and take on the LoC before 2003. In 1999-2000, as an operations officer in a corps headquarters in J&K, it would take me from 5-7 a.m. everyday taking reports from units on the LoC about firing incidents overnight. Tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of rounds were exchanged daily, including mortars and artillery. It was an unusual day when no soldier was killed or wounded. This year Pakistan has violated the ceasefire 57 times, says the army. Before the ceasefire, that number would be crossed by breakfast on New Year’s Day.

In this context, the ceasefire is alive, if not well. What we are seeing on the LoC is a phase of stepped up ceasefire violations. This is not semantics; precision is important when the lives of soldiers are involved.

Should India react to Pakistani provocations by scrapping the ceasefire? The political opposition, electronic media, and most security commentators declare, “Something must be done. Pakistan must pay a price. They cannot get away with killing our soldiers.”

This is inarguable, like declaring, “Motherhood is good.” Indeed Pakistan cannot be allowed to kill our soldiers with impunity. The question is: what should be done? Our response could be political, or military, or both.

We have experience in political retaliation against Pakistan. In 1999, a peace process began with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore. Just months later, that degenerated into war after India discovered the Kargil intrusions. But within two years, Mr Vajpayee resumed political dialogue, inviting Musharraf to India in 2001. That ended again within months, after the parliament attacks caused India to mobilise for war. In Apr 2003, just months after the army was pulled back, Mr Vajpayee offered a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan, a process that led to the LoC ceasefire on Nov 25, 2003.

Like Mr Vajpayee before him, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too has trimmed his sails to the wind from Pakistan. In 2008, the 26/11 Mumbai attack caused Dr Singh to put the dialogue in deep-freeze. The de-frost came barely a year later, as contacts resumed at Thimphu in Feb 2010. So far, the dialogue has survived the LoC killings, New Delhi’s protests and both Parliaments’ tit-for-tat resolutions.

We see that Mr Vajpayee’s NDA government and Dr Singh’s UPA government have always returned to the table with Pakistan. Mr Vajpayee did so after a 1999 conflict that killed 527 Indian soldiers, and a near war in 2002 in which more than 800 soldiers died. In 2010, Dr Singh overcame his anger at the deaths of some 156 innocents in Mumbai. Only in opposition do the Congress and the BJP breathe fire; the flames are doused by pragmatism when it comes time to govern.

Given this trend, would it be wise to suspend or downgrade political ties with Pakistan for having killed seven Indian soldiers (2 in Mendhar in Jan; and 5 in Poonch this month)? New Delhi’s track record --- the NDA’s even more than the UPA’s --- suggests that we would quickly return to the table. Suspending ties with Pakistan no longer carries credibility.

That leaves the military option, i.e. abrogating the ceasefire. Unquestionably, Pakistan would pay a heavy price in casualties on the LoC. Equally certainly, the Air India flight from Srinagar would again start flying back coffins of Indian soldiers killed in cross-border firing. Our annual LoC casualty count had reached triple digits after the Kargil conflict. It has been in single digits since 2003.

True, the prospect of casualties should not deter a country from using force to pursue its national interests. Equally, no government should initiate hostilities without clear benefits. What would happen in Pakistan if India makes the LoC “live” once again?

For the Pakistan Army, this would be a Godsend. Citing a military threat from India, General Headquarters (GHQ), Rawalpindi, would re-locate troops from counter-terrorist operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, moving them to the LoC. GHQ would rather reunify the army (and its jihadi friends) with the comfortable glue of anti-Indianism, than continue to see it pulled apart by the contradiction of an Islamic Army battling the self-styled mujahidin of Allah. In terms of casualties, too, the generals would prefer a hundred dead a year on the LoC to five hundred dead in the tribal areas.

While the lesson of Kargil is that GHQ, not Mr Sharif, decides India policy, Pakistan has also moved on from 1999: democracy is stronger; Mr Sharif more influential; and the army commands less political clout. But it is hard to read the tealeaves in Pakistan. For now, Mr Sharif has to be backed, if only for a lack of alternatives.

