DAWN - Editorial; October 21, 2006

Published Oct 21, 2006 12:00am

For elections to be a turning point

MEETINGS between Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mr Nawaz Sharif are losing their glare, and their results do not break any new ground. At their meeting on Thursday in London, the two leaders more or less repeated what they had said at their last meeting in May when they had signed the Charter of Democracy. The emphasis now, as then, is on holding a free and fair general election, which they said was not possible if President Musharraf and his team were at the helm of affairs. They vowed to return to Pakistan and declared that without their presence in the country their parties would not be able to carry their election manifestoes to the people — something which the two former prime ministers said the ruling party and its coalition partners, besides the MMA, would be able to do.

The meeting took place against the background of persistent reports of a deal between the government and the PPP. That talks are going on between the military-led government and Ms Bhutto’s party cannot be denied. In fact, Ms Bhutto confirmed the talks when she said “contacts” with the government could not be called “a deal”. Nevertheless, whether it is talks or contacts or a deal, the other former prime minister is bound to feel uneasy, more so because Mr Sharif knows that there is not even the remotest possibility of the Sharif family reaching an understanding with the military-led regime. For Ms Bhutto, the chances are not that bleak, for all that the PPP chairperson wants is that cases against her and her husband be withdrawn. Ironically, most of these cases were instituted by the government of the man with whom she is now forging a political alliance to strengthen her position vis-à-vis Gen Musharraf. Indeed, she must be wondering why the ruling set-up cannot come to terms with her, because as far as the Musharraf government is concerned, the PPP has done nothing that could earn her an enemy status and disqualify her for a deal with the regime.

That brings us to the obvious question: what options does the Musharraf government have? Frankly, its room for manoeuvrability is shrinking by the day. With the sole exception of the ruling party — a rag-tag conglomerate of turncoats and loose cannons — every political party wants the general to choose between the two offices he is holding. He can either be the army chief or the head of state; he cannot wear the two hats at the same time. Yet what one often hears of the president’s plan is shocking beyond belief — that the existing assemblies can re-elect Gen Musharraf for another term. If this absurd idea were to come to pass, it would be a sad day for Pakistan and for democracy. In that event, the next general election, instead of being a turning point, will only mean a fake electoral exercise designed to ensure a continuation of the present civilian-military mix. This will destroy all hopes that the people of Pakistan attach to this election for a return to genuine democracy. To be meaningful, and for Pakistan to be recognised as a democracy, the next general election will be considered truly transparent if it is conducted under a neutral, caretaker government by an independent election commission that carries out its duty without fear or favour, with an even playing field for all parties and individuals.

The mess that is Iraq

THE observation by former US Secretary of State, James Baker, that Iraq is in a “mess” amounts to stating the obvious. His comment that there were no easy solutions to the problem is another statement of fact. Mr Baker is heading a bipartisan congressional committee assigned the task of suggesting a strategy for America’s disengagement from Iraq, the country it invaded three years ago and now finds itself bogged down in. His is a thankless job and coming at a time when the Bush administration is under pressure — mid-term polls are round the corner and the Republicans’ popular ratings are rapidly dipping — not even his most ardent supporter can pull Mr George Bush’s chestnuts out of the fire. The fact is that the collapse of the Iraqi political structure as a result of the American invasion has left the country in turmoil. Having opened a Pandora’s box, the Americans have worked themselves into a hopeless situation. They simply cannot cut their losses now as the chaos they have created will not allow them to.

Hence Mr Baker’s new assignment. With 2,770 Americans soldiers confirmed dead by the Pentagon and 20,687 military personnel wounded, not to speak of the 650,000 Iraqis killed, the situation in Iraq is frightening not just for the United States, but also for the world. The solutions that are being floated appear quite unfeasible. Negotiation with the insurgents would have sounded good but for the fact that there is no leadership to talk to. Immediate withdrawal would lead to the biggest civil war in history that would spill across the borders. Splitting Iraq into three autonomous units would lead to ‘ethnic cleansing’ even before the plan is implemented. Involving Iran and Syria in a plan to pacify Iraq might offer a road to a settlement if the two neighbours agree to cooperate. But will the US want to talk to governments one of which it declared to be in the axis of evil and the other it views as a terrorist state? These are tricky questions for which answers are hard to find. That leaves Iraq frightfully turbulent with casualties mounting by the day.

