On 22 November, the Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. Upendra Dwivedi while responding to a pointed query by a journalist on the statement of the Defence Minister on re-taking of Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (POJK), first drew attention to the parliamentary resolution on POJK and then, in a matter of fact manner stated that, “The Indian Army is ready to execute any order given by the GOI..”
A senseless tweet by Ms. Richa Chadha, for which she was trolled extensively, set off the expected media storm and the release of the always just-under-the-surface longing of some journalists to play “soldier-soldier” in conjunction with the military veterans.
Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. Upendra Dwivedi said The Indian Army is ready to execute any order given by the GOI.
Post-2019 reorganisation of State of Jammu & Kashmir, maps show POK as part of the Union Territory of J&K while NA figure in the Ladakh UT.
The ongoing Russo-Ukraine war has only underscored this dynamic.
Pakistan has a reasonable-sized and equipped standing armed forces, and any attempt to retake POK/POJK could lead to an all-out war between India and Pak.
To hold on to POK/POJK, India would have to commit large chunks of the Indian Army and other security forces for protracted periods to bring down the insurgency there to threshold levels.
What Comprises POJK?
In brief, India’s claim to Jammu & Kashmir is based on the boundaries of the formerly princely State of J&K, and includes (i) a region west and north of the Line of Control (LoC) (from north of Chicken’s Neck to Kargil), commonly referred to as “POK”; (ii) the Northern Areas (NA) up to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor (Pakistan has renamed NA as Gilgit-Baltistan); and (iii) the Shaksgam Valley / Shaksgam Tracts (illegally ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963).
We couldn’t, for several reasons, establish Indian control over these three areas in the post-Independence wars of 1947-1948, and have since remained under illegal foreign control. After the 2019 reorganisation of the State of Jammu & Kashmir, our maps show POK as part of the Union Territory of J&K while NA figure in the Union Territory of Ladakh.
India’s Plan of Action for Reclaiming PoK
The first question, and one which no one has addressed, is: which parts are we talking of re-taking? POK? Or, POK and NA? Or POK, NA and the Shaksgam Tracts? NA particularly has very high, rugged mountainous terrain; Shaksgam will involve going up against the Chinese.
The next question pertains to whether India has the military capacity to re-take POK / POJK, and if yes, then what?
India-Pakistan Conventional Forces Symmetry: Carl von Clausewitz was one of the firsts to clearly define that defence is the stronger form of war— to preserve the integrity of one’s own territory is easier than for an adversary to acquire. Further, the proliferation of modern weapons effectively ensures that the formerly presumed attack ratio of 3: 1 no longer holds good even in the plains—and a mountainous terrain raises the stakes incrementally in favour of the defender.
The ongoing Russo-Ukraine war has only underscored this dynamic. Pakistan has a reasonable-sized and equipped standing armed forces, and any attempt to retake POK/POJK could lead to an all-out war between India and Pakistan.
But even if it doesn’t, India will still not be able to concentrate maximum forces opposite POK/POJK as it will have to maintain precautionary deployments on the rest of the border against Pakistan as also against China to thwart any misadventure.
In summation, the conventional forces asymmetry between India and Pakistan is not so pronounced as to allow India to capture POK/POJK. Recall that in 1999 Kargil War or Operation Vijay, we used brigade-plus-sized forces supported by immense amounts of artillery and some air power to capture heights occupied by a handful of Pakistani soldiers. Now, juxtapose that to the entire territories that comprise POK/POJK.
Can India Hold Fort in the Disputed Border?
Let’s assume India is able to re-take POK/POJK. One of the main lessons of the USA’s 2003-2011 campaign in Iraq is that while a military power can destroy inferior armed forces and capture territory, even the most powerful military—one which enjoys conventional forces overmatch of at least 10-30 times over its adversary, cannot hold onto the territory in the face of irregular warfare. The same lesson emerges from the USA’s longest war in Afghanistan.
Given Pakistan’s imperatives, and the demography of the POJK particularly POK, India will be faced with a Pakistan-backed insurgency. Controlling insurgency requires saturating the active zone with troops and intelligence assets.
Therefore, to hold on to POK/POJK, India would have to commit large chunks of the Indian Army and other security forces for protracted periods to bring down the insurgency there to threshold levels. This would be happening at a time when China's threat has eminently manifested.
And China would love the large Indian commitment to be far away from the LAC. Alternately, we could raise additional assets – at a time when the defence budget is witnessing reduced budgetary support, a partial ban on weapon imports, and the pension bill is ballooning. The Rashtriya Rifles (RR) were specifically raised to free for war operations of the Indian Army’s formations that had been sucked into CI/CT grid in J&K.
How Is the International Community Reacting?
It doesn’t seem anyone has analysed the primary stand of the international community during the 1999 Kargil conflict. The western edge of POK abuts the areas of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s nuclear installations, military manufacturing hub, and the endpoint of the Karakorum Highway.
Worried about the enlargement of fighting, Pakistani imperatives against an existential threat to its core, and subsequent escalation to nuclear levels, the international community had vehemently and vigorously imposed on Pakistan to respect the LoC and withdraw to positions agreed to/signed-on post-1971 Indo-Pak War.
Implicit, albeit unsaid, in this stand was the message that it considers the LoC as the de-facto international border even for India. In other words, any such Indian military action will likely face international opprobrium.
On Strategising War
Most views are dismissive of the adversary, almost presume the ability to legislate responses on behalf of Pakistan and China, and appear to be tactical or at best, operational in nature but not strategic. Tactics are used in order to win the battle, to win in a theatre while strategy is the use of operations to win the war, and more importantly, also what to do before the war and after it.
Thus, strategy stretches much beyond the ambit of generals and into the purview of the “whole of the government” – and any strategic process must integrate three main elements:
Constant Change: General Graf Helmuth von Moltke the Elder famously said, “No (military) plan survives first contact with the enemy," and had gone to elaborate that while strategic planning is important, it requires extreme flexibility since plans will need to be changed as the war progresses in response to the enemy’s actions.
Reciprocity: Wars are fought neither in a void nor against innate objects, but against an adversary who thinks independently and counters constantly. The writings of Clausewitz and Thucydides (“History of the Peloponnesian War”) clearly outline that strategy and war are reciprocal, and that propounding a one-sided strategy (i.e., Indian only) just won’t do.
Non-Linear System: Linear systems (e.g., where 2+2 is always equal to 4) dominate our learning, technology equipment, industry and lives - and that is why much of our thinking is linear. However, war is not linear – and herein, lies the perils of making assumptions about an adversary’s strategies.
The US’s reverses in Korea, Vietnam and more recently in Afghanistan are proof that even a powerful nation’s strategy will not yield the desired results if they don’t cognise the adversarial polity and strategies.
The unpalatable fact is that such statements – retaking of Aksai Chin, of POK/POJK are usually aired by politicians prior to some major election in pursuit of electoral benefit. The media then amplifies those statements by roping in veterans. Regrettably, the views of professionals, pitted against those ideologically inclined or hankering for post-retirement posts, now often get eclipsed in the bruising, abrasive debates, with some trying to outdo the others in faux belligerence.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. 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.)