On the LoC itself, the tactical must be firewalled from the strategic. However heartless it sounds, the tactical weakness of a patrol that gets ambushed (these are all grown up men with guns, remember?) cannot dictate a strategic response. Army units deployed on the LoC must have freedom to retaliate at the tactical level, and the army chief says that they do. But the tactical ineptitude that was evident in both Mendhar and Poonch must evoke introspection and action within the army, not calls to end a mutually beneficial ceasefire.


  1. An informative piece that appeals to common sense. Mr Sharief needs our support to strengthen democracy in Pakistan and weaken jihadis and the hold of army in that country.

  2. Very logically argued - hope TV studios and opposition parties take note.

  3. "The tactical weakness of a patrol that gets ambushed cannot dictate a strategic response."
    That is the take-home point, if not summary of this article.

  4. not calls to end a mutually beneficial ceasefire.

    Oh yes ..your free and all paid trips to Pakistan will get affected ??

  5. Being election year and UPA not in great shape, it is not clear if the government will pursue "back to table" policy this time with Pakistan. Have to wait and watch. Sadly its the innocent jawans who will continue to lose their lives until a decision is taken....

  6. True. The tactical must be firewalled from the strategic.
    BTW, all quiet on the northeastern front except for the frequent sonic booms. Another one an hour ago. Good to know the IAF is up and about.

  7. Besides in case the ceasefire breaks down one can expect the infiltration levels to go up also while the troops hunker down when the artillery duels take place.

  8. if the ceasefire goes down, there is no hunkering down with artillery duels anymore, it should be Salala everyday for them. Its in their best interest to tone it down. On our side IA is so reactive only acting after soldiers are ambushed and killed!!

  9. A voice of reason among the chorus crying for "action", never mind they have never fired a gun before.

    Thank you for this piece.

  10. Dear Sir

    What will happen when THOUSANDS of Jihadis from Afghanistan and TTP
    in Pakistani Punjab STORM the LOC

    Have we prepared for such a scenario

  11. Why not supply arms to the baluchis to keep pakistan busy with it's own insurgency.

  12. Your larger point on saving lives by maintaining ceasefire is well understood. But I am not too keen on the idea of absorbing occasional or rather all too frequent sacrifices to avoid larger confrontation. Offering an occasional sacrifice to the monster to avoid the whole village being eaten by it is not strategy. Strategy has to be focused on slaying the monster as it cannot be appeased into submission. I hope there is same clarity of purpose shown by the Indian government as is shown by the Pakistani establishment which has never wayward from its goal in all these years. It is clear that there cannot be and will not be an all out war with Pakistan. If it was possible it would have started when the first infiltrators entered Kashmir in the 80's. But since the Pakistani establishment continues to wage a war by proxy with us we cannot have a strategy which is little else than absorbing the losses and feeling satisfied with picking out their expendable foot soldiers. We should take every death seriously because our soldiers are not expendable. Our strategy also has to be focused on slaying their ability to continue this war by proxy. Afghanistan appears to be the excellent place to start to ensure that the Pakistani's are denied the strategic depth they seek in Afghanistan. Sending troops is a bad idea but enabling ANA by supplying them Arms or whatever else they need is what we should be doing. In return getting an assurance that ANA will clear and protect the alternate supply route from Iran and reduce dependence on Pakistan for supplies is what is important for us. It is clear that Taliban will not disband and disarm so the peace talks will ultimately fail. If we allow Taliban to return to Afghanistan as a player in deciding its future without disbanding then we will be forced to concede ground to the monster rather than work towards permanently slaying it and then more sacrifices will await us in future both civilian and military.

  13. If we fear escalation , why talk and analyse such. If we are to make excuses to not respond to our soldiers killed, LoC,LAC's being transgressed due to fear of the fighting escalating, then why talk of it..in fact why should the odd soldiers die everyday just because the nation is scared the bullets will fly over their heads too and they will have to chip in their share..be it economically or in any other way..

    Ironically no other country lets her soldiers lets killed everyday, her territory penetrated and her sanctity destroyed under the strategy of not geting more soldiers in body bags in their respective airlines....In fact all countries would have stopped the decay way back by a strong retaliation so as not to have this scanario...and if found in such a scenario then they would have pulled up their socks, strategised and repulsed, retaliated and attacked the aggressors before they become any stronger...

    Basically the article states that when rape happens hitherto , lets not attack the rapists..lest they come and kill our folks and rape with more vigour....


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