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Soldiers stare at second winter on border

New Delhi, Oct. 11: The generals are caught between 7 lakh troops on the borders and a government that does not know what to do with its army.

From the snowy heights of Kashmir to the marshy Rann of Kutch, soldiers are digging in for a second winter since the forward deployment under Operation Parakram began in December. The political establishment and defence minister George Fernandes had said the deployment would continue at least till the Kashmir elections.

The elections are just about over but the defence ministry and the army headquarters cannot articulate where the military mobilisation is headed. As the elections neared, Fernandes went on record saying that the polls have nothing to do with the military mobilisation.

One defence ministry source said a Cabinet Committee on Security meeting would discuss Operation Parakram next week after the Prime Minister returns from his tour of Europe. The perception seems to be that the political establishment has not found a justification to withdraw the army that will be fit for public consumption.

Officers say the political objectives under Operation Parakram — vaguely outlined to begin with and appearing even more ambiguous as the deployment was prolonged — have not been achieved. There is little to suggest the objectives were categorically stated.

Operation Parakram began in the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament last year and the army was in position at staging posts by January 11 this year with a speed that even surprised its headquarters.

Neither infiltration-levels nor the intensity of violence in the Valley suggests that the unprecedented military mobilisation has deterred insurgency. The number of militants killed so far this year is 1,440 and is expected to creep up to last year’s level of 1,890. In September-October this year, the army claims to have killed 235 infiltrators crossing over the Line of Control. In this period last year, the figure was 242.

“There is a big embarrassment there,” said one bureaucrat. “But it is something that we dare not speak about aloud in the current political climate.”

He was asked if there were second thoughts in the security establishment on withdrawing the army.

Even in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, members have not been given a briefing on where Operation Parakram is headed. Briefings in the standing committee take place subject-wise and Opposition members of the committee want to raise the issue when discussions on the army begin. “But we want to understand the strategy rather than be unreasonably critical,” one Congress member of the committee said.

In military terms, the onset of winter does not mean that a conflict can be ruled out.

In fact, army jargon describes this period as “the campaigning season”, a time when exercises are held in the plains. In the higher reaches in Kashmir, of course, the likelihood of conventional military conflict has considerably reduced.

The burden of the prolonged forward deployment is primarily on the army. Although both the navy and the air force, too, are within the ambit of the mobilisation, it takes a lighter toll on them. The navy has withdrawn its vessels on forward deployment in the Arabian Sea. The alert level continues to remain high though leave is being granted in all the forces.

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