The geopolitical developments of past few months have made India’s apprehensions of a two-front engagement, very realistic. While India has been locked in an attritional conflict with Pakistan and its state supported proxies in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) since the later part of 1980s, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has opened another front in Ladakh and on North-Eastern border. Both China and Pakistan are driven by the motive of capturing Indian territory. The deepening China-Pakistan nexus presents a more challenging security environment for Indian forces.
The biggest challenge that the Indian strategic planners are currently grappling with is developing an effective counter-strategy to the two-front war scenario. As after Pakistan’s Kargil war debacle, any full-fledged military adventure by it seems highly unlikely, its use of proxies and terror groups will continue unabated. Insurgency is cost-effective and serves the larger strategic goal. China on the other hand caught India by surprise in Ladakh and now sits in possession of more territory than it used to claim in 1959. The countless corps commander talks have made little headway and seem more like a ploy by China to buy time to impose a new reality on the boundary question. So, what is the way out for India?
Given the limitations of military resources at India’s disposal, India must make some fundamental changes in its military strategy. India’s priority should be to deal with China’s threat. The war of attrition with Pakistan is going to continue unless a better counter-strategy is formulated. Pakistan has been able to tie down a significant number of Indian security personnel and resources in J&K region. The 2003 ceasefire agreement, practically dead for all these years was resurrected in February 2021 amid surprise and much-needed relief for residents of border areas. But with the geopolitical situation changing in Pakistan’s favour with the victory of its proxies in Afghanistan, will the ceasefire continue to hold?
CALM ON THE WESTERN FRONT
The Indian security establishment believes that the February ceasefire is going to last, at least till Winter arrives. However, this seems more a case of wishful thinking. After a high of 4645 ceasefire violations by Pakistan in 2020, the Indian and Pakistani DGMOs (Director General Military Operations) notified in February this year that they have mutually agreed to adhere to the 2003 agreement. The ceasefire was needed by India too as it is caught in a tense stand-off with China in Ladakh. While reports suggest that back-channel talks between NSA’s Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf led to this, the Pakistani NSA was quick to disown it. Perhaps due to compulsions of domestic politics in the aftermath of the 5 August 2019 decision amending J&K’s special constitutional status.
The question remains – how does Pakistan benefit from the continual of ceasefire? In retrospect, it seems evident that the ceasefire with India became a necessity for Pakistan to devote its undivided attention to Afghanistan. That was the big prize for Pakistan’s Army. It appears Pakistan Army needed a stop-gap arrangement to ensure peace on their Eastern border, so they could focus on the Afghanistan situation. With its grip on Afghanistan strengthening, Pakistan’s Army would be keen to push for more infiltration of terrorists into J&K.
However, Pakistan is also witnessing an uptick in the attack by Baloch nationalists and TTP rebels from across Afghanistan. Several dozen Pakistani soldiers have died in these attacks this year alone. Pakistan anticipated this spurt in attacks which is why it began fencing its border with Afghanistan in 2017 at an estimated cost of over $ 500 million. Afghans, including a section of Taliban are against this and even the Pakistan government is not sure if it can stop these attacks. The Pakistan government seems out of options and is reportedly exploring talks with TTP to negotiate a peace. Whether Pakistan’s triumph in Afghanistan will prove to be pyrrhic victory, only time will tell. What is clear is that this does not augur well for the region.
With Pakistan firmly in control of affairs in Afghanistan, their forces on top of their morale by believing they have defeated another superpower, they would be eager to take the war to J&K. The recent belligerent outburst by Pakistani PM Imran Khan at UN General Assembly directed against the Indian government, certainly emphasises that they don’t think they would need peace on the border with India for much longer. Worth noting that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister had not raised the usual rhetoric about Kashmir in an informal meeting of SAARC ministers held in mid-February 2021.
With elections in Pakistan slated to be held in 2023, the Imran Khan government and its benefactor, the Pakistan Army, would have to show some “action” on Kashmir. They cannot be perceived as making peace with India as Nawaz Sharif was dethroned by the Army giving the same excuse.
The Indian strategy to deal with Pakistani designs has, by and large, remained unchanged. As a result of that India is not only facing a high cost in terms of lives in containing the insurgency in the Kashmir region but is also having to deal with significant casualties at Line of Control (LoC). Indian government indeed has conducted several operations to target the terrorists on their launchpads, but that is unlikely to change Pakistani behaviour. The terror attacks are now largely limited to Punjab and J&K. This might be due to India’s improvement in precluding terror attacks and due to Pakistani leadership trying to avoid international criticism in the aftermath of large-scale terror attacks like 26/11. However, there is a need to revisit the current strategy being followed to counter terrorist infiltration from across the LoC, which is the centre of focus and learn lessons from counter-infiltration strategy of other countries like Israel. Killing terrorists is not a measure of success and fighting a protracted insurgency should not be the job of the Army.
