Thursday, 31 May 2012


Political Dimensions of Limited War

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The political dimension is intrinsic to war given the truism that war is continuation of policy by other means. The military dimension is subservient to the political, brought out by Clausewitz thus: “it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy.” Therefore, though war entails application of military force, the military dimension can never gain pre-eminence. This is especially so in Limited War. Yet, despite its importance, the all-pervasive political dimension has not received commensurate attention, even while understandably the military dimension has. This article attempts to flesh out the political dimension in its politico-military, external (diplomatic) and internal (domestic) facets.
The politico-military facet is the primary one. It involves determining the aims of the war, which, to quote Clausewitz, is the “first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.” He states: “The first, the supreme, the most far reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking.” It is trite to say that any war is to beget a better peace. This is a function of the aims set. Additionally, the limiting parameters that the military needs to abide by are defined. The latter is indispensible in war with a nuclear backdrop. The Indian experience during the hostilities at Kargil is heartening on this score. Not only was the aim clearly defined (‘Vacate the intrusion’), but the parameters were also laid down (‘No crossing of the LC’). Even if the wisdom of either was debatable, the added value of the experience was in the manner political resolve held up against pressures, including from the military, to expand the conflict.
However, despite a promising beginning at the start of the last decade to Limited War debate in which political direction was forthcoming, further discussion has been confined to the military dimension. It is believed that the Raksha Mantri’s directive has been taken out only once since. There has been no national security policy or directive from the National Security Council ever since its setting up. It is therefore explicable that the two services doctrines in the public domain – the Army’s and Navy’s – do not have an explicit discussion of Limited War, but confine it as part of the Spectrum of Conflict.
For instance, the Navy doctrine (Indian Maritime Doctrine [2009], p. 19) takes General or Total War as “involving nearly all resources of the nation, with few, if any, restriction on the use of force, short of nuclear strike/retaliation (italics added).” This formulation appears to suggest that Total War aiming for “annihilation or total subjugation of the opponent” can yet occur below the nuclear threshold. Even the Army doctrine places Nuclear War in a separate category above Total War in its Spectrum of Conflict. It needs reminding that this is theoretically correct only for non-nuclear belligerents. If and since the only kind of war India could possibly embark on by design or being thrust on it is Limited War, greater deliberation on its political contours is warranted. Merely noting that limitation would be in weapons used, spatial spread, depth of penetration, duration, etc. may be insufficient to inform the military’s prosecution of Limited War.
While limitation in aims set is acknowledged as the primary way of conflict limitation, the point lost sight of usually on the politico-military facet is war termination. Clausewitz informs, “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but controlled by the political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.” (On War, OUP, 2008, p. 34.) This is extremely important given the nuclear backdrop of the war. While appropriate war plans and their professional execution will ensure that the proverbial nuclear threshold is respected, it would require political alertness and wisdom to discern the exit point and possibly great political courage to, if necessary, call off military action even if still short of achieving political aims set.
Limitation in political aims is not an isolated exercise. As Clausewitz reminds, it is dependent on the motives and tensions that lend context to conflict: “The more powerful and inspiring the motives for war, the more they affect the belligerent nations and the fiercer the tensions that precede the outbreak, the closer will war approach its abstract concept, the more important will be the destruction of the enemy, the more closely will military aims and the political objects of war coincide, and the more military and less political will war appear to be. On the other hand, the less intense the motives, the less will the military element’s natural tendency to violence coincide with political directives. As a result…the conflict will seem increasingly politicalin character.” (p. 29).
This implies that in the era of nuclearisation, tensions and potential problems need to be handled in such a manner that even if they eventuate in war, this would not be one compelling extensive aims. By this yardstick, in the current Indian setting, potential areas of rupture, such as the terrorist problem posed by Pakistan and the problem of border intrusions with China, require political attention. As seen over the last year, emotiveness of issues is fanned by the media. This may end up as avoidable political pressure on the decision maker contemplating a conflict setting.
Proactively shaping the political context of such decisions is an exercise in internal politics. General Sundarji has suggested that knowledge of possible damage from a nuclear exchange should be shared with the people so as to sensitise them to the changes in policy, including giving up long cherished positions that may be occasioned for war avoidance and later possible conflict termination. He writes that, “If this is not done, political rigidity will result and severely restrict the government’s ability to avoid war, conventional or nuclear.” (Vision 2100, Konark, p. 149.) In his guidelines for conflict strategy, reference to offering ‘fair’ terms of settlement occurs twice over, such as Pakistan over Kashmir. Political exertion is required for bringing about ‘honourable termination of hostilities’ without ‘loss of face’. This is just one model to follow. Others, more aggressive, may be there. These would only emerge if the debate is first initiated.
Lastly, it is a counter intuitive and novel suggestion here, but there is a case to reverse the order of priority in thinking on Limited War between the military and external political dimension. It is posited that the diplomatic prong of conflict strategy would perhaps be more crucial despite military hostilities being underway. The military’s exertion would but be supplementary to the diplomatic prong, with both addressing the mind of enemy decision makers. The military’s role would not only be to take territory and cause attrition, but also to convey the threat of additional punishment being held in reserve. The diplomatic prong is to induce the enemy into chancing further punishment. Between the two, in case diplomacy does not keep pace, then the enemy’s chancing of further punishment goes up. Conveying that such escalation is not in either state’s interest is a diplomatic responsibility. Political capital would require to be invested. This would not only require directly engaging the adversary but also applying pressure through foreign capitals.
Additionally, identification of a series of possible Exit Points, so as to either avoid conflict, and if possible, bringing it to a close earliest and definitely prior to flirting with any nuclear thresholds, needs be done. It is at each of these Exit Points that diplomatic pressures for making the enemy agreeable to conflict termination need to culminate. Taking an India-Pakistan scenario, Sundarji points out that the inducements should go “as far as it is politically feasible towards meeting Kashmiri aspirations and satisfying international ideas of fairplay.” This indicates that diplomacy would not only be employed for the political and moral high ground, but also heightening any nuclear threshold and finally for early war termination. Schelling’s interpretation of Limited War being in-conflict ‘bargaining’ through a dialogue of violence can be fulfilled best by a complementary external political prong of strategy.
Thinking through the political dimension of Limited War is outside the domain of the military. They can provide input based on their expertise, participate and prepare a Limited War specific doctrine if politically mandated. But fleshing out the details would require being a National Security Adviser driven, inter-ministerial exercise with the involvement of the political level. The advantage of thinking through along these lines would be evident when and if ‘push were to come to shove’. Though about conflict, such thinking paradoxically helps equally with deterrence and war prevention.

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