Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
When India-Pakistan wargames become real
Pakistan is conducting its biggest military exercises in 21 years and at the weekend thousands of troops backed by fighter jets took part in a mock battle to repel a simulated Indian military advance and inflict heavy casualties. The manoeuvres were designed to test a riposte to India’s Cold Start doctrine of a rapid and deep thrust into Pakistan in a simulated environment, but you are never far from real action on the heavily militarised border between the two countries.
On Sunday, as the mock battle unfolded in the deserts of eastern Pakistan, the two armies were engaged in a real exchange of fire a few hundred miles away, along the border in Punjab. Both sides reported the firing in the Shakargarh sector and as is the norm blamed the other for starting it. It didn’t last long and by the standards of Indo-Pak artillery duels it was a blip. But what is interesting is it took place along a settled section of the border as distinct from cross-border firing along the Line of Control separating the two armies in disputed Kashmir. Shooting across the international border has been rare, although there have been incidents in January this year and in July and September in 2009.
NightWatch intelligence, which closely tracks developments across South Asia, says the Shakargarh sector carries the weight of history and perhaps there is a message behind the shooting. This is the site of a decisive battle during the 1971 India-Pakistan War in which Indian rocket launcher units destroyed Pakistani army armoured brigades ending hostilities in that sector. Firing in the location is always a reminder of December 1971. So the question is were the Indians trying to remind the Pakistanis about that battle nearly four decades ago even as Pakistan carried out the wargames named Azm-e-Nau 3 or New Resolve 3?
India, Pakistan wargames have in the past caused jitters especially when thousands of troops are massed near the border along with heavy armour and you are not sure whether they are only meant for exercises or is it a preparation for a real war. Back in 1987, India conducted Brass Tacks, the largest military exercise of its kind across South Asia in the deserts of Rajasthan a few hundred miles from the Pakistan border.
The exercises included the bulk of Indian Army and its mechanised and armoured formations; in short all the paraphernalia for a real war, concentrated on Pakistan’s sensitive border areas. For a Pakistani, it would seem the ideal location from which to launch a cross-border operation into the Pakistani state of Sindh that could cut Pakistan in half.
Others saw Brass Tacks as a threatening exhibition of an overwhelming conventional force. Pakistan responded with manoeuvres of its own that were located close to Punjab. As tensions rose, the hotline between the two countries was activated and officials from both sides tried to ease fears. Eventually Pakistani President General Ziaul-Haq travelled to India, ostensibly to watch a cricket match, but also hold talks to defuse the crisis. Later on both sides agreed to a phased withdrawal of troops to peacetime locations.
Since then India and Pakistan have agreed a set of confidence building measures designed to reduce chances of misreading each other’s intentions. Each country is committed to informing the other about plans to exercises if they are above a certain level.