Sunjwan Attack: Idea of Using Proxies Against Pak Needs a Rethink

It is only with the use of covert and deniable capability that the Pakistan Army will be hurt and hit. 

7 min read
The Sunjwan attack coverage  is precisely what the terrorists are looking for: 24X7 publicity which is the oxygen for any terrorist group. India has to wake up and move into the proactive mode.

The dastardly attack by at least four terrorists, suspected to be from the Afzal Guru Squad of the Jaish e Mohammad (JeM), against the Army camp of 36 Infantry Brigade near Sunjuwan in Jammu on the morning of 10 February is a part of the ongoing proxy war being waged with impunity by Pakistan.

At least eight casualties, including one JCO, were killed while soldiers and families were wounded. Special Forces were sent in to deal with the fidayeen attack.


Initially, the local army formation expected they would be able to deal with the situation, but later, the Special Forces were called in. The Jaish terrorists were reported to have split up into two groups in the JCO family quarters area, but were then reported to have been suitably isolated.

Every few weeks, such attacks are mounted both north and south of the Pir Panjal –taking a heavy toll on security forces. South of the Pir Panjal, the army camps are close to the Line of Control and the International Border, making it easier for terrorists to strike. Last week, four soldiers were martyred in a bunker in a post in Rajouri sector on LoC by a direct hit of 120 mm mortars.

  • September 2013, Samba: Three Army personnel, including the second-in-command of 16 Cavalry, were killed in an attack at their unit camp
  • September 2013, Hiranagar: Heavily-armed militants dressed in army fatigues attacked a police station in Kathua, killing five, including four policemen
  • August 2015, Udhampur: Two BSF jawans and a militant were killed and eight others injured when militants attacked a convoy of the force
  • November 2016, Nagrota: Two officers and five soldiers were martyred in a terrorist attack on an Army unit in Jammu and Kashmir

Was the Surgical Strike Effective?

Every few months, thanks to an overzealous electronic media that is engaged in competing nationalism or patriotism, the country and the government subject themselves to bouts of self-flagellation over the deaths of soldiers on the LoC and the hinterland. The prime reason for this is the high sense of expectation created by the government and the Army among people when it comes to instant retribution against Pakistan Army and its proxies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had promised severe retaliation to Pakistan’s provocations, without realising that such reactive retaliatory operations were already being conducted across the LoC – without any deterrent effect.

Following massive public outcry over continuing terrorist attacks, culminating in the one at Uri in 2016, PM Modi was forced to escalate the ‘tit for tat’ firing astride LoC into publicly declared cross LoC multiple raids, erroneously called “surgical strikes”.

Modi and his party colleagues believed that the unprecedented (only in terms of declaration) surgical strikes were the strategic panacea to ending infiltration, ceasefire violations and violence by terrorist proxies in Kashmir.

That they heavily exaggerated the tactical gains from the modest operation that Pakistan denied altogether, became evident soon. But the government extracted copious political mileage from the surgical strikes, even politicising the Army for electoral gains. The term ‘surgical strikes’ had become the currency for solving intractable problems.

Sunjwan Attack: Idea of Using Proxies Against Pak Needs a Rethink
(Photo: PTI)

We know that the rewards from Operation X (the surgical strikes) were limited and short-lived. Ceasefire violations have nearly trebled since then and security force casualties have doubled despite the Army’s commendable Operation All Out and the government’s belated political initiative by Dineshwar Sharma to engage the stakeholders. The PDP-BJP coalition government is replete with systemic contradictions that make the complex military mission even more knotty for the army.

Unless there is a modicum of consensus among coalition antagonists and the opposition, the Kashmir House will remain divided and facilitate Pakistan’s multilayered subversion in the state. BJP president Amit Shah, making his debut speech in the Rajya Sabha last week, incongruously claimed that Jammu and Kashmir is the most peaceful it has been in the last 30 years.


Will Kashmir See a Blood Bath in 2018?

Everyone is predicting a bloody 2018 in Kashmir, given the volatile political situation in Pakistan when Rawalpindi is under immense pressure from the US though China is there to hold its hand.

