Killing Them Softly: New Strategies Against Asymmetric Warfare

Killing Them Softly: New Strategies Against Asymmetric Warfare

In 512 BCE, Darius I (Daryavahus) the emperor of Persia advanced with an army of 80,000 soldiers to subdue the Scythian tribesmen who lived in present day southern Siberia and Central Asia. The Persian soldiers chased the Scythians through Central Asia, the Balkans and into Ukraine, but to Darius’s frustration the Scythians refused to stand and fight. Knowing they could not defeat the Persians in an open battle, the tribesmen chose to retreat.

Darius became so frustrated that he sent a plaintive message to Idanthyrsus, the king of the Scythians, demanding, “You strange man, why do you keep on flying before me. Come, let us engage in battle.” (1)

Idanthyrsus sent back a disdainful reply: “That is my way, Persian. We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight with you. We shall not join battle, unless it pleases us.”

The exchange between the two rulers illustrates the wide chasm that separates regular armies from their irregular foes who pursue asymmetric warfare. Darius, who had a large empire to administer back home, decided to turn back his armies rather than waste time and energy chasing the Scythians. Meanwhile, the tribesmen continued to raid the extremities of the Persian Empire.

Asymmetry in the modern era

Today, 2,500 years later, the technology of warfare has changed but the equation of asymmetry remains the same. The enemies of the modern nation state know that the way to fight a large organised army is through asymmetric warfare in which the targeted nation state is never allowed to deploy its full strength. For instance, the few hundred Maoists in India’s ‘Red Corridor’ are never going to line themselves up in formation against the might of the Indian Army or the CRPF – they’ll strike where the troops are stretched thin and then skulk away into their forest hideouts.

The pillar of traditional asymmetric warfare is terrorism. India has the unique and unfortunate experience of being targeted by a large number of separatist groups backed by foreign powers. Khalistani, Kashmiri, Maoist, Naxal, Mizo, Assam and Naga rebels among others have been funded or armed primarily by Pakistan and China. Other countries such as the US, UK, Canada, the UAE and Bangladesh have winked and nodded at terrorist organisations that have used their territories to launch strikes against India.

While every major country is reeling under terrorism, for India it poses an even greater threat because the country’s chaotic and free-wheeling democracy offers terrorists a great deal of advantages such as the support of a vast network of NGOs, a sympathetic media and an overly liberal judiciary. Although asymmetric warfare is not a sound military tactic, the terrorists know it is an effective way to make social and political statements.

Terrorism is longer a movement of ‘misguided youth’. Showing the other cheek as a response to asymmetric provocations by Pakistan and terror groups have seriously eroded the credibility of India’s deterrence. This has led to multiple escalations, which have tied down India’s paramilitary forces, who have lost many brave men and women.

With the arrival of the BJP government, India has declared it will no longer absorb the “thousands-cuts” strategy of enemies such as Pakistan. On the contrary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it clear that India will destroy terrorism at its source. The surgical strikes of September 2016 and the air force raid on Balakot in Pakistan amply demonstrated that India now prefers to use bullets rather than cite from the “Kadi Ninda” playbook of previous governments.

However, due to the previous decades of indulging enemies of the state, terrorism and its backers have grown deep roots into Indian society. In this backdrop, the tempo of the battle needs to be raised several degrees more.

Targeted attacks

Almost every month Indian soldiers, paramilitary and police personnel are killed in action while flushing out terrorists. For every 10 terrorists eliminated, an Indian soldier is sacrificed. This is classic asymmetric warfare. It doesn’t matter how many terrorists the enemy loses; he has plenty of unemployed drug addicts and crazed Islamic radicals willing to blow themselves up in the hope of getting 72 virgins in paradise.

While these jehadis come cheap as chips, for India the costs are huge. With the Hindu, Jain and Sikh population growth close to or below replacement levels in most states, every Hindu, Jain or Sikh soldier lost impacts the population growth rate of these communities.

There are two other costs India has to bear. One, it loses trained security personnel; a battle experienced colonel or commando who dies cannot be easily replaced. Secondly, when the prime bread winner of a family dies, the family becomes economically handicapped. This impacts the morale of society.

The Pakistan Army is prepared to fight a thousand-year war and it is said cynically that it will fight India to the last Kashmiri. In fact, it won’t be stretching the truth to say the Pakistan Army will fight India to the last Pakistani. While the Pakistan Army is or are free to sacrifice its people, India must not lose soldiers and officers in this war of attrition.

