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Saleem Akhtar Malik |

CPEC is presently the subject of intense debate within and outside Pakistan. India has openly declared its opposition to CPEC because of Gilgit-Baltistan, which, India claims, were part of the disputed princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. India lays claim to the whole of J&K and maintains that the projected corridor will violate its territorial sovereignty.

The plug

Pakistan’s response to the situation in Jammu & Kashmir, soon after independence, was determined by a civil government, which found itself incapable of launching an overt military operation to liberate J&K, and was thus constrained to seek help from the Kashmiri freedom fighters and tribesmen from the tribal belt that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan. Pakistan Army’s role in this conflict remained confined to seconding two of its officers to a ghost headquarters covertly set up with the blessings of Pakistan’s prime minister for planning, preparation, and execution of the war in J&K. It also sent some of its officers on leave to provide leadership to the tribesmen. Pakistan Army was fully involved in the conflict in the spring of 1948 when the Indian Army was threatening to advance beyond Line Uri-Poonch-Naushera.

The First Kashmir War left Pakistan holding not only the mountain barrier separating the Valley from the plains of West Punjab, but also in possession of Gilgit & Baltistan.

As a result of the First Kashmir War (1947-48), Pakistan had liberated one- third of the state of Jammu & Kashmir but failed to dislodge the Indians from the Valley. Moreover, India still controlled the sources of the Indus river system. Yet everything had not gone as planned by the Indian leadership. In the twilight years of the British Raj, there was a Congress- led government in the restive Muslim- majority North West Frontier Province (NWFP), contiguous to Jammu & Kashmir. And the Congress had laid claims to the province. It had planned to manipulate the accession of the NWFP with India through its ally Ghaffar Khan and hoped that with India in possession of Jammu & Kashmir through the Radcliffe Award, the road would be open for the Indian dominance of Afghanistan and ingress into Central Asia. That was not to be. Despite its machinations, Congress party failed to hack off NWFP from Pakistan.

Read more: Is Kashmir slipping away from India?

The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, as it existed in October 1947, was a manufactured entity. With the assistance of mercenaries – foreign (French and American) as well as local, Ranjit Singh was able to invade and throw together a mixed bag of ethnically, culturally and geographically disparate regions of Kashmir Valley, Ladakh, and the Karakorams. Starting in July 1834, the Sikh general Zorawar’s army captured Baltistan, a Muslim principality in the Indus Valley to the north of Kargil, across the Kargil Heights.

In 1842 a local adventurer, Karim Khan, captured Gilgit with the support of a Sikh army from Kashmir. Thereafter, this region changed hands many times between the local rulers and the Sikhs. In 1877, the British established the Gilgit Agency in order to “guard India against the Russian advance”. In 1935, the British forced Maharaja Hari Singh to lease them Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Yasin, and Ashkomen for 60 years (The Sikh Encyclopedia).

The First Kashmir War left Pakistan holding not only the mountain barrier separating the Valley from the plains of West Punjab, but also in possession of Gilgit & Baltistan. Later, the Sino-Indian border war effectively quarantined Tibet from India. In the 21st Century, huge iron, copper, and natural gas deposits have been discovered in Afghanistan, not to mention the enormous gas reserves in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. India can have access to these natural deposits, but for this giant plug controlled by Pakistan.

The present lineup

The world is no longer divided into two camps based on opposing ideologies. Ideological states have been replaced by “identity states”.

We must reconcile with how the world has changed since the Cold War. Water flows in the direction where it finds the least resistance. The same is true about relationships- individual and collective, hence the new world alignments in which the United States, the European Union countries, Japan, and India are lined up against an assertive China. We should not, however, compare the post-Cold War alignments with the rivalry between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union. The world is no longer divided into two camps based on opposing ideologies. Ideological states have been replaced by “identity states”. It is not a matter of fight till death for either of the contestants.

Read more: Why China wants to ‘speed up’ CPEC’s construction?

