Indian army 'backed out' of Pakistan attack

Posted in India | 20-Jan-09 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

A Pakistani soldier stands guard in a bunker in the village of Subhan Khaur. The head of India's army confirmed that Pakistan has redeployed troops along the two countries' tense border but said he regarded war as a "last resort. "

NEW DELHI - Reluctance for battle by an ill-prepared army could have resulted in India not launching an attack on Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pakistan-linked terror attack in the Indian city of Mumbai on November 26 in which nearly 200 people died.

High-level government sources have told Asia Times Online that army commanders impressed on the political leadership in New Delhi that an inadequate and obsolete arsenal at their disposal mitigated against an all-out war.

The navy and air force, however, had given the government the go-ahead about their preparedness to carry out an attack and repulse any retaliation from Pakistan.

Over the past few weeks, it has become increasingly apparent from top officials in the know that the closed-door meetings of top military commanders and political leaders discussed the poor state of the armory (both ammunition and artillery), and that this tilted the balance in favor of not striking at Pakistan.

According to senior officials, following the attack on Mumbai by 10 militants linked to Pakistan, India's top leadership looked at two options closely - war and hot pursuit.

Largely for the reasons cited above, the notion of an all-out war was rejected. Hot pursuit, however, remains very much on the table.

The government sources say that a framework for covert operations is being put in place, although India will continue to deny such actions. Crack naval, air and army forces backed by federal intelligence agencies will be involved. The target areas will be Pakistan-administered Kashmir and areas along the Punjab, such as Multan, where some of the Mumbai attackers are believed to have been recruited.

The coastal belt from the southern port city of Karachi to Gwadar in Balochistan province will also be under active Indian surveillance.

Thumbs down to war

Following the Mumbai attack, New Delhi's inclination was to launch a quick strike against Pakistan to impress domestic opinion, and then be prepared for a short war, given the pressures that would be exercised by international powers for a ceasefire to prevent nuclear war breaking out.

The expectation of New Delhi was that the war would go beyond the traditional skirmishes involving artillery fire that take place at the Kashmir border, essentially to check infiltration by militants, or the brief but bloody exchanges at Kargil in 1999.

It was in this context that the army made it apparent that it was not equipped to fight such a war, given the military's presence along the eastern Chinese borders, and that India was at risk of ceding territory should an instant ceasefire be brokered with Pakistan.

This would have been highly embarrassing, not to mention political suicide for the Congress-led government in an election year. So instead, New Delhi restricted itself to a strident diplomatic offensive that continues to date, and the option of hot pursuit.

The air force, on the other hand, was confident that it was prepared to take on the first retaliatory action by Pakistan, expected at forward air force bases along India's borders in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Indian-administered Kashmir. The role of the navy in the operations was not clearly defined, but it was to cover from the Arabian Sea.

Not ready to fight

Various experts, former generals and independent reports have voiced concern over the past few years about the state of preparedness of the Indian army.

For example, the Bofors gun scandal of the 1980s stymied the army's artillery modernization plan, with no induction of powerful guns since the 1986 purchase of 410 Bofors 155mm/39-caliber howitzers. The army has been trying to introduce 400 such guns from abroad and another 1,100 manufactured domestically, without success.

The latest report by the independent Comptroller and Auditor General said the state's production of 23mm ammunition for Shilka anti-aircraft cannons and 30mm guns mounted on infantry combat vehicles lacked quality. Further, supply was nearly 35% short of requirements.

India's huge tank fleet is in bad shape due to a shortage of Russian spare parts, while indigenous efforts, such as the main battle tank Arjun, have failed.

Signs of trouble emerged during the Kargil war when it was revealed that India's defense forces were dealing with acute shortages in every sphere.

In remarks that underscored the problems, the then-army chief, V P Malik, said his forces would make do with whatever was in hand, given the fears of a full-scale war that was eventually avoided due to pressure by America, then under president Bill Clinton.

The Kargil review committee report noted, "The heavy involvement of the army in counter-insurgency operations cannot but affect its preparedness for its primary role, which is to defend the country against external aggression."

Although there have been attempts to hasten India's overall defense modernization program, estimated at over US$50 billion over the next five years, gaping holes need to be plugged, including corruption and massive delays in the defense procurement processes.

India's defense expenditure has dipped below 2% of gross domestic product for the first time in decades, despite experts pegging 3% as adequate.

Other defense arms are in dire need of enhancement. Fighter jet squadrons are much below required strength, while the bidding process for medium fighter planes has only just begun and may take a few years to complete.

Meanwhile, the prospects of an India-Pakistan conflict are not over. India's army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, said last week that Pakistan had redeployed troops from its Afghan border to the western frontier with India. "The Indian army has factored this in its planning," Kapoor said.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist and WSN editor India. He can be reached at [email protected]