Israel is one of the few countries that has thrice fought multiple front wars and continues to fight terrorism. This is something that Indian military planners need to look at and study considering that India too faces the risk of one. Going back in history, the current situation in J&K is somewhat reminiscent of Israel’s low-intensity war of attrition with Lebanon that it fought for 15 years (1985 to 2000). The war with Hezbollah, a proxy of Iran, resulted in the death of hundreds of IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers and ultimately forced IDF to undertake a humiliating withdrawal from the security zone, the territory it was holding in Southern Lebanon as a buffer. Parallels can also be drawn with the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after a 20-year war.
It was not the first time that Israel was defeated by its opponent by forcing it to fight a battle of attrition. Egypt, after its defeat in the Six Day War in 1967, changed its strategy and engaged IDF in an attritional war from 1968-70 that ate away Israel’s military edge. Israel’s ostensible victory proved delusional, as the loss in men and materiel was significant. Egyptian forces, on the other hand, after getting rehabilitated thanks to generous arms support by USSR, nearly routed IDF in the 1973 Yom Kippur war which helped Egypt recover its lost territory eventually.
‘An attritive war is adopted as a strategy when one side perceives it to be weaker than the other and thus uses attrition to exhaust its enemy’s will to fight without making any concession’. For India the number of lives being lost is unacceptably high. According to government records 5,886 security personnel were killed in Jammu and Kashmir in terrorist incidents from 1989 till August 5, 2019 – 80 in 2019; 62 in 2020; 16 in 2021 (up to June). While on the opposing side, most casualties have been young locals recruited by various terror outfits in Kashmir. Pakistan security forces have suffered fewer casualties of its personnel in its attritional war with India. This presents a scenario of unwinnable conflict for India, as it is unable to inflict any serious damage or cost on Pakistan.
The situation for residents of border villages is equally tragic. The LoC. Ceasefire violations results in higher civilian casualties than those of the military. As the past suggests, whenever Pakistan Army comes under increasing pressure, it escalates tensions with India. Therefore, it is likely that these things will occur with higher frequency until India inflicts severe cost. Ensuring that Pakistan remains on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Grey List is important in this regard.
From its experience of cross-border terrorism, Israel has pioneered several countermeasures. The deployment of smart fences along with physical barriers is an important one. Smart fences are effective in stopping infiltration to a large extent as is seen in case of Israel’s fencing the Egypt border. Israel also uses drones to gather intelligence and at times to carry out targeted pre-emptive strikes. Of course, the adversaries faced by Israel and India are not similar. The terrain and climatic conditions are quite different, India’s being harsher. Therefore, India would have to pick and choose what might work for its security needs.
FINDING TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTION
The cross-border raids that are carried out, like that in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) after Uri or in Myanmar in 2015, no doubt act as a deterrent, but only for a short while. There is also the risk of these raids resulting in casualties, the capture of soldiers, and resultant escalation. Pakistan is already exploiting drone technology to drop off arms and narcotics to its terror modules within India. Therefore, there is a case for India to learn from Israel and induct more technological platform to neutralise the technological advantage that Pakistan is trying to exploit.
Protecting lives of civilians and security personnel in a conflict zone should be the government’s foremost concern. The current government has shown commitment towards this. Project for construction of bunkers for residents of border villages have been sanctioned. And rightly so, as the Raksha Mantri had remarked that people living in border villages are “strategic assets.” Government has also tried to address the shortage in bulletproof vests for the soldiers deployed in the region. The project to install smart fence along the LoC is also moving forward. The introduction of technology for border security management is the solution. After the installation of high-tech fence all along Israel border, it has witnessed a sharp decline in number of infiltrations. The same smart fence has been installed by the US on Mexico border. Of course, no security measure is completely fool proof, yet this combination of i-tec and low-tec measures would certainly go a long way in helping better guard the borders and reducing casualties. No solution guarantees hundred percent result. There would obviously be some gaps. Terrorists try to get creative to beat the security measures in place. Something as rudimentary as tunnelling can sometimes defeat the huge investment that country’s make in installing the smart fences.
The government of India also needs to expedite the development of MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UAVs and induct them for surveillance of crossing points and if possible, induct armed drones to neutralise terrorists on their launch pads or before they infiltrate. The induction of Predator UAVs by Navy would certainly help Indian security forces gain some on-hand experience of using these high-tech platforms.
Many learned people and policy analysts have suggested that there can be no military solution to India-Pakistan disputes. However, it may well be true that, like in the case of Egypt and Israel, it might take a calculated military escalation before a long-term ceasefire can be restored. Of course, India and Pakistan being nuclear powers, following a policy of brinkmanship might not be easy. Despite its precarious economic situation and causalities in the tit-for-tat ceasefire violations, Pakistan has shown little willingness for any lasting truce. The idea seems to be to keep the Kashmir cauldron boiling, as Pakistan’s aim is to deny India peace. There is no reason why Pakistani establishment would want to rein in their proxies. So, the onus is on India to better safeguard its personnel and borders.
The writer is a PhD Candidate at National Security Studies, Central University of Gujarat. Views expressed are writer’s personal.