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Conversations: 'Another Kargil is Already Occurring'
India risks losing another important battle, the hearts and minds of Kashmiri people, says Ashok K. Mehta

June 27, 2000
Web posted at 2:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 2:30 a.m. EDT

Ashok K. Mehta is a retired major general and a highly regarded commentator on South Asian military affairs. He spoke with TIME Asia associate editor Aparisim Ghosh in Delhi recently. Excerpts from the interview:

The Subcontinental Drift message board -- sound-off about the news in South Asia to TIME
TIME: General Mehta, a year has passed since Kargil, and the fervor it had aroused among Indian civilians has died down. How does the military feel about that? What is the average soldier's view of his lot, of Pakistan, and of the possibility of conflict with Pakistan?
Mehta: The army feels quite satisfied by the response of the people of this country, and more importantly, the response from the government, which has been absolutely stupendous. There were initially some misgivings about what the government was up to with Kargil. But overall--notwithstanding intelligence failures, the restrictions on crossing the Line of Control, the fact that it was a war which many soldiers felt was thrust upon them--they feel that the country and the government have looked after and looked up to the army.

TIME: So morale is high?
Mehta: Absolutely.

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The story behind today's news from the editors of Asiaweek

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Personal perspectives on the news
TIME: Some defense analysts have suggested that another Kargil-like episode may be on the cards. Is the army better prepared, better equipped to deal with such an event?
Mehta: Well in a sense another Kargil is already occurring. What's happening in the Kashmir valley is a proxy war, which was being prepared as Kargil happened. The Pakistanis were able to divert India's attention to Kargil and use that period to infiltrate Mujahedin across the LOC. About 80-90% of these are foreigners, from Afghanistan, and they are being transferred to the Jammu & Kashmir front. They have also changed their strategy, using suicide attacks.

TIME: The last time round, the Indian Army was caught short of equipment, even of basic things like snowshoes. Is the army not physically ready to fight a limited war in the heights?
Mehta: Yes and no. Yes, because I think the intention is there. No, because a lot of this is still in the pipeline. Things like high-altitude equipment and clothing--those are available now. But a lot of other equipment that is on the army's wish list, and which has been accepted by the government, has been contracted for and is in the pipeline. I am hopeful that, in the next 6 months, things will be in place. What Kargil did was open people's eyes. Things went wrong last time because we never thought that this could happen. If your mindset is not conditioned to an event, you cannot alert your intelligence to look for the indicators.

TIME: You said the Mujahedin were introducing a new kind of conflict in Kashmir. Is the army able to deal with this sort of thing? Can any conventional army deal with this sort of a threat?
Mehta: That is a good question, a fair question, because although the army has a long history of dealing with counter-insurgency in the northeast and in Jammu & Kashmir over the past 10 years, this is an absolutely new ball game. Conventional armies are trained to shoot to kill. But when dealing with this kind of proxy war, there is one more dimension: the local Kashmiris. They are caught in the crossfire, so we risk losing another battle, the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir. We have to come up with the motivation levels to deal with the problem that the Pakistanis have posed for the Indian security forces in the Kashmir valley.

TIME: Has the military tried hard enough to reach the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris? I was there last October and I heard nothing but the strongest criticism of the military. Human-rights groups have been monitoring the situation there and they tell some really horrible stories of how the soldiers have dealt with civilians. Is the High Command aware of the problems? Have special attempts been made to present the army as a kinder, gentler force to the Kashmiris?
Mehta: Yes. I have been in war myself and I know about the training of the military in this human-rights business. I have lectured in various places, and I know that one of the most serious threats for a military commander in Kashmir is the fear of human-rights violations. The army establishment and the government are coming down very heavily on any violations of human rights.

TIME: In what way?
Mehta: Senior commanders have been reprimanded and have been removed from command... Let me tell you this: All complaints of human-rights violations are documented and investigated with the utmost seriousness. Each soldier has in his left shirt pocket what is known as the Soldier's Ten Commandments. These are taken extremely seriously. Commandments 9 and 10 refer to human rights, respect for women, children and the elderly. Commandment 10 also talks about how to win over the people. But you must realize that one of the tactics employed by the other side--the militants--is to provoke the security forces into a situation where they will fire back at civilians. They lay these traps or lay these ambushes in areas where security forces are forced to fire back in self-defence but risk taking out some innocent civilians. Those situations are just not avoidable.

Ghosh Subcontinental Drift's Aparisim Ghosh presents Conversations

pt1 | pt2 of the full interview with Abid Hussain

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TIME: The Indian government says almost all the insurgents now at large in Kashmir are essentially Mujahedin, and that local Kashmiris are only involved on the periphery, if at all. Is there any sense in the army remaining in the urban centers? Would it not make more sense for the army to be out patrolling the borders, to prevent these people from coming in? By remaining in urban centers and drawing suicide attacks, isn't the army putting citizens at risk?
Mehta: Well I think there is a distinction between the army and the paramilitary forces.

TIME: Either way, we're talking about an armed presence. The average Kashmiri doesn't make a distinction between the army and the paramilitary forces.
Mehta: At the moment a small percentage of the militants are working from within urban areas. And if you were to completely uncover the built-up areas, these people would come back into the urban areas. They would then resort to more recruitment from the urban areas. I think it is a necessary evil to have some security presence in these urban areas until we are absolutely sure that we have managed to cleanse these areas of the militants.

TIME: Strategically, would it make sense for Pakistan or for the Mujahedin to mount another Kargil-like adventure now?
Mehta: No. Two things can happen. One is that our positions on the LOC come under a greater amount of shelling. And when our troops are diverted, more Mujahedin can sneak in. The second scenario--which I think is more dangerous--is that a lot more suicide squads will come in. The army still has not devised a military strategy to deal with this, and it will be extremely difficult to devise one. Just one or two suicide killers get into a military post and hold 100-200 people to ransom. It sometimes takes 24 to 36 hours, and a whole night of all kinds of pyrotechnics, to get them out. This can degrade the morale of the security forces and create a lot more casualties and suffering, serving Pakistan's purpose. From their point of view, this is the better way to fight, rather than to try a Kargil. They tried that before and lost a lot of people.

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