The Uri Fiasco
NEW DELHI: The Uri Brigade, along with the one located at Poonch, are perhaps two of our most vulnerable formations simply because both these Brigade HQs are directly under observation from Pakistani positions. Uri is where the Jhelum River and the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Highway leave Indian territory and enter POK.
The Uri bowl is dominated by features that are in the region of 1500 to 2000 mtrs and is clearly visible from Haji Pir (yes, the same Haji Pir that was handed 'back' to Pakistan in Tashkent in 1965) - the distance between Uri town and the pass is barely 6 km as the crow flies. This does away with even the need for HUMINT, for the planners of any attack can literally see everything 'real time'.
From the Indian perspective, the overall landscape is a defenders nightmare for the terrain along the LOC is such that there are many mountain streams in the region along which infiltration usually takes place. The noise of the water makes it impossible for ambush parties to detect movement.
Over the years, the Indian side has spent tons of money deploying specialized equipment like HHTI (Hand Held Thermal Imagers) and a variety of sophisticated equipment including ground sensors. The technology has helped in many ways, for the days when large parties of 100 to 120 men would infiltrate in the early 1990s is now history. However, new equipment means new equations in the changing dynamics of the LOC – for Pakistan then began to send in smaller parties of 10-12 men.
This too soon became too large a group and today, the norm is to send in even smaller parties of 3 to 4 men along the traditional routes around Ghikote, Sahora Hathlanla and Gulmarg, which is further towards the north. The north bank of the Jhelum over the years has seen a large number of encounters in the areas of Lachchipura and Maiyan Baihak on the Kazi Nag Dar ridge. It is a wellknown fact that Kamalkote, a village situated bang on the LOC, has been a smuggling village. This is also not the first time that the Brigade in Uri has been targeted…
There was definite Intelligence passed on to all formations in the Valley on 15 September that there was going to be a Fiyadeen attack. What exactly were the circumstances in Uri will only emerge later, but the commanders on the ground should have been aware that any change of guard would be known to the Pakistanis.
The distinct difference in features between Dogra and Bihar troops is a dead give away, and if ones own past experience of having filmed with the Army and the Hizbul Mujahideen in the Valley is anything to go by, they would have even known the names of every officer in at least the out going unit.
To me the most appalling aspect of the entire operation is the fact that troops should be billeted so close to a fuel dump… a stray beedi or a casually tossed cigarette would have had catastrophic results as well. While we must acknowledge that in any Fiyadeen attack, there will be casualties, to lose such a large number of men is simply not acceptable.
Let’s come back to the overall picture… the whys and ifs of the operation itself will sort themselves out, and hopefully the lessons will be learnt.
In the wake of the Uri attack, it is but natural for every Indian’s blood to reach boiling point. Mumbai, Samba, Pathankot… the list is endless, to say nothing of the events in 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and then again in 1999. However, all the sabre rattling (followed by a whimpish ‘run to America and complain’ routine) is not going to take us anywhere. I think its time for the rest of the country to sit up and speak up. If it sounds like the boy who eventually pointed out that the Emperor actually did not have any clothes on his being, so be it.
Now what to do with Pakistan? Much as I hate to say this, retaliatory strikes across the border are highly unlikely to serve any major purpose. Air strikes, however surgical against no matter how well documented terror camps will by their very nature create their own problems. By all means keep that option open, but do not unnecessarily get involved in actions where deniability becomes a problem. So what can we do, and what should we do? Sentiment in India is boiling over and a street fight with a nation that has nothing going for it, economically or otherwise, will only hurt your own equilibrium and mental peace.
However, before we start examining our option/or options, as the case may be, let us first tarry a while and look at sorting out our own house a bit. If we take 1999 as the base year when we fought our last ‘war’, the civil-military equation in India has plummeted to a level where today we are actually in the doldrums. The tussle for supremacy between the babu log and the soldier in Independent India was a losing battle for the man in uniform, but of late, it has reached a level that now borders on the ludicrous.
Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first Prime Minister, and his initial term in office was a nominated one, not an elected one. His own insecurities vis a vis the Indian Army may have led to his famously stating that we did not need an army, a police force would be more than adequate to handle ‘peace-loving India’s’ security concerns. Nehru only said this, and for this remark he has been lampooned, but today’s Government by its actions is actually doing what Nehru had suggested.
