Army Today

Thoughts on Operation Parakrama

The year 2002 was a watershed year for strategic studies in India. The centerpiece of the year was the near-war with Pakistan. The crisis gave people in India their first glimpse of what a conflict with Pakistan would entail. Two items that stood out in plain sight were Pakistan's capacity for nuclear aggression and the Western attachment for Pakistan.

After the Kargil war, Indian analysts had concluded that the conventional threat from Pakistan had receded. The Pakistanis had attempted to portray their Kargil invasion as a successful attempt to disrupt National Highway-1A and as a serious dent to India's ability to defend Siachen. This was untrue, Kargil imposed a high military cost on the Pakistanis, and alerted the Government of India to the vulnerability of NH-1A. The Indian countermoves to this foreclosed the possibility of ever challenging the NH-1A or threatening India on the Saltoro Ridge.

After the Kargil failure, the elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was toppled in a military coup in October 1999. General Pervez Musharraf, COAS of the Pakistan Army appointed himself as the 'CEO' of Pakistan. In doing so, Pervez Musharraf discredited any institution in Pakistan that could appear to be an alternative to the Pakistan Army and brought about a de-facto Praetorian state.

The coup was poorly received in India. According to Indian analysts, General Musharraf is the quintessential post-1971 Pakistani soldier. He is strongly driven by a desire to avenge the terrible defeat of 1971. He is also a great believer in guerrilla warfare and has a long history of practicing it. In the 1980s, Pervez Musharraf used his expertise in the 'stay-behind' operations for the CIA funded Afghan Jihad. In the 1990s this very same 'stay-behind' capacity was used in sponsoring terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir and in supporting the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In contrast to the Indian perception, Musharraf's American friends loved him. They lent his government considerable support. With American media support, General Musharraf successfully portrayed himself as a 'Western Gentleman' living in 'a poor Pakistan'. This image doctoring was necessary to assuage Western anxieties that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were not in the 'wrong hands.' Indians knew that the West was blind to Pakistani sponsorship of terror in India, but this media jamboree was considered disgusting.

Indian analysts felt General Musharraf was the textbook insurgent. He disliked meeting an adversary in the field and he would use deception to avoid this. The ease with which Musharraf deceived the West seemed a sign of terrible things to come. It was also generally accepted in India that Musharraf would not relinquish the use of terror in the pursuit of Pakistani security goals. Most people in India compared General Musharraf to General Zia ul Haq, dictator of Pakistan in the 1980s. General Musharraf had a long association with General Zia and it was thought that they shared a common vision for Pakistan. General Zia had envisioned using a religiously motivated Army of Islam, a Jihadi Army, to fight India. His idea relied on using these Jihadis in conjunction with Pakistani Special Forces to carry out sabotage behind Indian lines. The Pakistanis felt that a 'stay behind' force would be able to soften the ground under India's feet. This in turn would either create a state of extreme communal distress in India or quite possibly unbalance any Indian offensive.

The Pakistanis didn't feel that these 'unconventional' operations would guarantee success in the battlefield. Thus emphasis was also placed on maintaining a huge conventional army in Pakistan. In the 1980s this conventional army was armed with a lot of imported high quality equipment and drilled in several types of military manoeuvres. Pakistani strategists had concluded that the Pakistani conventional forces despite appearances would be unable to hold-off a determined thrust by the Indian Army. To make up for this failure, the Pakistanis spent the bulk of the 1980s clandestinely procuring, developing nuclear weapons and its delivery systems. So the basic model of Pakistani strategy was a layer cake. The Army of Islam was at the bottom, on top of that was the uniformed army and above that was the nuclear weapons development and delivery community. Throughout the 1990s, Pakistan's economy crumbled, the ability to maintain any sort of conventional armed forces declined and confidence ebbed. By contrast nuclear weapons development boomed, several new delivery platforms were developed and in 1998 Pakistan tested some nuclear devices within weeks of India's tests. In the months that followed General Musharraf's coup, the Government of Pakistan released details of its nuclear doctrine through favourable sources. An interesting series of scenarios appeared from a reputable American institution. These scenarios fell along the following lines:

  • A terrorist act in India forces it to launch a major offensive against suspected camps in POK.
  • The Pakistani Army stands firm and slows down the Indian advance.
  • Indian numerical superiority breaches the Pakistani defense lines.
  • Pakistan uses a nuclear weapon on the Indian spearhead and stops it.
  • At this point the international community intervenes and stops the conflict.