It is time for India to take the war into the enemy’s territory. For, it’s better to fight the Pakistan Army in Karachi and Beijing than fight its stooges in the streets of Mumbai, Delhi and Bhatinda. Gaurav Arya, a former Indian army major and a well-known expert on defence, national security and strategy, has been advocating this approach. In fact, his words have so spooked the Pakistanis that they have filed a case against him in London, UK.

According to Arya, “The fountainhead of terror is the Pakistan Army. It is the officer corps that we must target. We do not need to use our army. Pakistan is actually an armoury that looks like a nation and is floating in weapons. It is full of young men who know no other trade apart from killing. Most of them have no specific ideology. Dollars are good enough. (2)

“Pakistan Army’s V Corps (5 Corps) is stationed in Karachi. It has approximately 60,000 men, including officers. Karachi is the most violent city in Asia and it is amongst the most armed cities in the world. It has a violent mixture of Mohajirs, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Baloch and Kashmiris. It is an urban melting pot of armed and violent militia. It is also the commercial capital of Pakistan. Perfect.

“Target killers can be had for hire in Karachi. What we must do is route money via offshore accounts. These killers will then target Pakistani Army officers in Karachi, specifically officers of 5 Corps. They will be targeted in market-places and malls, outside restaurants and in roadside cafes. As we keep wiring money, Pakistan Army will keep losing officers.

“Once the Karachi plan is successful, it can be rolled out in Quetta and Lahore. Peshawar will follow.”

Arya makes it clear that these Pakistani killers will not be asked to attack infrastructure, civilians and innocents. “They will simply locate, engage and eliminate any Pakistani Army, Navy or Air Force officer who steps out of the cantonment area. If the officer is moving with bodyguards, a sniper must take him out. An unseen enemy is far more terrifying than a known quantity.”

What could work in India’s favour is that the officer class of the Pakistan Army is used to the easy life as they have been sponging off their country for decades. Most of them are looking to retire rich and migrate to countries such as Canada and Australia after transferring their loot overseas. In fact, even army chiefs of Pakistan have moved overseas after retirement. (3) If India can put the fear of god in them, few will volunteer to take part in terror related activities.

Soft approach with big stick

In areas impacted by insurgency, the carrot and stick policy must be used. People sympathetic to separatists must know that while India is prepared to deploy overwhelming military force against those carrying out attacks on the state, the local administration can be trusted to secure and safeguard their interests better than mercenary terrorists.

The idea should be to avoid violence as much as possible because senseless violence would make the ordinary people resist more stoutly and refuse to switch allegiance to the state. Only when forces on the ground arrive, meet the people, solicit their inputs, neutralise insurgents and collaborate with local people will true victory be achieved. In this aspect, Modi himself is leading by example by becoming the first Prime Minister in 30 years to visit the Naxal heartland. The current government has launched a new airport at Jagdalpur under the UDAN initiative; established a modern health centre under Ayushman Bharat; kicked off internet services for seven districts under Bharatnet; set up seven bank branches; and flagged off three railway lines.

The might of the state should be unchallenged. There needs to be a larger number of paramilitary forces who are better armed with world class equipment such blast proof vehicles, night vision goggles, thermal body sensors, landmine detectors, sniper rifles, drones and full body armour for all soldiers. The armed forces should convince the people that they have the firepower, and can use it, but will only do so when there is no other choice.

Using peace loving Kashmiris to fight jehadi Kashmiris, Nagas to fight Nagas and Maoists against Maoists is another policy that needs to be used a lot more. First, recruit collaborators from among groups marginalised or targeted by the separatists. For instance, the Shia tribes of Kashmir need to be used against the Sunnis separatists of the Valley. The marginalised groups would be easier to negotiate deals with and they will tie down the pro-Pakistan Sunni groups. In recent months a large number of Kashmir-born soldiers have been targeted by the terrorists, exposing the divide between Muslim groups in Kashmir.

