Wednesday, Oct 27, 2021

Reassessing Operation Sarp Vinash

Here's the unhappy truth: the media version of Operation Sarp Vinash is a hoax unprecedented in the annals of the Indian Army.

Reassessing Operation Sarp Vinash
Reassessing Operation Sarp Vinash

Two weeks ago, the Army's Operation Sarp Vinash (Snake Destroyer) in the Hil Kaka area of Surankote in the Poonch district had appeared as a shining example of military 'innovation, intelligence and enterprise', and newspapers and television channels have since been saturated with reports of this 'high-profile' counter terrorist operation.

One newspaper, whose correspondent had yet to visit the area, spoke of terrorists occupying a 'Karnal-sized area' (Karnal is a mid-sized town in Harayana with a population of over 1.3 million); others spoke of Kargil-style intrusions, concrete bunkers, training camps and prepared killing fields.

The Army's spin was that a major terrorist threat, which could have crippled Indian lines of communication in case of a war, had been interdicted. Bar the usual muttering about intelligence failure, the media has let it be known that a great victory has been won in the face of overwhelming odds, and Union Defence Minister George Fernandes has announced that he will ensure more Sarp Vinash style operations take place in the near future.

Now here's the unhappy truth: the media version of Operation Sarp Vinash is a hoax unprecedented in the annals of the Indian Army.

It is difficult to ascertain just what the Army's authorised version of Operation Sarp Vinash actually is, because officials have put out irreconcilable figures and accounts, much of these from behind a dense veil of anonymity. The Times of India first reported on a major offensive in the Surankote area. On May 17, its defence correspondent, Rajat Pandit, wrote that the Army had killed "60 hard-core militants in the Surankote area proximate to the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir," and had "also seized a huge quantity of assault rifles, mortars, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and under-barrel grenade launchers, among other 'war-like stores.'"

The very next day, The Asian Age said that the operation had involved the use of Russian-built MI-17 helicopters, mainly to evacuate casualties. On May 19, The Tribune went one step further, asserting that the Army had killed "180 Pakistani terrorists and foreign mercenaries in the past 45 days when for the first time it launched an operation to free the high mountainous positions in Jammu and Kashmir which had so far been a haven for ultras."

All these early reports had two common features: they cited no on-record sources, and the term Sarp Vinash was nowhere used. It first appeared in the Jammu-based Excelsior on May 21. The operation, the newspaper reported citing anonymous defence sources, had been carried out "from April 21 to May 18 to clear a bulge at Hill [Hil] Kaka where hardcore Pakistani groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar, Al Badr and Hizbul Mujahideen had set up fortifications in a large area of strategic importance to interdict Indian Army supply lines."

In the meanwhile, reports of helicopter strikes and terrorist-held fortifications had provoked hysteria among New Delhi-based journalists. Finally, on May 20, Army Chief, General N.C. Vij, tried to calm things down. The next morning's Tribune quoted him as denying "that helicopter gunships had been used to flush out the terrorists" but accepting that "helicopters had been used for logistical purposes", a routine event.

On May 23, the General Officer-Commanding of the Rajouri-based Romeo Force, Major-General Hardev Lidder, spoke to journalists flown in from New Delhi and Jammu. Lidder proceeded to rubbish Vij's claims before the press, asserting that helicopters "were used to destroy a bunker used by the ultras in the Hill [Hil] Kaka area."

The Excelsior reported him as saying that the "hideouts busted were almost like military fortifications, where militants had stored large cache of arms, war like stores and 7,000 tonnes of rations." "The fortifications", the newspaper reported, "were designed on the pattern of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda hideouts in mountains near Jalalabad and some of them located as high as 3989 metres had to be targeted by helicopter fired air-to-ground 'frog' high fragmentation missiles."

At the press conference, Lidder said 65 terrorists had been killed in the operation, ten across the Pir Panjal by troops of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps.

Two days later, Lidder provided more detail on the actual operation. In January, he said, helipads, roads and mule track were built to facilitate access to Hil Kaka. Army helicopters, he said, provided the crucial breakthrough, locating footprints in the snow leading to hideouts. Operations in Hil Kaka began on April 21. The Indian Express reported him as saying, "Our first contact with the terrorists began in the morning of April 22 when our jawans, using the shock-and-awe tactic, killed 13 terrorists around Pt [Point] 3689 [metres]."

India's former Military Attaché in Washington also clearly understood the value of a little rhetoric. He claimed troops had found Inmarsat sets from where terrorists had called "Aligarh Muslim University, Malappuram in Kerala, Chinapalli in Tamil Nadu, Ahmedabad and even to Kuwait among other places."

Broadly, then, the Army made three major claims for Operation Sarp Vinash. It had killed between 40 and 60 terrorists in and around Hil Kaka, depending on who one believed. Many more had perished elsewhere. It had found a large hoard of war-like stores and weaponry. And, finally, it had destroyed some 90 major fortified hideouts, using air power and massive infantry resources.

