Last month, India almost went to war with Pakistan. Since both countries are nuclear powers, it was a momentous decision by PM Modi. It will surely benefit India if we debate this objectively. However, that benefit will come only if we do so with a ‘back to basics’ approach rather than in light of theories that have already gained currency. Complexity theory, read with strategy, tells us that in domains like business and war, stultified theories lead us astray. These theories come from unexplained assumptions and that blinds us to what is clearly visible to the senses. Towards the end of this article, we shall also talk some about this aspect too.
There is no doubt that Pakistan is doing a lot to create problems in India, particularly in Kashmir. India must do all it can to prevent that. Simply put, that is deterrence. It must ‘deter’ Pakistan from succeeding in future. The cost of deterrence, however, should not exceed the benefits it provides. No one cuts off his nose to spite his face. And to cut off the nose and also not being able to spite the face is really bad strategy. Lose-Lose is unpardonable. Remember this.
Let us start with the current events. Whether the bombs at Balakot did indeed kill 300 terrorists is not a point I am going to prove. The government itself has not claimed it. BJP minister Mr Ahluwalia has said that we did not intend to kill anyone since this was just a message. The Air Force representative on the joint press meet of 27 Feb carefully avoided any reference to a terrorist camp, much less destruction of it. All he was prepared to admit was that ‘The strike achieved its intended results’ which was also echoed later by the IAF Chief. The foreign secretary did say that India hit a large terrorist camp but refused to provide proof. The message of Indian government and media has consistently been that ‘Doubting the word of a fauzi is pure sacrilege. No true Indian will ever do that.’ That’s pure bulls**t. If it were so, why weren’t the officials in the joint press-meet content with merely saying that PAF had used AMRAM missiles during the dogfight on 26th? There seemed no need to provide proof because ‘doubting the world of a fauzi is pure sacrilege.’ What we did see in the press-meet, though, was senior service officers eagerly trying to push pieces of the debris of the missile in front of our eyes, as proof. Why did they provide proof, this time? Could it be simply because they had it? And as for their insistence that words of a fauzi must never be doubted, I must tell these very officers that the next time they make their claim of Daily Allowance after some journey, they must not forget to attach proof in terms of mess or hotel bills. Merely saying ’Trust me – I am an Indian fauzi, so I don’t need to provide proof’ would only result in the claim being rejected by this very government. No proof, no claim. Is quite simple, as it is correct.
Do the present events validate present strategic beliefs or reject them? Till now it was belief that India’s superiority has seriously degraded Paksitan’s conventional war-fighting capability, which forces them to go nuclear. Since going nuclear is too much of a racheting, that will not happen and Pakistan will be forced to not respond to minor transgressions. However, the daylight attack by Pakistan Air Force on our regular army establishments just a day after Balakot tells us that the limits of conventional non-nuclear warfare between Pakistan and India are not that low as India has always thought them to be. No one is forced to go nuclear in a hurry. So, there will always be a response by conventional means.
Deterrence; it’s constituents and its assessment
The real question is – deterrence or revenge? Deterrence is future oriented i.e. we won’t let it happen again. Revenge is past oriented i.e. we’ll avenge the death of our killed. Revenge may be justified for the kin of the dead, but a nation can’t arm its citizens to take revenge. That would be a case of hiring and creating assassins. Armed forces are to be using merely to safeguard the country. Yes, if the revenge killings also result in safeguarding the country against another such incident, they are acceptable. So we are back to ‘Whatever deters is ok. What doesn’t, is not’. Also, ‘messaging’ and ‘dossiering’ do not deter, only real damage does. If the aim of Balakot was to cause real damage, what stopped us from going to full war after they attacked our ground forces on 27 Feb? What deterrence is this in which a country can attack India’s regular soldiers with its regular Air Force, and get away with it?
