Monday, April 6, 2015

Proxy War – Are We Fighting at Enemy's Terms?

Col (Retd) Karan Kharb

The Indian Army has a proud record of achievements – both in peace and war. Political leaders, government officialdom and people – all have absolute confidence in the Army as is evident from their eagerness to call for the military help in any eventuality too dangerous or difficult for others. Such absolute love and confidence should be a great source of happiness for the soldiers.

Having lost heavily in four wars, Pakistan has made found bleeding India through state-sponsored terrorism more gainful. This strategy keeps the Kashmir in the news, keeps the Army on the run, causes public harassment, brings human rights into focus and turns public opinion against the Army. Far from reaching a final solution, the routine counter-terrorist operations undertaken by the Army in J&K have had a debilitating effect on the strength of the Army. A whole generation in the age group of 25 or less has grown up in a conflict-ridden environment. What more could Pakistan ask for? India must change its approach to the problem and seek an honourable final solution from a position of strength.

Bleeding India through Attrition

Proxy war is more sinister than conventional war in many ways. In a direct military-to-military confrontation, the enemy is clearly distinguishable from the civil population because in a conventional military scenario capturing and holding of territory dictates manoeuvres. In the proxy war scenario, the terrorists merge with the population and have no interest in holding territory. They operate in small groups, carry out their terror tasks and easily melt away in the masses. Besides, the conventional enemy would be logistically organised and self-reliant whereas the terrorists depend on the local sympathisers and havens in towns, villages or bahaks (shepherd huts in forests). Whereas the enemy supply lines would be discernible in the former case, there are no 'supply lines' in the latter case.

Pauses in infiltration and violence have been often assumed as defeat of terrorists and victory of the security forces. Such frequent assumptions have, however, always been proved wrong by fresh spurts in proxies sneaking in, reorganising and reviving their onslaught. Army units swing into action and carry out cordon and search operations, raids on suspected hideouts, lay ambush and establish checkpoints. The implication of such actions is that freedom of the local people is curtailed. Sometimes, innocent citizens get killed in the cross-fire between the army and the terrorists. There have also been a few cases where local informants have fed false information to the army units to get their rivals killed by planting credible evidence. This has been going on in J&K and Northeast for years. Two fallouts of this non-stop engagement are now having telling effects on the Army and the people: firstly, the Army’s resilience is under strain; secondly, the local population is also becoming restive and anti-army. These shortcomings, though intangible, have far-reaching adverse consequences on the war fighting capabilities of the Army and civil harmony.

The oft-quoted maxim, ‘Laws are silent in times of war’ is no longer applicable in this war of wits. Military personnel are frequently taken to task for operations gone awry for want of workable intelligence or due to informer’s deceit. There are many cases filed against military personnel in various courts of law for ‘offences’ during operations. J&K and North East lead in such allegations and court cases against military personnel. Imagine soldiers having to operate under constant apprehension of getting implicated for excesses on innocent civilians. These are inevitable operational hazards that mar soldiers’ confidence in their leader who is either helpless or himself implicated as accused along with his men. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar recently informed the Lok Sabha that as many as 108 military personnel committed suicide during 2014 as on November 21. "Reasons for such incidents", he said, "include long tenures of continuous deployment,domestic problems, perceived grievances, personal issues, mental built, financial problems and inability to withstand stress."

The Army has been fighting insurgency and terrorism for decades in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Northeast. How long can it go on like this? Continuing counter insurgency/counter terrorist operations like this without seeing an end is surely not the way to deal with situations that are costing the nation dearly in every way – militarily, politically, socially and internationally. The number of soldiers sacrificed in J&K alone in the last 25 years is 7,443 (as in Feb 2014). This death toll is 1056 more than the combined total of 6387 Indian soldiers killed in the three Indo-Pak wars - 1965, 1971 and 1999 (Kargil). And while the Army's performance in the wars was spectacular earning the soldiers love and pride of the people, the attrition suffered by the Army during the last few decades has dismayed and disappointed both – people and the army. India has obviously fallen into the Pakistani trap and now continues to struggle there groping for a solution that is not visible.

