Hurting efficiently: Keeping Pakistan in search of strategic depth

For a nation as obsessed with “strategic depth” as is Pakistan, its Achilles heel will forever remain within India’s reach.

The troubled province of Sindh and the commercial hub of the nation, Karachi, lie well within India’s reach as was shown up so dramatically on December 4, 1971, when the Indian Navy attacked Karachi sinking several warships and destroying harbor installations including fuel storage tankers that burned for nearly a week enveloping the port city in a thick pall of black smoke.

Indian troops on the other hand were standing on the sandy hillocks of Naya Chor overlooking the lush green Indus Valley.

After the heavy trek through sand dunes over two weeks they were looking forward to some easy riding towards Karachi when they were stopped in their tracks by the announcement of the surrender of Lt Gen A A K Niazi in the newly emerged Bangladesh and the declaration of a ceasefire by India on December 16, 1971.

Under the Simla Agreement of 1972, all lands captured along the International Border were returned on the principle that India does not covet any part of Pakistani territory. That is a touchstone that will always remain India’s policy towards its neighbors.

Capturing territory and retaining it is not an option. What is, and will forever remain, an objective of war is that the will of the enemy to prolong the conflict must be broken quickly and for that bottling up of the Pakistani coastline is imperative.

It could be said that the 1971 attack on Karachi solidified Pakistan’s resolve to secure a ‘strategic depth’ as far away from India as is possible. Afghanistan under the Taliban was an answer to a dream.

To that end it started to shift some of its strategic assets like the submarine building yards to the port of Ormera, west of Karachi and home-basing its surface fleet at Pasni even further west from Ormera.

It has constructed, with Chinese help, the port/naval base at Gwadar on the Balochistan coast in the hope that the Chinese presence will induce hesitation on the part of India to repeat the kind of attack as it did in December 1971 on Karachi.

That there are severe limitations to the very concept of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan has been brought out succinctly by a Pakistani analyst who has pointed out some big holes in the idea of “strategic depth”.

He has pointed out that the very idea of “falling back” to the safer confines of that “strategic depth” in the midst of a conflict could result in a rout rather than conservation of resources.

Even if, as happened in 1965, some aircraft are “held in reserve” outside Pakistan deploying them in an advancing frontline inside Pakistan would result in the destruction of one’s own infrastructure that was set up precisely to contain an Indian advance in the first place.

Shifting focus

Be that it may, for Indian planners this aspect too will have to be factored into any future operations.

The preparations of the Indian Navy during Operation Parakram after the attack on Parliament were part and parcel of coercive diplomacy that must accompany any projected air-land operations to counter Pakistani adventurism be it in Jammu and Kashmir or by the use of jihadi proxies to execute terrorist attacks on Indian political, economic and scientific hubs.

However, the untidy nature of that operation allowed Pakistan to build up its own forces making the whole exercise suspect. That is why even though the Indian Army was deployed in strength along the borders for nearly a year no action took place.

Learning from that experience there was a doctrinal shift in preparation for a war with Pakistan and the concept of “forces in being” not too far from the international border so that reactions to Pakistani terrorist attacks and infiltrations can be handled with greater swiftness came to known as “cold start”.

The idea of cutting off the province of Sindh in any future conflict will have to factor in some aspects that, ironically, mirror what happened in the former East Pakistan in the late 1970s when the political aspirations of the Bengalis were trampled and the electoral verdict that would have given a Bengali the reins of power in Islamabad was sought to be circumvented.

The consequent revolt in East Pakistan on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean littoral with the Indian landmass presenting a huge obstacle and the genocidal crackdown by the Punjabi-led Pakistan Army accelerated the secessionism that led to the creation of Bangladesh as an independent, sovereign State.

Karachi, which is the heart of Sindh is currently in a state of complete anarchy. The city is torn between the contending forces of Sunni/Shia divide on the one hand and two different ethnic settlers-the Pathans from the former North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan and the so-called Mohajirs or Urdu-speaking refugees from India.

The attack on the Pakistan Naval Station Mehran recently in which two maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft were destroyed on the ground by a terrorist group led by a former Pakistan Navy commando graphically illustrates the very murky nature of conditions in Pakistan’s main commercial hub.

Add to this the activities of criminal gangs. The truck-freighter operations are largely controlled by the Pathans whose access to the opium growing regions of Afghanistan bring them rich dividends in their collaboration with the Pakistan Army Inter-Services Intelligence in the international cartel controlling the drugs trade.

Walking into such a cesspool awash with weapons of all kinds (rocket propelled grenade launchers are standard equipment for all the contending gangs) would not be advisable.

Instead the tried and tested maritime strike on an enlarged scale covering the whole of the Makran coast extending from Sindh and Balochistan inclusive of the Gwadar facility would be more appropriate.


The first assault should be a mine-laying operation that would threaten all incoming and outgoing shipping. This must include the ports of Karachi, Ormara, Pasni and Gwadar.

Simultaneously, there should be a destruction of Pakistan’s maritime reconnaissance and strike capability as is available in the fleet of P-3C Orion aircraft.

Not all of them will be on the ground in the first signs of hostility between the two countries.

Indian airborne warning and command systems (AWACS) should map their presence in the air so that the neutralization of all Pakistani combat air patrols and maritime strike capabilities takes place together with the mining and radar suppression operations.

With the announcement of a “No Fly Zone” all international flights into Pakistan especially from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from the seaward side would be curtailed.

The embargo imposed by the West on Iran would take care of air traffic from that direction. That will leave “all weather friend” China to come to the rescue.

India could offer safe passage to all Chinese vessels in Pakistani waters in a gesture of goodwill if it keeps out and not interfere in Indian operations against Pakistan.

If the Chinese remain hostile then their ships should be sunk in Pakistani waters and mined by the naval Special Forces MARCOS so that any attempt at clearing the obstacles will be fraught with danger.

Meanwhile, Indian air and land forces would be engaged in cutting the linkages between the Pakistan Army Karachi Corps and the Corps headquartered at Bahawalpur in south Punjab province.

All road and rail links should be targeted as well as those between Karachi and Hyderabad the second largest city in Sindh.

Given the huge amount of actionable intelligence that has become available with the arrest of David Headley Coleman and Tahawur Rana and from the assault on Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad Indian Special Forces could take out Mumbai mafia don Dawood Ibrahim and blow him and his gang up in the buildings they are currently occupying in the Clifton area of Karachi.

All this will, of course, have to be done beneath the overhang of nuclear weapons. India must inform both Pakistan and China that it has put its nuclear forces on alert and is awaiting any reaction from these two nations.

With its coastline shut down it would be interesting to watch how Pakistan’s “strategic depth” strategy works.