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'We were ready to punish Pakistan'

By Colonel Anil Athale (retd)
March 01, 2005 14:07 IST
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The December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament by Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorists brought the subcontinent to the brink of war.

Despite the campaign of disinformation promoted by the Indian doves, everyone knows the Lashkar is not a secret organisation.

Headquartered at a sprawling campus at Muridke, near Lahore, its annual rallies are attended by a million people. The outfit gets donations from across Pakistan on Muslim festive occasions, and is known to have close relations with the Pakistan army.

Lashkar vows to disintegrate India 

Thanks to the bravery of the guards at Parliament and a slice of luck (the car bomb failed to detonate), the attack that aimed at killing/taking hostage a large number of MPs failed, though the vice-president had a narrow escape.

This failure saved the subcontinent from war. It is doubtful if war could have been averted if they had succeeded in their mission.

In the next 48 hours, India ordered the mobilisation of its armed forces and began to move them to battle stations on the Indo-Pak border. The operation was codenamed Parakram.

Under normal circumstances, the armed forces expect at least 7 days notice before being ordered to deploy for war.

That is the job of India's external intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). But this time, both RAW and the Intelligence Bureau (responsible for internal security) were caught napping, and the armed forces had to move without any warning.

India's major strike formations, including the armoured units, are located at least 800 km away from the border. Soldiers stationed in the east are even further away.

The Navy too needs that kind of time to move to battle stations.

The Air Force can be ready relatively quickly, but even they have to reposition maintenance units as per battle plans.

In the best of circumstances, this move to the border and preparations last anything between two to three weeks. Thus it would be fair to assume that the armed forces were ready and raring to go only by the first week of January 2002.

Parakram cost put at Rs 6,500 crore

Neutralising Pakistan's nukes

To be fair, the attack on the Indian Parliament apparently came as a surprise to Pakistan as well. The immediate Indian deployment and threat of conventional attack caught Pakistan on the wrong foot.

Despite its advantage of shorter lines of communication to the border, Pakistan was slow to react to the Indian move. Since India initiated the move towards conflict, it is to be assumed that Indian nuclear weapons were also kept in state of readiness.

While India's stated policy is of no first use, it does not mean we have to wait for the first Pakistani nuke to fall on an Indian city. With satellite and MiG-25 based surveillance in place, India must have been closely monitoring the movement of Pakistani nukes.

Given that Pakistan has a smaller arsenal and also a small geographical area for its deployment, the only chance for Pakistan to use its nuclear weapons is to launch them in a surprise attack without warning and then hope to stall the Indian retaliatory strike with a combination of world pressure for restraint and its own defensive preparations.

In the case of Operation Parakram, as India moved first, a surprise attack was not possible. World pressure now mounted on Pakistan to observe nuclear restraint.

With a huge presence on Pakistani soil and in the Arabian Sea nearby, the Americans were in good position to prevent Pakistan from using its nuclear weapons.

India thus achieved a major success by virtually neutralising Pakistani nukes and gained space to fight a conventional war on its own terms, where it has a degree of superiority.

According to Major General Ashok Mehta (retired) the Indians were ready by January 7, 2002, while Pakistan was still off balance.

Op Parakram: The balance shifts

It is likely that to stall the Indian offensive, around that time, Pakistan may have made some moves to ready its nuclear weapons for use. In response to this then Indian Army chief, General S Padmanabhan, went public with an explicit threat on January 11, 2002.

'As long as I am alive, if nuclear weapons are used against India, or Indian forces, or the forces in the seas, or our economic interests, the perpetrator of the particular outrage will be punished, punished so severely that his continuation in any fray will be in doubt,' the general said.

Indian generals rarely speak, and when they do, the Pakistanis take them seriously.

It appears that the general-speak had the desired effect, and Pakistan lost the nuclear initiative.

General Musharraf's speech on January 12, 2002, accepting some of the Indian demands may well have resulted from this nuclear standoff.

It is obvious that India was not satisfied with Musharraf's concessions. There also may have been a school of thought that this time around India must act.

India was on brink of war twice

India's options

January/February is the ideal time for India to act against Pakistan. Due to the snow bound passes of the Himalayas, the chances of Chinese intervention are minimised. This also enables India to thin out the troops from that border.

But despite the rhetoric of 'Aar Paar Ki ladai' (decisive battle) it seems clear that India may well have wanted to only 'punish' Pakistan, and not destroy it.

There are several options on the J&K border to carry out a limited offensive.

Attacks in the direction of Muzzafarabad or Skardu are well within Indian capability. But doing this could invite a retaliation elsewhere. The Indian deployment all along the border was essentially to forestall this possibility.

Army planned offensive in PoK in January 

The most likely scenario worked out in 1987 (during the Brass Tacks exercise) was a Pakistani counterthrust in the Sialkot area. To respond to this India could use its superior tank force to advance in Sindh and cut Pakistan into two.

These moves and countermoves as well as behind the scene diplomacy went on throughout January and February.

With the neutralisation of Pak nukes and the readiness to deal with conventional threat in Punjab by February 2002, the Indian army was well set to 'punish' Pakistan on the Kashmir front.

But then Godhra happened.

Image: Uday Kuckian

Next: Did Godhra Save Pakistan?

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Colonel Anil Athale (retd)