Understanding The Poonch Skirmish
The savage beheading of two Indian soldiers in Mendhar by Pakistan Army regulars on January 8, 2013 has once again brought the volatile Line of Control (LoC) into sharp focus. The shrill and acerbic television debates following the incident has divided analysts into two groups: one, which is demanding tough action including ‘limited war’ against Pakistan and the other cautioning against further escalating tensions with a nuclear-armed neighbour. Lost in the din however, is the fact that the LoC, which was once described by former US President Bill Clinton as ‘the most dangerous place on earth’, has witnessed several low and high-intensity clashes between the two armies since 1948 and even in the past five years. In fact, small arms fire and artillery duels between the two sides were a regular feature up till November 2003, when both sides signed a ceasefire agreement. The barbaric nature of the present incident, which has perhaps led to the greatest escalation along the LoC in the past decade, has raised many questions on the motives of the Pakistan Army behind the grave provocation. This article attempts to examine the tactical situation which was obtaining along the Line of Control in the past four years.
The incidents of ceasefire violations have seen a steep rise from 28 in 2009, 44 in 2010 to 51 in 2011 and 71 in 2012. However, a close look at these violations by Pakistan since 2003 will bring out the fact that most of these incidents have occurred in areas south of the Pir Panjal Range or in the Jammu division. And the Krishna Ghati sector of Poonch district (in which the two soldiers of 13 Rajputana Rifles were killed on January 8) accounts for a lion’s share of these violations. This is because of two simple facts, one, the Pakistan Army enjoys a relative tactical advantage in this sector by virtue of its occupation of certain dominating ridges overlooking the Indian defences and two, the major terrorist camps and launch pads at Tattapani (Hotspring) and Kotli are located close to the LoC across Mendhar. Krishna Ghati sector, especially the Mendhar belt, has been a traditional route for infiltration as the slopes along the LoC are thickly wooded and several gaps exist at places where the Mendhar river and other small nallahs flow across the LoC to join the Poonch river in PoK. In the past four years alone several infiltration attempts have been made in this sector even though the number of active militants in the twin border districts of Rajouri and Poonch has virtually come down to less than 50.
The intensity of cross-LoC firing had picked up in the summer of 2008 when a Gorkha battalion deployed at Nangi Tekri had suffered a few casualties in Pakistani firing. On June 20, 2008, the Pakistan Army reported that four of its soldiers had been killed and three grievously injured by ‘unidentified’ persons opposite this battalion area. Even since, Pakistani troops in this sector have been regularly opening small arms and on some occasion even rocket and mortar fire on Indian defences to either aid the militants, or out of frustration when infiltration bids are thwarted by Indian troops. One Army soldier and one BSF personnel were killed and six soldiers injured in five major incidents of firing by Pakistani troops in this sector in the year 2009. On September 9, an Army Major made the supreme sacrifice while foiling an infiltration bid in Mankote in which two LeT militants were killed. The incidents of ceasefire violations were relatively lesser in the following year though infiltration bids by militants continued. At least 10 incidents of ceasefire violations by Pakistan were reported in the year 2011.
Pakistani firing again picked up in the summer of 2012 with at least 14 major violations occurring till November. A marked difference in 2012 however was that unlike in previous years, the intensity and frequency of firing had increased sharply and on some occasions intermittent exchange of fire continued for a stretch of two to three days. On June 11, a BSF personnel was killed in firing by Pakistani troops. Two days later, Pakistani troops of a Mujahid (irregulars) battalion again opened fire from their Roza post killing an Indian soldier. Three more soldiers were injured when the Pakistanis opened fired on a column which had gone to retrieve their comrade’s body. The exchange of fire continued in the entire sector for five more days and on June 16. The next five months saw seven incidents of ceasefire violations and an infiltration bid was foiled on September 27 resulting in the killing of two LeT militants. On October 11, another infiltration attempt was foiled in Mankote. The next round of escalation by Pakistan began on November 25 when its troops fired more than 7000 rounds of heavy and medium machine gun on 10 Indian posts in this sector. The firing even triggered forest fires along the LoC. After a brief lull, firing again picked up on December 6 and continued for another two days. A group of 8-10 militants believed to be from the LeT was making repeated attempts to infiltrate but was not successful. Two militants from this group and two Pakistan Army soldiers were believed to have been killed in retaliatory firing by Indian troops on December 9. However, there is no official confirmation from either side on the death of Pakistani soldiers. On December 25, an Indian soldier was shot dead by sniper fire while on duty at Neelum post in Mankote. The denouement to the gruesome January 8 incident commenced on January 3 when Pakistan opened fire at Chajja Man and Roshni and Nangi Tekri on January 5.
