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LIMITATIONS OF A MILITARY RESPONSE TO 26/11 Editor: Seema Mustafa
Monday, January 5, 2009
Consulting Editors :John Dayal & Rahul Bedi
By Ali Ahmed
Research Fellow, IDSA
Advocacy for military action has not only come from notable voices such as that of opposition politician Mr. Arun Jaitley during the parliamentary debate, but also by military analysts as Gurmeet Kanwal and Maroof Raza. Though India has a stated position that military options have not been discounted in the current crisis, the option would certainly figure once again the next time round and with greater salience. While India has rightly not chosen to exercise the military option this time, its leadership may not be able to withstand the domestic pressure for military action next time. The good sense at the current juncture owes to several factors, not least of which is the status of the GWOT ongoing in the close vicinity. Besides, India would not like its economic trajectory to be diverted by a conflict in the midst of a global financial downturn. In refraining from the military option, India has wisely chosen not to play to the gallery.
This may not be the case next time. In case the terror infrastructure persists in Pakistan, the likelihood of taking a different decision next time remains. This would be all the more certain in case of yet another terror attack of unacceptable magnitude. Therefore, the probability of employment of the military option early in the conflict would be higher. The military options therefore warrant a closer look from point of view of their consistency with political aims, their effectiveness in doing so and their escalatory potential.
Military options are in an escalatory ladder in terms of force levels used, objectives addressed and nature of Pakistani response. At the lowest level is launching of fire assaults by artillery all along the Line of Control against known terrorist infrastructure such as camps. This would require simultaneous communication to Pakistan so that it does not mistake these attacks as presaging a wider attack. Missile attacks, with Brahmos missiles on targets in depth and in Pakistani hinterland, is the option at the next higher level. In the category of response through destruction by fire power means are also attacks by aircraft no similar targets. This would be much more escalatory, besides the problem of extrication of downed crew would heighten the crisis.
Land forces could be used to activate the Line of Control by breaking the ongoing ceasefire. This would enable infliction of punishment on the Pakistani Army deployed there. At a higher level is sending of ground forces across. At the lowest level this would be in the form of special forces operations against terrorist camps in shallow depth along the Line of Control. Terrain objectives that serve as launch pads for infiltration may also be captured by infantry attacks. This would necessitate crossing of the Line of Control, which if contested by Pakistan has an obvious escalatory potential.
The possible actions mentioned so far have the effect of conveying Indian resolve and to exact a price from Pakistan for its continued support of terrorism. If crisis communication is suitably managed escalation need not necessarily result. However, Pakistan is unlikely to act under such coercion. On the contrary, in expectation of further Indian action on the escalatory scale and even to provoke the same, it may carry through with its blackmail by diverting its attention and effort from pursuing the Taliban in the FATA and the NWFP. To prepare for and in response to Pakistani counter moves, India would require an a priori raising of its military alert status. This alert status may not involve mobilization as was the case in the Kargil War and Operation Parakram. India now has the Cold Start doctrine which entails swiftly moving into battle stations, as the name suggests, from a 'cold start'. Nevertheless, the moves and counter moves in anticipation and in misperception would complicate crisis management. These may even be deliberately resorted to so as to focus the attention of the international community on crisis resolution with each side trying to influence world community favourably. Over-extension in this posturing could lead to an unwanted outbreak of conflict.
In case wider aims are sought, such as punishing the Pakistani Army for its sponsorship of terrorism, then taking the Cold Start doctrine to its logical conclusion has been suggested as a deterrent strategy by no less than the noted strategist and academic, Dr Rajesh Rajagopalan. While this may not be the option being considered presently by the government, this may be a response option in future in the magnitude of continuing terrorism and public pressures in India for firmer action demands it. According to Dr Rajagopalan the nuclear threat should not stay India's hand for Pakistan has a 'high' nuclear threshold. Its nuclear doctrine can be interpreted as the Israeli one of 'first use, last resort'. Therefore considering the next higher step in the escalatory ladder is worthwhile since there is space between conventional war outbreak and the nuclear threshold for inflicting attrition on the Pakistani military.
