Since the brokered regime change in April 2022, Pakistan is in the throes of organized chaos where every state institution is at loggerheads with the others. Those manning these institutions – politicians, civil and military bureaucrats, judges, and the media are at each other’s throats. In this tumult that makes us remember China’s Cultural Revolution, India, Pakistan’s archenemy, is watchful waiting. The scenario reminds us of the situation where vultures gather around a carcass to consume it after the life is snuffed out from the body.
Indian bloggers and vloggers are engaged in spirited discussions, often bordering on fantasies, about how India can snatch AJK and GB from Pakistan, Aksai Chin from China, and even re-integrate the whole of Pakistan into the Indian Union. In this Indian fantasy scramble to gobble up Pakistan and undo the 1947 “vivisection of Mother India”, one is reminded of the contents of a letter written by Nehru to Brigadier Cariappa, the member of the Reconstitution Committee formed to oversee the division of armies:
“Let things take shape for a while. But of one thing I am convinced, that ultimately there will be a united and strong India. We will have to go through the valley of shadows before we reach the sunlit mountain top” (Khanduri,2007).
This same Nehru had once remarked to B.K. Nehru “let us see for how long they last (Singh,2012).
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Capturing Gilgit Baltistan in a Kinetic War
Indian leaders had always nurtured grand ambitions. In the twilight years of the British Raj, there was a Congress-led government in the restive Muslim- majority Northwest 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, 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, the Congress party failed to hack off NWFP from Pakistan.
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. While keeping in view Pakistan’s grievances, one should not be oblivious to India’s frustrations. 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 this giant plug is controlled by Pakistan.
India, if it tries to capture AJK and GB, does not have the conventional punch to do so in a kinetic war. Look how:
Ravi Rikhye, an Indian defense analyst, suggests an Indian army offensive with 2x 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 Gilgit-Baltistan with three divisions, including a division each down the Nubra and WesternShyok Valleys, with the third division in reserve.
Attacking Gilgit and Skardu with a corps each will not be possible 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 that took more than a month to infiltrate a maximum of two brigades up to 11 km across the LOC. And 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 with 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 for an operation to capture Gilgit. Attacking AJK will be relatively easier, but the attacking army will be soon embroiled in a slogging match.
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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 airfield, followed by the leading brigade and the remaining division. And the airfield, 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 SSM.
The Non-Kinetic Option
A webinar, attended by a former Indian general and academicians, was held on May 29, 2020, to ponder upon non-military strategic methods to occupy AJK and GB. There was nothing new in it as far as India’s strategy of employing Trojan horses to achieve its military objectives is concerned.
We all know that for the last decade or so the Indian Army is busy raising a mountain strike corps to “liberate” Aksai Chin from China and AJK and GB from Pakistan. However, Indian generals tacitly admit that the Indian army is unable to fight a kinetic war against Pakistan and China. India will henceforth seek resolution of its territorial disputes mainly through political and psychological maneuvering – the grey war.
Addressing the webinar, Lieutenant General Ata Hasnain (retired) of the Indian army stressed:
“The generational integration is going to take place in GB and India must ensure that GB should not integrate into Pakistani society. “We also must explore the Shia connection. We have a Shia connection with Turtuk, Kargil, and 25 million Shias across India. We need to integrate the Shia identity from Lucknow to Kargil. Social media shall indeed be a part of it. Looking at the diaspora, they have a huge GB, Mirpuri, and PoK diaspora. We must look for exclusive meetings with those diasporas whenever our leaders visit foreign countries.”
India playing the Shia card is nothing new. They have been doing this for a long time. The population on both sides of Kargil Heights is predominantly Shia. India is encouraging Iran to play a silent role in controlling the social and religious life of Shias living in Gilgit – Baltistan, and Kargil.
The Shia lunar calendar for Gilgit-Baltistan is determined by the Imam of the Friday mosque at Kargil. And the Imam of the Kargil mosque receives his instructions from Iran. This is not something symbolic. It implies that the Shias living across the line of control now have a single authority that regulates their secular as well as religious life.
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In recent years, Ladakh Hill Council, backed by India, has floated the idea of Greater Ladakh incorporating Ladakh, Gilgit, and Baltistan. Given the evolution of the Indo-Iran strategic partnership during the last three decades, one can safely assume that Greater Ladakh will be a palatable proposition for both India and Iran.
Dr. Manish, another participant in the webinar, echoed the views and stated that India lacks strategic culture. He further said:
“Two major things that are important in our scenario Firstly, India should invent most of the cyber tech power and energize and enlarge this domain. The content should be news, ideas, debate, social networking, entertainment, etc. Secondly, it should lend support to adversaries. We can do so by providing non-military and military aid to them. Pro-democracy opposition movements are suddenly increasing which are too intense. Most of the literature and research in the past century show that there have been well-laid, planned, and massive efforts to raise pro-democracy movements. Such efforts tend to change the economy for a prolonged period. We should resort to such movements.”
India attacked and absorbed small states like Hyderabad, Junagarh, Goa, 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 sure of its victory, but the Indian Army stopped in its tracks in the western theatre because of the human and material risks involved. In the future, India will resort to armed intervention in Pakistan only when it is sure that its offensive will be a walkover. Covert Indian intervention in Pakistan should be viewed in this context.
Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.