A threshold crossed in Uri

THE focus till a few days ago was on the move of the Army’s five battalions into South Kashmir to occupy what I had called the moral and physical space to stabilise the area most hit by the stone-throwing agitation, post the killing of Burhan Wani.

A threshold crossed in Uri

WHAT NEXT? Army personnel at the brigade camp in Uri on Sunday. PTI

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)

THE focus till a few days ago was on the move of the Army’s five battalions into South Kashmir to occupy what I had called the moral and physical space to stabilise the area most hit by the stone-throwing agitation, post the killing of Burhan Wani. However, in all such situations and without a direct connect to them, is a rogue space which exists in the hybrid conflict. Pakistan has chosen to exploit that space to attempt to counter the effectiveness of our Operation Calm Down in South Kashmir.

Calming down the situation or stabilising it does not lie in Pakistan’s interest. Therefore, it had to choose a strategy on how to prevent this from happening and the Indian Army walking away with the accolades. It employed the theory of indirect approach. The need was for a couple of high-profile strikes against recognised targets, show the Indian Army in poor light and demoralise it just as it was attempting to gain the moral high ground in South Kashmir. To execute this it needed strength in the hinterland, which it lacked. 

Its two previous attempts in Baramula and Handwara to target the Army’s convoys resulted in marginal success, not large enough to draw the eyeballs of the world. Infiltrating a special group to achieve this on an objective in the hinterland is close to impossible, as planning, movement and execution would take the better part of three weeks with no degree of assurance for success. It chose the next best option: the proximity of the LoC itself. The operation had to be launched before the speech of the Pakistan Prime Minister in the UN General Assembly; that permitted a shallow infiltration and choice of objective even closer to the LoC. Pakistan’s Deep State, which plans and executes that nation’s rogue operations, has done this earlier too. Last year it targeted the HQ of the Tangdhar Brigade, which was thwarted by the Indian Army. Last week, it attempted a sneak attack on the HQ of the Poonch Brigade, which was foiled in time with some loss to us. The level of desperation was obviously very high as the Uri attack has come just a few days after the attempt at Poonch.

Should we have expected it at Uri? Intelligence agencies gave a broad warning about the possibility of a spectacular action. That is usually done every year. Professional minds would have analysed it exactly as I have done. It had to be near the LoC and it had to be a high-profile target, preferably within the Valley. There is no other objective as starkly evident as Uri. Its garrison is not walled and civilian access is through and through. The access from the south is just 6 km, although robust counter-infiltration layers have to be crossed. So Uri it was.

It is unfortunate that circumstances acted in favor of the terrorists as an entry was made into an area where there were freshly inducted troops accommodated in tents, which caught fire, resulting in greater casualties.

All these years that Pakistan has relentlessly pursued its campaign in J&K, its position was never weaker than it was around June this year. Low terrorist strength and little excitement among the populace were not contributing towards any of its objectives. The killing of Burhan Wani and the unexpected energy of response by the youth and the public in general spurred Pakistan back to life, sensing great opportunity. However, in the Uri attack and its success beyond expectation it has erred in crossing the Rubicon, the threshold of India’s limit of tolerance. Social media is agog with public response. This response is not going to be informed or rational; it is of the knee-jerk variety, demanding instant action and retribution. No one can explain to the public that these events are to be seen as part of a campaign and not standalone. Since the perception prevails that India has been at the receiving end far too long without adequate response, the pressure on the government and the Army will be tremendous. The emotion may not be as intense as 13/12 or 26/11 but the cumulative effect of perceived inaction will be high.

What options do we really have? Firstly, a hot pursuit kind of operation across the LoC has always been the favorite of the strategic community without identification of terrorist facilities. If it’s the Pakistan army that has to be targeted, then we need to be sure that there will be response and an escalation. Secondly, if it is just the abrogation of the ceasefire, then LoC duels can be played out by both, although we do have advantage at most places. Is it in our interest to escalate and draw attention of the international community to an issue which it is tending to largely ignore? That is a moot point for the consideration of the political authority. Thirdly, the public may not find the more prudent and smarter ways of retribution easily acceptable with consequent effect on the reputation of the government and the leadership. However, what Mr Modi commenced with his reference to Baluchistan in the Independence Day speech may just be the appropriate steps to ratchet up the response. 

In any case, the embers of the fires at Uri have yet to cool and decisions taken when passions dictate the mind are not always the best. Political leaders have made the right noises in terms of recommending shedding of restraint and Pakistan would have to be careful about a quid pro quo from India that is not rational and not in keeping with conventional Indian military thinking. Already online commentaries are examining options, including proactive strategy.

Nawaz Sharif and the Deep State may have succeeded in drawing attention to Kashmir prior to a major annual international diplomatic event but have clearly not read the mood of the world. That mood looks upon nations such as Pakistan with deep suspicion and anything in the sub-conventional domain is unlikely to be supported. The Indian Army will do well not to get distracted from the main task of stabilising South Kashmir, although such a grievous loss of its soldiers is not easy to accept.

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