Saturday, 27 August 2016

War and what to do about it

War is not round the corner, but that is not reason enough not to engage with it as a phenomenon and as an existential threat in South Asia. The rhetoric of ‘responsible nuclear power’, much in evidence in India’s recent and ongoing Nuclear Suppliers Group bid, should not obscure clear and present nuclear dangers. Realists wish to husband power in order to deter war and in case one is imposed on India to preserve the national interest. The problem is that sustaining such power creates the conditions for conflict, which in crisis does not necessarily help avert conflict and in conflict might prove counter-productive to the national interest.
A popular scenario in strategic circles can help explain this paradox of more power not necessarily begetting greater security. Realists in control of the national security establishment and of primetime believe India’s unassailable power deters Pakistan. This is true in so far as conventional attack is concerned and also in incentivizing Pakistani control over ‘good’ terrorists. However, it is debatable to the extent Pakistan can control the entire spectrum of terrorists it is host to. Thus, India can figure in terrorist crosshairs. Assorted jihadists might like to express solidarity with the Kashmiri angst, if only to put one over the Pakistani state they consider as letting their side down by providing only rhetorical support. The military power India has would not deter them and, on the contrary, could even act as a pull factor in case they wish to destabilise Pakistan to expand their reach. In case the going gets too hot in Pakistan, they have the potential to provoke a regional war, which can then help them survive any immediate threat, and, in its duration and aftermath, to expand their constituency using religious nationalism as heft. The exercise of Indian military power in the conflict can only bring about Pakistani military discomfiture, enabling extremists thereby, and at not a little cost to India. Therefore, if war is insensible, the preparations for it are equally so. With India hardening its foreign policy, deploying information war strategies and possibly also indulging in covert operations against Pakistan, a reflexive regional war needs only a bunch of terrorists getting lucky. With UP elections coming up as trailer to national elections, the scene can only get more combustible.
In respect of China, conflict is certainly more remote. Yet, India appears well on its way to being a lynchpin in US’ ‘pivot’ to Asia. Taking cue, China could well up-the-ante at the next border incident. Though confidence building measures are in hand, to guard against incursions escalating, India has taken care to reportedly position armoured elements of the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) on the Tibetan plateau’s extension into India in both Ladakh and Sikkim. It has simultaneously let onthat the MSC, 17 Corps, has been put on a back burner for economic reasons; a move necessitatedmore likely to allow time for border infrastructure to catch up. Consequently, India has the force in being to respond to a local border incident, but not enough to react in a border war. This summer China created joint theater commands,creating thereby not only a possible military edge but also psychological asymmetry with India that has its services fighting separate, if parallel, wars. In effect, India is liable to overreact to a border incursion by, for instance, positioning armoured elements dissuasively; thereby risking escalation, to which in turn it has little answer. This will build up military pressure on the political level, which in the context of elections in the Hindi heartland close by can lead to scare mongering such as indulged in by the Uttarkhand chief minister over a recent Chinese incursion. Political agendas can yet contaminate strategic decisions. But then strategic decisions might themselves be more assertive than necessary, stemming from India’s belief that China is looking to push India back into the South Asian box. China, sensing this, might just time and tailor its next border incursion, in a manner as to have India either take the bait and foul up or veer off and lose face. 
The good news is that such scenarios are not quite ‘worst case’, of the order of a ‘two- front’ war or a war gone nuclear. Scenarios being staple fare for strategists, these are also susceptible to being overlooked outside of their strategic circles. However, ignoring such scenarios can only leavethe peace lobby scrambling. The pattern of recurrent crises and border incidents has lulledboth the public and the peace lobby. Further, cautioning by peace activists is discountedbecause it originates in the public perception from the ‘usual suspects’, not associated with strategic expertise. It is not without reason, the government is setting up defence studies departments in universities and has placed the National Defence University bill in the open domain for public comment. The peace lobby is doubly disadvantaged; but just as militaries sweat in peace, it must in peacetime forge a broader front for this uphill and asymmetric battle.