Keeping the LoC hot and carrying out terrorist operations in the hinterland like the one at Sanjuwan confers many advantages on the deep state – it facilitates infiltration to maintain insurgency and keeps the Kashmir issue alive; attracts, on an average, 100 to 130 local militants; signals to the US its difficulty in acting against Taliban on the western front and keeps relevant the reinstatement of United Nations Military Observer Group India Pakistan (UNMOGIP) – that India has disowned – along the LoC.

By whatever name – cowards, butchers, et al – the electronic brigade may call Rawalpindi’s low-cost, high-yield cross border terrorism by its strategic proxies, India has not found an antidote yet. With the use-by date of surgical strikes now over, how is India to give a befitting response and teach Pakistan a lesson for periodic assaults on India’s manhood? A number of defensive military (diplomacy and coercion) have failed. A few ideas have been floated:

  • Enforcing the restoration of the 26 November 2003 Ceasefire Agreement
  • Ending infiltration by constructing a smart fence
  • Subduing the insurgency and reducing the current population of terrorists from approximately 250 down to double digits.

Even escalation along the LoC by the use of heavy artillery and anti-tank missiles can escalate to the use of short range missiles. The last thing this government wants is a vertical escalation, that risks the danger of war. The military intention in any response has to be non-escalatory.

Sunjwan Attack: Idea of Using Proxies Against Pak Needs a Rethink
(Photo: PTI)

Pakistan’s Side of The Story

Last month, I met in London a Pakistani Brigadier presumably from the ISI, who bemoaned General Rawat’s assertion on 15 January that the Indian Army would cross the LoC and call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.

It is this limited war concept, designed by India in 2004 after Operation Parakram (in response to Jaish e Mohammad’s attack on Parliament) and further refined by the Cold Start doctrine, that led Pakistan into fabricating tactical nuclear weapons for war fighting. Limited war is a non-starter due to India’s inability to establish escalation control dominance. It is a folly to assume there is space for conventional operations beyond surgical strikes in response to the proxy war.


Pakistan’s former head of Strategic Plans Division (nuclear establishment) Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai’s liberal red lines, outlined to a group of Italian journalists in 2004, have become irrelevant after the advent of tactical nuclear weapons. Kidwai is now the military advisor to the National Command Authority, which decides on first use nuclear.

India does not want war of any kind as it does not want to get distracted from its intention to grow at an 8 to 10 percent clip annually. It is no longer feasible and extremely risky and dangerous to try and call out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Even the US has had to abandon its military operations against Iran and North Korea, not to forget Pakistan, to whom it has given “one last chance”. So, a conventional military response to proxy war, which has the potential to escalate, has been taken off the table.

In Plan B, according to some pundits, the end game is to escalate beyond surgical strikes – say a missile strike on a military facility in PoK. A conventional missile strike or a deep raid on terrorist camps in Muzaffarabad (for which we do not have the operational capability) will attract a serious punitive response from Pakistan. So this option too is off the table.

Given the limitations and risks of retaliation in any conventional response, Kidwai, putting himself in Gen Rawat’s boots, said in Islamabad during a recent seminar that India is preparing to use terrorist proxies to shift to sub-conventional responses by creating its own proxies.

These have inherent deniability and appear the only plausible method of creating a hurting stalemate to make Rawalpindi rethink the value of using its strategic assets.

Former defence minister Manohar Parrikar had famously said that to catch a terrorist, you need a terrorist. NSA Ajit Doval is widely quoted in Pakistan as having said: “If there is another Mumbai, there will be no Balochistan”. India’s clandestine assets were dismantled in pursuance of the Gujral doctrine in the mid-1990s.

The idea of using proxies was mooted first in 2003 but was shot down for moral reasons – we can’t behave like Pakistan. This idea requires a rethink. It is only with the use of covert and deniable capability that the Pakistan Army will be hurt and hit.

Otherwise, India should be prepared to receive a stream of body bags as we are doing on a weekly basis since we are barking up the wrong tree. Equally, we will have to live with cross-border terrorism in Kashmir for the foreseeable future, unless we transform from being reactive to proactive.

The Sunjwan attack coverage is precisely what the terrorists are looking for – 24X7 publicity is the oxygen for any terrorist group. India has to wake up and move into the proactive mode.

(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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