New Delhi: While the September 18 militant attack on an army camp in Uri has raised the political temperature between India and Pakistan, defence experts also think that the Centre and the defence ministry took too casual an approach to intelligence reports describing the threat to the camp and also did not take action to properly fortify the camp despite the heightened alert. The current toll from the attack stands at 18 soldiers killed and the army has instituted an inquiry into one of the bloodiest attacks the army has seen in recent history.
Defence experts The Wire spoke to insist that the army should shed its defensive mindset and actively patrol areas beyond its key installations in order to prevent future attacks. They also demand that the Technical Response Division, which was started when General Deepak Kapoor was the army chief, be revived to improve human intelligence gathering in Jammu and Kashmir as well as New Delhi.
Most defence experts also believe that there is a need to provide some level of protection to J&K state police personnel too since they’ve had to abandon their excellent intelligence network after militants started targeting officers and their families.
Ajai Sahni, an expert on counter-terrorism and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, believes that the casualties India suffered at Uri were largely the government’s fault. “The finance department had for years and years not sanctioned money for building a wall around this Uri campus. You just had a barbed wire fence around and that was also in a state of decay. Also, you also had completely exposed tented accommodation for troops in movement,” he alleged.
Questioning the logic behind India going for advanced equipment when it cannot even provide rudimentary facilities for its troops, Sahni said anecdotal findings have revealed that there are a large number of military, para-military and police camps that need to be relocated.
“Those considerations have clearly not gone into identification of these locations. Just like Uri, a BSF [Border Security Forces] camp which was located at the base of hills and was completely exposed was attacked a few years ago. The location of this Uri unit of the headquarters was also not the most desirable. Such an establishment should be located in a position which dominates the ground,” he said.
He said that although erecting a barbed wire fence all along the Line of Control (LoC) has definitely helped in curbing infiltration, it was not quite enough. India and Pakistan share a 3,640 km border of which 2,900 km is the International Border while 740 km is the LoC in Kashmir. Almost the entire border has been fenced up at this point.
India is also planning to install Israeli radars to improve its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the difficult terrain. Just last month, India firmed up its decision to acquire Foliage-Penetrating Radars (FPR) from Israel to strengthen its security.
These radars are said to be used for detecting human and vehicular activities in dense forests. It is a significant acquisition for the Indian armed forced, as it can impact and restrict the infiltration of militants into Indian territory through the LoC.
Sahni too insisted that such attacks could be curbed through the use of better equipment, policing, more efficient deployment of forces and by providing improved fortification and set-up locations to the military and para-military forces. “Most of these places were identified during probably times of peace. They are not established with the clear intent that whether this location is the most defensible.”
Unkept promises to review installations
Early this year, after the Pathankot air base was attacked in January, defence minister Manohar Parrikar constituted a five-member committee, led by army vice-chief Lieutenent-General Philip Campose, to comprehensively audit security at major installations in the country. Even though the panel claimed that it submitted its report, Sahni said it appeared unlikely that the government held a nationwide audit of its security installations.
“I don’t think they have done that. I have not seen any such report. The purpose was to just announce it. Nothing was done about it. There was a review of the Pathankot airbase incident and they did itemise the deficiencies but they did not go anywhere beyond it. There has been no national review,” asserted Sahni.
Former journalist and defence expert Colonel (Retd.) Ajai Shukla said “the army has a very effective counter infiltration grid and has reduced infiltration to the bare minimum but it will never be feasible to cut it down to the last infiltrator.”
He believes that while the army has been quite successful in reducing infiltration and should be proud of what it has done, the entire issue of securing the border needs to be looked at in totality. “[The] army has a lot of high tech equipment on the ground. But even so you still cannot cut off every last infiltrator. There is a physical limitation. There are areas which are so rugged that equipment does not go [there]. There is snow that sort of damages equipment and renders it unworkable. You are struggling against all these constraints along the Line of Control.”
Fifth major strike since 2004
The Modi government knows this all too well. The Uri attack is the fifth major strike since 2004. First there was an attack on a cavalry unit in Samba in which ten people were killed; then three security personnel were killed in an attack on an artillery unit in Janglot in March 2014; then terrorists attacked a police station in Gurdaspur in July 2015 and this was followed by the Pathankot airbase attack on January 2 this year.
While the border fence has been successful in reducing the infiltration to some extent, it has also been subjected to breaches.
Major General (Retd.) Dhruv C. Katoch, former director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and a well known defence analyst, said that the wire fence proved to be very effective in 90% of the cases, especially when it was covered by electronic means and protected by troops. But at other times, he said, it was not impenetrable and infiltrators managed to cross it. “Even the Berlin wall and the wall built by Israel at its Palestinian border have not been 100% fool proof,” he reasoned.
