How India is running out of strategic options with Pakistan

A war focussing only on retributions is aimless.

WrittenBy:Lt Gen H S Panag
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[The First Of Two Parts] 

Since 1945, nuclear weapons have been used only as a deterrent and, in terms of military theory, are “unusable” in war. Wars are fought to achieve a political aim which, empirically, has been to impose “peace on own terms”. To achieve this, military defeat of the adversary is necessary, and which, at a perceived threshold, brings the nuclear deterrent into play. Thus the probability of nations armed with nuclear weapons to engage in a decisive full scale war is very low. To achieve their political aims they are likely to exploit a combination of the plethora of options available lower down in the spectrum of conflict.

In military jargon, this combination is known as Hybrid War. It is fought as a continuum without timelines, and fought simultaneously over the entire multi-dimensional spectrum of conflict, using all means. It is a complex hybrid of conventional, asymmetric, information, political, diplomatic and economic warfare. What it means is that, on one hand, legitimate diplomatic and economic means or coercion can be pursued. On the other, fourth generation warfare (4GW) Line of Control (LOC) Warfare, operations below the threshold of war, limited war, cyber war, information war, criminal/narco war amongst others can be simultaneously pursued. Of course, short-and long-term political and military goals can be defined and means employed accordingly. But, more than anything else, it requires a strategy and the capacity to execute it.

Pakistan, due to its primordial religious emotions, the deprivation of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in 1947 and its dismemberment in 1971, considers India an adversary state. It strives for leadership of the Islamic Ummah based on its military power. Its political aim vis-à-vis India is to seize J&K or at least the Muslim dominated areas, and seek parity with it in the comity of nations. It has an unambiguous India-centric National Security Strategy for a Hybrid War backed by a political, public and military consensus. Its essential features are:

  • Wage a deniable 4GW in J&K and the hinterland of India exploiting India’s fault lines.
  • Deter or dissuade the Indian conventional threat with conventional and nuclear capability. Avoid a conventional war. And, if it is forced upon it, stalemate India with conventional capability, “irrational nuclear brinkmanship” and the actual use of tactical nuclear weapons if required.
  • Quid pro quo response to Indian threat below the threshold of war in the form of surgical air/drone/missile strikes, fire assaults and operations by Special Forces (SF).
  • Control the perceived India-sponsored fourth generation warfare in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the hinterland, and expose it diplomatically.
  • Neutralise India’s influence in Afghanistan by facilitating Taliban’s return to power.
  • Back the above strategy with diplomacy and a special relationship with China and Islamic countries. Cultivate Turkey, Iran and Russia to garner support for its strategy in Afghanistan. Manage the new American strategy for the region by playing the China card, developing ICBMs if necessary and brokering a face saving deal for its exit from Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been eminently successful in implementing its strategy. It understands that there are no timelines in Hybrid Warfare and that there are bound to be ups and downs. It persevered with its strategy while simultaneously wearing down USA and its allies in Afghanistan with effect from 2001, and continues to do so even today despite its own internal problems. 

It has managed to keep Kashmir on the boil, if not with terrorist violence then with the stone-pelting mass. It weathered the declared SF raids on September 29, 2016, by simply ignoring them and responding by stepping up violence in J&K. It has matched Indian aggression on the LOC in a quid pro quo manner. Through aid/import from China and raising new formations it has largely neutralised India’s qualitative and quantitative conventional edge. Above all, it has called the bluff of “hard strategy” and virtually reduced India to a wailing and strategically impotent nation.

Why and how have we come to this sorry pass? India had established a clear qualitative and quantitative conventional edge over Pakistan by the mid 1980s. This held us in good stead for a decade and a half. Even after the nuclear tests, while the nuclear weapons and the delivery systems were still being refined by both countries, our conventional edge would have ensured that, in event of a war, we could destroy Pakistan’s combat potential and make sizeable territorial gains, to force “peace on own terms”. Three opportunities presented themselves, one in 1987 – Exercise Brasstacks, second in 1999 – the Kargil War, and the third in 2001/2, Operation Parakram. 

