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Indian Army risks being mired in war it's ill-equipped to fight

Concern is growing in India over the country's deepening involvement in neighboring Sri Lanka's domestic conflict. There is danger, many analysts say, of the Indian Army's getting entangled in an extended war against hit-and-run terrorism - a kind of war it's not trained to fight.

India's bloody military offensive against Tamil separatist rebels began Oct. 10, following Tamil attacks on Sinhalese, Sri Lanka's ethnic majority.

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Indian casualties are high in the assault on the rebel stronghold in Jaffna. (City becomes besieged battleground, Page 28.) And the guerrillas are resisting fiercely. These factors have led policymakers and analysts to reexamine the strategic and political implications of India's role in Sri Lanka.

``India's biggest foreign policy problem now is not Pakistan but Sri Lanka,'' columnist Girilal Jain says. ``India is [being tested] as it has never been since independence.''

The possible impact on military morale is a big issue. Some analysts have challenged the wisdom of making troops sacrifice lives in battling an insurgency of another country. The Army has been trained and motivated to safeguard the nation's frontiers. It is equipped to fight a rival modern force on battlefields, not combat guerrilla-style terrorism, as its 1984 offensive against Sikh extremists in the Punjab revealed.

M.S. Rajan, a professor emeritus at New Delhi's graduate Jawaharlal Nehru University, says India should withdraw before it gets trapped in a situation similar to the US role in Vietnam. ``It is better to admit a mistake and cut one's losses before it becomes too late,'' Mr. Rajan said.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has made little effort to conceal the basic political nature of his decision to send 15,000 military troops to Sri Lanka.

The troops were dispatched to enforce an unusual Indian-brokered peace accord aimed at ending the island's four-year civil war between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and the predominantly Hindu Tamil minority. The July 29 agree ment was signed by Mr. Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene, but the main party - the Tamils waging a guerrilla war for an independent homeland - was not a signatory.

Gandhi had expected the accord, which made India a direct participant in Sri Lankan domestic affairs, to reinforce India's status as the dominant regional power and boost his image as a world statesman and peacemaker.

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But the settlement began unraveling quickly. When it appeared that it might collapse amid mounting violence, the Indian leader ordered a military crackdown on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the dominant Tamil rebel organization, which had refused to endorse the agreement.

India's Army, the world's fourth largest, is considered an apolitical, disciplined, and well-oiled force. It is regarded by security experts as one of the world's best fighting machines. In recent years, the government has frequently called in the Army to quell violence triggered by sectarian, linguistic, and regional disputes.

Analysts and retired Army generals have warned that the increasing use of Army units in crushing domestic riots threatens to impair their war preparedness and foster political ambitions. The deployment of Indian Army battalions in Sri Lanka is a dangerous extension of that policy, some analysts say.

After storming the Sikh separatists' citadel, the Golden Temple, in 1984 with tanks and heavy artillery, the Army extensively combed the Punjab countryside for months, driving hundreds of militant youths across the border into Pakistan and alienating large sections of the Sikhs. Officials now admit the operation's political costs were high, leading to a deadly resurgence of Sikh terrorism.

Similar lessons may be in store in Sri Lanka, where Tamil rebels have proved themselves better trained and more committed than the Sikh militants, military analysts warn. Confronted with the insurgents' stiff resistance, Indian troops have allegedly killed Tamil civilians - the same mistake for which New Delhi had condemned the Sri Lankan forces.

As India has discovered in Punjab and as Sri Lanka has in the north, the slaying of innocent civilians mistaken for plain-clothed rebels boosts the militants' popular support and encourages terrorism.

If rebel-held Jaffna city falls to the advancing Indian troops backed by armored cars, tanks, and helicopter gunships, fighting tactics are likely to change, with the guerrillas concentrating on hit-and-run attacks, experts say.

``That is the kind of jungle warfare the Indian Army cannot win even if it stays in Sri Lanka for years,'' a Western diplomat said.

The Army's combat capabilities in Sri Lanka have been restricted by its unfamiliarity with the local geography and operation in a difficult terrain frequently lashed by rain.

It has already made a major blunder: airdropping paratroopers over the Jaffna University campus. The guerrillas quickly trapped the Indians and gunned down 29 of them.

Many rebels received training in camps in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home of 50 million Tamils. The Tigers, estimated to number 3,000, are said to be experts in manufacturing and planting mines and other explosives.

As heavy fighting raged in Jaffna this week, Sri Lanka's prime minister attacked India's past role in the island's ethnic crisis and called for world condemnation of the ``cunning parents ... who nurtured and armed Tamil terrorists.''

The offensive has included a naval blockade of Sri Lanka's northern shores to cut off rebel supply lines from India.

New Delhi's expanding military role on the island has caused uneasiness among other neighbors. Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan have publicly expressed concern over India's military role in Sri Lanka.

Gandhi had apparently aimed at a quick, effective strike against the recalcitrant Tamil rebels to increase his domestic popularity. But the extended fighting and high death toll threaten to further erode his political base.

Indian Tamils are organizing anti-Gandhi protests in Tamil Nadu, and a major opposition party has demanded an emergency session of the national Parliament to discuss the Army offensive. Another group has warned that ``India is getting bogged down militarily in Sri Lanka.''

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