Irrespective of the feasibility, a key element of the scenarios was that Pakistan still relied on its conventional armed forces capability to deflect any Indian military punishment for Pakistani terrorism in India. This sort of thinking gave the Pakistani Army a psychological edge to hold over the Pakistani people. This edge was necessary since Musharraf used the Army to run the administration. Therein lay the paradox; an army cannot be combat ready while running civil affairs. So while the Indian Army drilled and conducted gigantic manoeuvre exercises, the Pakistani Army went about its day collecting unpaid phone and utility charges, tracing fraud in land transactions, and cleaning the drains and streets in Karachi, etc. This fact went unnoticed by most observers in the region. Ordinary Pakistanis perhaps believing their own army controlled press, refused to acknowledge the subtle message the Indian Army exercises seemed to be sending.

However, Pakistani military strategists understood exactly what Indian exercises were saying. They wanted to build up their capacity to resist this but they lacked money. The failing Pakistani economy could barely support the cost of running the secret Army of Islam and the clandestine nuclear program. The only way to pay for conventional arms was to somehow 'revitalize' Pakistan's economic relationship with the United States. The tragic events of 11 September 2001 proved to be just the opportunity for the Pakistanis to gain US favour. On 12 September 2001, General Pervez Musharraf abandoned his creation, the Taliban. He offered the Americans his total support in their 'war on terror'. By leveraging his support, Pervez Musharraf was able to arrange for the withdrawal of most of the Pakistan Army units that were operating in Afghanistan. He was also able to secure the release of a vast number of fighters from the Army of Islam constituents like the Harkat-ul-Mujaheddin. This sudden policy shift predictably created a severe strain within Pakistan, but General Musharraf used his contacts within the Jihadi groups to carefully arrange demonstrations and used the media coverage of this to hold out the prospect of an Al Qaida sponsored Islamist coup. In this way, Pervez Musharraf was able to scare the Western countries into supporting him. Ironically as the tattered remains of the Army of Islam returned to Pakistan from Afghanistan in October 2001, they fulfilled General Zia's vision and created a large standing army in Pakistan.

Throughout the 1990s, Indian strategists had come up with several countermeasures to the 'unconventional' warfare used by Pakistan. Against that backdrop most Indian strategists simply did not believe that Musharraf was serious about his promises to the Americans to fight Islamists in Pakistan. From an Indian perspective, it seemed obvious that Musharraf would use the India-Pakistan conflict to deflect any Jihadi pressure that might build up inside Pakistan. The events of October 2001 and 13 December 2001, proved this to be correct. As news of these attacks broke, public anger in India mounted. The author feels that at this point the Government of India simply had to find a way of telling Pervez Musharraf that he could not dump his problems with the West on India. Something had to be done to make sure that the Pakistani Army could not shove all the Jihadis coming back from Afghanistan into India. Unfortunately for the GoI, Musharraf and the Jihadis interpreted diplomacy to be a sign of weakness. It was a generally accepted fact that they only understood the language of force. The public distaste for Pakistani terrorism legitimized the language of force. The question before Govt. of India was which instrument of force best sends the message. The Government most probably considered the following options:

  1. Activate a number of punitive measures that stop industry in Pakistan or,
  2. Start a campaign of covert action, which rips the fabric of Pakistani society or,
  3. Carry out limited cross-border strikes on centers of terrorist activity or,
  4. Initiate a theatre level conventional manoeuvre and cripple the Pakistan Army.

The first option would be ineffective in the face of American economic support for Pakistan. The second option would take time to take effect, in the interregnum the Pakistanis would be egged on to further their campaign of terror. The third option was once considered very reliable, but over time the Pakistanis had consolidated their infrastructure and that limited this option. The fourth option was considered very workable but in it lay the possibility of a breakdown of deterrence. It could also be successfully argued that the first three options would eventually push India and Pakistan up the ladder of escalation. All things considered it would have been extremely unwise to wander up the ladder of escalation unprepared. It is the author's opinion that at this point the GoI simply picked a point on the escalatory ladder that it was comfortable with and aimed policy at that one point. The Govt. of India ordered a massive military mobilization. Within a week, several corps formations left their peacetime stations. The author feels that Pakistani ground intelligence teams could not keep track of all the moves. The Pakistanis were now faced with the possibility of an invasion. They responded with their own mobilization but soon discovered severe logistical problems. So as the Pakistani army fumbled about constructing new defense lines. The Indian Army quickly occupied pre-arranged positions along the western border. Pretty soon the futility of their situation was apparent to the Pakistanis. The size and speed of the Indian mobilization stumped them. On the Indian side deterrence calculations were underway. The author feels that a plausible scheme for conventional manoeuvre below the nuclear thresholds set by Pakistan could have been something like this

  • The Indian Armed forces launch a strike that breaches enemy lines.
  • The Pakistani forces quickly send their forces towards the breach.
  • These Pakistanis take heavy casualties as India forces numbers through the breach. This causes the entire line to weaken.
  • Sensing the collapse of the entire line the Gen. Musharraf orders his units to disengage and pull away for a nuclear strike.
  • At this point the Indian units disengage also and merely hold land that they have taken without actually advancing further into Pakistani territory.
  • The proven ability of the Indian Army to operate in an NBC environment and to carry out a counter strike would act as a deterrent to Pakistani nuclear use.