In many areas, the United States and China complement each other. While China blows hot and cold in the Pacific, it is very careful about overplaying its hand. In this new post-Cold War alignment, the United States, and the informal coalition it is trying to forge view themselves as representatives of pluralistic and benign societies arrayed against an authoritarian and repressive China. For the last many decades, there are insurgencies and separatist movements going on in the Indian-held Kashmir and in its northeastern states. However, the western powers only focus on China’s restive provinces, especially Tibet.

Whereas China and India have a territorial dispute, this is not stopping them from cooperating with each other in the economic field. This brings us to the question: should Pakistan keep seeking symmetry with India by borrowing power from China? The answer is, clichés apart, there is no such thing as “all weather friendship”. Pakistan’s Cold War relationship with China was based on the ground realities of that era. It derived its strength from the Sino-Indian border conflict. Since then, China has repaired its relations with India to a large extent. It has also come out of its world isolation and no longer requires Pakistan as a window to the world, as it did half a century ago. However, China still remotely needs Pakistan to checkmate India even as India needs Vietnam to checkmate China.

Not only Gilgit-Baltistan, Indians are now also having second thoughts about their acceptance of Gwadar as part of Pakistan.

The India-centric aspect of Sino-Pak relationship, though not ceased altogether, has diminished to a considerable extent. However, the relationship has greater scope for expansion in another dimension. China needs Pakistan for an access to the Gulf oil fields and the Middle East markets. The so-called economic corridor linking China’s backward western regions with the Gwadar port is a step in this direction. The project provides Pakistan an opportunity to modernize its infrastructure, industrialize itself, and become a self-reliant nation. However, the manner in which the Pakistani politicians (including those in the government) are drooling over getting a share in the USD 46 billion (some say USD 60 billion) bounty, may dampen China’s enthusiasm.

India’s frustrations

While keeping in view Pakistan’s concerns, one should not be oblivious of India’s frustrations. In the past, Indians had been dismissing Gilgit-Baltistan as nothing more than “a large wasteland to the north of Kashmir Valley”. Throughout the last seven decades, they had been insisting on converting the 1949 Cease Fire Line, renamed Line of Control after the 71 War, into an International border between India and Pakistan. Suddenly, they are experiencing a heightened sense of affinity with a region which India had conceded to Pakistan even under the Simla Agreement, though Pakistan maintains it had accepted the controversial agreement from a position of weakness.

Read more: OBOR: Has India lost its ticket to development?

Not only Gilgit-Baltistan, Indians are now also having second thoughts about their acceptance of Gwadar as part of Pakistan. Gwadar will form the southern terminus of CPEC. Running about 2395 kilometers from Gwadar to Kashgar, CPEC will link Gwadar with China’s Xingjian region via a network of highways, railways, and oil and gas pipelines. The Corridor will open trade routes in western China and provide China direct access to the Gulf via the Arabian Sea, bypassing longer logistical routes.

Gwadar, located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, was not part of Pakistan when it became independent. Till 1958, it was an overseas possession of the state of Muscat and Oman, when it agreed to sell this enclave to Pakistan for PKR 5.5 billion. The Indians now claim that the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, before selling Gwadar to Pakistan, had offered it to India. An offer which was rejected by Nehru. Beating their hands together, the Indians now regret how Nehru had squandered away a once in the lifetime offer which would have allowed India a strategic overseas enclave on the Pakistani coast. They forget that, sometime in the past, Gwadar was doled out, by a local chieftain, to a fugitive Omani prince, who, running away from his enemies, had sought refuge in Mekran. Gwadar was not anyone’s ancestral property, though.

The military threat to Gilgit-Baltistan

Ravi Rikhye, an Indian defense analyst, had suggested a plan which requires 2x army corps to capture Gilgit and Skardu, a corps each attacking Gilgit (from Gurais) and Skardu (from Kargil).

