Instead of entirely relying on a meaningless defensive strategy or shifting towards an offensive posture, which could slip into a nuclear conflict, the DO strategy envisaged exploiting several of Pakistan’s vulnerabilities whilst denying its proxies the advantage of money, manpower and weapons.
The India-China standoff may in fact be a logical consequence of the “Doval Doctrine” that employs the strategy of defensive-offence (DO). It represents the frustration among the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over being unable to continue its decadal strategy of containing India through Pakistan. In theory, the DO strategy, which was formulated by India’s National Security Advisor and former Director, Intelligence Bureau, Ajit Doval, was meant to deter Pakistan’s nefarious designs by confronting it on its own terms. Instead of entirely relying on a meaningless defensive strategy or shifting towards an offensive posture, which could slip into a nuclear conflict, the DO strategy envisaged exploiting several of Pakistan’s vulnerabilities whilst denying its proxies the advantage of money, manpower and weapons. The application of the DO strategy, leading up to the current developments with China, can be observed in three distinct phases.
PHASE ONE: A GRAND SUCCESS
In the first phase, commencing in 2014, the DO strategy was cast across the length and breadth of the nation. The nation’s intelligence and security forces were given a fresh lease of life to mount offensive operations against terrorist organisations and subversive groups. This had to be done since the previous decade was marked by failures of both foreign and internal security policies, which had made the intelligence and security forces their direct victims. On the foreign policy front, defying all intelligence assessments, the Manmohan Singh government engaged in wishful thinking that peace with Pakistan was possible. In the latest revelation by former COAS General J.J. Singh, attempts were apparently made to demilitarise the strategically important Siachen glacier, calling it the “mountain of peace”. With regard to internal security policies—politics on terror causing botched investigations, premature release of terror suspects, punitive actions against honest security officials and so on, had imposed severe obstacles to successful counterterrorist operations. The “saffron coating” of Islamist terror attacks and the terming of operations like the Batla House encounter as fake encounters are cases in point.
As a consequence of these, Pak sponsored Islamist terrorist violence in India had peaked from 11 incidents in 2005 to 39 in 2008 (the 26/11 Mumbai attack being the worst). Although the generic trend in Islamist violence observed a declining trend from 2009 onwards, political interference in counterterrorist operations continued unabated until 2014. From 2014 onwards, in line with the DO strategy, the intelligence and security agencies launched a series of offensive operations that led to the incarceration of IS ideologists and potential recruits. The government also undertook policy measures to curb terror financing and strengthened moderate Islamic institutions and luminaries to counter extremist narrative. The result—India has had one of the lowest levels of IS recruitment. The years 2018 and 2019 witnessed zero Islamist terror attacks, whilst the gunning down of Sub Inspector Wilson by two suspected IS operatives in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu became the sole instance this year. The net result of this is that Pakistan’s strategy of bleeding India through a thousand cuts stands comprehensively defeated. That the latest episodes of the misinformed anti-CAA protests as well as the Delhi riots have failed to generate cells to the Pakistani ISI is testimony to this argument.
However, there were two areas where phase one of the DO strategy seems to have produced less than satisfactory results—Jammu and Kashmir and Nagaland. Significant complexities are involved in the two regions owing to their operational support bases lying across the borders. Although not entirely similar in the level of external support received, the Kashmir imbroglio offered lessons that the Indian security organisations employed in Nagaland, and vice versa. At the beginning, the government adopted peaceful political initiatives to bring about peace whilst the security forces targeted terror camps across the borders in Pakistan and Myanmar. Yet, the J&K experiment provided the first evidence of the loophole in the DO strategy, which lay in the nature of unholy alliances. Even as the PDP leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed took oath as Chief Minister with the Indian flag on the table, Sayeed thanked Pakistan. In the years between 2015 and 2018 (the years of alliance) violence levels spiked from 216 incidents to 598, respectively.
Similarly, the Narendra Modi government, which launched the Act East Policy in 2015 and subsequently signed the peace accord with the Nation Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), was confronted with the intransigence on part of NSCN-IM over the question of Greater Nagaland. The situation was worsened as Beijing launched an intelligence offensive bringing together several of Indian Northeast insurgent groups under the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (ULF WSEA). Tactical and operational alliances have been observed between several native and international militant groups supported by China like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Despite these challenges, the Indian state managed to secure results beyond expectations. The NIA has successfully nabbed militant cadres and choked finances, while the Assam Rifles has established dominance in areas previously controlled by the NSCN-IM. From 25 killing incidents in 2015, violence has dropped drastically in Nagaland to as low as three in 2019 and nil in 2020. Therefore, with violence and trouble declining in mainland India as well as the Northeast, J&K was China’s last hope to rely on Pakistan towards containing India.