However, along with the fence, if the ground infantry is armed with handheld equipment like thermal imagers and night vision devices, which they have been getting, he said that would be an effective deterrent. When it comes to rivers and ravines, Katoch said the forces require other equipment like laser walls, but he cautioned that when the weather is bad most of the systems collapse and so the human element remains the most important.
It is pertinent to note that India is also acquiring laser walls to secure its border with Pakistan. In April this year, a dozen such laser walls were operationalised along the international border in Punjab, especially to prevent infiltration via rivers and other difficult terrain. The BSF has drawn up plans to install 45 such laser walls to begin with.
Noting that despite having access to the best of surveillance equipment, “sometimes a terrorist has a good day”, Katoch said the problem with noting the success of the security agencies is that it can never be recorded. “What if Kasab and company who attacked Mumbai [had] been eliminated at sea? There would not even have been a blip on the news.”
As far as the fence is concerned, he said, India may be at the optimal level but with the Pakistani army and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) bent upon pushing in militants, the need of the hour was improving local intelligence.
“Once the militants are inside Indian territory, local intelligence becomes important. Earlier [the] J&K police was very effective but then the Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan told the militants to target the police and their families and this has impacted operations,” he said, calling for urgent steps to reverse this trend.
Bring back the tactical support division
Katoch also noted that “when Deepak Kapoor was the army chief, he had suggested that we must create this Tactical Support Division in the army for gathering intelligence. It had just started when V.K. Singh became the chief. There is a great deal of linkage between what happens in Delhi and what happens in the Kashmir Valley. The TSD was targeting people both in New Delhi and in the Valley. But it was disbanded and this was a very negative step. People said it was disbanded because it was spying on ministers but they did not have any technical equipment despite being called [the] Technical Support Division. They were not into secret tapping of phones or other such things, they were into human intelligence. Now that human intelligence has dried up, you are no longer getting information from ordinary people. There is no reason why it (TSD) should not be recreated. It is a security requirement.”
Focus on the outside
A base can never be secured from the inside, said Katoch, adding that it has to be secured from the outside. “You need to be 3 to 5 km out so that you know of any movement in advance. This is especially true of places like the Valley. Your focus has to be on the outside. Put your ambushes out. Have patrolling there. And if anyone is coming there, you have to knock them off. If there is collateral damage, so be it. Because otherwise what you are risking now is too much, what you are risking now is war. In a proactive scenario, these four terrorists in Uri would have been taken out outside the fence. But in the absence of one, they managed to enter and inflict enormous damage.”
Calling for an “offensive mindset” as far as posts are concerned, he said that soldiers who act in right earnest also need to be protected. “For a soldier, there is nothing worse than such legal proceedings. The civil society should also understand that when an Army operates in such a scenario, things can go wrong. But you cannot go after them when they are acting in right earnest and are not indulging in any rights violation or crime.”
Time for action
Defence experts differ on how India should respond to the Uri strike.
Katoch said “any counter measure that India takes must take into account that the militants are punished hard and so is Pakistan military which supports them. The message will go out. Both sides will take casualties but so be it. You can target the militants in their bases and the military along the LoC. The target will only take place once there is precise intelligence, just the way the Americans targeted the Taliban chief in Afghanistan. The message should go out to Hafiz Saeed that you are a dead man and that we are going to get you.”
Also within India, he said, “we need to sort out their sleeper cells and there should be special courts to try such cases quickly.”
Sahni for his part said he was not a votary of surgical strikes. “There are several more sensible options. One must ask oneself why are you doing this. Is there a clear objective or is it just a revenge attack?”
He cautioned that “if you have a few punitive strikes it would escalate the demand among the jingoists in Pakistan to have a comparable or a disproportionate retaliation. You cannot predict where it will go. Will you slip into war?”
In such a scenario, he said, one should adopt a strategy in line with the proverb, ‘revenge is a dish best served cold.’
“Military offensive is not the only offensive tool available to you. There is a wide range of harm that you can do to Pakistan which you are not even exploring. Like, there is a protracted war model of gradual economic, social, political, diplomatic and administrative attrition. People are talking about isolating Pakistan, doing it social harm. It is a very fragile society. All the instrumentalities which are required to harm it are available there. You just have to play the role of a catalyst.”
But, taking a dig at Modi for his flip-flops on Kashmir and Pakistan issue, Sahni added, “for that you must first have a strategic perspective. You must decide if you have to go to Mr Nawaz Sharif’s birthday party or recognise that Pakistan is an irreducible adversarial state which seeks to do us permanent harm over a long term. And that no amount of having tea and toast with them would change this.”