The Cold Start doctrine is an outcome of post-Kargil Limited War thinking in India. It was initiated at a conference at IDSA by the then Defence Minister, Mr. George Fernandes. He said that nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons and not war. The idea was carried forward by the then Director IDSA, Jasjit Singh. It has resulted eventually in the adoption of the Cold Start doctrine by Indian Army in 2004. The logic behind the move is reminiscent of the Cold War. As in the Cold War era, acquisition of nuclear weapons by both sides made general war unthinkable. To avoid Total War, Limited War concept was developed during and in wake of the Korean War. Limitation is through self-imposed restrictions on aims, theatres of operation, weapons used and duration of conflict. Since the nuclear threat exists, limitation on the conduct of the conflict has been thought through in India also. It must be noted though that the doctrine has also drawn criticism.
The employment of Cold Start in the context of a punitive response would likely also be along an escalatory ladder. It is possible that conflict could be restricted to the Line of Control. This may involve, in the first instance, capture of features that are of a defensive value so that their post conflict retention by India would enable firmer defences and secondly would make infiltration problematic of Pakistan. It is unlikely India would think of returning such heights as it had done in 1965. More offensive options could be capture of additional features that would place Pakistani defences there in jeopardy. This would make POK vulnerable to future attack by India, thereby dissuading Pakistani support. India may even consider deeper penetration, for once the initial crust has crumbled wrapping up the remainder would not be a problem. In this scenario the action would be confined to J&K, with India going in for a military solution to end the conflict there.
Confining the conflict to J&K may not be possible since Pakistan may seek to react to its problem there by attacking in the plains sector of J&K or south of Pir Panjal. This could lead to an opening up of the Punjab front, making for a larger than originally conceived conventional war. This scenario may be pre-empted by India were it to choose not to confine the conflict to J&K but to expand it to the heart of Pakistan from the beginning. This would be to India's advantage since surprise would be capitalized to capture Pakistani territory and inflict attrition on its troops reacting to the invasion. The intention would be to capture shallow objectives, provoke Pakistani military reaction and decimate the same with armoured maneuver, artillery and missile fire assaults and air attacks. With requisite damage inflicted, India could declare unilateral ceasefire and withdraw from territory seized across the international border, while retaining the territory captured along the Line of Control.
The aim of such a campaign would be to expose the Pakistani Army to defeat and weaken its standing in post conflict national politics. This would help democratic forces establish control there and roll back the terrorist infrastructure. The probability of this happy outcome is questionable in that a conventional Indian attack would arouse the nationalist instinct in Pakistan that would be capitalized on by right wing forces. Thus even if Pakistan Army were to suffer reverses, the nature of the conflict would change to an irregular war reminiscent of Iraq. President Musharraf had once promised an unconventional war in case of Indian invasion. Thus civilian casualties would mount even if India intends to quit Pakistani territory early. The lessons of Israel's Lebanon War of 2006 are stark. Withdrawing in face of an irregular counter would invite the odium of defeat for India. Therefore, war hysteria would mount and India would be sucked into an unintended conflict of indefinite outcome. Therefore, even if India were to win the battles as is likely in light of relative military power equations, political victory would remain distant.
The nuclear question needs highlighting. Many security analysts, such as Dr Manpreet Sethi of the Center for Air Power Studies, are of the opinion that the Pakistani nuclear threshold is fairly high. To deter Indian conventional power, Pakistan depicts an irrational stance and projects a lower nuclear threshold. Others, as Kanwal, advocate that Pakistan's bluff be called and India's conventional power be used more aggressively with the threat of Pakistan being dismembered were it to resort to any kind of nuclear first use. This is the dominant school of thought in India. Their argument is fairly sustainable in case of Limited War and makes the military option politically enticing.
That possible nuclear thresholds would be incorporated in all operational planning is evident from the Limited War thinking in India. Therefore, escalation to nuclear level can be discounted in case it is credibly conveyed to Pakistan that the war embarked on by India is a Limited War. In such a case, Pakistan would attempt maximum self-preservation and exercise of nuclear restraint even as it awaits India's return to its starting blocks. However, it can be expected that during the conflict the nuclear card would be used to maximum rhetoric effect in attracting international mediatory attention to the 'most dangerous place on earth'.
