There are lessons for the media and the Army in the reporting and dispensing of information on the Keran operations

Pakistan has upped the ante along the Line of Control (LoC) and the international border in the Jammu sector, and public and media interest in the operations in the Keran sector continues. Despite the Army’s statements and clarifications, there is still some unhappiness at the highest levels. The situation demands greater clarity from those who know the ground and the dynamics and can relate it to the larger issues concerning the position in that State.

Infiltration and intelligence

The first of the questions. The Army said it had intelligence on a possible attempt at infiltration and was prepared. So how did a large group manage to come in, and from multiple points? The answer is quite simple. Intelligence does not always mean the specifics to an area; intelligence on the likelihood of an infiltration is mostly generic, remaining as such almost through the campaigning season. An earlier article, “An ambitious ploy in the heights” (Op-Ed, October 9, 2013), explained that Shalabatu lies ahead of the LoC fence in a treacherous forested area that has only a few Army posts, and to deploy soldiers in this area would mean having an additional unit. This has been the situation in the past too, and any attempt by terrorists to establish bases to infiltrate across the fence has been thwarted with high-trajectory and airburst ammunition. It is worth remembering that there is no such thing as “Zero Infiltration”; this is not terrain in which it can ever be guaranteed even with the presence of force multipliers such as thermal imagers and surveillance radars. Any further increase in the density of troops on the LoC fence, even in a priority area, would not result in the desired dividends.

Further, there is a vast difference between infiltration and the movement of terrorists into an area between the LoC and the LoC fence. Such movement makes no tactical gains and is eventually defeated. This has been a time-tested system through the adoption of the technique of the “limit of infiltration,” which remains the LoC fence. In some places and situations, the Army permits terrorists to breach the fence and then bottles them up between the LoC fence and our own counter-infiltration positions behind the fence. All this falls in the domain of minor tactics and deserves an informed analysis.

The next observation is the repeated weakness during times of handing/taking over between units and how information on turnover is leaked. Security of information in the digitised world is a matter of concern. The Indian Army always has accurate information about similar activities across the LoC. And there are enough sources in our rear areas, not to forget local porters from the border areas who return to their villages every night, who report things like the movement of our convoys, change of dependency in the administrative echelons and even about bank accounts. This information can only be limited but not denied, and we need to be clear and realistic on the limits of counter-intelligence. There have been two instances since 2011 when terrorists backed by Pakistan Army regulars struck under such circumstances — at Shalabatu in July 2011 and in August 2013 in the Sarla complex of the Poonch sector. The recent stand-off at Shalabatu is only an infiltration attempt backed by Pakistani regulars and is an annual ritual which the Army is always prepared for. No doubt, at the time of relieving units there are supposedly weak moments especially in command and control. However, there are strict and clear orders to that effect and command and control continues with the older unit till the last day. A system of on-the-job training exists where relieving troops join the outgoing troops in all operational activities.

Where did the bodies go? This is a question everyone seems to be asking. There probably wasn’t any at the outset and someone forgot to use that famous term which all intelligence agencies and experienced staff officers use — “uncorroborated and unconfirmed.” Had the information that was given first to the media been used with this prefix, there would not have been questioning at the culmination of the operations. More significant is the fact that someone used terminology in a general way, that is, “cordon” to explain the conduct of the operation ahead of the LoC fence in the area up to the LoC. Cordons are never laid in the vicinity of the LoC because these can at best be U-shaped, with the open-end towards the adversary across the LoC. This is because you don’t expose your men towards the LoC, especially when the LoC itself is not manned in that area. So, even if there were bodies it is very likely that they were carried away through the open-end of the U. Was it worth risking the lives of troops for the sake of a few dead terrorists? It was more important to keep the LoC fence strongly manned to prevent infiltration than employ these troops for search operations until reinforcements came in.

Understanding operations

Why was the Army taking so long and what was happening between October 2 and 8, the last contact at Shalabatu being on October 2? It needs a simple response, taking into consideration the basics of counter-terror operations. These operations are far from conventional operations where signals of success are given.

Here, there was actually no requirement to even mention the termination of operations; it was just a change in tack and of methodology. Counter-terror operations don’t just terminate in an area, they get transformed. Everyone here realised that there were linkages to the ongoing operations on the flanks. However, in this world of satellite-based maps and Google Earth, the media does need to spend time on research. Gujarthur is not 27 km from Shalabatu — that may be the distance by road. In such areas, tactical reactions are not along roads but along jungle and mountain tracks. In fact, Gujarthur, where the second contact with the terrorists took place, is on the edge of the crescent-shaped ridge line which dominates the Shalabatu bowl. There are linkages between all such operations and the Army needed to spend enough time on the alert in the extended area. What the unnecessary and completely uninformed media pressure achieved was a premature announcement of a termination of operations. There is no such black-and-white announcement in such operations; they just carry on, increasing and decreasing in intensity on the basis of intelligence, operations on the flanks, the degree of fatigue to troops and the limitations of logistics.

On vacation of posts, in all probability there is much confusion on the issue of posts along the LoC fence which are at best temporary positions and manned by even buddy teams at times. They are vacated and reoccupied on the basis of threat perceptions and intelligence and are never held permanently. There is no chance that a well-established post such as Kulhari could ever be vacated.

The media does a fine job of reporting inadequacies, but this should be done after proper research; hence the need for mediapersons to attend local training programmes. What the Army should resort to is the correct usage of terminology and the right balance in its media releases. Brawn and brains apart, semantics is a part of the LoC battle. This has not been realised for far too long.

(Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain is a former Corps Commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps.)

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