Destroying the urban naxal

Another cunning adversary is the urban naxal who is the mind behind the Maoists. They are usually found in academia but are also known to hide in the corporate world and they have backers in the media. These are people who appear like the average person on the street but are secretly recruiting young college boys and girls into the Maoist ecosystem. They are also conduits for funnelling resources via Indian foreign and funders. The Intelligence Bureau with assistance from the newly formed anti-terror agencies should have no problems identifying these rogue elements. New laws for treason should carry at least 30-year prison sentences, which will ensure these people die in jail and not be able to come out and become mentors for the Maoists. Until such time such stringent laws are passed by Parliament, these urban naxals should be marked for elimination.

Needed: More surgical strikes

While pursing talks and offering economic carrots, India should tread paths it hasn’t taken in the past. According to Major General (retired) G.D. Bakshi, it is not possible to fight a purely defensive campaign against an asymmetric war and prevail. “The adversary can simply vary the targets of attack ad infinitum,” he says. “Costs have to be raised for the aggressor by taking the war to his territory with proactive military responses that preempt such attacks rather than defending every possible target or carrying out legal enquiries post-strike.” (4)

In response to the jehadi attack on the Uri military camp that left 19 soldiers dead, the Indian Army’s surgical strikes of September 2016, which killed at least 80 Islamic terrorists, demonstrated how pain can be given to a rogue state – and its pawns. (5) The surgical strike and the 2019 Balakot air raid left the Pakistani military deeply embarrassed about its impotence; the red-faced generals in Rawalpindi could do nothing except suffer in silence.

Another form of asymmetric warfare could be to launch supersonic BrahMos missiles against Pakistani training camps and the terror leadership, based on real time intelligence. Pakistan is absolutely unlikely to retaliate as it knows what escalation can do to its economy.

Targeted assassination of terrorist leaders by paying off rival organisations should be actively pursued.

Do another Bangladesh, in Balochistan and Sindh

Asymmetric warfare can also be pursued by India as a bargaining tool. As National Security Advisor Ajit Doval said, hinting at India’s response to a future raid by Pakistani proxies, “One more Mumbai and you lose Balochistan.” (6) This direct statement sent the entire Pakistani establishment and media into a state of panic and consternation.

Separating Balochistan – and Sindh – can’t be very difficult. During the 1990s, India’s foreign intelligence agency RAW had established cells in Sindh and Balochistan as a payoff for Pakistan’s support for Khalistani terrorists. These were well-entrenched spy networks that were developed following years of laborious work by Indian sleuths at great danger to their lives. But with one stroke of his pen, former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral wound up those cells, resulting in several Indian spies being exposed and tortured to death. Such a betrayal must not happen again. (7)

The RAW penetration of Sindh and Balochistan had completely freaked the Pakistanis and that was the reason why they beseeched Gujral to wind up Indian intelligence operations. The point is that the two restive provinces plus Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are Pakistan’s weak underbelly and India should take the war across the border without much delay.

As Doval declared, if Pakistan is willing to spend $500 million to bankroll terrorists, India can double the offer – pay the same terrorists $1 billion to attack their own Pakistani masters. For India, that is loose change, but it will increase the costs for the Pakistani establishment in three ways. One, those in charge of terror factories will be in the crosshairs of the jehadi’s rifle. Two, the Pakistani security forces will have to fight the terrorists trained by their own state, resulting in fratricide and loss of morale. Three, Islamabad will have to spend more cash to replace the men ones that have turned on them.


On October 23, 2009, Brigadier Moinudin Ahmed of the Pakistan Army was shot dead in broad daylight in Rawalpindi by gunmen. (8) It was the first targeted killing of a high-ranking army officer in Pakistan. The killers were the Pakistani Taliban. The assassination exposed the vulnerability of the top echelons of the Pakistan Army, which clearly cannot protect every single officer. It should serve as a lesson for those who play with fire that once you cross a limit, there’s no easy way out.

There are definitely limits to what can be achieved through military power, but a mix of strategies can make it difficult for terrorists – and their backers – to disrupt normal life. Such a strategy is needed at the outset because India cannot expend all its resources and energies in fighting a solo battle against extremists, and because no doctrine can foresee all possible eventualities.


1. Herodotus, Histories, Book IV, 126,

2. Major Gaurav Arya,

3. Express Tribune,

4. Major General G.D. Bakshi, Limited Wars in South Asia: Need for an Indian Doctrine,

5. Swarajya Magazine,

6. YouTube, Ajit Doval,

7. DNA India,

8. The Independent,

Featured Image: The Wire

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.