The first presented itself by design (of General Sundarji) or default (due to Pakistan’s response) when India massed its mechanised forces in the desert supposedly for a training exercise. Pakistan perceived it as a Clausewitzian subterfuge and mobilised. India had a distinct qualitative and quantitative edge. Despite the cold test, Pakistan did not have a deliverable nuclear bomb. The plan was to destroy Pakistan’s mechanised forces in the desert and seize a large swath of territory for bargaining while simultaneously making maximum permanent territorial gains in J&K with the focus on Skardu. In my assessment, all military objectives were achievable and “peace on own terms” could have been enforced. The government of the day decided against war and the opportunity of a decisive victory was lost. 

The second opportunity came in Kargil. Nuclear strategies were still in the nascent stage. Delivery means were suspect and we still enjoyed the conventional edge. Using the principle of hot pursuit we could have made sizeable permanent territorial gains in J&K while opting for a strategic defence in the plains before the crude nuclear weapons came into play. Keeping in view the international environment and the strategic situation the government decided to limit the war in space to its own side of the LOC. 

The last opportunity came in December 2001 after the terrorist attack on Parliament. We still had a distinct conventional edge, tactical nuclear weapons had not been developed, nuclear threshold was still ambiguous and Pakistan was in disarray because of the post-9/11 strategic situation. We could not go to war due to a combination of international pressure, political dithering, slow mobilisation and an unsure military. ‘Coercive Diplomacy’ was a mere fig leaf to cover a strategic fiasco. We probably lost the the last opportunity for a decisive conventional war to achieve our political aims.

Realising its conventional weakness, Pakistan focused on reducing the qualitative and quantitative conventional edge and developing tactical nuclear weapons. The probability of a full-scale conventional war was diminishing by the day. Post Operation Parakram both the NDA and the two UPA governments adopted the functional strategy of “strategic restraint”. Comprehensive dialogue was started with Pakistan. A ceasefire on the LOC was declared in 2003. This strategy was adopted due to the nuclear backdrop with tactical nuclear weapons, diminishing conventional edge, American pressure and, probably, due to a genuine desire for peace on part of Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. This strategy, while appearing to be a sign of weakness, was adopted more due to strategic compulsions. Interestingly, it helped us to bring the proxy war in J&K to sub-critical level in a decade. We were able to construct the LOC fence and focus on counter infiltration. This and Pakistan’s commitments on the Western border and a concerted counter terrorist campaign in the hinterland brought violence down to the lowest level ever. Sadly we did did not focus adequately on winning over the people of J&K and the situation remained volatile with the focus shifting to intifada rather than terrorist violence. 

In May 2014, Pakistan was forced to carry out a strategic review. Insurgency in Kashmir had flagged almost to a point of near normalcy which went against Pakistan’s core national interest. On the positive side, America had been worn down in Afghanistan, tactical nuclear weapons had been refined, India’s conventional military edge had been neutralised both quantitatively and qualitatively. A new government, ideologically committed to a hard line on Pakistan and internally in J&K, had come to power. Pakistan perceived that this government will post-haste carry out military reforms and modernise the armed forces to reestablish the technological military edge and generate more strategic and tactical options. Pakistan also feared that a strong leader could revive the peace process with the civilian government. 

Pakistan decided to revive the insurgency both in terms of terrorist violence and intifada protests to force the ideology-driven Indian government to adopt a “hard strategy” in J&K and consequentially wipe out the gains of the previous decade. Pakistan’s military also decided to scuttle any peace initiative of the Indian government besides exposing India’s strategic limitations both for own public morale and to cause strategic frustration if not humiliation for New Delhi. 

It was keeping its fingers crossed on the issue of reform and modernisation of the Indian armed forces, something that could jeopardise its strategy.

Wars are fought to achieve political aims. A war focussing only on retributions is aimless. We have to enforce “compellence” on Pakistan to achieve our political aims, and, that too, keeping in view the constraints imposed by nuclear weapons. Consequently, given its ideology it was expected that the government would initiate the long overdue reforms in respect of higher defence management, structure of the armed forces and their modernisation. National Security Strategy and Force Development Strategy were expected to be formalised and armed forces restructured and modernised. Rather than do this, the government simply transplanted its ideology and rhetoric, bereft of strategic thought, on the existing decaying system and marched forward to discipline Pakistan.

[In Part II, the author will cover the government’s “hard strategy” and its execution] 


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