Two developments in the last 72 hours again highlight the strategic-security challenges India faces along its northern border. On Monday, five army personnel – including a junior commissioned officer – were killed in a gunfight with terrorists in Poonch district. This marks the highest number of casualties suffered by the armed forces in a single encounter in Jammu & Kashmir this year. Coming on the heels of the targeted killings of civilians, the latest incident shows that India needs to be prepared for both conventional and unconventional terror tactics.
Meanwhile, the 13th round of top-level military talks to resolve the India-China standoff along the LAC failed to achieve any momentum with both sides hardening their respective positions. This means the Chinese are unwilling to go beyond the partial disengagement achieved at some friction points earlier this year. From a strategic point of view, the two simultaneous challenges stretch India’s security forces. And given that Pakistan and China have developed an all-weather relationship – strengthened further by the recent US pullout from Afghanistan – the possibility of Islamabad and Beijing tactically collaborating to hem in New Delhi cannot be ruled out.
That said, it must also be clear that the two challenges are operationally different. With Pakistan what works is a solid defensive strategy focussed on preventing infiltration, neutralising terror handlers and de-radicalising local youths, while keeping the option of limited cross-LoC strikes on the table. True, Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan may have emboldened anti-India Pakistani terror groups. But their masterminds in ISI wouldn’t want to undo the ceasefire with India which would force the Pakistani army to relocate assets from its troublesome Afghan border to the LoC.
Therefore, a sensible strategy for India would be to beef up the basics. Improving counter-terror intelligence and physical assets like the LoC fencing – which is annually damaged due to heavy snowfall and suffers bureaucratic delays in requisitioning replacement parts and generator fuel – is the way to go. On China, however, India needs to be resolute and patient. Given the current Chinese government’s nationalist turn and with the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th congress next year, Beijing is unlikely to concede and lose face at the LAC. Here India should continue to work with allies like the US and Quad platform to mount pressure on China, while looking to press the advantage in tactically strong positions – like the Kailash Range – along the LAC. The Sumdorong Chu crisis with China took nine years to resolve. India should be similarly prepared this time.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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