Operation Parakram: The war that wasn’t but could have reined in Pakistan

Coercive diplomacy’ was a mere fig leaf to cover the strategic fiasco in 2002.

Seventeen years ago, in the first week of January, 2002, the Indian armed forces were deployed and ready for war with Pakistan. Frantic last minute preparations were underway. The timing could not have been more opportune. Operation Parakram, as we called it, was mobilised.

The casus belli for a ‘just war’ had been provided by the Pakistan-sponsored Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba launching a terrorist attack on the Parliament on 13 December, 2001.

We had a distinct qualitative and quantitative military edge, delivery means for nuclear weapons were rudimentary, tactical nuclear weapons had not been developed, the nuclear threshold was still ambiguous and Pakistan was in disarray because of the post-9/11 strategic situation in Afghanistan. It had been 30 years since our armed forces had mobilised in this manner and were now waiting for the green  signal.

Alas, the green signal never came! The trumpets continued to sound and the drums continued to beat for nine long months up to 16 October, but the Army did not march forward as it kept waiting for the directive from the government. $2 billion and the death of 800 soldiers in battle accidents was the approximate cost, not to count the wear and tear on the equipment.

More than that, it was a strategic failure. Probably the last opportunity to force compellence on Pakistan using our conventional superiority had been lost.

Who and what was responsible for the fiasco? Was it the dithering government with no strategic vision? Was it international pressure? Was it the nuclear threat? Or was it an ill-prepared military? In my view, it was a combination of all these factors.

The Cabinet Committee for Security (CCS) met after the attack on Parliament with the three chiefs in attendance. The politicians favoured limited action restricted to Jammu and Kashmir. The Army Chief insisted on full-scale mobilisation to cater for escalation and a possible nuclear standoff. After a brief discussion, it was decided that the military must mobilise and get ready to take necessary action which must be completed in two weeks.

The final decision to go to war would be taken by the government. The Chiefs were asked to consider the matter and confirm when they would be ready. The nuclear threat was not discussed in detail but it was assumed that we had a window of two weeks before it manifested and international pressure came into play.

It was also agreed that we would have to stay well away from American forces and logistics moving through Pakistan for its war effort in Afghanistan.

This would impose severe restrictions on the Indian Navy with respect to operations focused on Karachi and the Indian Air Force for operations west of the Indus.

No political goals or the end state in terms of territory to be captured, or in terms of economic or combat potential to be destroyed, were discussed or laid down. Admiral Sushil Kumar, the Navy Chief up to 31 December, 2001 has stated on record that he specifically asked for the political aim to derive the military aims/objectives.

None was given. When he sought the rules of engagement post-mobilisation, the PM replied: “Mobilise for the present, the rest will follow.”

The government’s indecisiveness was evident from the fact that apart from mobilisation, no other specific formal direction was given.

The logical political aim was to force compellence on Pakistan to stop the proxy war in Kashmir and acts of terrorism in the hinterland of India, and capture maximum territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, which was rightfully ours.

The Chiefs held their in-house consultations with their Army Commanders and equivalent. The Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy concluded that they would be ready and have their forces in position in a week’s time. The army had serious problems. As per the existing operational strategy, the defensive formations could man their defences and be ready for limited offensive action in 72-96 hours, however, the three Strike Corps located in the hinterland and the mainstay of our offensive capability, would require three weeks to mobilise.

That we could have launched operations earlier as a continuum with part of the  Strike Corps formations as they arrived in operational areas, was ruled out to prevent being caught “off balance.”

Thus the earliest that the operations could be launched was after three weeks. One of the Army Commanders insisted that he needed time to prepare and train for this operation. He invoked Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw’s example from April 1971, putting the Chief in a dilemma.

The Army Commander was right—Indian Army’s training had a lot of shortcomings, and critical deficiencies of equipment required time to make up, but the state of the Pakistan army was worse. The more time it got the better prepared it would be.

The Chiefs went back to the CCS. The Air and Navy Chiefs said that they would be ready in a week’s time. The Army Chief said that the mobilisation would be completed in three weeks, but ideally the army required more time to train and prepare for war. The latter part of the Army Chief’s statement was music to the indecisive government’s ears. No firm decision was taken with respect to timing.

The fig leaf that wasn’t

The Army Chief failed to overrule the dissenting Army Commander and the government failed to or did not spur the Army Chief into action. Under pressure from the international community, particularly America, on 12 January 2002, an ashen-faced and shaken President Pervez Musharraf gave an ambiguous undertaking that he would not permit terrorist activity from Pakistan’s soil.

In addition, he banned six terrorist organisations. A relieved Indian government claimed that our ‘coercive strategy’ had worked. Thereafter, Pakistan became stronger and more confident by the day and the so-called second opening after the terrorist attack at Kaluchak on 14 May 2002, was no strategic opportunity as Pakistan was well-prepared.

Once again international intervention came as relief for the reluctant government.

We could not go to war due to a combination of international pressure, lack of strategic vision, political dithering, slow mobilisation and an unsure military.

‘Coercive diplomacy’ was a mere fig leaf to cover a strategic fiasco. We probably lost the last opportunity for a decisive conventional war to achieve our political aims.


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