Has India been able to deter Pakistan in last three decades? I am surprised that this is even a topic of discussion. The proof lies not in the number of dossiers created, the messages conveyed or the changed language of statements issued by USA and UK. It lies in data of number of attacks, intensity and audacity of attacks, number of educated and rich Indians picking up the gun, number of Indian civilian killed in cross LC shelling etc. In light of an objective assessment of these data points, if your answer is ‘Yes, all these have considerably reduced’ I rest my case. I am not going to prove it wrong, since in any case, it is one’s opinion. If your’s is that Indian deterrence has worked well, then all is well. I just refuse to enter that unwinnable fight.
Did India even seriously try to ‘deter’ Pakistan by using its military might, ever? Well, it chose not do so after much more provocative acts i.e. attack on its parliament, horrific attack on civilians in Mumbai, attack on its Corps Hq, on one on its military air bases (Pathankot) and then its unit base (Uri). In the current event of Balakot, Pakistan Air Force attacked our land forces in Kashmir, using its regular Air Force, making use of American aircrafts banned for use against India. If internationally acceptable rational was all that was required, there has been no shortage. However, India has clearly refrained from going to war in order to ‘deter’ in all these six events. But do note that our actions after these six major provocation have not been the same each time. In the first four, we simply took no overt action. In the last two, we took some, claimed it, provided no proof, then pulled back. The last one brought the country at the door step of a war, despite our clear desire not to enter into one.
So, which of these two sets of responses were better for the country? In the first four, there was no deterrent action but also no further losses to us. In the last two, there again was no deterrent action. However, there was great probability of serious losses. Indian forces entered Pakistan, exposing themselves to grave risk. If this was done despite knowing that is in not proper deterrent action, it was irresponsible to do so. The last two have been lose-lose situations.
Why did even the muscular Sri Modi not use the armed forces to deter? Was it because he never intended to? Despite the pre-election boast of ‘Modi will surely cut Pakistan to size, if in power’, the reality is that he did nothing to prepare to strike. Three full years after he attained a massive mandate from India to go do what said he will, Indian army had to, in 2017, officially tell the parliamentary committee that it had only 10 days of ammunition in some critical categories of weapons. Also, that its weapon profile was ‘obsolete’ and it had no money to even fence its military camps or to pay its personnel. In the same year, the Air Force Chief told the nation that lack of 10 critical squadrons was so unfair to it that going to war with such a force was akin to playing a cricket match with 7 players instead of 11. Such a force structure, 3 years after taking over the nation, can surely not be seen as evidence of preparing to cut Pakistan to size, if the opportunity so arises, or by creating one at will.
It seems that Mr Modi did not take proper deterrence action because his armed forces did not have that capability. They did not, because despite the public boast, he never prepared them for it. He didn’t, because he never intended to.
Is Deterrence even possible?
Why has no government truly try military deterrence? Is it that they have been realists who knew that it was simply not possible? Military deterrence is possible only when there is marked superiority in combat power. I put it to you that India lost the decisive edge about 30 years back and it is no longer possible to regain it. I am sticking my neck out to say so, so obviously I’ve considered it at length. The geopolitical situation is such that USA will back India but only up to a point while China will always oppose India. Soon, Chinese civilian workers will be dotted all along Pakistan working on the CPEC (China, Pakistan Economic Corridor), creating a North South line of Chinese civilians some distance inside Pakistan. India can never risk causing casualties to them. There is just no military option of armoured sweeps inside Pakistan, even if India armoured forces were capable of it.
So, we simply do not aim to ‘deter’. But maybe there is nothing wrong in it.
Maybe, it is a better policy to accept losses of a hundred odd soldiers a year and put money in your economy rather than blow up your accumulated developmental advantage of 30 years in 10 days. This may sound cruel but it seems that even if we try to go to war, we will not win decisively. So, why lose both ways? Strategy deals with outcomes, not ethics or emotions. As for public outcry, the public behaves as they are goaded to behave. In Pulwama, 40 plus troopers were killed. Some years back, 78 were killed in Dantewada, Chattisgarh. Indian public did not go berserk at that time, clamoring to annihilate the Naxals.
