Army Today

About Valour and Glory: "Operation Parakram"

For any meaningful exercise to analyze and understand the sum and substance of Operation Parakrama, a close look at India’s approach to national security from the time it emerged from colonial rule would be necessary. A historical perspective is essential for grasping the psyche of the country’s leadership, or for fathoming the determinants of ‘national will’ or for assessing the attitude and capability of the Military as an instrument of national policy.

Even before we had gathered our wits after our tryst with destiny at the stroke of the midnight hour, the nation’s territorial integrity was imperiled. Tribal militias supported by the Pakistani Army had invaded Kashmir. A valiant rearguard action saved Srinagar. The ensuing counter offensive was aborted mid-stream and we accepted a UN imposed cease-fire along a line that divided Kashmir into two. The cease-fire in a way legitimized Pakistan’s aggression. Thereafter, Pakistan since then has politically and diplomatically ceaselessly laid claim to the rest of Kashmir. And in the pursuit of its claims Pakistan has not hesitated to use military force whenever in its perception opportunity came its way.  The Pakistani offensive of 1965 and the recent Kargil adventure plus the ongoing support to militancy in J&K, for more than a decade now, confirm the preceding observation.

In contrast, we have displayed uncommon passivity. We have rarely claimed that Pakistan must vacate the areas of Kashmir that it had occupied in 1947/48. We have never declared a national commitment to recover the territory lost to Pakistan nor have we ever indicated our resolve to use force if persuasion and dialogue does not elicit a commitment to amicably withdraw from Kashmir. For inexplicable reasons we have remained wholly defensive on the issue of Kashmir. This largely explains the absence of serious international support to our position on Kashmir. Marked by ambivalence, uncertainty, an absence of focus, and occasional bouts of submissiveness our Kashmir policy generally mirrors India’s approach to national security. The 1962 debacle against the Chinese only further proves the point.

Never in our history have we been proactive in the pursuit of our security interests. 1971 and the liberation of Bangladesh is frequently cited as the only example of the nation’s leadership managing the country’s defense with exceptional resoluteness and a commendable clarity of purpose. But here again, what is glossed over is that we were essentially reacting to an unfolding situation brought about by Pakistan’s genetic gift for self-destruct. Not that we are without our own masochistic streak. In the Shimla talks we failed to carry our success to its logical conclusion by not pushing for a binding agreement on Kashmir. The pain of that error still persists.

The country’s characteristic predilection for flip flop is also discernible in our acquisition of nuclear capability. Otherwise, how does one explain our going into the ‘sleep’ mode for 24 years after our first nuclear explosion in 1974? Or the suo moto declaration made by us after going overtly nuclear in 1998 that we shall not indulge in any further nuclear explosions when the capabilities that we need to develop a credible nuclear deterrence would require further testing.

We are not certain but perhaps there is only one exception in the Indo-Pak military stand off, before Parakrama, when the Pakistanis were apprehensive of our intentions. This was the time when we were conducting ‘Exercise Brass Tacks’. Otherwise, in our mutual history of over fifty years we have forever remained on the defensive. The totality of ‘Operation Parakrama’ should not be divorced from this disposition and background.

In Operation Parakrama, we see the cumulative effect of events and unrelenting instigation that have been discernible since the 1990s. That we have refrained from reacting for more than ten years is a reflection of what India is – an amalgam of infinite patience, tolerance, a marked capacity to drift, inertia and most notably a lack of self-confidence amongst its leaders, that prevents them from taking decisions.   

The terrorist attack on our Parliament, coming as it did after 9/11 was the proverbial last straw. We were left with no alternative but to react. What we are debating today is the timing and the methodology of our reaction and not the justification.  Were the political overdrive and the rhetoric that went with it, warranted? Could the military mobilization have been calibrated differently? Was the nuclear dimension ignored or considered only as an afterthought? And what about the diplomatic repercussions? Did these considerations receive the importance that they deserve as we moved the Armed Forces to their battle positions?  And what about Pakistan? The core of the problem! Had we figured out its possible reactions so that we remained one step ahead as the situation unfolded? The answers to these questions and many more would determine whether Operation Parakrama’s intellectual and conceptual parameters were fundamentally sound or not.

Without letting the innumerable, uncoordinated and often contradictory statements of our leaders color our judgment let us look at the mobilization of the Armed Forces that began somewhere around mid December last year. Such mobilization is undertaken basically for two contingencies. As a defensive measure if a military threat is feared or for using force against an adversary in consonance with identified national aims. In the case of the latter, the threat of use of force is inherent. Ideally the threat should suffice. Which is what the US is hoping for in the case of Iraq. Whether it will succeed is anybody’s guess. It requires enormous skill and adroitness in psychological warfare. The recent news of a haven for Saddam Hussein in Russia is a classic example of the levels of sophistication required to use the instrument of threat effectively. But if threat does not work, it is almost certain that force will be used at an appropriate time.

The threat of use of force was implicit in our mobilization if Pakistan did not consent to abandon support to militants and terrorists operating inside India. On this issue there are really no divergent views. Where there is a difference of opinion is on the next step - the actual application of force. There are many who firmly believe that the threat was enough and war was rightly avoided. The flaw in this position is much too obvious but as frequently in life here too, logic and right gets sacrificed at the alter of maturity, pragmatism and some vague notion of statesmanship. It does not matter if we are labeled as a ‘paper tiger’ or a soft, spineless nation or even if Pakistan gets encouraged to be even more reckless in its support to terrorism. Hopefully, the hand of fate will intervene. Maybe it is already beginning to, if one were to look a little deeply into recent events involving the exchange of fire between American and Pakistani soldiers.