PHASE TWO: PATHWAY TO THE INDIA-CHINA STANDOFF
It was against this backdrop that the DO strategy was about to enter its phase two as a series of events during 2017-19 provided the impetus. In 2017, Islamabad decided to declare Gilgit-Baltistan as Pakistan’s fifth province. It is not clear if this decision was taken solely to support the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) venture that envisaged upgradation of infrastructure to enhance connectivity between China and the Indian Ocean, or if it was driven by India’s developing offensive posture. Shortly afterwards, the J&K government in India was dissolved, and Governor’s Rule imposed. In February 2019, India carried out airstrikes in Pakistani territory in response to a terrorist attack. By Imran Khan’s own admission, Pakistan army’s assessment was that India was planning to do something in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. In July 2019, US President Donald Trump, much to the Indian consternation, announced his intent to mediate on Kashmir. All these developments triggered the commencement of the phase two of the DO strategy, which required the territorial reconstitution of J&K by rendering the Article 370 useless. What this effectively meant was that if Pakistan could convert a disputed territory into a fifth province while pressing India to find a political solution with dishonest political leaders in the valley, India could similarly respond by bifurcating J&K into two union territories, thereby, narrowing down the conflict just to the valley. The difference, however, was that Pakistan’s decision was met with resistance in Gilgit-Baltistan, while the Ladakhi people overwhelmingly rejoiced India’s decision.
Phase two also provided positive results, despite the national and international media cacophony suggesting otherwise. The Home Ministry said that incidents of terrorist violence in Kashmir decreased since the nullification of Article 370, but the infiltration attempts from across the border increased. India’s COAS General Manoj Mukund Naravane also suggested in January 2020 that stone pelting had decreased by 40%-45%. Some analysts tend to project the data on violence between 2011 and 2019 as representing a deterioration in peace and failure of policy, without actually pointing out that the majority dead are terrorists and that the quantum of violence has moved out of the rest of India into Kashmir alone. These positives notwithstanding, the phase two measures led the Chinese to realise that reliance on Pakistan alone to keep India occupied in South Asia would no longer be viable. Statements by the Home Minister that projected Aksai Chin as India’s territory meant that India would have to engage the Chinese sooner or later. The only question was, how would this challenge come if not solely through Pakistan?
Open source data does not indicate that a Chinese direct offensive in response to the bifurcation of J&K was given serious consideration. The immediate concern seemed to have been the resurgence of violence in J&K, and hence, the Rashtriya Rifles and regular forces in the valley were kept on high alert and an infantry brigade had been moved from the Eastern Command to the LOC. Trend analysis also indicated that a Chinese aggression might be unlikely considering that Director General (ITBP) Krishna Chaudhary mentioned that there were simultaneous improvements in Indian border infrastructure—roads, vehicles, weapons and surveillance gadgets—and reduction in border transgressions by the PLA troops. Finally, there have also been suggestions that New Delhi received assurances from the Russians that the PLA training exercises earlier this year did not carry hostile intent towards India. Whichever way one looks at it, there seems to have been an inadequate appreciation of the fact that China could be unwelcome guests to a party thrown to Pakistan. Phase two of the DO strategy, despite all its positive impacts on India’s internal security, made China take India more seriously than before. In March 2020, an ISI officer was posted at China’s Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department. Thus, there is no gainsaying that the Sino-Pak joint assessment of India would have played a critical role leading to the present crisis.
PHASE THREE: NEGATE THE LAW OF DIMINISHING RETURNS THROUGH ADROIT FOREIGN POLICY CHOICES
The successes of phases one and two were largely driven by the strength of India’s intelligence and security capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan and its proxies in India; and China’s proxies in the Northeast. The advantage of initiative lay with New Delhi, and thus, the results of the DO strategy have by and large been admirable. However, now that a stronger party has entered the equation, and also since the DO strategy has reached its zenith in the internal space and must now operate overwhelmingly in international spaces, New Delhi must carefully reassess its direction lest it begins to generate diminishing returns. In other words, the DO strategy succeeded as a consequence of India playing Pakistan by the enemy’s rules with superior capabilities; a strategy that it can ill afford against China.
Like Pakistan, China also offers several vulnerabilities for India to exploit above being merely defensive and below the nuclear threshold. However, it is easier to say that a Mumbai will be met with a Balochistan than it is to say a Galwan will be met with a Tibet, Taiwan or Hong Kong. Of course, there is truth in the argument that Indian soldiers are better experienced in mountain warfare (or warfare in general) compared to the PLA. But this alone is unlikely to act as a deterrent against China. Hence, the DO strategy will have to gain further momentum through stronger offensive intelligence-driven operations in Pakistan and China, and foreign policy choices that act as overt deterrence.
COVERT ACTION: The shift in the fortunes of the DO strategy appeared as a result of Pakistan changing the status of Gilgit-Baltistan. India’s operations can begin from this region itself, since it is here that China’s fortunes have been tied up to the ambitious CPEC project. Historically, this region has been one of the most backward regions of Pakistan and its inhabitants have drawn little benefits from Islamabad’s developmental activities in the region. Indian influence in the region had been negligible barring a few years when the Najibullah government in Afghanistan offered India access into the northern areas. This is one of the reasons, India could not adequately uncover Pakistan’s designs prior to the Kargil War. Notwithstanding India’s weak presence in the region, Pakistan has never lost an opportunity to accuse India of espionage, subversion and sabotage. The Aga Khan foundation, which was the only organisation catering to the needs of the people in the absence of structured governance, was repeatedly projected by Pakistan as an Indian intelligence outfit. Given the latest developments, India can ill afford to continue with such a weak presence in the region.