More defaced than restored

IGNORANCE, not ill intent, is the likely culprit. The need for repair was beyond doubt, but the authorities entrusted with the delicate task of Ranikot’s restoration have done more harm than good to the historic fort. Located near Sann in Sindh, Ranikot is said to be among the oldest and largest forts in the world and is protected under the Antiquities Act 1975. The fort’s origins are disputed, with claims ranging from the times of the Scythians to the Arab invasion (664-712 AD) and the Talpur dynasty (1783-1843). Despite Ranikot’s distinguished status, little thought appears to have gone into the restoration process. Lack of knowledge and a preference for the cosmetic over the intrinsic have combined to produce appalling results, so much so that Ranikot today stands more defaced than restored.

Cement has been applied liberally to the fort’s protective walls, platforms and battlements as well as the dome of a mosque near the Sann gate, one of four entry points. The overriding need to remain as faithful as possible to the original was clearly lost on the project’s executors which included the federal archaeology and Sindh cultural departments. This oversight becomes all the more inexcusable given that the original construction materials — stone, lime, mud and, possibly, gypsum — were readily available. Another prerequisite — adherence to architectural plans — was also ignored. As a signatory to the 1972 World Heritage Convention, Pakistan is committed to the preservation of its archaeological sites and cultural properties. The country’s track record, however, is poor in this regard, courtesy a combination of apathy and a paucity of resources. The ‘restoration’ of Ranikot fort has severely dented its chances of finding a place on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites, and the need now is to somehow undo the damage. That is a task that calls for even greater delicacy and expertise.

Kargil: what might have happened

By Javed Hussain


THE Kargil topography is characterised by craggy peaks, steep slopes, narrow gorges and deep ravines. The arid and rocky features vary in height from 15,000 to 20,000 ft. At these heights, the average temperature during the warmest month is below freezing, while during the winter months it drops to minus 25 degrees C.

Rarified air, intensive solar radiation, strong winds and varying daytime temperatures are characteristic climatic features of the area. The Siachen glacier is also situated in this region. The main Srinagar-Leh road which is the lifeline of Indian forces in Ladakh, runs through Kargil (a tehsil headquarters of Ladakh district) and Zoji La Pass on to Leh. The Kargil heights dominate this road.

In October 1947, following the announcement of Kashmir’s accession to India, the Gilgit Scouts, a predominantly Muslim force raised by the British for internal security, revolted against the Dogras, and in a series of daring actions in1948 captured Kargil, Drass, Zoji La Pass and Skardu. However, in November 1948, Zoji La Pass and Kargil were recaptured by the Indians while the Kargil heights remained with the Gilgit Scouts.

During the Rann of Kutch conflict, these heights were captured by the Indians for the first time on May 17, 1965, for use as a bargaining counter in the negotiations. As a result of the agreement reached, the heights were returned to Pakistan in June 1965. In the first week of August 1965, Operation Gibraltar was launched. One of the areas used by the infiltrating force was the Kargil heights. To block these routes, the Indians captured the heights for the second time in the third week of August 1965. But after the signing of the Tashkent Agreement, the heights were once again returned to Pakistan.

On the outbreak of war on the western front on December 3, 1971, the Indians captured the heights for the third time on December 9, 1971. This time, however, they retained the heights in line with the Shimla Agreement under which the violable Cease Fire Line (CFL), created in December 1948 on cessation of hostilities in Kashmir, was converted into an inviolable Line of Control (LoC), on the basis of actual possession of territory at the time of the ceasefire in December 1971. When the Indians captured the heights on three different occasions, the Pakistani force that was overwhelmed, consisted mostly of lightly armed, inadequately equipped Karakoram and Gilgit Scouts, both paramilitary outfits.

In the following years, the Indian troops on Kargil heights routinely vacated their posts in the winter months due to sub zero temperatures, while maintaining the minimum presence required for security. Each year in May they would return to their posts. But in May 1999, when they returned they were greeted by hostile fire. A patrol sent to investigate did not return. It was ambushed.

Thereafter, traffic on the Srinagar-Leh road was continuously interdicted by accurate artillery fire from the heights, as a result of which movement was restricted to the hours of darkness. In the following days there was massive confusion at all levels of command. Who was the enemy, the Pakistan army or the Mujahideen? Where were they deployed and what was their strength? Questions were being asked but no one had the answers, least of all the Kargil brigade, 15 corps headquarters in Srinagar (responsible for the theatre), the Northern Command headquarters in Udhampur (responsible for Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh), and the army headquarters in Delhi.

