Cocking A Cross-Border Snoot

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The air violation by a Pakistani helicopter in Poonch Sector of J&K on September 30 may well have been to cock a snoot at India as government was having a three-day extravaganza to celebrate second anniversary of the surgical strikes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was warning Pakistan through ‘Mann ki Baat’, and a day after EAM Sushma Swaraj raised issue Pakistani terrorism at UNGA saying, “The demon of terrorism now stalks the world, at a faster pace somewhere, a slower pace somewhere, but life-threatening everywhere. In our case, terrorism is bred not in some faraway land, but across our borders to the west. Our neighbour’s expertise is not restricted to spawning grounds for terrorism; it is also an expert in trying to mask malevolence with verbal duplicity.”

The white coloured helicopter had intruded 700 metres inside Indian airspace flying quite high and was engaged with small arms fire, after which it flew back. POK’s PM Raja Farooq Haider Khan claims he was in the helicopter but when Indian side started firing, his helicopter was already back in Pakistani airspace. Such a report could well be to dramatize the air violation. The 1991 India-Pakistan bilateral agreement lays down that rotary wing aircraft will not fly within one km and fixed wing aircraft will not fly within ten km of each other’s airspace. A pilot flying the POK PM would obviously be much more careful. Incidentally, the last time a Pakistani helicopter flew close to the LoC, without crossing it, was in February 2018 before during the previous Pakistani regime.

War of words and rhetoric has mounted over past few days in the India-Pakistan context, both warning the other. Pakistan is playing its usual subterfuge of wanting peace while ceasefire violations have commenced and some 250 terrorists are reportedly waiting to infiltrate into J&K. The Defence Minister has warned Pakistan and the Army Chief has hinted that another surgical strike is merited. The Home Minister has hinted that ‘something has happened’ and that he has asked BSF to not fire the first shot but not to count the bullets when retaliating. That ‘something’ is obviously referring to cross-border firing because BSF is neither trained nor organized for trans-border offensive operations.

Government celebrating second anniversary of surgical strikes in big style without celebrating the ‘first’ anniversary last year similarly has drawn flak this year celebrations are political gimmick for garnering votes. Similar is the reaction to the Prime Minister lauding armed forces in his Mann ki Baat for the first time in four years plus. In case of Pakistan, Imran Khan has proved to be the army’s puppet, as was expected, with Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa calling the shots. US may cut financial aid but Pakistan has China’s continued backing and Suadi Arabia will help Pakistan financially including joining in CPEC projects.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has defended Beijing’s repeated blockage of India’s bids at the UN to list Masood Azhar, JeM chief as global terrorist, under pretext of lack of “consensus” amongst UNSC members as well as “directly concerned” parties – India and Pakistan. Masood Azhar is accused of masterminding several deadly terrorist attacks in India, including one on the Uri army base in J&K during September 2016 killing 19 soldiers, in retaliation to which India launched the surgical strikes in the same month. China, in its statement, said that since Pakistan didn’t agree with India on this issue, there is no “consensus” between the two directly affected parties. Beijing made it clear that China will support the issue only if Pakistan agrees with India. The stipulation of Pakistan to agree to brand Masood Azhar global terrorist is laughable but proves the extent to which China will back Pakistani terror. In this backdrop India signing ‘Internal Security Cooperation Agreement’ during upcoming visit of China’s Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi will remain a paper exercise.

So what has India been doing since the September 2016 surgical strikes? Local level commanders do extract revenge to the extent possible but we are talking about pro-active action at national level. The government has been maintain that forces have been given a free hand. In a TV interview on September 30, General DS Suhag while lauding the two-year old surgical strikes was asked by the interviewer whether India can do another surgical strike. His answer was instantaneous: ‘Yes, it can be done anytime”. Luckily for him, the interviewer did not ask if we can do it anytime and forces have free hand, why haven’t we done something like this again and again? In fact, that is the question on the lips of the nation much as some describe surgical strikes with the pet cliché of having “broken the glass ceiling”. If indeed we broke the ceiling, which itself is questionable considering cross-border actions have been ongoing past decades, what is the hitch now?

There is speculation that hysteria is being built to undertake operations in the run up to elections, for obvious electoral gains. However, we failed to realize covert operations are not to be publicized. Moreover, advance beating of drums for another strike is naïve because it alerts the enemy compromising future operations, unless the drum beating is only for rhetoric with no intention of launching any operations. The porosity of borders are two-way and does provide opportunities to both sides; success depending on the sector and target (s) chosen, level of initiative, quantum and manner of force application and surprise maintained.

Whatever the government is planning, it must carefully examine levels o possible escalation while calling Pakistan’s bluff. Notwithstanding Wuhan Summit, Xi Jinping is facing pressures at home including pressure to not come for a reciprocal informal summit to India before the 2019 general elections. Chinese should not be trusted at face value. This does not mean we should not act against Pakistani terror; we must time and again, but in well calibrated fashion. It is as important to go after the perpetrators and supporters of jihad in the Kashmir Valley.

Prakash Katoch is third generation army officer hailing from Himachal Pradesh. He is former Lieutenant General from Special Forces and post retirement has published over 1300 articles on international affairs, geopolitics, military, security, technical and topical issues besides authoring two books. He is active in seminars at both national and international levels.

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