The improbable however must not be lost sight of, for both are nuclear powers. In the circumstance of an expansion in the Limited War, through the dynamic of war acquiring its own logic and momentum, Pakistan could resort to the ultimate form of nuclear signaling through nuclear first use in the form of a 'demonstration'. This could be the conduct of a nuclear test, nuclear explosion on an uninhabited portion of its territory or a use of a single low kilo ton bomb on an insignificant Indian military target on its own territory. While this would be intended to energise conflict termination efforts, it would certainly arouse passions
It is here that the Indian doctrine of 'massive retaliation' would be found wanting. Presently the doctrine is one of 'assured retaliation' in the 'assured destruction' mode. It would just not do for India to lose the moral high ground that is crucial to political outcome, by devastating Pakistan through counter value targeting. It would amount to genocide exposing the Indian leadership to serious accusations of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The response is only appropriate for an attempted 'first strike' by Pakistan which is the least likely form of Pakistani first use. The doctrine therefore requires revision to the form suggested by General Sundarji. His sensible recommendation is for nuclear war to be terminated at the lowest level of escalation. It should countenance a quid pro quo or at best a quid pro quo plus response. This would be more suited to the proactive Limited War doctrine that India has adopted. His perspicacious reading is that enemy aims should be accommodated to maximum extent possible and face saving should be part of the end state to avoid escalation in the charged setting.
It may be argued that this could result in a lowering of the nuclear threshold by Pakistan, further limiting application of Indian conventional power. It would make nuclear war fighting a seemingly feasible proposition, thereby drawing India away from its position that these weapons are political tools only for deterrence. While not contesting the genuineness or moral strength of the Indian position, it is not one shared by Pakistan. Pakistan's position is akin to that of NATO in its Cold War years in which it relied on nuclear weapons to deter Soviet conventional aggression. Pakistan's resort to first use would require a sensible India response. Were India to resort to a massive punitive response it would be abandoning its Limited War intent, rendering its cities vulnerable in turn. Indian punitive response cannot guarantee elimination of Pakistan's retaliatory capability, not being intended to. Pakistan could use its surviving warheads in retaliation even in face of in-conflict deterrence. Thus absurdly India stands to lose a city or two just for the sake of the initial Pakistani strike on an ingressing Indian military target. This crisis should help initiate a debate on 'proportional deterrence' or 'graduated response' in India.
The options lower down on the escalation scale are India's most likely response options in future. Stand off missile attacks and air strikes, as earlier conducted by the USA against Libya, Sudan, Pakistan and Iraq, would only dent terror facilities for these can be recreated at will. Ending the ceasefire would be of little utility as it would amount to a return to the pre ceasefire period that had yielded little by way of helping resolve any issue. Cross Line of Control use of land forces would only shift the Line of Control forward, create a fresh set of recruits to terrorist ranks of displaced Pakistani settlers along the Line of Control and would require unnecessary expenditure in firming in the relocated forces in new defences, as was the case in Kargil after the war. The new line would be even more porous to infiltration as the area would be well known to the Pakistanis and would take India some time to settle into. Therefore, terrorism in Kashmir would receive a boost, exposing India to further terrorist outrages.
This indicates that military options have a limited value, if any. They are found wanting in effective compellence and coercion. In no way is Pakistan incentivised to act against the terrorist organizations, for it alone can root them out, or at best contain them, should it choose to do so. Therefore there is a case for India to consider other avenues of addressing its strategic predicament. These include engaging with the Kashmir issue meaningfully. Credible elections there should be taken as a start point and not as an end in themselves. Pakistani overtures of the Musharraf era are an opening. The presence and actions of the US in the region are another causatory factor for the spread of terror. There is a case for India to exercise its growing power in trying to bring about a regional approach substituting the US in the region. While relying on US engagement in terms of aid, development assistance and political support, cessation of military operations that are leading to an accretion in terrorist ranks need to be fore grounded. Other measures already being undertaken by India are required to be followed through. These include defensive measures and development initiatives with respect to its minority community.
Discussing military options is useful so as to reinforce deterrence. However, the discussion also contributes to self-deterrence. These would therefore not be impressing Pakistan much. Which means resort to these would only be a futile expression of frustration and playing to the gallery. This would only help the terrorist cause and shift the political center of gravity of both states to the right. In the current circumstance they jeopardize the GWOT and on that account have probably not been resorted to. Therefore, India and Pakistan are at a juncture where their continued reliance on military means to settle differences should be seen as being untenable. Moving away from the militarized paradigm of thought is an alternative. Since Pakistan is unlikely to initiate this and would be a follower in this regard, the onus is on India. But for that it must first acknowledge the limitations of the military option.
(Ali Ahmed is a former military officer and currently pursuing a doctorate at JNU on Limited War doctrine.)