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Army spits fire, wonders if Pak wants to reactivate LoC

- Chief swears vengeance at place and time of choosing

New Delhi, Jan. 14: India will avenge the “pre-planned and premeditated” mutilation and killing of its soldiers by Pakistan at a place and time of its choosing, army chief Gen. Bikram Singh said here today.

The Indian Army will respond in the areas where the Pakistanis raided — at the “tactical level” — as the chief put it. The beheading and killing of the Indian soldiers on January 8 “was a tactical operation that was planned much in advance and it has strategic nuances”, Singh said.

In military jargon, “tactical level” can mean either a localised armed conflict or an armed conflict in which heavy weaponry is not massively deployed. But Singh said the military “was still analysing if the Pakistan Army wants to reactivate the LoC”.

The army chief’s statements and background conversations with other officers paint a still-evolving picture with suggestions of some definite clues.

One, the army appears to have concluded that the beheading was carried out by the Special Services Group of the Pakistan Army with the knowledge of the general headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Two, the army wants to retaliate without escalating tension. This might mean more firepower for the forces and flexibility for commanders on the ground. The upshot could be more instances of firing across the border.

Three, the army is yet to take a final view on the reason for the beheading. It is trying to figure out if Pakistan wants to reactivate the LoC. A few more instances of escalation would confirm such a suspicion, which will have implications for not just India but also for America’s war on terror as it will give Islamabad an excuse to shift troops from its border near Afghanistan to Kashmir. For the past two days, the Pakistan Taliban have been speaking of granting immunity to Pakistani soldiers.

In swearing vengeance, Bikram Singh acknowledged that the institution of the Indian Army had been scarred by the January 8 raid and despite words of restraint from the political establishment, the military was honour-bound to redeem prestige.

But the army acts as an extension of state policy and the chief could not have made the strong comments without a nod from the political leadership that would want domestic concerns to be addressed without precipitating matters.

“I expect my commanders on the Line of Control to be aggressive and offensive in the face of fire. They are doing a wonderful job. Their response is always measured and for effect,” he said.

The army chief admitted that the ceasefire on the Line of Control agreed in November 2003 was strained with a violation reported once every six days in 2011 and once nearly every three days in 2012. But, he said, the violations were reported mainly in the sectors under the army’s brigades in Poonch and Uri.

The army chief confirmed that the January 8 incident was not the first in recent years in which an Indian soldier was beheaded. On July 30, 2011, two soldiers of the 20 Kumaon were said to have been mutilated and beheaded in an attack by militants at Keran in north Kashmir near Farkiyan Gali when their battalion was handing over charge to the 19 Rajput.

“I have given very categorical directives to the (northern) command. When provoked, we shall act immediately,” he said.

The army chief began his news conference by saying that the slaying of the Indian soldiers was “unpardonable”. He said there had been no operation by the Indian Army against any Pakistani position on January 6, as alleged by Islamabad.

On the other hand, Islamabad fabricated a version of events that would make the January 8 raid look like a retaliation, he alleged.

“The attack on January 8 was premeditated, a pre-planned activity. Such an operation requires planning, detailed reconnaissance,” Singh told the news conference ahead of Army Day on Tuesday. By his own estimate, the Pakistan Army could have taken up to two weeks to plan the raid.

Singh said the Indian Army was opening retaliatory fire and that in the last four days, two Pakistani soldiers were said to have been killed. The Indian Army will not seek to unravel the ceasefire so long as the Pakistan Army respects it, he said.

The strategic implications of the tensions on the western stretch of the LoC are grave. The Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi was reported to have moved nearly 70,000 soldiers from the LoC to its undefined border with Afghanistan or for counter-insurgency operations about nine years ago.

With firing along the LoC increasing, the Pakistan Army could consider redeploying these forces. Singh said the Indian military establishment was still evaluating what could have motivated the Pakistan Army to undertake the January 8 raid.

Such uncertainty about the Pakistan Army’s motives would tell on the Indian response. India does not unilaterally want to escalate tensions on the LoC but wants to retaliate.

This makes it difficult for the Indian Army to shape its fire-support and assault and defensive plans. It will also keep the army guessing on which new sectors along the LoC the tensions could impact.

The Indian foreign office is keen that the ceasefire — which it calls the biggest confidence-building measure between the two countries — does not crumble immediately.

Foreign minister Salman Khurshid had warned of this on Saturday when he said: “There’s a much larger situation... the situation demands very responsible and sensible and moderate behaviour. We’re not going to be pressurised by wild calls for revenge and reaction. We will do what is in the best interest of the country and peace, keeping in mind that there is a lot at stake.”

The Pakistan Army was also considering a revision of its doctrine by saying that its home-grown militants were as much of or a bigger threat to it than India. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has responded by saying that it will send its volunteers to Jammu and Kashmir.

Singh said he was mindful of the domino effect of ceasefire violations. He said a decision to go to war rested with the government but the Indian Army has to maintain its “moral ascendancy” and action against the unethical breach of ceasefire rules of engagement.

He said the Indian Army’s local commanders would determine the response.

“We have responded to ceasefire violations and they have been measured… commanders on the ground will decide where and what will be done based on ground realities,” he said.