“I am the Unknown Soldier
And maybe I died in vain,
But if I were alive and my country called,
I'd do it all over again.”
2 May 20. While our military bands, combat aircraft and battleships were preparing to engage the nation with rose petals, lights and music, a silent band of warriors led by their gallant Commanding Officer, was closing onto a bunch of terrorists holed up in a hamlet near Handwara.
By morning, five of these young soldiers, including the highly decorated CO and his company commander, as well as an SI of the J&K police, lay dead. Barely a month back five paratroopers from the elite Special Forces were killed in the Keran Sector in hand to hand combat with terrorists. And this story goes on and on for years and years.
The combat deaths of such large numbers of our young soldiers is unacceptable by any account. Pakistan loses just a few expendable brainwashed terrorists while we continue to light the pyres of dozens of highly trained, motivated and super-brave young officers and men. Can anyone really equate these losses?
Can anyone define who has emerged as the winner? In fact, the large number of fatal casualties, especially of our senior officers, is not only a reason for champagne popping back in ISI Headquarters, but is a shot in the arm of the terrorist and separatist groups within our own country.
The total number of terrorists in the Valley has dwindled from the days of high insurgency, as has their combat qualities. As per one recent assessment there are probably 200-250 now remaining in the Valley. The bulk of the existing cadres comprise local youth, many of whom may not be as well trained or motivated as the leaders trained in Pakistan. Notwithstanding their perceived capability and training, own operations should be prepared for these cadres to fight to the very end.
It is our mandate to protect the Nation and its citizens from external aggression and elimination of terrorists is part of this mandate. In fact, our exuberant soldiers often extend this mandate to the outer limits of bravery purely due to those intangible values and ethos of “Naam, Namak, Nishan” ingrained in our fauji blood from the time we take our oaths. However, it is time now to once again take stock of our operational tactics and SOPs, reevaluate these and redefine our approach and strategy towards this type of unconventional combat.
At the very outset, it is necessary that the loss of a Commanding Officer and soldiers of a unit has to be neutralized. This is not a Rambo approach and I am avoiding the word “avenge”. This is a straightforward mission of Izzat that has simply just got to be executed.
The time, place, targets and conduct is best left to the units concerned and their immediate higher HQ. While we may retaliate against enemy units along the LC, the primary targets here would be the leadership of the local terrorist cadres and their support elements. They have to be eliminated. Period.
This business of collateral damage during hostile operations has to be redefined. While we may continue to remain sensitive to civilian casualties, but if any collaborator shelters a terrorist or hampers an ongoing operation, he automatically becomes an enemy of the State and should be treated as one. Any building from where hostile fire is brought down on our troops, needs to be brought down at the earliest and the inimical elements inside destroyed.
Another approach that needs a rethink is the speed and urgency to eliminate terrorists who may be holed up in a better tactical position and with sophisticated weapons and night vision devices. There is no reason why such a house or building should be physically assaulted in haste by own troops.
It would be more prudent to keep the terrorists contained with heavy weaponry, to smoke them out or burn them down and bring down the building, but not get into unnecessary close quarter combat. Time and resources are in our hands and both must be used effectively and patiently.
Most of our operations are carried out at sub unit level unless a dragnet has to be spread or the area of operations is too large or difficult. Our COs and younger commanders have always led from the front, a hallmark of our Army, and exemplified by officers like Col Ashutosh Sharma and Maj Anuj Sood. In any major operation, the CO would be on the ground to coordinate and oversee the conduct and take decisions that require his intervention.
However, depending on the ground situation and operational reasons, the CO should be able to inspire his command by his very presence without getting into direct combat with the enemy. There is also an urgent need to develop or purchase weaponised drones for counter terrorist operations. With their accuracy and weapon loads, these sophisticated flying machines can change the entire narrative of such operations.
We have outstanding field commanders who have themselves gone through these very situations and operational conditions just a few years back. Though these formation commanders are generally always very visible to their units, this may be the time to take the additional step forward and assure their subordinate commanders of their support and backing without unnecessary pressures of performance and rewards or from demands to show results from higher Headquarters.
While commanding the Pallanwala brigade, I used to spend many hours at my forward LC posts. After every such visit, I would return overwhelmed with a feeling of great pride and belief, my own spirits lifted by the exuberance and courage of these brave officers. I never tried to define what motivated these boys, some barely out of their teens, what drove them to carry out such daring operations or to sacrifice their young lives.
It was just all there within, the spirit, the pride, the honour, the challenge. These lads were, and are, the combat warriors who form the backbone of our great Army, who are the heart and soul of our leadership. This is the unknown face of those who lead their men in “surgical strikes” and in missions to destroy terrorists intent on causing mayhem in the country.