Pakistan is no more Pakistan —- the so-called dream-land of South Asian Muslims. It is now for all practical purposes Pakistan Autonomous Region of China (PAR) like Xinjiang or Tibet. The People’s Republic of China has mesmerising control over its Generals and politicians. They have been either ‘money trapped’, ‘honey -trapped’ or both. Pakistan, who boasts of Chinese friendship being deeper than the Indian Ocean and higher than Mount Everest, has been tamed as a virtual slave. Dawn Leak-2 had given out details of Pakistan Government’s virtual sell out to China through China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
China, with the lure of the CPEC project, worth $46-62 billion, has not only grabbed Gwadar port on the Persian Gulf but also Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). In any ongoing or future military conflict, China would use PAR (Pakistan territory) for its offensive designs against India at will. In this scheme of things , Gilgit-Baltistan and Skardu City would play a vital role. It may be, therefore, noted that, besides the Pakistan army, China would never allow Pakistan to settle the Kashmir issue.
The Gilgit Baltistan region is very important to China because of the 3,000 kilometer long Karakoram Highway, which is going to be China’s economic life line for trade with the rest of the world. It is the new ‘Silk Route’ for China. Gilgit-Baltistan adjoins Xinjiang region of China and is very significant for China’s battle for Global supremacy. At no cost, would China allow the Indian dream of re-taking Gilgit Baltistan. This pronounced intention of India worries China and is expressed in its recent aggression, from May 2020 onwards, on the Line of Actual Control (LAc) against India
Gilgit-Baltistan is a strategic location, from a military point of view, as it allows outflanking moves against Ladakh from the West. It is separated from China’s occupied Aksai Chin by a small swathe of territory of India’s Siachen Glacier, and land mass of Daulat Beg OLDI (DBO). China has been reportedly deploying some 10,000-15,000 troops in Gilgit-Baltistan since 2011. It can build up more troops from Xinjiang region by using the Karakoram Highway. What more the Skardu Air field would be a lynchpin in an air war against India.
Reports indicate that China has also recently stationed some 40 J-10 aircrafts in Skardu, which could play an important role in the air war with India in Eastern Ladakh. Skardu is just 100 km from Leh town. Besides, a Chinese IL-78 has also been detected in Skardu. IL-78 is an air refueling aircraft for fighter aircrafts. There should be no doubt that Skardu would be used not only as a launching pad for land operations but also as an air base by China in any future conflict.
Skardu airbase could offset the Chinese disadvantage of longer distances of its air bases in Tibet and Kashgar of Xinjiang. Skardu airbase was upgraded in 2019 by Pakistan and it was used by Pakistani JF 17s on their way to the PLAAF base at Hotan for a joint exercise.
China has only two air bases Ie. Ngari (Gar) and Hotan in Xinjiang both, being over 300 km away from the scene of action. Kashgar is some 625 Km from Galwan. All these air bases are over 4,000 meters which could affect their payload capacity.
Though Hotan airfield can maintain a large number of combat assets. However, due to its location at an altitude higher than 4,000 feet, it is extremely tough for “fighters to take off with a full weapons load and fuel.” Herein lies the necessity and importance of Skardu airfield.
Besides the use of the air field of Skardu, China needs water resources of Gilgit-Baltistan for its microchip industry. Earlier China imported this from Taiwan but it has been now stopped. Therefore it wants to start manufacturing of microchips in Xinjiang, which adjoins Gilgit-Baltistan, and microchip production needs water extensively.
In view of the needs of its microchip industry, China has also agreed to finance and build Diamer-Bhasha Dam. It is located on the Indus River in northern Pakistan between Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Diamer district in Gilgit Baltistan. The dam will have a gross storage capacity of 8.1 Million Acre Feet (MAF) and power generation capacity of 4,500 MW. It will be constructed at a cost of over ₹1400 Billion Pakistani rupees.
Unfortunately, right from the day Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India in October 1947, India’s politico-military leadership did not understand the importance of Gilgit Baltistan. Though British conspiracy allowed Gilgit to be taken over by Pakistan on 31 October 1947 through a rebellion by Gilgit scouts under British officer Major WA Brown, but Skardu Garrison of the 6th Battalion of J&K State forces held up for 10 months till 14 August 1948.
The siege of Skardu Garrison was laid by Chitral and Gilgit scouts after December 1947. Major Sher Jung Thapa, at Leh, was promoted as Lt Col and sent to Skardu on 3 December 1947. It means the route was open and the garrison should have been reinforced in December of 1947. But it did not happen.
Lt Col Sher Jung Thapa kept requesting for reinforcements but they never came. Three feeble attempts were made in March to April 1948. But they were not forcibly done and the garrison was left on its own. Lt Col Sher Jung Thapa kept holding Skardu garrison till 14 August 1948, when the lack of ammunition and rations forced him to surrender.