How can a war shape up? Though press releases of the defence ministry hide as much as they let on, these are enough to go by. A recent press release had it that the Mathura based strike corps – Strike 1 - held a demonstration of opposed river crossing (Press Information Bureau (PIB) 2016 (a)). Earlier, its summer’s military exercise climaxedin a brigade of paratroopsenabling deep thrust(PIB 2016 (b)). This indicates that though South Asia is about three decades into its nuclear era, the military is just about perfecting war plans dating to the mid-eighties. Notably, press releases of military exercises since 2012 take care not to mention the ‘nuclear backdrop’ (Ahmed 2015). This appears prompted by Pakistan’s unfurling of its tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in 2011, an entirely anticipated development in light of the doctrinal movement in India over the previous decade. The seemingly slovenly military response to the mega terror attack on Parliament in December 2001 prompted the quick-off-the-blocks ‘Cold Start’, worrying Pakistan down the TNW route.Even if India appears nonchalant in order to bolster deterrence, the silence surrounding India’s response to TNW is also directed inwards. By minimizing nuclear dangers,India makes war appear fightable, thereby short circuiting opposition and keeping the public unwary.
A conventional attack on Pakistan can find India sandwiched between the other two levels– nuclear and conventional. The more successful it is at the conventional level, the more dangers at the other two levels will kick in. The nuclear level is fairly straightforward. Pakistani TNW usewould breach the nuclear taboo. This would leave India a choice to escalate or to respond at the same level of the nuclear ladder. The first choice is what it currently promises in its declaratory nuclear doctrine. However, the subcontinent being at the stage of Mutual Assured Destruction, India might settle for the second option, in favour of an unacknowledged operational nuclear doctrine of proportional response.At the subconventional level, Pakistan’s army could rely on irregular war. In a clarification on Musharraf’s threat of ‘unconventional war’, Pakistani military spokesperson made a reference to ‘unconventional forces’ presumably indulging in an irregular war (Bidwai 2003). To be sure, Pakistan’s response at these two levels would leave it worse off, but that is no reason for India to discount the possibility.The lesson from the Chilcot inquiry report in Britain is that thinking through the consequencesis important when picking a fight.
In the famous Clausewitzian Trinitarian frame, consequences owe to interplay of chance, passion and rationality. Ideally, if India embarks on war, it would prefer, in the words of the army Chief, a ‘short, swift’ conventional tryst (Dawn 2015).Any political space opened up by the retreat of the Pakistan army under Indian blows would be filled by extremists. If Kashmir continues to be heavy-going even today when Indian security forces confront only stone throwers, stabilisation operations in Pakistan would be exponentially worse. Unfortunately for India’s power enthusiasts, India does not have US’ power and distance or powerless Gaza as neighbor as does its emerging role model, Israel.
Michael Howard (1979) held that strategyplays out in the operational, logistical, social and technological spheres too. These are not all external oriented. Internal politics cannot be ignored as a conflict driver. Majoritarian nationalism in India will mirror religious nationalism in Pakistan. In India, the social outcome could be in further marginalization of the liberal spectrum and of India’s largest minority, its Muslims. Likewise, the economics of warmaking and recovery will likely see greater militarization of ‘Make in India’, with the military technology conduit deepening India’s American and Israeli connection.Thus, to some there can be a ‘good war’, with the war used to deepen the right wing grip over India.
If the conspiracy theorists are even half right, intelligence capabilities exist to engineer a trigger that can then be capitalized on militarily to wage a premeditated war. Intelligence agencies taking cue from the prime minister’s Independence Day speech, couldargue that Sindhis andBaluchis are ripe for disaffection. India could sieze the moment to push Pakistan down the Iraq-Syria route. The internal fallout of the intelligence dimension is far more problematic. Ideologically inspired policemen in the Vanzaramould would pursue ‘sleeper cells’ in Muslim mohallas across India. The information war will paint dissent as treachery.
A similar look at a hypothetical war with China yields up areas of equal concern. The loss half-century back continues to echo. The Air Force reportedly has plans for busting the permafrost holding up the train tracks that lend China a logistics advantage on the Tibetan plateau. This would be extension of the war on environment, currently underway in the name of strategic road building. Complementary intelligence games such as use by India of the Special Frontier Force and retaliatory arming by China of North East militants can only be to India’s at a disadvantage, besides setting up Tibetans for trouble. The good part is that both sides subscribing to No First Use and having matching conventional capability tamps down on the nuclear factor. However, horizontal escalation such as to the more sensitive Tawang tract or if India ups the ante in the Malacca Straits, can occur; raising the profile of the nuclear factor. In its outcome, a fair showing can prove cathartic, while a loss would hardly be as fateful as it proved for Nehru. A war would enablerationalizationto India’s defence outlays; deepen privatization of the defence sector; and ensure a foreign policy lurch towards US.India can only get uglier. Either outcome would embolden authoritarian tendencies, played out in scapegoating Maoists in Central India and assorted communities in the North East with‘subversive’ potential,and, closer homeof liberal voices critical of India’s unnecessarily assertiveChina policy.