To build economy, which will some day build up the forces, one has to ‘pull in’ consciously. If required, accept taunts and provocations. All for the long run.
When China undertook its development in 80 s, it did just this. It simply drew a bamboo curtain around it and did nothing but development – of economy as well as military. When both were ready, they removed the curtain and said, ‘Come, let’s see who want to fight’. In the book ’Super Powers – The amazing race between China’s hare and India’s tortoise’ (Penguin Group), Raghav Bahl provides interesting details. He says that the first thing the dragon did was to make peace with the eagle. China was happy with an anonymous foreign policy through the 1980s and 90s. Its singular focus was to attract foreign capital and grow its export manufacturing economy. It needed America’s unalloyed blessings for capital, technology and markets. It wasn’t bashful for its pro-US stance at the United Nations and other forums. At one stage, there was much debate on whether China should use term ‘peaceful rise’ to describe its ascent on the global stage. ‘Rise’ was seen as an aggressive phrase, implying push and thrust. It was finally replaced with word ‘renaissance’. If we are now playing the same careful game, I say it is a good strategy. If being pragmatic is the way to become so powerful that eventually you become capable to do just about anything, what is wrong if India does just that?
Of course, the difference lies in the different political systems of India and China. The Indian PM needs votes every 5 years while the Chinese does not. That’s a real difference. But, let us not forget that Atal Vihari Bajpayee chose to lose the next elections (2004) but did not resort to going ‘muscularly hyper national’ after attack on India’s parliament. India surely owes a big debt to that NDA leader.
If no deterrence, what else?
If we have no military option, are we really in a helpless situation? Of course not. The biggest myth of the last 30 years is that is Pakistan that is troubling India to an unbearable degree. Wrong. Pakistan minus its support in Kashmir, is actually quite irrelevant to India. The nuisance value of Pakistan emanates from the Kashmir card alone. Allowing the Kashmiri advantage to Pakistan is completely in India’s hand. Imagine – a people which form the most peaceful form of Islam and those which refused to accede to Pakistan in 1947, despite being 98 percent muslims, are today waiving Pakistani flags! This is completely India’s fault. Weaning Kashmir off from Pakistan needs no military measure. All that is required is a softening of hearts and a pragmatic approach. Even if India doesn’t like Kashmiris, it must show that it does. Once you show that, they are yours. With that done, Pakistan is no longer a threat. It is a simple solution. Unfortunately, it so simple that theoreticians and experts will surely sneer at it.
A word about theories and assumptions
In book ‘Coming to our senses’ (Oxford university press), Viki McCabe poses the question – Can we know the world directly or are we predisposed to creating theories in order to make sense of things?
Why don’t we see directly? We don’t because our need is not so much to make sense of the world as it is to prove ourselves right. We rely on words to label and mentally separate things that cannot be separated. This strategy leaves the world, and what is actually happening on the ground, out of the equation. When we add theories in the mix, we retreat further from the reality into a parallel world of our inferences and assumptions. We override our direct perceptions with our theoretical conceptions. When we fail to check back with the world, we further ensnare ourselves in unworkable webs of self-deception.
In the book, Viki McCabe goes on to say that a dangerous theory hatched in someone’s mind can escape, and, like an alien virus, lay siege to other minds. However, with progress of knowledge, things get better. Not many today would buy into the theory that ‘Iraq had weapons of mass destruction’ or that banks are ‘too big to fail’ (they failed because they were too big). Once we also believed that the world was flat and that the sun goes round the earth. But we don’t do so any longer.
Let us jettison the theories of deterrence, New Norms, Pak-a-failed-nation, US interests in the region, limits of sub conventional warfighting etc and fall back on basics. The realities must be seen as they are, not as they fit the existing theories. Let our senses guide us to ultimate success. The simple solution is to simply unhinge Pakistan by befriending the Kashmiris and put all our energies towards further building of our economy and military. If and when that is achieved (in about 15 years, I assess), we can even change that strategy. Till then, no better option exists.