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Ambush on the LoC: Rethinking the Response

Col Vivek Chadha (Retd) is a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 12, 2013

    During the early hours of August 6, 2013, the relative quiet of the last few months was shattered, when a group of approximately 20 heavily armed personnel, ambushed an Indian patrol about 400 metres across the LoC on the Indian side. Five soldiers were killed and the sixth was injured. Earlier, on January 8, 2013, the Pakistani Army in conjunction with terrorists had carried out an ambush against the Indian Army and beheaded a soldier. In addition to the resultant international outrage, the incident had practically derailed peace talks between the two countries. The ambush, which began as a tactical operation by Pakistan, had a far-reaching strategic impact on relations between the two countries.

    While the ambush of January 8 came in the period preceding general elections in Pakistan, this misadventure comes in the immediate aftermath of the Nawaz Sharif Government taking over power and indicating its intent to restart peace talks with India.

    There have reportedly been 57 ceasefire violations of the Line of Control (LoC) this year, which, according to the Defence Minister, are 80 per cent more than the same period last year, and the number of infiltration attempts have doubled. However, incidents similar to the cross border ambush of January 8 were not repeated, until 06 August. The incident raises a number of issues of concern, which need to be analysed in the perspective of recent events.

    First, the Kargil conflict took place under the watch of Nawaz Sharif and in the wake of possibly the most significant peace initiative led by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Since then, while the Pakistani Army continues to remain the most critical determinant of peace initiatives with India, terrorists within Pakistan have gained ground and have the capability to undertake violent actions at will. The jail break at Dera Ismail Khan is the most recent example of a series of such incidents. This places a question mark on the capacity of the civilian establishment in Pakistan to move forward on any form of peace initiative with India since it is unable to exercise control internally.

    Second, this weakness and helplessness of the civilian establishment in Pakistan is often quoted as an alibi for greater responsibility and restraint from the Indian side. This is considered a pre-requisite for strengthening the hands of moderates within Pakistan and defeating the design of terrorists and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to derail peace initiatives. The imperative of pursuing peace is unquestioned and India has often ignored provocations from the other side in pursuit of peace. However, repeated attacks on Indian soldiers across the LoC cannot be tolerated in one-sided pursuit of peace with Pakistan, as peace is never won from a position of weakness. Such attacks, without suitable counter action in the immediate aftermath, have a demoralising effect on the soldiers for whom pride and a sense of moral ascendency is imperative to succeed while operating under extremely difficult circumstances. It is also gives a message of helplessness to the countrymen who look up to the armed forces as the protectors of India’s territorial integrity. If an ineffective Pakistani civilian establishment and international community feel that such incidents are beyond the control of the Pakistan government and should not become an impediment in peace parleys, then they should also be prepared to accept resultant counter action by the Indian side with the same degree of accommodation. Proponents of an uninterrupted and uninterruptible peace process between the two countries argue that terrorist acts should not be able to derail peace talks. By the same logic, all measures to defeat the designs of terrorists should also not derail the peace process. These measures must include an immediate and proportional response from the Indian side.

    Third, the identity of the people executing the August 6 attack remains unclear at this juncture. These could be: regular soldiers of the Pakistani Army; a combined border action team (BAT) comprising of a mix of terrorists and regular soldiers; and, a group comprising only the terrorists. However, an ambush by approximately 20 heavily armed men in Army uniform, 400 metres inside Indian territory could not have possibly taken place without the knowledge of the Pakistan Army, deployed in close vicinity. Therefore, even if the attack was executed by the terrorists without participation by the Pakistani troops, the complicity of the Army and ISI is a foregone conclusion. All those who have served on the LoC would understand that the preparation of an operation of this nature cannot go unnoticed by the troops deployed along the LoC. The bottom line is that the Pakistani Army is doing nothing to stop the occurrence of such incidents and, therefore, cannot be absolved of its responsibility. It is quite obviously not interested in peace with India.

    Fourth, difficulty of the terrain notwithstanding, the second incident of this nature inside Indian territory this year in the same divisional sector, and the ability of the adversary to achieve surprise and get away with it, raises questions about the defenders’ deployment pattern and field craft. Whereas the units of the holding formation are entrusted with maintaining the sanctity of the LoC, those on the fence are tasked to neutralise infiltration attempts. Any attempt to deploy forces in numbers smaller than tactically desirable on the LoC can make them vulnerable to such ambushes. It needs to be ensured that this fundamental guideline remains the basis of deployment, unless the benefits clearly out weigh the risks involved.

    Fifth, the need to control escalation of such incidents into larger military flare-ups is undeniable. However, this does not preclude a calibrated and appropriate military response. The most suitable response to such incidents is executed at the tactical level of a battalion or brigade. This can best be done if contingencies are worked out in advance and execution of the plan is done with least delay. The tendency to raise the level and look over one’s shoulder for orders is likely to result in no action being taken.

    Sixth, the history of the peace process with Pakistan and the existence of power centres like the Army within the establishment, and terrorists outside of it, clearly indicates the need to remain vigilant even while pursuing simultaneous diplomatic initiatives. Complacency of any kind can have serious consequences and result in avoidable loss of life besides complicating diplomatic initiatives.

    In conclusion, it needs to be reinforced that peace must be pursued with Pakistan. It is also important that any escalation on the LoC is avoided. However, in order to achieve long-term, effective peace, existing weaknesses in the deployment must be overcome and, simultaneously, contingencies must be ready to undertake immediate response at the local level.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.