Question arises as to why strong efforts were not made to reinforce and save the garrison. Historians say that Nehru had followed the advice of his friend and guide on Kashmir, Sheikh Abdulla. He had told that his influence was only confined to the Kashmir valley and as such no major efforts were made to strengthen Skardu or capture Gilgit Baltistan. If it was done, perhaps the history of Gilgit-Baltistan and POK would have been different.
Shaksgam valley would not have gone to China and we would have been knocking on the doors of Xinjiang region, which was occupied by China in 1949. What more, China’s construction of the G219 Highway to Lhasa would have been under our observation, and we would have interfered. Today, Gilgit is the biggest launch pad for Pakistan to initiate offensive actions in Ladakh.
Again, another opportunity came in the Indo- Pak war of 1971. India had captured Turtuk in 1971. Why did it not pursue the offensive further into Gilgit-Baltistan to capture Skardu? It could have been easily done with much lesser efforts. India missed the golden opportunity due to lack of strategic vision of its leaders. By now, India’s Nehruvian love affair with China was long over after the 1962 war. Capture of Gilgit would have given it an advantageous position against China’s military adventure.
Then, in 1986, Operation Trident had provided a golden opportunity to annex Skardu. The operation had fizzled out on January 1 1987, when Pakistan’s ambassador to India, met and cried to Rajiv Gandhi, then Indian Prime Minister. Rajiv Gandhi ordered Arun Singh, then Minister of State for Defence, to stop it. It is noteworthy that Arun Singh and Sunder jee had planned this operation along with Lt Gen Hoon. It would have succeeded because Pakistan was ill-prepared. It was in retaliation to this that Pakistan intruded into Kargil in 1999. Skardu is just West of Gultari, which was the hub of Pakistan's Kargil misadventure
Unfortunately the youthful prime minister and his uncouth advisors from the bureaucracy did not understand the significance of Gilgit-Baltistan. Our political leadership has been the biggest failing of India since 1947. Only Indra Gandhi stands out with some strategic vision. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee lacked this vision. He was more poetic in his approach with neighbours than being practical.
During Dr Manmohan Singh’s Prime Ministership, a strange thing had happened. An ex foreign secretary of India Shyam Saran reveals in his book that in 2006, Indian Government, under Dr Manmohan Singh, had almost agreed for a deal with Pakistan on withdrawal of troops from Siachen. However, then NSA, MK Narayan had vetoed it. As per then, Chief Of Army Staff, General JJ Singh, even the Army had questioned this deal.
What a blunder it would have been, had India withdrawn? In one stroke, Pakistan would have occupied it and linked up with China in the Shaksgam valley. When would our politicians understand that China and Pakistan honour no pacts and agreements? Does one have to list those pacts and treaties here? It is the lack of strategic vision of our Political leadership and failure of the Generals to educate them to grasp the strategic advantage of the Siachen-DBO area and Gilgit-Baltistan. Siachen was being vacated due to financial effects.
In the interest of national security, financial cost is irrelevant. Such costs are the national premium of security insurance. Present regime should also understand this. Cutting the defence budget is harmful for the nation. One would like to quote what General Douglas MC Arthur, Chief of the US Army in 1931 had told President Franklin Roosevelt, who had declined to reconsider cuts in the defence budget. Gen Douglas McArthur while leaving President’s office, turned and said :
“Mr President! When in the next war, an American soldier with enemy bayonet in his abdomen, cries his last curse, I do not want the name to be Mc Arthur but Roosevelt”
It is no gain saying the fact that President Roosevelt accepted his advice and restored the cut. I hope Indian Generals understand this and muster the courage to tell the ruling political establishment that the blood of Indian soldiers in any future war would be on their hands.
It is yet to be decided as to whose hands were reddened with the blood of the 20 soldiers on the Galwan valley scuffle of 15/16 June 2020? Was it those who cut the budget or those who signed appeasing agreements in 1993, 1996 and 2013? Indian defence budget ought to be protected from the continuing evil effect of Arun Jaitley thinking. Time for Generals/Air Marshals/Admirals to stand up to bureaucracy and politicians and be counted, lest the blood of the soldiers is on their hands.
It is a fallacy that economic growth leads to military strength and peace. The economic growth and the process of peace flows out of the barrel of a gun and not through treaties and agreements.
Crisis makes a nation strong and united; peace heralds many evils. To make the ‘Gun’ stronger, a rapid economic growth is the crying need. Rhetoric alone and appeasement of enemies would not achieve, whatever is the national objective. India must talk less and do more.
(The author was a former CO of 3 Bihar. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')
(Col Rajinder Kushwaha is an ex-NDA, commissioned into the 3 Bihar Regiment in June 1971 and was the Commanding Officer of same unit in insurgency environs in Assam in 1990-93. Has vast experience in CI Ops from North East to Punjab and J&K. A prolific writer-cum-critic on defence and security matters, he has authored the book, ‘Kashmir: A Different Perspective’. His second book on Assam was released in April 2018. Held prestigious appointments in the army including as an instructor at a premier army institute, Col GS, Col Adm of an Infantry Division and Col "Q" works at a Command HQ. He can be contacted on e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)