Such a manoeuvre would create a highly visible failure that General Musharraf would be unable to deflect blame for. Musharraf would lose face with his people. It is possible that with American support General Musharraf would be able to survive this event, but the Pakistani Army would lose its standing in society. The author feels that General Musharraf was aware of this and thus expanded cooperation with the Americans and in return probably obtained current intelligence on the positions of India's formations. He also used a lot of his built up political capital with the US to pressurize India's government and its economy. As it was possible that this would not stop India, the author guesses that General Musharraf also conceptualized the following countermove to an Indian strike:

A screening force comprising some units of the Pakistan army meets the Indian thrust as it penetrates the forward defense lines.
The screening force is soon supplemented with a large complement of Jihadis.
The Jihadis carry out suicide attacks on the Indian spearheads and remain in continuous contact with the Indian units.
If the Indian attacks do not stall due to the human wave, Musharraf would then deploy a nuclear warhead. The Indian Army unit would have no warning, as the enemy would not disengage before the device was used.
After this point Musharraf reasoned that international pressure would stop the war.

There were some crucial points in this response. A regular army contribution to the screening force was essential. This meant that someone sufficiently highly placed within the Pakistan Army had to lead the troops against the Indian thrust and die in the nuclear strike if it materialized. It comes as no surprise to the author that such an idea did not actually find support in the Pakistani Army General Staff. The author suspects that the lack of support for this idea forced Gen. Musharraf into making nuclear threats. In a public speech around new years day 2003, Gen. Musharraf told his top military commanders that he had told India's Prime Minister Vajpayee that he would attack Indian troops in an 'unconventional' way if they crossed any of Pakistan's borders. Gen. Musharraf insisted that his threat caused India to back off. For its part the US also played a major role in ensuring a strong disincentive to conventional manoeuvre by India. Reports appearing in the media indicate that not only did the US supply the Pakistanis with intelligence information about India's military formations; it also applied tremendous diplomatic pressure on India. When this proved to be inadequate, the US applied economic pressure to India. Most of this pressure was relayed through elements of India's export industries. The US essentially assured General Musharraf that despite any suspicions of his involvement in the September 11th terror attacks, it would do its bit to 'even out' the fight between him and India, and it stuck to that promise. The immense enthusiasm displayed by some people in India for American peace initiatives was noteworthy.

It is hard to ignore that as far as India was concerned, General Musharraf had just publicly announced that the conventional army of Pakistan was utterly incapable of defending its borders. General Musharraf had in plain words told Pakistan that he would have to initiate a nuclear war if need be to protect his army from harm. This reversed the whole notion of the Pakistani Army being a force that takes the bullet to save the lives of fellow Pakistanis. In addition to this Gen. Musharraf gave a crucial assurance to clamp down on the activities of the Army of Islam and even agreed publicly to an end to infiltration. Irrespective of whether the promises were kept, this degraded the standing of the Pakistan Army and Gen. Musharraf in the eyes of the Pakistani people. The prevailing impression of Pervez Musharraf as being a man of infinite malleability grew. Having publicly made all these statements, Pervez Musharraf was now caught in a difficult position; a climb down would force him to tell the Pakistani people that they can't fight India and without a climb down he would have to depend totally on the Islamists and the Pakistani nuclear weapons to remain in power.

In conclusion the author feels that it is unlikely that Musharraf could sustain the cost of a climb down, so he will chose to remain high up on the ladder of escalation. This step will strain his relationship with the West and it will totally restrict any attempt to carry out conventional aggression against India ever again. The possibility of unconventional warfare launched at General Musharraf's behest remains open. This will need a completely separate set of strategic tools to handle, however the mobilization by itself has made infiltration quite difficult as most the LoC and the border are quite heavily policed now. The author feels that Operation Parakram has achieved its set goals. However certain sections of the population retain an impression that Parakram was a failed attempt to physically invade Pakistan. Such an impression is not unusual in the fog of war. This impression needs to be dispelled to avoid miscommunication of India's intentions. From the perspective of strategic study also Operation Parakram is a valuable contribution. It highlights crucial aspects of the 'war of ladders' that is commonly seen in conflicts with a backdrop of WMD based deterrence.

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