Here's the truth about Sarp Vinash: it has actually killed less terrorists in and around Hil Kaka during the course of the much-hyped operation than in past years. It found no war-like stores, fortifications, or training camps.

By the end of May last year, 36 terrorists had been eliminated in the fighting around Hil Kaka. This year, by the Army's own claims in various documents accessed during this writer's investigations, the number is just 27. In 2001, 103 terrorists were killed around Hil Kaka, a figure that fell to 47 in 2002 because counter-insurgency formations had been withdrawn for India's war-that-wasn't with Pakistan. It is profoundly unlikely that the killings figures in Sarp Vinash will match those of 2001, despite all the bluff and bluster.

And that isn't all. In the summer of 2001 and 2002, when terrorists were supposedly roaming around Poonch with impunity, the Jammu and Kashmir Police's records show considerably larger numbers of them were eliminated across the district than this time around.

What then of Operation Sarp Vinash's supposed success? The lie is nailed by the Army's own documents, filed in the wake of the seven major encounters that took place on Hil Kaka between April 22 and May 27. After each encounter, the Army files documents with the local police, stating how many terrorists it has killed and what weapons it has recovered. The seven documents filed by the Army in the course of the Hil Kaka operations collectively claim the elimination of just 27 terrorists by four separate units of the Indian Army.

Even this figure is open to dispute. Photographic evidence of all 27 killed, a necessity for a police First Information Report (FIR) to accept the claim made, is not available. More important, the claims of terrorists killed and weapons recovered are wildly inconsistent. The seven Army documents declare the recovery of 4 Pika-type machine guns, 9 assault rifles, a sniper rifle, and one 60-milimetre mortar. Even assuming that those who manned the Pika guns did not also have Kalashnikovs for their own proximate defence, an improbable eventuality, that only adds up to 14 major weapons.

Thirteen terrorists, the documents would have us believe, were armed only with five pistols and a twelve-bore hunting shotgun. Troops of the 9 Para-Commando Regiment killed fourteen terrorists, and identified five - Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) district commander Jannat Gul, Abu Farz, Abu Usman, Abu Bakr, and Abu Hamza. They also recovered only five automatic weapons; the rest of those killed seem unarmed. In some cases, the Army's claims border on the farcical. The 15 Garhwal Rifles' report of May 12, for example, insists that the "weapon of the second militant washed away in the flow of water in the Nallah [mountain stream] and could not be recovered." How the unit's officers knew the missing weapon washed away in the stream is not clear, since Kalashnikovs are not known to bob up and down in running water.

Jammu and Kashmir Police Headquarters, based on the FIRs filed in the Surankote police station, has therefore been conservative in its assessment of the numbers of terrorists killed in Sarp Vinash. At the end of the first week of June, its figure for bodies actually found stood at 25. How, then, did the Army top brass claim to have killed upwards of 60 terrorists? With creative jugglery - and a little bit of imagination. In Poonch, for example, the Army claimed that five terrorists killed in the jurisdictions of the Mandi and Mendhar police stations were trophies for Sarp Vinash.

A minute with the map shows this could not be the case, since the escape routes from Hil Kala lie northeast into the Pir Panjal, not back across the mountains towards the Line of Control. The Army also added terrorists killed in ambushes across the Pir Panjal towards Shopian to their total. Official records show seven terrorists were killed on the Chor Gali [pass] above Shopian on May 13, one each on May 23 and May 27, and another group of eight near Zainpora on June 7. Yet, even if one accepts the 27-dead figure claimed by the Army in Hil Kaka, along with the five claimed killed in Mendhar and Mandi, this still adds up to 46 - well below the Army's claimed numbers. It should also be noted that the Zainpora encounter took place several days after claims made by Vij and Lidder - which would bring the total at that time to 36.

Far larger killings of terrorists have taken place in individual encounters in the past, unaided by the high-tech gadgetry the Army claims was key to its current success. An operation at Khari Dhok, part of the Hil Kaka bowl, claimed the lives of 20 terrorists on July 15, 2001. Another 21 terrorists were eliminated at Mukhri on November 1 that year. These two encounters alone claimed the lives of more terrorists than the entire tally of Sarp Vinash. Its just that television wasn't around to manufacture a 'great triumph' at that time.

Evidence from arrested members of the groups on Hil Kaka also give a fair idea of just what was happening in the mountains - and none of it bears out the Army's steroid-fuelled stories. Mohammad Younis, from Harmain village in Shopian, was arrested by the Army in the course of its operations in Hil Kaka. According to the military account of his activities, which has led to his incarceration, Younis was taken from his village by a Lashkar-e-Taiba unit in November last year. There were, he said, five major hideouts around Hil Kaka, which housed some 75 Lashkar cadre. Forty of these, he said, were armed terrorists, the rest mainly children press-ganged from villages in Poonch and southern Kashmir. Most of the children never saw a gun, and were used mainly to clean dishes, haul firewood, and cook food. When fighting broke out on Hil Kaka, the children were left to cope as best they could.

