Learning from experience | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 23, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 23, 2007

As I See It

Learning from experience

No sovereign state can accept militants roaming around freely within its national borders, enforcing their own brand of law. The manner of dealing with these militants may differ according to the circumstances availing, the geo-political situation, the terrain, the strength and capability of the militants, etc. The presence of foreign elements among the recalcitrant further complicates the situation.
How the operations are conducted depends very much on not only the professional capability of those conducting the operations but also on their combat experience. We learnt our lessons the hard way in 1973 during counter-insurgency operations in Balochistan, and the subalterns of that era comprise the military hierarchy at this time. Obviously, the lessons were lost on them, or they did not actively participate in the operations.
For the Balochistan operations, 60 Brigade was detached from 33 Division and placed directly under the command of Corps HQ. 60 Brigade was a particularly good fighting formation. Experiencing war together in the Thar desert in 1971, plus Chor and Umarkot, we had taken part in Internal Security (1S) Duties in 1972 in Sindh before pulling back to the forward defended localities (FDLs), both officers and men had trained together, whenever possible wherever possible.
Our good luck was that both the Corps Commander and Brigade Commander were professionally competent officers of the army, their last stints being Commandant Staff College and Deputy Commandant, respectively. Our bad luck was that they had no combat experience whatsoever. The man with the experience, GOC 33 Div Maj Gen (later Gen) M. Iqbal Khan was initially kept out of the picture.
Lack of actual combat time deprives a commander of that particular knowledge peculiar to actual combat, vastly different from theoretical knowledge. This may make the difference between life and death for the men in their command, would they think twice before committing them to battle? The other more selfish (and obvious) reason is those who have not heard a shot being fired in anger always feel an inferiority complex, having not been in battle they are eager to prove their mettle. Regretfully, this is at the cost of the lives of those actually in the line of fire.
During model discussions in Quetta in April 1973, preceeding the operations, some experienced company commanders pointed out to the Brigade Commander the flaws in mixing set-piece "Advance and Encounter Battle" with "Frontier Warfare" as practiced in British times, as opposed to possible counter-guerilla operations we would be conducting. Subjected to scathing criticism about their professionalism from theoretical tigers they decided that discretion was the better part of valour.
The Staff College instructors believed in their theory and were brilliant at it, we kept our fingers crossed that we would not enter into battle under their command. This was not to be, and to add to our bad luck, on the day actual operations was launched our own CO, Lt Col Taj, was on leave. On one of the hottest days in the year May 20, 1973, in conceivably the hottest area on Earth, 60 Brigade kicked off from Sibi to secure Maiwand, the principal town of the Marris.
As the leading battalion, 46 Baluch, crossed us before sun-up on the road towards Talli Tangi, we saw they had their helmets on, whereas our helmets were kept in the unit "B Echelon." 45 Punjab was to bring up the rear, with one of their companies being airlifted, along with an SSG Company, directly to Maiwand on MI-8's and the Iranian Chinooks that the Shah of Iran had sent in our support. Our Brigade Commander discovered our whole unit wearing berets with handkerchiefs soaked with water around their necks.
The officiating CO and I, as the Senior Company Commander, were informed in some graphic detail of what was going to happen to us once our CO returned, for "violation of standing instructions" as to dress code when entering battle. He then stormed off (along with escort) on his jeep to visit 46 Baluch "who were an example to those of us who did not deserve to be field officers."
Within one hour we (44 Punjab now 4 Sindh) could see the objective we were to secure, Talli Tangi, 4-5 miles away. There was no sign of 46 Baluch in front, except for a few stragglers clearly affected by the sun by the sides of the road. By 9 am, the unit had secured the defile, and almost 100% personnel were in the shade.
At 3 pm an Alouette-3 helicopter piloted by Lt Comd Shafi landed near the mouth of the defile. Out of touch with Brigade HQ, Shafi had been sent to locate us. He was shocked when we told him that there were no casualties. 46 Baluch was in deep trouble, there had been several deaths due to heatstroke, and several MI-8 helicopters were ferrying dozens to the field hospital in Sibi and even directly to Quetta; most of the unit was suffering from heat exhaustion. The heli-lifted company of 45 Punjab had secured Maiwand and the rest of the unit had been pulled back to Sibi. Staff College was out, reality had sunk in. Theory had been hit for a six as "Phase" lines, a la Staff College, melted in the sun.
The responsibility for the death of the soldiers of 46 Baluch on that hot day rests on those who chose one of the hottest days of the year, with troops wearing metal helmets without any protective clothing to lessen the impact of concentrated sun rays. These senior officers wanted to impress the army brass, and the top brass wanted to impress the political leadership. Nothing was done to the two Commanders concerned for the unnecessary deaths in their command, the Brigade Commander was later promoted to Maj Gen and the Corps Comd retired as a much acclaimed professional.
The prime lessons learnt should have been applied in North and South Waziristan 34 years later. Other than Balochistan from 1973 to 1976, and anti-dacoit operations in Sindh in 1982-84 etc, this army has many officers who have volunteered for Siachen duty since 1984. Promotion to ranks past major must be incumbent upon having actual combat experience, and why not?
FATA can only be secured by the tribals themselves, with the army in secure bases outside FATA, on the clear understanding that if militant activity is suspected anywhere then the Pakistan armed forces not only have the right to intercept such activity but to physically take steps to eliminate that activity. This would include punitive action against those tribals who either support directly or indirectly such activity, including giving sanctuary, unless the militants publicly denounce such activity and maintain that sanctity thereof.
Troops should be heli-lifted in "as and when required," duly supported by gunships. Once we go physically into FATA for an extended period of time, we give the militants targets to attack, both static as well as mobile, in supplying the troops. Let us not reinforce failure, and also let us give our troops the commanders they deserve!
If the US really wants to help us, let it give us the heliborne capacity to lift one composite infantry brigade, and we can do the job ourselves with minimum risk to the troops employed.

Ikram Sehgal is an eminent Pakistani political analyst and columnist.

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