It has been mentioned that, till recently, the Indians were not interested in Gilgit–Baltistan. However, since they did pay lip service to the claim that the entire J&K state was part of India, their defense analysts, at times, had been writing about “recovering” Azad Kashmir and Gilgit- Baltistan from Pakistan. Let us examine India’s military option to invade and capture this strategically important region of Pakistan:

Ravi Rikhye, an Indian defense analyst, had suggested a plan which requires 2x army corps to capture Gilgit and Skardu, a corps each attacking Gilgit (from Gurais) and Skardu (from Kargil). Approaches have not been mentioned, but we understand that the attacking corps will advance along the river valleys. This is because he also makes a passing reference to Operation Trident in 1987 which envisaged an offensive to capture the Northern Areas of Pakistan(as Gilgit-Baltistan were then called) with three divisions, including a division each down the Nubra and Western Shyok Valleys, with the third division in reserve.

For the sake of this discussion, let us give an advantage to India and assume that Pakistan does not possess nuclear capability.

Read more: Is India cutting ‘off its nose to spite its face’ on OBOR?

During all the Pakistan-India wars, neither side attempted an offensive along these river valleys. In fact, all these valleys are interspersed with glaciers into which the rivers and their tributaries drain. Mountain rivers are not like the rivers in the plains. They meander around craggy peaks and steep slopes, at places reducing to narrow gorges flowing through deep ravines, occasionally disappearing underground and then reappearing as rivulets. Sometimes the approach in the Karakorams becomes so narrow that the advancing force has to negotiate by climbing up rocky features 5000 to 7000 meters high.

The only practical way an offensive across the Karakorams may materialize is through infiltration like the one Pakistan Army attempted during the Kargil War. But it was also a slow moving operation which took more than a month to infiltrate maximum two brigades up to 11 km across the LOC.

The average temperature during summers is below zero, dropping to minus 25 degrees centigrade during the winters. Rivers Astore, Gilgit, Nubra, Shyok, and Indus are actually gorges, i.e fast running streams flowing through narrow valleys, confined between steep rocky walls forming their shoulders. The valleys open up at places, but the approaches through these valleys are largely determined by the roads and mule tracks that are cut into the shoulders of the mountain features flanking the banks of these streams. Operations to capture Gilgit and Skardu will thus rely on movement along various roads and tracks available in the area.

Attacking Gilgit and Skardu with a corps each will mess up the offensive because the river valley approaches simply do not have the capacity to take such large forces. Capturing Gilgit and Baltistan with the sheer force of numbers is thus not possible. The only practical way an offensive across the Karakorams may materialize is through infiltration like the one Pakistan Army attempted during the Kargil War. But it was also a slow moving operation which took more than a month to infiltrate maximum two brigades up to 11 km across the LOC. And it failed, besides other reasons, because of logistics failure. Hussain(2006) contemplates an operation where the Indian Army captures Skardu airfield in a surprise attack by airborne troops and follows it up by a massive airlift of troops to rapidly build up a force of the size of a reinforced infantry division. This appears more practicable. The same holds true for an operation to capture Gilgit.

Why were BMPs landed at Thoise during exercise Chequerboard? Perhaps an air assault operation was also in the offing in conjunction with the ground offensive. We are not clear about this. Such forces are landed in the enemy’s rear, to:

  1. Establish a firm base in enemy territory for facilitating the overall operation.
  2. Create a shock effect on the enemy and imbalance it psychologically. However, the attacking force itself is most vulnerable to ground fire during the airdropping/ landing phase.
  3. After landing, the leading elements of the force get busy in a) securing the firm base, the airfields, and the landing grounds; b) fighting off enemy counter attacks.

Read more: Supporting Baloch insurgency: Where are Indian “high moral grounds”?

In a division strength operation, the airborne force, normally a brigade, acts as the advance guard and holds ground till link up with the main force takes place.The advance guard brigade itself will land in phases, a battalion size force acting as the vanguard. The sustaining power of such an advance guard is between 24-48 hours within which period the main force should link up. The advance guard may be followed either by the remaining airborne division or infantry and/or armored formations advancing on the ground. Landing an airborne advance guard followed up by a ground force advancing along the river valleys is not possible in the Karakorams since, unlike Afghanistan, there is no “Salang Tunnel”* through the Karakorams to move the ground forces for a quick link up with the airborne force. Therefore, after securing the Gilgit and Skardu airfields, division size forces will have to be airlifted for completing the task and subsequently undertaking a combing/consolidation operation.

