The recent beheading of two Indian soldiers deserves a hard response, but one that goes beyond purely tactical gains.
The beheading of two Indian soldiers who were on patrol duty on the LoC by Pakistan army’s Border Action Teams has humiliated the Indian army and shocked the nation. This serves the twin purpose of the Pakistan army. During a recent visit to the LoC, Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had talked about supporting Kashmir’s freedom struggle. Through this provocation, Bajwa has all but challenged India’s military power to the glee of foreign and domestic terrorists in Kashmir.
The politicians and the army are seething with anger, and rightly so, at the inhuman act and have vowed to avenge the dishonour. Experts have given out various retaliatory options short of war on the LoC that the Indian army could undertake. These include raids by Special Forces, beheading as a tit-for-tat, use of artillery’s long-range firepower to blow off Pakistani posts and surgical strikes, which have recently been incorporated in the joint doctrine of the Indian armed forces.
The Pakistan army would surely have mulled over the possible retaliatory actions before challenging the Indian might. They would have thought through the possibility of war escalation. While India should respond hard, wisdom dictates that it should go beyond tactical gains. The purpose – very much doable – should be to deter the Pakistan army by forcing them to assess that they lose more by such reprehensible acts and by continuing the export of terror.
What not to do
To be sure, the use of artillery guns is not a good idea anymore. For one, whatever is left of the 2003 ceasefire – since mortars and even artillery guns in direct firing role are used freely – would go up in the air with India being seen as the aggressor. For another, with thousands of Chinese workers milling all along the LoC constructing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), their deaths as the artillery’s collateral damage will mean India confronting the spectre of a two-front war. India has two artillery platforms, the Pinaka and Smerch multi-barrel rocket launchers, with 40 km and 70 km ranges. The CPEC, which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, will fall within the ranges of these weapon systems.
A retaliatory beheading also will not help. It goes against the moral fibre of the Indian army; and instead of deterring the Pakistan army, it will embolden them to do more of the same. Moreover, the September 2016 surgical strikes have not produced results. This is because the Indian Army has been enervated by decades of continuous counter-insurgency operations in a war-like environment in Jammu and Kashmir. While its conventional war-fighting capabilities have been eroded, the Pakistan military (especially its army and air force) has developed inter-operability (or the ability to fight together for common missions) with the People’s Liberation Army in mountainous and high-altitude terrains.
A full-scale war is not an option for India either, for five reasons. One, Pakistan will have China’s support in terms of war materiel to fight a long-duration war. Two, China could help Pakistan with its robust space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities without showing its hand. Three, Chinese in Pakistan could be collateral damage in war. Four, the Indian army will need sufficient time to re-orient itself from counter-insurgency to fighting conventional war. And five, Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons cannot be overlooked.
What should the Indian army do? Three things: It should not repair the fence on the LoC which gets damaged each year by heavy snow in winter months. On the one hand, the Pakistan army finds new ways to breach it for pushing terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir; on the other hand, symbolising the psychological and military limit of war-fighting, it has, unconsciously, instilled a defensive mindset in the Indian army. The Pakistan army, which happily allows the Indian army to repair the damaged fence, will be worried if India were not to do so. This would distract it from its three major priorities: heavy involvement in counter-terrorism tasks for internal stability; providing protection to the CPEC to ensure timelines are met; and its diplomatic role in support of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ mega-project for global power.
Moreover, the Indian army should adopt an offensive posture on the LoC. This does not mean going to war. What it means is that instead of the present anti-infiltration role which involves the army looking out for infiltrators along the valleys and gorges, it should be looking at Pakistani posts and how to damage/destroy them through firepower and regular raids. While the Pakistan army will surely react with equal force, it will be compelled to assess the trade-off between its other priorities and increased aggression on the LoC.
This is not all. If the infiltration supported by the Pakistan army does not abate, the Indian army could even contemplate improving its tactical positions on the LoC, especially in the south of the Pir Panjal range where it has the numbers as sufficient troops have been moved forward from the hinterland to the LoC.
Were this to happen, the Pakistan army would certainly react; there is a possibility that it could finally use its artillery and break the 2003 ceasefire. It would be a fall-back to old times (from 1990 to 2003), when both sides had learnt to live with incessant firings. The flip side is that the Pakistan army’s commitment on its eastern front with India would increase dramatically, something that both Rawalpindi and China would not prefer.
To support the offensive posture, New Delhi should help the three defence services make up critical deficiencies, especially ammunition, on war-footing from abroad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Israel, which had wholeheartedly supported India with war materiel during the 1999 Kargil conflict, could help in this. Needless to add, the three defence services would need to work out their war-plans for the Jammu and Kashmir theatre, where plenty of campaign-level (as distinct from tactical) objectives are available.
If the above were to be done, Rawalpindi would be compelled to sit up and reassess its options. Its ally, China, which desires regional peace for its One Belt, One Road plan, would also nudge Pakistan to check its proxy war. And all this would not be lost on the people of Kashmir.
Pravin Sawhney is the editor of FORCE newsmagazine.