'Offensive is the Best Defence'

One of the basic doctrines of war is that the side that the army that has the initiative and carries the war into enemy territory enjoys the advantage. In the given context, Pakistan has the initiative and all the fighting takes place on the Indian territory. The Pakistan Army selects, trains and pushes armed proxies not only into J&K but also to attack eminent targets in Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere leaving India to react to devastations planned in Pakistan and enacted here from time to time. The effect is that India has been chasing these so-called 'non-state actors' raised and deployed by Pakistan for over 25 years now and the end of this dirty war is not in sight yet. India cannot win this war conclusively unless Pakistan is convinced that investing in such initiatives shall be retaliated most fiercely imposing costs that Pakistan cannot afford.

Professional modern armies like the western armies and the Israel Army have evolved decisive response system to deter perpetration of state sponsored terrorist acts. Israeli response to any provocation from any source has always been devastating. In its latest retaliation against Hamas kidnapping three Israeli teenagers in July 2014, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched an offensive into Gaza which left more than 2,000 Gazans killed and approximately 11,000 wounded. Israeli casualties were comparatively negligible: 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 Israeli civilians killed, 469 IDF soldiers and 261 Israeli civilians injured. After the 9/11 WTC disaster, the US Army invaded Afghanistan and continued man-hunt for the disaster's mastermind Osama bin Laden until the Navy Seals got him deep inside Pakistan in Abbotabad.

Quite on the contrary, India's response in the post-1971 scenario has all along been passively defensive rather than aggressive and punitive. In 1999 when India was already a nuclear power, Pakistan Army dared to intrude and occupy Indian territory in Kargil. Rather than reacting fiercely against this misadventure, the Indian Army fought with self-imposed restrictions and lost nearly 600 lives only to regain its lost territory and 'refrained' from crossing the LoC to avoid escalating the conflict. Again, responding to the December 2001 terrorist attack on its Parliament, the Indian Government ordered what is known to be the biggest military mobilisation since 1971 against Pakistan. The Army remained deployed for nearly a year without achieving anything. For years Pakistani and Chinese intrusions and cross border mischiefs have been going on along LoC and LAC. Pakistani troops have frequently ambushed and even beheaded Indian soldiers on Indian soil in J&K. But retaliation even to such highly provocative acts has been no more than registering diplomatic protests and raising the volume of cross border firing. Feeble response to these misadventures has established a pattern that has degraded the soldier's fighting potential and destroyed India's credibility as a military power in the region.

Expecting Pakistan to punish Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and six others charge sheeted for their role in Mumbai attack of 26/11 is like expecting Pakistan to prosecute its former President Parvez Musharraf for the Kargil intrusion in 1999. Army commando units and Special Forces in India are trained and equipped with capabilities to undertake special missions to strike at designated targets deep inside enemy territory. Special missions must, therefore, be considered and undertaken to pick up or liquidate criminals like Lakhvi and to destroy terrorist training camps in Pakistan. It is intriguingly self-defeating that instead of Nuclear India deterring Pakistan misadventures; Nuclear Pakistan has been deterring India unfairly but more effectively. Indian military authorities and Special Forces must work out a more effective response system that should compel Pakistan to negotiate peace with India. Most politicians and military generals in Pakistan have fair assessment of India's nuclear capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan. It would, therefore, be unreasonable to percieve that any decision maker would be so insane there as to think of nuclear option to retaliate India's covert raids on precisely designated small targets like proclaimed offenders and terror breeding camps.

Pakistan Army's view notwithstanding, the pro-peace lobby in that country is growing with politicians, business community and intelligentsia favouring cordial relations with India. Fresh peace initiatives, therefore, should be India's first option but from a position of strength.