Army records themselves demolish claims that war-like stores and fortifications were found on Hil Kaka. Its recoveries of anything resembling area weapons amounted to only a single mortar, a weapon that has been recovered in the dozens from across Jammu and Kashmir over the past several years. The total food ration shown recovered is not 7000 tonnes, as Lidder had publicly asserted, but a paltry 355 kilograms, and just 30-odd cooking utensils, 27 boxes, and 57 mat-sheets were shown as being found. Assuming that stores were maintained at static levels each month, a reasonable supposition given the weather, and that at least half a kilogram of grain was needed to sustain one terrorist for a day, would be that this store could cater for a high estimate of 22 terrorists.

Little evidence has emerged of major built-up fortifications in the area. The first encounter, carried out on April 22, found an eight-bed hospital facility built into a Gujjar dhoke (the summer stone-and-wood shelters built by the region's migrant shepherds). Many of the larger dhokes have semi-underground facilities, to shelter cattle and sheep in case the weather turns bad. It is safe to assume that any built up fortification would be defended at the very least by a machine gun, the numbers recovered probably give an accurate idea of how many defended positions there actually were.

In May last year, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee took the unprecedented step of chairing a meeting of the Unified Headquarters at Srinagar. Midway through the meeting, its minutes record, Research and Analysis Wing Commissioner C.K. Sinha pointed to the heavy presence of terrorists on the Poonch heights, and said some areas were being described as 'liberated zones.' 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General V.G. Patankar responded angrily, arguing that the Army was operating in these areas with considerable success. Describing Sinha's allegations as a slur, he asserted there were no 'liberated zones' anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir.

Less than a year on, we have the Army - although not, to his credit, Patankar - claiming that it had no information about the terrorist build-up. In fact, information about the activities of terrorists in and around Hil Kaka poured into the headquarters of the Romeo Force in Rajouri, Lidder's current office, on an almost daily basis, and the present writer has obtained copies of twelve key warnings emanating from the State police's intelligence operatives and from the Intelligence Bureau's field station.

As early as November 2000, for example, the Poonch Police issued warnings to all organisations in the area that "militants have intensified their activities in Chak Maloti and Sangla areas." It noted that "huge quantities of arms/ammunition has been stored at Machipar adjacent to the houses of [five local residents]." Another report, originated in November 2002, recorded that "militants are regularly dumping the ration [sic] at Hil Kaka top." The next month, a fresh warning was issued about the construction of "four underground concealed hide-out[s]."

Investigations disclose that many of these warnings were coming from a shadowy covert operations unit called Special Group 3, made up of Gujjar residents of the high mountains. This blows apart claims that photo-reconnaissance by its newly-acquired Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, backed by aviation corps helicopters and equipment like thermal imagers were the key to whatever success Operation Sarp Vinash achieved.

All seven of the Army's reports on the Hil Kaka operation either credit Special Group 3, managed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, or its smaller sister organisation, Special Group 2. The information was at first ignored, and then taken seriously only after the organisation's leader spoke to a welter of top political and military figures in Rajouri, Jammu and New Delhi. Based on their inputs, the 9 Para-Commando Regiment, a crack unit that earned a formidable reputation for counter-terrorist operations during its earlier tenure in Kupwara, made a first attempt on Hil Kaka in early January. That effort, and another timed for January 26, was beaten back by heavy snow.

Through the winter, Romeo Force worked on putting together helipads that would be able to supply a permanent presence of troops on Hil Kaka. This was a marked departure from conventional practice, which held that committing troops there would only encourage terrorists to move base, and that swift, in-and-out operations were more productive.

No road, contrary to Army claims, was built. Work has only now commenced on the construction of an 18-kilometre route from Bufliaz to Hil Kaka. Lidder also ordered that 155 mm artillery be moved into positions below Hil Kaka, along with Cheetah helicopters fitted with under-slung machine guns. In the first week of April, Gujjar families in Bufliaz were told they would not be allowed up the mountain. Two weeks later, Operation Sarp Vinash commenced with artillery pounding the forests around the Hil Kaka bowl, and helicopters attacking terrorist positions. It was a fruitless move: the assault killed no one, and a substantial proportion of terrorists on Hil Kala simply left for safer pastures.

On April 22, the 9 Para-Commando and the 3 Special Group made their way up Hil Kaka, and began the first assault of the operation. One group used shoulder-fired rockets to eliminate a stone post on Chham Dera, which had been turned into a machine-gun bunker dominating the entire Hil Kaka ridge. Simultaneously, the group interdicted the main terrorist base at Ban Jabran, half-way down the ridge. The terrorists had stashed their supplies a little lower, at Banota.

No subsequent operation had anywhere near similar success, for most terrorists had simply fled. Notably, none of the seven Army reports speaks of fragmentation missiles being used to attack any of the positions. As operations continued, however, helicopters were used to fly in supplies, including a truck and a bulldozer to build a road between the new Army positions in the Hil Kaka bowl.


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