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Pullback awaits justification ammo

New Delhi, Oct. 14: The boys may be back home by Diwali but it is not yet time to bring out the firecrackers.

Key figures in the security establishment are meeting formally and informally ahead of a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) sitting this week to decide whether or not to send the army back into the barracks. The men have been out there in the trenches for 10 months since India’s military machine rolled into offensive locations all along the western front.

The CCS is likely to meet on Wednesday.

National security adviser Brajesh Mishra is to steer the discussions and shape the decision. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, home minister L.K. Advani, defence minister George Fernandes and external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha will work on inputs from the services chiefs, the National Security Advisory Board and the intelligence agencies before an announcement.

Army headquarters has told the political leadership that its men are ready to be on the borders for as long as it takes. Officers point out that the deployment for the 1971 Bangladesh war had also lasted months before General Manekshaw finally went for the offensive on December 3.

But in seven months in 1971, India built up a massive inventory so that when war finally broke in the eastern theatre the Indian Army was an estimated three to four times stronger than the Pakistani.

Military observers say it is unrealistic to expect such asymmetry now. At the same time, winding down the largest-ever military mobilisation without tangible and advertisable gains can run into controversy.

As of now, the wind is blowing in favour of a pullout. But the establishment is looking for justifications that will go down well with the public and the Opposition. This is a complex exercise because the political tension between New Delhi and Islamabad, that snowballed into the military mobilisation called Operation Parakram, is still far from dissipated.

“The circumstances that led to the mobilisation and the reasons outlined at the time are still unchanged,” a highly-placed officer said.

“But the successful Jammu and Kashmir elections provide us with the best possible reason to de-escalate,” he added.

Operation Parakram — which the Centre calls “India’s war on terrorism” — peaked twice to near-war minus the shooting. The first time in December last year, after the attack on Parliament, when a pirouette of military moves and bellicose statements from both sides of the border was unwound with General Pervez Musharraf’s address on January 12.

The second was in the first week of June after an attack by militants on May 24 on an army establishment in Kaluchak. That, too, was defused by Vajpayee after his return from a trip to Kashmir where he first threatened war (in Kupwara) and then said “the skies were clear (of war clouds)”.

In January, India gave Islamabad a list of 20 militants it wanted Pakistan to hand over. In June, India’s campaign against cross-border infiltration reached a crescendo. As the CCS meets, there is no sign that Operation Parakram is close to achieving any of these objectives.

“I do not think you can reduce the aims of Operation Parakram to just these two,” the officer said. “We have been able to make two points very clearly — first, that Pakistan cannot side with terrorism on its west while fomenting it on its east and, second, we have been able to conclude the Jammu and Kashmir elections in a credible manner.”

Sources said the security establishment is also likely to consider reducing forces on the western border to the level of a “trip-wire deployment” while not de-escalating along the Line of Control.

“We will have to keep our powder dry,” one officer said. The responsibility for de-escalating will have to be entrusted largely to the army.

The air force has been gradually relocating part of its assets to peace locations for the last three months “but we are still far from being half-way back home”, as one source put it. The navy pulled back its vessels from the north Arabian Sea more than two months ago.

The de-escalation could be gradual. Special trains to transport men and material back will have to be requisitioned. The Border Security Force, which was under the operational command of the army, will revert to its original hierarchy — the BSF reports to the home ministry. Along the western border, which the army had mined thick and deep, de-mining will take weeks.

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