If war or the use of force was not an option then we would have been wise to commence withdrawal on January 12, the day the Pakistani President declared in his address to the nation that he would not permit the use of his country’s soil for terrorism and support to Jihadi groups. That would have been action according to a design. Mission accomplished and troops back to barracks. Continued deployment, if the application of force was never seriously on the agenda only permitted the shock effect to wear out on Pakistan and was without any corresponding benefit to us. The temptation to appear wise after the event is difficult to resist! 

There is considerable satisfaction to be drawn from the purely military dimension of Operation Parakrama. From all reports, the total mobilization of the Armed Forces was smooth and was accomplished according to ‘book timings’. It was perhaps for the first time that a mobilization of this magnitude was undertaken with the urgency that a ‘zero warning’ war situation demands. All agencies involved in the implementation of this deployment for war, deserve credit.

Again, in training and fine-tuning battle procedures, the Armed Forces would have benefited significantly during the period that they remained deployed. It is understood that a deliberate effort was made to gainfully utilize this opportunity for honing individual skills, integrating battle groups and for rehearsing likely operational roles. Similarly, issues of coordination among the three services would have been addressed. Altogether, the combat potential of the defense forces would have decidedly grown during this period. This is a big plus.

It is reported that the state of equipment of the three services also improved considerably during this period. The process had begun during the Kargil War but Tehelka and the CAG reports had slowed the process. Parakrama would have again emphasized the vital importance of keeping the defense services well equipped. The issue of wear and tear of equipment due to extended deployment, it appears, has been exaggerated. Admittedly, there would have been some deterioration but on balance the equipment state at the end of any such crisis improves. What is now important is to maintain the momentum and not let the process of acquisitions slip behind schedule. The rate of build up of capability will have a corresponding effect on Pakistani morale. A preponderant force ratio in our favor will also give us greater flexibility and thus more military options. Our ultimate aim should be to acquire a punitive capability so that Pakistan can be coerced into giving up its covert war strategy and become more amenable to accepting that India cannot give up Kashmir.

Morale has been a subject of concern because of the protracted deployment. It would be unfair to assume that the military leadership would not have been alive to this problem. Some sections of the media have talked of low morale. Such reports are baseless and should be desisted from for they do not have any constructive intent and can be harmful. Military morale is an infinitely elastic phenomenon and the nation must recognize its responsibility towards lifting the morale of its soldiers. Those who know the Indian soldier are aware of his resilience and the little that it takes to keep him motivated. The odd incidents of indiscipline or soldiers running amok are being blown out of proportion. In such situations, some stress and monotony is bound to occur. Similarly, there would be the inevitable questions by a few on the purpose of being kept out on the front with nothing apparently achieved. Our officers have a tradition of leading from the front and these are issues that they can handle. After all, they have been doing this successfully for the last fifty years. Yet, a word of caution; it would be unwise for the society, the bureaucracy and the political leadership to not have a sense of responsibility towards our Armed Forces and a commitment to honor and care for them. There is plenty that the nation should do to further motivate its priceless soldiers, sailors and airmen. Just because they continue to deliver uncomplainingly, they should not be taken for granted.

While it is rightly contended that the deployment did not achieve the declared aims of Pakistan stopping its support to militants and terrorists and the release of some of our wanted criminals and terrorists, Parakrama was not without a definite impact on Pakistan. Our rapid and massive build-up on the border and the mobilization of the Air Force and the Navy unsettled that country. Our recognized conventional military superiority made the Pakistanis apprehensive about the outcome of a war. Behind the shrill claims of a devastating riposte if India dared to attack, the symptoms of fear were becoming increasingly discernible across all strata of Pakistani society. After all, President Musharaf’s historical turn around in January last year was not without reason.

The winds of change in Pakistan have since begun to blow. They may yet be mild but if fanned sensibly, they can gather sufficient strength to bring about a reorientation in Pakistan that sees the wisdom of living in peace with India. Uncertainty can be debilitating to a nation’s psyche; this time the Indians withdrew but how can we be sure that the next time there is a provocation India does not attack Pakistan? Any attempt to match the conventional military strength of India will definitely bring about the economic collapse of Pakistan and its nuclear brinkmanship does not seem to be working. Will these realities lead to a petering out of the proxy war in Kashmir with the passage of time? And what else should we do to further trigger the change? Our future strategy must hinge around the answers to these questions.

Internationally, Parakrama focussed the arc lights on India’s threshold of tolerance to Pakistan supported terrorism. While there may not have been worldwide acceptance and endorsement of our position, we can claim reasonable diplomatic success from the overall outcome. We have today quite a few nations led by the US trying to convince Pakistan to stop support to terrorism and at the same time chastising Pakistan for its irresponsible utterances with regard to weapons of mass destruction. Some of us may feel that the US is merely stringing us along and not doing enough to pressure Pakistan. If that is so then we need to do more to bring Indo-US relations on a more even keel.

Within India it is strange that the end of Parakrama went virtually unnoticed. But should we have expected differently? For the withdrawal coincided with the end of elections in J&K and the beginning of the election campaign in Gujarat. The core of India is electoral politics; national security or for that matter, development are peripheral issues. Unless this changes, the future of India will remain hostage to political vagaries.  

The military is now back in its barracks after staying on alert for almost a year. It deserves to now rest and recharge for a while. Even while it does so it cannot let down its guard. Come summer and the call of duty may again beckon.  

This piece appeared in the India Defence Review and is presented here with the permission of the editor. 

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