Yet, orders were issued down the line to the infantry battalions to “go up there and throw them out”. This decision by the high command must have been influenced by the ease with which the heights had been captured on three previous occasions. The fact that on those occasions the enemy on the heights was a small paramilitary force, thinly spread and lightly armed, must have been overlooked by them.

In May 1999, the losses suffered by the Indian troops returning to their posts, as well as the shelling of the Srinagar-Leh road, should have told the high command a great deal about the frontage and depth of the penetration and also about the enemy on the heights. It is clear that they not only overlooked this, but also the fact that the combat effectiveness of attacking soldiers is significantly reduced at high altitudes and that it gets accentuated when the soldiers are without proper equipment and clothing, as the Indian soldiers were.

In their haste to restore status quo ante they also overlooked the fact that attacking in the unknown (without knowledge of the enemy), and that too frontally, is courting disaster. Ask the officers and men of the infantry battalions who went up the precipitous slopes, and in 11 weeks of high altitude battles lost over 600 men while 1800 were wounded. Add to this the emotional scars that the survivors would carry for the rest of their lives, and the loss of confidence of junior officers and the rank and file in their high command.

Frontal attacks, even in the plains, are costly undertakings because they are directed against the best side of the enemy — in other words, against their strength. Examples of the frontal attack folly (direct approach to the objective) abound in military history. The Indian 1 Corps in September 1965, consisting of an armoured division and three infantry divisions, launched the main offensive in Sialkot sector on a narrow front and failed because it kept going frontally instead of launching a manoeuvre around the Pakistani front in Chawinda area. It took them 21 days to cover seven miles!

During the 1971 war, the same Indian corps consisting of three infantry divisions and two heavy armoured brigades was launched in Zafarwal — Shakargarh sector. Again it was shy of undertaking outflanking manoeuvres. However, this time it took 14 days to cover eight miles and that too when it was opposed by a small but mobile Pakistani force. In the same sector, in December 1971, Pakistan’s 8 Armoured Brigade was thrown into a counter attack in panic and haste (like the Indian infantry on Kargil heights) and suffered enormous losses because it went in frontally.

In October 1973 an Israeli armoured brigade conducted a counter attack against the Egyptian bridgehead across the Suez Canal. It was knocked out because it too had attacked frontally. In war the predictable can be countered, but it is the unexpected that almost always succeeds — “uncertainty is the essence of war, surprise, its rule”. Yet, the subcontinent’s captains of war seem to have a penchant for frontal attack and a disdain for indirect approach

The occupation of Kargil heights by elements of the Pakistan army provided an opportunity to the Indian high command to convert a tactical loss into a strategic gain. They could have selected an objective, the capture of which would not only produce tactical effects on their enemy on Kargil heights and Siachen but strategic effects as well on their enemy’s high command. That objective was Skardu as it commands the line of communication to Kargil and Siachen.

What might have happened if, instead of attacking the heights, they had captured the Skardu airfield in a surprise attack by airborne troops and followed it up by a massive airlift of troops to rapidly build up a force of the size of a reinforced infantry division, closely supported by the Indian air force, which was two minutes away in Srinagar?

If the Indians had pulled this off, what might have happened to the Northern Areas and Kashmir?

Great captains of war are risk-takers because they know that too much caution and indecision can rob them of opportunity and success. Kargil once again exposed the limitations of the Indian high command — their slavish devotion to orthodoxy and their lack of strategic thought.

The writer is a retired brigadier. Email: bb_unney@yahoo.com

Profit by numbers

CRACKED nuclear reactors in Britain are being shut down, pushing up electricity prices. A rail operator is going into administration. An Australian bank is paying eight billion pounds for Britain’s biggest water supplier.

Meanwhile, experts are calling for effluent to be recycled for drinking to avoid inevitable shortages and higher bills. What do all these events have in common? Apart from their dismal appearance in the news recently, the three sectors involved in the stories — water and sewerage, rail and energy — were once all part of the state.

Water was privatised by Margaret Thatcher, rail during John Major’s time at No 10, and British Energy, operators of the malfunctioning nuclear power generators, is approaching the final stages of privatisation as the government sells its last stake.

The bold claim of privatisation was that private sector know-how, efficiency and capital would benefit citizens as tax-payers and consumers. In some cases, such as British Airways and perhaps BT, that has been the case. Despite their sale, however, the three sectors above remain closely regulated by government, in recognition of their monopoly status. They also remain a concern for government and a drain on taxation and household spending.

—The Guardian, London




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