Today, it is no secret that the entire security set up is manned by cops and ex Intelligence officers, who with due respect to them, are fairly clueless about what the armed forces are and are meant to be. If we look at the role played by BN Mullik (the Intelligence Chief who was the de facto National Security Advisor at the time) in the build up to the 1962 conflict with China, there is a tremendous feeling of deja vu. Systematic eroding of the Army/Air Force/Navy’s own leadership has today created a situation where frankly half the senior appointments are actually suspect. Just what the hell are we doing? And where are we headed?
When you had Army and Corps Commanders apologizing for soldiers having fired at a vehicle that ran a barricade, what message were we giving to the rank and file? By the same yardstick, what were the sentries in Uri expected to do? Perhaps, had they shot these Fidayeens just that bit early, they would have been ‘kicked in the butt’ by our own system that today has to keep a watchful eye on what goes down well with the electorate. When our boys had been beheaded on the LOC by Pakistani raiders (AK Antony’s famous infiltrators in Pakistani uniforms) I had then advocated telling all company and platoon commanders that they were the bosses of their terrain, under no circumstances need they look back and ask for permission, just do what they think is right and the system will hold their hand. However, to take a stand, you need Generals who are, well, Generals!
These issues have to be addressed… and the sooner the better. The first thing we need to do is stop the insane interference with senior appointments. This Army needs commanders with ammunition under the belt, not puffed up chests with rows of inane medals. You have a few good commanders at the helm, the bulk of your issues will go away and this Army will be a force to reckon with. Forget Pakistan, it’ll be able to handle China as well, but only if we as a people allow it to.
So let us look at our options. In my view, we have to stop thinking like a landlocked nation and look at our entire assets, and the gaze automatically travels towards the Navy. Head to head, the Army and the Air Force more or less balance themselves out, especially when we look at the possibility of a two front war in the event that China gets into the act as well. In the case of the Navy, the ratio is close to 8:1 or thereabouts.
The solution, therefore, seems obvious enough, just blockade the Pakistani harbours and stop all trade as part of an economic blockade. The Navy talks of Blue Water capabilities and frankly, it has never been tested. In Goa, the fight with the Portugese was a turkey shoot and in 1962 it had no role to play even though Sea Hawks and Alizes had been moved up to Gorakhpur in anticipation of air strikes against the Chinese.
In 1965 it did sweet nothing, while in 1971 it did set the cat among the pigeons by attacking Karachi with its missile boats while INS Vikrant played its part in the east. IPKF was when the Navy came into its own, and perhaps the time has now come for it to prove its mettle. An economic blockade will amount to grabbing Pakistan by the neck with our thumb on its wind pipe.
A Naval blockade of Pakistan will also force into the open the hand of the United States. Look at the irony of it, every time a Pathankot or an Uri happens, we run to the Yanks asking them to declare the Pakistanis a terrorist state or a rogue state or whatever the current term in vogue. Of all people the Yanks! We’ve got to be kidding, for all the big talk, the fact is that they continue to underwrite Pakistan’s defence bill, even though a majority of Americans feel they have been bitten by their pet cobra more than once. Today you have China propping up the Pakistani Armed Forces as well, but the bulk of their arms and mutions have traditionally been US. I don’t have a head for figures, but 50 billion dollars worth of handouts by way of military supplies is a lot of cash. India now signs a 15 billion dollar deal with the very same Uncle Sam, and like Maroof Raza says, you land up part financing the terrorists who regularly attack you in Pathankot or Uri.
So what do we have to lose? Pakistan is very much aware of the threat and impact of an economic blockade and they talk of a nuclear response should that happen. Well, they also talk of a nuclear response in the case of cross border raids or air strikes against terrorist camps. By its very nature, a Naval blockade is a measured and calculated step and the situation can be tweaked as events play themselves out. India played the Naval blockade card during the Kargil War and it had Bill Clinton sitting on top of Nawaz Sharif like a flash.
This time too, it would be very interesting to see what happens, especially in light of all the bonhomie between the US and the Indian Government of late. One way or the other, India now simply has to act. Forget about what the world thinks of us, we as ourselves, will not be left with anything even remotely resembling self respect. More than anything, we owe it to the men who guard us.
(Shiv Kunal Verma is the author of 1962: The War That Wasn’t and The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why)