Talk of overtaking PoK captures imagination, but remains a distant dream until India strengthens military, boosts global influence

  • The killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani by US forces has ignited the imagination of Indians who are tired of terrorism nurtured, abetted and sponsored from across the border by Pakistan.

  • Indians would love to see nothing more than our forces similarly taking out terrorists such as Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar, the perpetrator of attack on Indian Parliament

  • But the more relevant question is, does India possess the capability to carry out such an operation and then control the escalatory spiral?

The killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani by US forces has ignited the imagination of Indians who are tired of terrorism nurtured, abetted and sponsored from across the border by Pakistan.

Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, Iran’s elite foreign espionage and paramilitary unit, was identified by the Donald Trump administration as a key “terrorist” figure and the alleged brain behind countless attacks on US forces active in the region. Soleimani, claims White House, posed “imminent threat” to US interests in West Asia.

Accordingly, American intelligence agency CIA tracked the whereabouts of the top Iranian general (who by some accounts was more powerful than even Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani) over a period of time and had accurate information on when Soleimani's jet would land in Baghdad airport on the fateful day.

As a report in NBC News points out, American security officials and members of White House watched on large screens as Soleimani was greeted at the airport by Iraqi officials. He then boarded the vehicle on the tarmac and at an opportune time, three US drones tracking the location of the sedan unleashed ‘Hellfire’ missiles to completely fry it into a mangled mess. There were no survivors.

 Talk of overtaking PoK captures imagination, but remains a distant dream until India strengthens military, boosts global influence

Representational image. Getty Images

Since then, though Iran has retaliated with missile strikes of its own on American bases in Iraq, these have caused no damage (perhaps deliberately) except one missile tragically hitting a civilian airplane and killing all 176 passengers on board. The short point, Americans took out their prime target, and was on top of the escalatory spiral. Iran simply had to take it on its chin.

Indians would love to see nothing more than our forces similarly ‘taking out’ Pakistan-based top UN-designated terrorists such as Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of 26/11 terror attacks, or Masood Azhar, the perpetrator of attack on Indian Parliament. Wouldn’t it be natural justice to watch these terrorists being targeted while they are plotting the next attack?

This query is a no-brainer but the more relevant question is, does India possess the capability to carry out such an operation and then control the escalatory spiral? These questions need to be discussed in light of recent comments made by two of India’s top generals — new Chief Of Army Staff Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane and Gen Bipin Rawat, the former army chief who has become India’s first Chief of Defence Staff.

Naravane’s comments on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, made during a recent news conference, demand attention. The COAS pointed towards a Parliamentary resolution on Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir — a region that India claims as its sovereign territory — and reiterated Army’s stand that if such an order comes through, PoK will be attached.

Gen Naravane, incidentally, was reiterating army’s stated position that was also articulated by his predecessor Gen Rawat in September last year. On that occasion, the former Army chief had said that India has "war-gamed" any possible action in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir , and if the government of the day passes such an order, our Army is ready to "retrieve it and make it a part of India."

Incidentally, India’s external affairs minister is on record to have said Pok “is a part of India”, and “we expect one day we will have physical jurisdiction over it.”

Add to this Gen Rawat’s recent comments as CDS at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi when he said: “We have to bring an end to terrorism and that can only happen the way Americans started after the 9/11 terror attack. They said let’s go on a spree on global war on terror. To do that you have to isolate the terrorists and anybody who is sponsoring terrorism has to be taken to task.”

The CDS was obviously not talking of military intervention or execution of targets alone but that was definitely part of this lexicon.

Comments such as these, taken together, indicate that the Indian state is shifting its security posture from ‘defensive’ to ‘offensive’. Drone attacks on territory not controlled by it, or annexing regions over which a foreign power has effective control require hard power mobilization and an economic and geopolitical muscle to control the escalatory spiral.

It is not clear whether these comments were meant for academic discussion — in which case theoretically there’s no problem — or were these an indication of ‘force posturing’. If latter, then India sorely needs to modernize its archaic military and implement deep-seated reforms before it can even think of such acts. India must remember that Pakistan’s status is almost that of a client Chinese state that Beijing uses to “contain” India.

As former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon writes in Brookings, “…Chinese commitment and presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir—have made Pakistan even more crucial to China’s purposes. Pakistan’s game is to suck India into confrontation, thus establishing Pakistan’s utility to those who feel the need to balance India’s rise…”

This has resulted in a close military nexus between China and Pakistan, and therefore any such kinetic action against Pakistan may suck India into a two-front war. Even if we disregard Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence — and India has proved through cross-border strikes and Balakot that there exists space for sub-conventional military action below nuclear threshold — the question arises, does India have enough capability to engage in a two-front war?

Here, India just recognize that a shift in its ‘force posturing’ will mean confronting China, not just Pakistan, and now we are faced with some hard realities. In 2017, China’s military budget was $150.5 billion, while India’s defence budget was $52.5 billion. China can outspend India many times over in defence budget because it possesses the economic capability to do so.

In contrast, we are moving in opposite direction. The Indian Navy, according to latest reports, is cutting down heavily on procurement due to budget constraints.

This is the hardest truth confronting India. For all its force posturing, if it cannot simulate the kind of double-digit growth that China managed for a decade, then the capability gap between two nations will keep increasing. This will mean that Indian military may remain valorous, but only capable of winning yesterday’s war.

Unless we confront these realities, there is little point talking big. India must bide its time, build economic capability, translate it into hard power, implement military reforms and then think about taking kinetic action to dissuade Pakistan. Anything else is of academic interest.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2020 14:08:54 IST