Factoring Military in the Emerging Scenario

Primary role of the Army is to defend the country from external aggression. Its secondary role includes internal security and relief operations in the wake of natural calamities or any other catastrophe considered beyond the capability of civil administration. The practice of deploying the Army in the interior civilian areas for protracted periods is a flawed concept which must change. Adverse effects of such deployments are serious and showing. The Army's war fighting potential is degrading because in dealing with own civilians the soldier's 'killing instincts' are replaced by 'kinder restraint'. The awe and respect for the Army in the civilian mind also diminishes gradually. Prolonged deployments and fighting with lots of restrictions imposed have had a telling effect on the morale of the troops. Therefore, dealing with security situations in the interior civilian areas should remain a police responsibility. Resources of local police could be reinforced by para-military forces like CRPF. In most of the affected states police has its own 'special task force' (STF) squads who could be better trained and armed to carry out their counter-terrorist/counter-insurgency role more effectively. The Army should be left to concentrate on what is most expected of it – come into action only as a 'last resort' to deal with exceptionally grave situations by launching short and swift operations. Equally swiftly the Army units must disengage and return to their primary role at the LAC, LoC or cantonments to train and prepare for bigger roles.

Although India's relations with China are apparently thawing, we still have claims and counter claims on territories across the 4,056 km Line of Actual Control (LAC). Frequently, Chinese troops have intruded to stake claim on the Indian territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Development of rail-road network and military infrastructure in forward areas of the Tibet region has been a cause of concern for India. Despite fast growing trade and economic cooperation between India and China, they have contentious issues spread from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean besides the existing border issues.

Even more serious are the developments taking place further north where the Karakoram highway has been upgraded from 10 m to 33 m wide two-way road trebling its transport capacity and linking China to the warm water port of Gwadar. While Pakistan has already ceded Shaksgam Valley to China, there are also reports of Pakistan leasing the region of Gilgit Baltistan to China for a period of 50 years. Since February 2013, the construction and operation of Gwadar Port has been assigned by Pakistan to the state-run Chinese firm – China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC). More recently, China has also sought to expand its economic footprint in Afghanistan. In February 2015, at an Afghanistan-Pakistan-China trilateral dialogue, Beijing announced that it would provide Afghanistan $ 300 million as grants over the next three years besides undertaking projects like rail-road development including development of the New Silk Road that connects South Asia to Central Asia. Besides the Uyghur insurgency in Xinjiang, China is also concerned about the rising menace of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who could continue regrouping along Af-Pak porous borders if Taliban is not kept under check.

Steadily, China is encircling India strategically from all directions. It is expanding its reach in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and other island nations in the Indian Ocean. Until now India had ignored the creepy Chinese advance that could result in India's 'continental isolation'. Thanks to the new assessment of security environment around India, the Modi government appears to have woken up to the emerging geo-political scenario in the region as indicated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's thrust in revitalising India's relationships with SAARC countries and island nations in the Indian Oceans.

A crucial fact that has been overlooked by strategists in India is that there is always a strategic military component woven into development projects China undertakes in the East and South Asian countries. China negotiates partnership and retains long-term control of the facilities created through joint projects ranging from mining to infrastructure development, ports and highways. Chinese military representation is inseparably integrated with the controlling management of such facilities. In the Indian context even today, it would be unthinkable to have a military say in foreign trade, commerce or matters relating to diplomacy and foreign relations. It is the flawed politico-bureaucratic perception of successive governments that has not allowed the military to disentangle from the environs of insurgency and proxy war to prepare and attend to larger national interests on and beyond land borders. Diplomacy, foreign trade and relations shall yield more if backed by credible military potential particularly when a number India's neighbours look up to it for support. A visible military might will only buttress India's diplomatic initiatives at regional as well as global levels. As a component of foreign policy projection, Indian military should inspire confidence among our weaker neighbours and a caution among those who would otherwise browbeat India to have their way.


The speed at which the world is changing is unprecedented. Threat scenario in South Asia is also becoming more complex even as old problems among neighbours linger. While modernisation programme of our Armed Forces has remained neglected for over a decade, the Army has been virtually reduced to just another police force – only better armed, trained and led. In the coming future, keeping the Army so pinned down in the cobwebs of insurgency and proxy war could end up into a national disaster if and when the Army is faced with more complex military challenges and threats to national integrity and sovereignty. As the principal arm of the Armed Forces, the Army must visualise and prepare for the future roles that would lie far beyond India's land borders.

Published Date: 6th April 2015, Image source:

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