It must be borne in mind that in October 1947 India initially landed 1 Sikh Battalion at Srinagar airport. The leading elements of this battalion were under explicit orders to turn back if the airfield was held by the raiders.

In December 1979, airlifting an airborne division to Kabul took the Soviets three days. And this, when there was no ground opposition. In the context of a future Indo-Pakistan war, any attempt by India to capture Gilgit and Baltistan through an airborne operation will be immediately countered by the enemy troops holding the likely landing zones. Even if the response is late, the attacker will be eventually embroiled in fierce ground battles with the defender. Establishing a firm base inside the enemy territory will face stiff resistance.

It must be borne in mind that in October 1947 India initially landed 1 Sikh Battalion at Srinagar airport. The leading elements of this battalion were under explicit orders to turn back if the airfield was held by the raiders. Even if Indian Army employs an air assault division each to capture Gilgit and Skardu, the technique and tactics will be the same. Pathfinders will try to secure the airfields, followed by the leading brigade and the remaining division. And the airfields, nearby installations and ground would be held by the Pakistani forces. The point here is, it will not be a walkover. The actual battle will start soon after the attacker’s boots are on the ground. While the landing of troops is in progress, the defender will retaliate by engaging the enemy aircraft, airfields, landing grounds and heliports with air, air defense artillery, field artillery, and SSMs.

The indirect approach

After the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, a pattern can be discerned where India has resorted to an indirect approach to follow her designs against Pakistan. We notice manifestations of this approach in the Indian support of various separatist forces in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, and its infiltration of religious extremists in Punjab.

Read more: Making a success story out of CPEC: Certain, probable, or doubtful?

What were the Indian motives to adopt an indirect approach for destabilizing Pakistan? We know how cautious and risk-averse Indian civil and military leadership is when it comes to settling scores on the battlefield. India attacked and absorbed small states like Hyderabad, Junagarh, Goa, and Sikkim, etc. because militarily they were no match for India. In 1962, Nehru tried to test the waters by provoking China through his forward policy. After India’s defeat, China declared a unilateral ( and well thought out ) ceasefire, restricting India from ever approaching within twenty kilometers of the Line of Actual Control and, to this day, India obliges China. In 1971, India attacked East Pakistan only when it was absolutely sure of its victory, but the Indian Army stopped in its tracks in the western theater because of the human and material risks involved. In the future, India will resort to armed intervention in Pakistan only when it is absolutely sure that it’s offensive will be a walkover. Covert Indian intervention in Pakistan should be viewed in this context.

India should remember: God may not always be on the side having the largest number of battalions.

There are three routes through which Indian support to Balochi insurgents materializes: 1) the maritime route which emanates from the Gulf states and, through various fishing villages dotting the Balochistan coast, hits the hinterland. 2) the route emanating from Iran’s Chah Bahar port, located 45 kilometers to the west of Gwadar. This route passes through Iranian Balochistan and ends at various entry points along Pak-Iran border. 3) the route from Tharparkar- Shikarpur – Bolan- Quetta, and thence to interior Balochistan. There is a significant Hindu population all along the third route which is exploited by India. During all military standoffs between India and Pakistan, information about troop movement between Quetta and the rest of the country was leaked to India through its proxies positioned along this route. Various local chieftains (sandals) hostile to Pakistan find refuge in the Indian safe houses located in Afghanistan, India, Britain, and elsewhere.

Pakistan’s armed forces are alive to the situation. It took around two years for the security agencies to track and nab Kulbhushan Jhadav, the serving Indian naval commander. This was the first time after WWII when a serving defense officer was apprehended red-handed while involved in spying, sabotage, and terrorist activities in another country. Jhadav had been operating against Pakistan from his staging area in and around the Iranian port of Chah Bahar. India should remember: God may not always be on the side having the largest number of battalions.

Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power. He is a senior analyst at Command Eleven. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Saleem Akhtar Malik was a Lt Colonel in the Pakistan Army. He holds an honors degree in War Studies, an MBA and an M.Phil in Management Sciences. He is the author of the book Borrowed Power.

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