x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

On Line of Control, this is no time to abandon restraint

The latest incident on the Line of Control is part of a sadly long record of India-Pakistan belligerence. The people who live there deserve better.

Back in the mid-1980s, when I was commanding an infantry unit and we moved to Chamb, along the Line of Control in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, ceasefire violations were common but predictable. Firing across the line was the standard way new Indian and Pakistan units greeted each other. Usually these were brief flashes that did not amount to much.

A few years later, in the early 1990s, when the insurgency in Kashmir was gaining power, I took command of a brigade in the Kel Valley. This brigade defended about 130 kilometres of border, extending to virtually the farthest corner of Azad Kashmir.

By then, things had changed. Exchange of fire across the border by all kinds of weapons, including heavy artillery, was a daily occurrence.

The only road to Kel ran through the valley, along the Neelum River. In two sectors, Titwal and Neelum, Indian posts overlooked this road, and traffic in and out was frequently targeted. The brigade commander was, needless to say, a favoured target - I was fortunate to cross it numerous times uninjured, though two of my drivers were injured on different occasions.

I left the region in 1993, but have stayed in touch with Pakistani officers charged with defending Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. And what's clear is that while tensions remain high, they remain so for very different reasons.

What we have been witnessing for the last couple of years is what I'll call a "Kashmiri Intifada" led by the youth - those who hid under their beds to witness their mothers and sisters being raped, fathers and brothers taken away or killed, frequently by Indian security forces but sometimes also by so-called "Freedom Fighters" sent by Pakistan.

These young people hate Pakistan a little less than they hate Indians and, they want freedom.

During the last few years, incidents of firing across the LoC had been reduced because of two factors: Pakistani militants are no longer crossing over; and Indian forces have directed their attention to inland security issues.

There were only 18 cross-border incidents last year, compared to over 300 annually in the years leading up to 2000. Between 2000 and 2009 there were 180 or so ceasefire violations annually.

The latest incident occurred on January 6, in the Haji Pir sector opposite the Uri sector in Indian Kashmir. The Pakistani official version is that Indians attacked a Pakistani post. The Indian version is that Pakistanis engaged them with mortars and they retaliated with small arms fire; suffering no casualties. I am told that for some unknown reason, Indians have been unusually aggressive in this sector for the last few days and saw an opportunity when some of Pakistan's troops were exposed. Indian troops opened fire, killing one and wounding another.

Two days later, Indians accused Pakistani soldiers of crossing the LoC to ambush an Indian patrol and decapitate and mutilate two Indian soldiers in the Poonch-Mendhar sector. Though an ambush is possible, it's unlikely. After any cross-border incidents, both sides are usually wary of retaliation.

Moreover, decapitating or mutilating these soldiers is even less likely because no soldier would like to waste time while making his escape and, unless the Indian patrol consisted of only two soldiers or the others ran away, the other Indian soldiers should have been able to stop any mutilation.

This tit-for-tat response (or accusations) is reminiscent of the past and, quite clearly, there is more to these two recent episodes than meets the eye.

Jawaid Naqvi reporting for the Dawn newspaper from Delhi, is of the view that these incidents originate from Kabul and Washington, and that India is displaying its resentment of becoming a non-player in Afghanistan's future. Rather far-fetched, but it's possible.

The good news is that foreign ministers of both countries have expressed a desire that such incidents should not be allowed to derail the peace process. And because the perceived threat in Indian Kashmir, both internal and external, has dwindled drastically in recent years, it is reasonable to expect the Indians could eventually reduce their military presence. Over time, this could lead to a demilitarisation by Pakistan.

There are over 700,000 troops in Indian Kashmir, seven times the number defending the LoC on the Pakistani side. The next time a ceasefire violation occurs, as is bound to happen, the leadership on both sides must show the same restraint they showed this month.

Kashmir deserves peace from both Pakistan and India.

 

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer