Do we Indian citizens even vaguely understand the cost of retaking PoK?
Col Alok Asthana (retired)
Talk in India on its desire to take back Pak Occupied Kashmir (PoK) from Pakistan has increased in the last few months. On 17 September, United News of India reported that Indian Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, “expects India to have jurisdiction over PoK one day”. A few days early, on 11 September, India Today reported that Jitendra Singh, a junior Minister of State, stated more assertively that “the Modi government is now aiming at retrieving parts of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir to make them part of the Indian mainland”. The new army Chief, Gen Naravane said almost immediately after taking over that ‘“If the Parliament wants that the territory (PoK) should be ours and if there are orders in this regard, then we will definitely act upon it.”
India has a right to take back what it considers to be its territory. This is not a debate on correctness or ethics of its desire. It is also not one on the likelihood of its success. We must leave that to another time. If it indeed is doable, the only question now is – Is it worth it? That can be pondered over only after we’ve estimated the cost of it, even if roughly. That’s what this piece is all about – an estimate of what will it cost India to take back all territory of erstwhile J&K state.
Making such an estimate is not easy. Costs of any project for which the dimensions are not known is a very risky game. However, scenario-building and estimation of costs based on precedents, closest to the scenario is still possible.
Though not easy, making a rough estimate is vital. At this stage, the bulk of the citizens are passively going along the government suggestion that they are about to take up a project that is doable and necessary. Is it doable? The people must know what they are sanctioning.
What does the project involve
On October 26, 1947, J&K state acceded to India. However, all of did not come under Indian control. Pakistan managed to take hold of a large part of it since the beginning. Later, China captured some part of it in Aksai Chin. Later, Pakistan ceded some more of the area of Shaksgam Valley to China. Now, India is in control of about 101387 sq km, Pakistan about 82268 sq km and China about 42735 sq km. Pak occupied Kashmir is inhabited by about 64 lakh muslims, mostly Sunnis.
The resolution of Indian parliament calls for much more than a military venture. It entails capture of a very large area and then amalgamate it into mainland India – politically, economically and socially. The aim will be that 20 years from now, this newly acquired area too will be appear the same as does Jammu and Kerala do today. For that, the first step is a military victory through land and air warfare at a large scale. That will cause massive devastation of existing structures and road communication. Post the war, the towns and road network will have to be re-built. New defences will have to be created on the new borders to keep them safe from external aggression. Then Indian administration will have to be established in the new territories in the form of state officials, district officials and panchayats etc. Some of the existing systems and structures may be appropriated for our use, but most of it will have to be developed from scratch amongst people inimical to Indian rule. The resistance movement and insurgency in that areas will have to be addressed.
To get an idea of what we will have to contend with post the victory, we must at the look at the strategic interests of the Pakistan, the Talibans in Afghanistan and China in the area that would now merge with India.
Pakistan, of course, will pledge to eat grass if necessary, but do all it can to recapture it. The Talibans of Afghanistan have always seen this part of PoK as strategic depth. Hence, they will try to retain as much control over the new North Western border of new India. That would call for either throwing them out of Afghanistan or allocate huge resources to counter the insurgency and terrorism they’ll create. As for China, their interests in it will be of national pride. It can’t be seen as having lost such large areas to India. In addition, it has almost an equally large commercial and strategic interest of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which starts from the Karakoram Highway which would then come under Indian control. The complete initial portion of Karakoram Highway, starting at Kunjerab till Raikot, falls in Gilgit-Baltistan, which will now come under India.
We must appreciate that China has included CPEC into its 13th Five Year Plan which and already invested a huge sum in Pakistan. CPEC is only one part of the overall global project of China, known as One Belt One Road (OBOR). If they allow CPEC to fail, OBOR fails. If that happens, the Chinese will simply be howled out of the world.
That’s the scenario. Now, let us look as the costs.
The costs of war and subsequent requirements
In Indian context, it was once established that the weekly expenditure on war alone, less the later cost of reconstruction and establishment of Indian control over the captured areas, will be Rs 2,000 crore a week at the 1971 intensity. To this, suitable accretions will have to be made because 1971 was a low-intensity conflict. The size of forces engaged now will be twice as much. Further, as brought out earlier, the cost in this project will not be of war alone, but also of reconstruction and establishment of Indian civil control on a sustainable basis. To get an estimate of that, we need to look at the costs to US in the US-Iraq war. That consisted of invasion and thereafter establishment of some form of an interim government, though not of the invading country i.e. USA. The book The Three Trillion Dollar War by former chief economist of the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, places this cost as 3 trillion $. Just to put it in perspective, the total size of Indian economy in 2020 is 2.7 trillion dollars . Moreover, the size of economy does not mean that is the money that the government can spend. What the government is at liberty to spend is to be seen from the budget, not the economy. In Financial Year 2019-20, it had only Rs 27.84 lakh crore INR i.e. 4 lakh crores US $ to spend. This amount is 2.99 trillion dollars shy of what USA was forced to spend on the war in Iraq. And if we do allocate this full budget too for this war, which won’t cover even partial cost of the war, we will not have even one penny for the needs of us – the 130 crore Indians who are clamouring for war. Not one penny.
How long is this war likely last? One precedent is the western sector in 1971, where Pakistan resisted to its full capacity. Though it is unscientific to compare that defensive campaign of plains with this highly offensive one of high mountains, it is still a better guide than mere visualisation of a number. In that war, India managed to capture 3600 sq kms in 2 weeks. Here, we are talking of 82268 sq kms i.e. about 20 times more. After that, we will still have to recapture the 42735 sq km now under control of China.
And under what rules will we accept the present inhabitants of these areas as Indian nationals? None of the 64 lakh muslims of the new territory will qualify as Indian nationals. Being muslims, they can’t even be accepted as persecuted minorities. The people in India who are weeding out muslims one Akhlaq at a time, may not be too happy getting 64 lakh more to handle. The same goes for the lakhs of Chinese and Tibetans. Is it sensible to add to your woes at your own cost?
If cornered on costs, the government is now likely to say that it does not intend to take back all PoK, but only a slice of it. But that is the whole point. If it is a question of national pride of a resurgent India and the compulsion of a parliament resolution, we must take back all of erstwhile J&K. Else, why not let things remain as they are and use whatever little resources we have to bring up our tottering economy and employment situation? That’s exactly what China did initially when it decided to rebuild itself. It drew back from all conflicts, built up its economy and forces, then came out all guns blazing. We too can use our guns, but presently we simply don’t have them. Our infantry does not even have its basic weapon – the rifle – of an acceptable standard. In any case, first let the roti, kapda and makaan come.
And how thin a slice of PoK will satisfy the needs of the Indian psyche to gloat that we indeed did it? Will capture of an odd weak post of PoK do?
There’s more than the best case scenario I’ve painted above. If we do get into this foolish act, we must also be ready for – a nuclear war, a world war, joint defence by Pak & China, international opprobrium and above all – a Vietnam type situation. It is not that India and Indian army have no experience of this. The disastrous intervention in Sri lanka, Op Pawan, should have taught us something, but didn’t.
Let it not happen that a people ignorant of the costs and the real motive of the government become the shoulder from which the government fires its gun. Elections must be won by meeting the real needs of the people, not like this.
A jingoistic government can survive only as long as people don’t ask questions.