The region is predominantly Shia, and Pakistan has sought to alter the demographics by deploying retired armed forces personnel as well as Sunni militia. The anger and ambitions among the youth in the region provides a fertile ground for conducting covert action. The R&AW will have to utilise the linguistic and cultural commonalities among the settlements in the Kargil region to order to escape being completely in the dark. As the prospects of a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan grow stronger, India will be pressed harder to develop such capabilities. In the past, the Mirpuri community in the UK and elsewhere have offered assistance in running influence operations, albeit with limited success. Similarly, the Gilgit-Baltistan diaspora also needs to be made a part of phase three of the DO strategy. At present, piecemeal efforts have begun like inviting the diaspora for Pravasi Divas 2017 and including the region in the weather bulletin of the Indian Meteorological Department.
Likewise, India has to shun its One China policy. China has recently warned India that the next Dalai Lama will have to be chosen from China, not India. The Tibetans in India, especially the members of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), have served Indian interests at several instances under the false hope that India would someday help them win independence. Taiwan too has been expressing deep interests in joint action against China since the 1960s, only to be met with a cold response. The proposal by Gyalo Thondup, Dalai Lama’s brother to build a collaborative effort between the Taiwanese intelligence and the Indian intelligence towards liberating Tibet, which was rejected by New Delhi, is the best example. All these decisions emerge from wishful thinking among the policymaking elite in New Delhi that good intentions will be met with similar ones. Unfortunately, contemporary Indian history is fraught with examples that prove the contrary.
OVERT ACTIONS: While these covert options are exercised, the overt option requires a recalibration of India’s foreign policy. Superior fighting capabilities of the Indian soldier cannot be cited as a sole reason to engage the Chinese alone when China can, at any point, call in a pincer movement with Pakistan. Bearing in mind India’s present weaknesses in the covert domain that require years of groundwork to become operational, it is prudent to achieve deterrence through alliances. Once again, if the DO strategy is meant to tackle the enemy by his rules, the Sino-Pak nexus can effectively be contained only by an Indo-Western alliance. New Delhi has been carefully treading the middle path between Russia and the US, without adequately appreciating the consequences of non-alignment in the modern era of Sino-US competition.
Britain has chosen to describe the present standoff as “a commonwealth member and the world’s largest democracy” versus “a state that challenges our notion of democracy”. The French have also sided with India in the aftermath of the killing of Indian soldiers. Finally, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned China for its aggressive behaviour in its neighbourhood. India stands to lose by turning its back against the West in favour of Russia, a point that needs emphasis. For instance, consider the S-400 deal. At present, India seems assured that President Donald Trump is incapable of imposing sanctions against India under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). However, the extent to which interpersonal relations between Trump and Modi can obviate the actions of the US Congress is debatable. Media reports suggest that banks that are involved in trade with the US have been afraid of the consequences of funding the S-400 deal. In any case, the military implications of going forward with the deal far outweigh the presumed foreign policy benefit. As questioned by Alice Wells, “How does [India] want their systems to communicate with one another? It’s not a mix and match arrangement. At a certain point, India will have to make sort of a strategic commitment to technologies and platforms and we think we have the best technologies and platforms.”
INFORMATION WARFARE: This has by far been the weakest link in the DO strategy. The perils of weak information warfare require serious reflection. All of the issues mentioned in this article—countering Islamist terrorism, Kashmir problem, communalisation of internal security challenges, India-China standoff—have all been presented by the Indian intelligentsia in a negative light. Even as I write this article, I am surprised that a widely circulated opinion piece in the Hindu by a JNU professor (dated 25 June) attacked India for precipitating the crisis by changing the status quo in Ladakh without casting a single doubt on China’s innate iniquitous intentions aimed at territorial revision, which at present haunts almost every neighbour country of China. The academic and intellectual narratives built on India’s security problems over the years have systematically developed a default position that attacks the Indian state ritualistically, without either offering substantive policy alternatives or condemning the source of the security challenge.
The Indian government, on the other hand, has done little to project the underlying thought processes behind its actions. As a consequence, the tendency to assume the worst on the part of the government’s intentions have remained at large. Even the revelation by the Chinese diplomat in Pakistan that the India-China crisis was precipitated by India’s actions in J&K did not come as a declaration by Beijing. Rather it was only a tweet sharing an article written by a Chinese scholar, which was understood as representing the views of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). That the Indian scholarship failed to counter these arguments and support India’s policy choices that were in the best interests of its people substantiates the argument that India has failed to develop an intellectual capital that can be employed in offensive information operations in support of the DO strategy.
Therefore, looking back, the DO strategy has served India’s interests commendably in a surprisingly short duration of time. However, the time has come to operationalise it in areas where India’s capabilities are relatively weaker. This means that the strategy will have to expand to accommodate friends and embrace newer tactics. In short, the Defensive-Offence will now have to transform into a Collaborative Defensive-Offence.
Dheeraj P.C. is PhD scholar, Intelligence Studies, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.