War has benefits for political forces, diplomatic pulls and commercial interests. If the state takes it so seriously as to spend inordinately on its preparation, war must figure more prominently in critical discussion. It cannot be left to strategists of the realist school and a few liberals fighting an intellectual guerilla war. The 1965 War reprise last year made war appear enticing, with Amar Chitra Katha even bringingout a comic on ParamVir Chakra heroes.A defencecorrespondent, noted for proximity to the defence minister,rewrote the war’s history depicting India as victor. Recent and ongoingextended centenary observance of theFirst World War romanticises Indian participation, obscuring enduring of the wretchedness of the trenches in defence of a foreign power at Ypres, Gallipoli and Kut el Amara. With the public suitably conditioned, war drums can stir up public support of war. In face of this, how can a wider peace movement be created, especially when war appears a seemingly a distant possibility?
For sure, this cannot be done in face of crisis since lead times have specifically been truncated in the ‘Cold Start’ scenario. It cannot be done in war, when war drums will drown out sane voices. It has to be done now, when time and breathing space are available. War must be exposed for what it is; misrepresentations exposed; and the link between potential war-profiteers and war mongers, including haloed institutions, made visible. Deterrence ‘experts’ need to explain the paradox inherent in the reasoning that deterrence is only at an ever increasing cost in insecurity. The curious reasoning is that the more insecure both sides are from each other, the more secure they are since neither can chance instability.Considering this, at best, India can only replay the Chinese strategy of 1962 with a hard, quick knock to be followed by unilateral ceasefire declaration and rapid reversion to the start line. If that is all that can be reasonably done with the military power at India’s disposal, is there a case for demanding the nuclear peace dividend? In this the peace lobby has an unlikely ally, since arguments for going nuclear by nuclear advocates such as the doyen, K Subrahmanyam, talked of the peace dividend.Can the threat to peace, taken so seriously by defence minders as to commandeer the nation’s resources, also energise the peace lobby?
This requires broad front political action and educational investment. There are more important and urgent fights underway in the multi-pronged push back on conservatism’s self-interested alliance with Hindutva. There are several red-herrings – such as ‘love jihad’ - to trip up the fight back. Also, there is a legion of information warriors and trolls to be subdued, as the defence minister let on in his reference to an unnamed actor’s loss of contract. There is the output of well funded think tanks, operating in one case out of the heart of Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, that need refuting. Such a daunting enterprise needs a core group constantly at the key boards and an overlap with those already at the figurative barricades on minds. It is not an easy proposition to dig in one more trench-line. But an anti-war front is necessary,which under war clouds can ratchet up moderationand strategic sobriety into war rooms and the idiot box. Only then would it avoid forming a judicial posse in wake of cities turningradioactive cinder.
Michael Howard, ‘The forgotten dimensions of strategy’, Foreign Affairs, (Summer 1979), Vol. 57, No. 5, pp. 975-986
PIB (2016 (a)), ‘Ex MeghPrahar: Demonstration on Opposed River Crossing’, 16 July 2016,, Accessed on 17 July 2016
PIB (2016 (b)), ‘Chief of Army Staff Reviews Exercise Shatrujeet’, Government of India, Ministry of Defence, New Delhi, 22 April 2016,; Accessed on 17 July 2016
Ahmed, A. (2015), ‘Information Operations in Limited Nuclear War’, Government of India, Ministry of Defence, New Delhi, 14 December 2015,; Accessed on 15 July 2016
Bidwai, P. (2003), ‘Musharraf’s speech raises the nuclear danger’,; Accessed on 10 August 2016

Dawn (2015), ‘Indian army chief says military ready for short, swift war’, Dawn,  2 September 2015,; Accessed on 17 July 2016