The Keran episode shows that the jihadists are desperate to keep the Valley on the boil until they can give it their full attention after international troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014
The incidents at Keran have been dubbed as “Kargil II” by the media and the perceived delay by the Indian Army in pushing back the intrusions led to many screaming headlines. But there is no need to go hyper. This was never Kargil II. Kargil had strategic importance because of the Leh-Srinagar Highway and the link with Siachen. The Keran/Shalabatu episode was a clever ploy to push the maximum number of terrorists into the Valley. This is not the first time that Shalabatu has been used for infiltration or concentration.
First, let us understand the ground. The road links to this area are poorly developed because of the terrain and its remoteness. Keran is a generic name being attached to the area because that is the closest tehsil headquarters. In between Shalabatu and Keran is a huge mountain ridge. It is a desolate area that falls between the North Shamshabari range and the Kishanganga (Neelam to the Pakistanis) river. It is so heavily forested that it is not possible to hold the Line of Control (LoC) in this area without deploying a disproportionate number of troops. The fence runs on the North face of the Shamshabari Range approximately two to three kilometres inward from the LoC. The area ahead of the fence has a few posts, but it is mostly dominated by patrolling. The treacherous terrain and forest cover make it easy for terrorists to sneak up to the vicinity of the fence and seek their opportunity. The area on the other side is also not very strongly held by the Pakistan Army. However, stray minefields exist, the jihadi’s occupational hazard.
What is the Pakistan Army attempting? Very simply, it has done an appreciation of the troops available to the Indian Army’s 15 Corps and can assess just how many troops we can spare to carry out eviction operations. The first reaction on the Indian side has to be from troops in flanking locations — areas where the Pakistan Army has not been too successful in infiltration in the last couple of years. These areas give immediate access to the dense Rajwar/Hafruda forest and Lolab Valley that hug the southern slopes of the Shamshabari and are the favourite haunts of the terrorists with sufficient support and caches/hideouts.
What would any Pakistani general do once he makes no headway in traditional areas? He tries to create space there by diverting attention and forcing redeployment of the adversary, in this case the Indian Army. He chooses a point of contact to concentrate upon and reviews the terrain to ascertain if it gives him any advantage. Any military brain can assess that the point of contact should be Shalabatu. Further east in the Machhel area, there is simply no cover, at least not for a sizeable conventional aided terrorist intrusion.
The area roughly between Jumagund Nar and Shalabatu Nar (a Nar is a nullah) is the broad swathe of territory which the Pakistan Army has targeted knowing that it will take some time for it to be discovered. Once discovered, it is not easy to manoeuvre through the jungle and fight a pitched battle. Therefore, more troops have to be called in if the counter infiltration grid on the fence is not to be diluted. This will force the use of troops deployed on the flanks at least for some time thus opening up gaps. Notice the operation near Fateh Gali (25 km south west of Shalabatu) where four terrorists were gunned down by a flanking unit of the same brigade. The infiltrators were simply working to plan. Then came Gujardur, on the north western flank. The discovery of a large cache of weapons along with a huge haul of other warlike stores proves that this was the route to be exploited. The vigil of the Indian Army, being what it is, the plan was stymied.
Why was the Army taking so long? No answers are required. It proceeded professionally and ensure minimum losses. It had to build up strength from the hinterland; roads and tracks here are scarce. Since there were no strategic or operational level losses the Indian Army could use caution and take its time. The Pakistan Army could ill-afford to conventionally build up on such an intrusion because the territory is south of the Kishanganga river and offers little manoeuvring space. Conventional armies hate fighting with a water obstacle right behind them. It also knows that its other major vulnerability, the Neelam (as the Kishanganga is known in Pakistan) Valley Road is under total domination of the Indian Army. That is the road which feeds this area. Even in the worst case scenario, the Indian Army can cut off this road with fire, the painfully long bypasses notwithstanding.
All these are tactical issues. The larger strategic issue is that Pakistan is worried about the Valley. The strength/boots on the ground are insufficient to run an effective Azadi programme. Even if they want to inspire street protests and demonstrations it needs the skills of more than a handful of terrorist leaders. The pot has to be kept boiling. More terrorists are required because without that the movement may be in its dying days. Desperation to a large extent is responsible for the current intrusion into Keran, which could have been used as a base for further infiltration had it not been discovered. Everything is aimed at 2014-15, when international troops withdraw from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and jihadists can turn their attention once again to the Valley.
For the strategic analyst this becomes one more event in the long trail of the Pakistan Army’s “conflict initiation.” It was bound to end as all such events have with “conflict termination” by India. It is good to see public interest at a high but the daily media dose should be informed, without recourse to shrill demands on the Army. Uninformed speculation only aids Pakistani adventurism. The Army knows what it is doing and is doing it well.
(Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain is a former Corps Commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps.)