As has been mentioned previously, bulk of the ceasefire violations have taken place along the LoC in Poonch (in particular Krishna Ghati followed by Saujian and Balakote sub-sectors) and in RS Pura and Samba sectors along the IB in Jammu. In contrast, the number of ceasefire violations in the valley can be counted on the fingertips. The calm has only been momentarily shattered in Naugam sector in July 2008 when one Army soldier was killed in Pakistan Army firing. Then the months of July and August 2011 saw a few violations in Keran and Machal sectors in Kupwara. On July 30, 2011, three Indian soldiers were killed and the bodies of two of them were beheaded in a raid by Pakistani troops. The firing once again intensified on August 30 when a Junior Commissioner Officer was killed in Pakistani firing. The Indian troops retaliated by killing at least three Pakistani soldiers belonging to a Mujahid battalion deployed at Saheli post.
As is evident, incidents in Poonch sector were following its own tit for tat dynamics and unrelated to Uri sector which was involved in its own local tactical dictates, when on October 16, 2012, Pakistani mortar fire killed three civilians at Churunda village where an Army post is also situated close-by. Ever since, intermittent exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistani troops became a routine occurrence in this area. A flag meeting between the Commanding Officers of the two battalions which was held at Kaman Post in Uri on November 22, 2012 also failed to diffuse tensions with the Pakistani Commander affirming that “Pakistan reserves the right to open fire, if India constructs any new bunker.” The village was fired upon again on January 6, 2013. This time, the Indian troops retaliated effectively and one Pakistani soldier was killed and another sustained injuries in the firing. Pakistan claimed that its troops had opened fire in Uri because India, allegedly, had constructed some observation towers and bunkers at the zero line. Though, it seems that Pakistan was only making these false allegations to escalate tensions as it would have been unwise for the Indian’s to erect any structure at lower elevations, and that too on the LoC, in an area which is dominated by Pakistani pickets on the Pir Panjal Range. The Pakistan Army in any case has been constructing several observation towers since 2003, especially in the IB sector. Also, Pakistan had in a previous instance violated the ceasefire in the same sector when on August 1, 2009; two Indian soldiers were injured in sniper firing from across the LoC. Surely, no structure was being constructed then.
The above incidents show that a pattern had emerged in repeated ceasefire violations and infiltration attempts by Pakistan in the Krishna Ghati sector in the past five years and that the grave provocation by carrying out the beheading of soldiers was not a proportionate reaction to these regular incidents which had remained localised to that sector or to the one in Uri on January 6. In both sectors, which are, in any case widely separated by the Pir Panjal Range, Pakistan has been the perennial aggressor and it belies logic for them to avenge any alleged provocation by the Indian Army.
Importantly, therefore, the sudden escalation should be seen in light of the obtaining geo-strategic environment in the Af-Pak region. The present provocation may well be the beginning of a series of attempts to ; one, bring the Kashmir dispute back into focus and re-ignite the dying embers of militancy in Kashmir by infiltrating more militants; two, Pakistan appears to be confident of US dependency on it to provide human intelligence against their arch Al Qaeda foes ; three, Pakistan is attempting to buy peace with its arch FATA foe, the TTP, whose chief has called upon his lieutenants to cease fire against the Pakistan Army; It has also called for a joint TTP-Army action to avenge 1971; four, Pakistan would need to divert militants of all descriptions to its favoured haunt (Kashmir) to get them off their back. This will also allow it to concentrate on carving out an effective end game in Afghanistan, where, blood-letting along ethnic, sectarian and other diffused lines, is likely to erupt, over the next few years. Without getting into the response options for India, it would suffice to make two short observations: the Indian Army in J&K today has a much more effective three-tiered counter-infiltration grid to tackle any rise in infiltration attempts than what was in place in the 1990s. And, like in the past, the costs would be higher and more prohiibitve for the Pakistan Army in the event of a general breakdown of the ceasefire.
By Rohit Singh
(The author is a Senior Research Associate and Special Assistant to the Director at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi)