The ISPR gets it almost right
The Inter Services Public Relations has gone overboard in its taking down of India’s army chief by a peg or two. They attribute three infra-dig issues to General Bipin Rawat: one, provoking war by overhyping fire assaults as surgical strikes; two, acting with an eye for the electioneering advantage of his political masters; and, three, damaging the professionalism of India’s military which they term as gone ‘rogue’ under Rawat.
Their invective was prompted by Rawat wading into a developing media story last weekend on the results of a fire assaults on Pakistani terror launch pads. The media influenced by ruling party spin doctors on election-day blew up the fire assaults as a ‘surgical strike 3’ as Maharashtra and Haryana went to polls.
Rawat’s weighing in on the casualties inflicted, prompted an otherwise sympathetic scribe in a quasi-nationalist website, The Print, to caution against the army aping the Pakistan army’s ‘lying’ ISPR. The reporter in his opinion piece goes on to make the link between polling and Rawat’s intervention, which was not lost on anyone following Indian security affairs over Rawat’s tenure.
It appears that the ISPR and attentive observers share two of the ISPR’s observations: firstly, the timing and overhyping of the latest round of fire assaults suggests an election-related agenda; and, secondly, this is not professionally edifying for the Indian army.
The ISPR goes a step further in apprehending a personal motive for the army chief’s behavior in implying that in aligning his political antenna to the prevailing political winds, he is auditioning for the vacancy opened up by the prime minister from the ramparts of the Red Fort, that of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
Whereas the ISPR’s earlier response to the fire assaults of 20 October was the registering of mild disappointment, they upped the rhetoric a few days down the line, provoked perhaps by the army chief’s reference in the week to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) being controlled by terrorists.
PoK has become one of the army chief’s favoured themes, considering the his last reference to the area was when he boasted that only a word from its political masters held the army back from seizing the area. Clearly, the army chief has gotten under the skin of the ISPR leading to it getting personal in its rhetoric.
There is a plausible explanation for the army chief’s periodic forays in the media against Pakistan. Such a strategy has roots in the army’s new doctrine, released in an understated form late last year and lodged in a nondescript corner of the army’s web pages. It dwells on hybrid war, characterizing even peace time – such as now between India and Pakistan - as a time of ‘hybrid war’. It takes the fabled military thinker, Clausewitz’s dictum ‘war being politics by other means’ rather seriously to mean politics is war by other means.
Under its tenets, Pakistan’s proxy war amounts to its hybrid war which India must respond to appropriately. The shift from the earlier strategic restraint to strategic proactivism under the Modi regime enables the army to use the interregnum of peace to condition, deter and degrade Pakistan as necessary. Psychological warfare or information operations constitute the main ‘line of operations’ in peace time.
The army chief’s utterances in relation to Pakistan could – at a stretch - be sympathetically rationalized in this light. It cannot be that the army chief takes himself seriously on PoK though.
The assumption that Indian army can militarily take over PoK is easy to concede. Besides the reserves meant for the northern theater, it has additional forces available having just put its mountain strike corps through its paces in the eastern sector. It has the requisite air lift – thanks to the easier foreign military sales route with the United States - to bring the integrated battle groups meant for the China front to bear on the Pakistan front. One of its divisions is close at hand, at Pathankot. Alongside, to keep Pakistan from reinforcing PoK, it can credibly threaten a reprise of 1965 War - when it threatened Lahore by opening up the Punjab front in response to Pakistan’s armoured thrust towards Akhnoor. It has, through test bed exercises this year, also created two integrated battle groups in the border sector of southern Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), presumably poised to prise off Pakistan’s Sialkot bulge. Assuming it manages surprise, it can be taken at its word that it can bite off a chunk of PoK.
However, Bipin Rawat should know that the moot question is whether it can digest it. If Indian security forces find Kashmiri stone throwers a problem – prompting an unprecedented now three month long lock down - after thirty years of countering insurgency in Kashmir, it can be surmised that PoK will prove indigestible. India noted at the non-alignment forum recently that Pakistan is the ‘contemporary epicenter of terrorism’. Extrapolating from what terrorism backlash did to the forces of the respective coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, it can be inferred that PoK will be inhospitable, necessitating reeling back of Indian forces. This will buoy the terrorists; quite like the Hezbullah’s – if pyrrhic – victory claim on departure of the Israelis after their venturing into southern Lebanon in 2006.
Consequently, as in 1965, a war initially confined to PoK may require escalating horizontally southwards along the border. India came close to doing so on the two other occasions it fought on the western front – in 1947-48 and the Kargil War. A recent report on denial of access to the relevant papers regarding the first war with Pakistan which cover India’s deliberations over attacking mainland Pakistan in 1947-48 is evidence. At the twentieth anniversary of Kargil War, the then army chief, General Ved Malik, revealed that he had remonstrated with Prime Minister Vajpayee against openly saying India would limit the war to Kargil sector, lest if and when it became necessary to expand the war due to possible difficulties in Kargil, India might have foreclosed its option of escalation.
The army may indeed have limited objectives in PoK, restricted to some shallow objectives along the Line of Control (LC). These could be enemy posts that are so sited as to provide infiltration and observation advantages to Pakistan. The army’s intent may be take-over these in the next surgical strike. Since the other surgical strike forms – raids and aerial strike – have already been tried out, salami slicing on the LC could be tried next. The aerial strike turned out escalatory as Pakistan struck back and the Pakistani army is perhaps ready to beat back raids. Missiles – that were readied for firing off in their aftermath – do not provide the necessary asymmetry with Pakistan, since Pakistan is no push over in that field. That leaves land operations – more than a raid but less than an invasion.
The army’s repeated references to PoK could be to not only prepare the domestic space for a border skirmish, but also to spell out to Pakistan that the intent is not quite a border war. In case of Pakistani counter attacks succeeding and riposte attacks elsewhere, scope for escalation remains. Even so, it is not easy to see how the redrawn LC will be stabilized. If merely with a lockdown the Security Council met informally behind closed doors on the Kashmir question for the first time in fifty years, a border war that threatens at some step of the escalation ladder to go nuclear will entail a Security Council return to where the Council left off sometime in the late fifties in its mediation role on the Kashmir issue. An operational level gain end up a strategic level disaster.
By keeping up the din over the year on Pakistani villainy, the army chief – perhaps knowing better - may be indulging in information war of sorts. But in doing so he opens himself to credibility of the third accusation of the ISPR – of compromising Indian military professionalism, specifically its advisory function.
The fallout of the army chief’s bellicosity is in conditioning Indians into a war mania, potentially spiraling war pressures at the next crisis. Besides, if he does indeed believe his rhetoric, he would be misleading his political masters on the advisability of a PoK caper by Indian forces. The defence minister and the minister belonging to Jammu in the prime minister’s office have already bought into that line. The prime minister in his Diwali foray to Rajauri also appears persuaded.
The by-now well-known propensity of the national security honcho, Ajit Doval, and his boss, Narendra Modi, for unbridled haste in action (remember demonetization, surgical strikes, Balakot etc), indicates they may lend an ear. A repeat of Ranjit Singh Dyal’s late August 1965 taking over Haji Pir is of course possible, if the Doval-Modi duo is willing to risk (nuclear) war. Their running of the risk early this August through backing Amit Shah’s constitutional shenanigans over Kashmir does not lend confidence over war avoidance. Having chimed up on PoK so many times, India has laid for itself a commitment trap.
Finally, is the ISPR right on the army chief’s personal motives? The thought cannot be disregarded in light of the political utility to the government’s strong on defence image of the periodic grandstanding by its army chief. The ruling party has all through its tenure capitalized on military actions, best evidenced by the surgical strikes and the aerial strike figuring extensively in electoral campaigning. The danger is in an ambitious generals catering to its political need by lending the credibility of his uniform and office to its claims. The ISPR spots such a general in India’s army chief. It is best left to the general to himself introspect. Perhaps, for the benefit of all, including the general and of national security, it might be best for the general to be kicked upstairs into to the CDS chair, where as a general without an army he could serve his political masters best without compromising the army.
Even so, the ISPR must be called out for what it is up to. It is an equal participant in ‘grey zone’ warfare of today. The verbal jousts over PoK are information operations by both sides testifying that both have read the 2014 book, Peter Pomerantsev’s This is Not Propaganda. For its part, the ISPR is trying to provoke a loss of confidence in the army chief, the prospective CDS. For credibility, such (dis)information efforts partially approximate truth. While being clear eyed of the ISPR’s motives, it must be acknowledged that the ISPR has unfortunately got it somewhat right.