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November 4, 2009

Kind words and guns

India’s diplomatic options in Pakistan seem to have run their course. A coercive Indian diplomatic assault on Pakistan has ended up in a slanging match between the governments of the two countries. Government functionaries, strategic analysts and the intelligentsia in Delhi are downcast with the seeming helplessness of the Indian state to punish the terrorists and their Pakistani sponsors.

It is not that the Indian state lacks options against Pakistan. The spectrum of options involves a diplomatic one, which could then logically be ratcheted to covert operations inside Pakistani territory. If these two options cannot be exercised due to a lack of capability or if they fail to deliver the desired results, the next stage would include limited military strikes inside Pakistan, which can result in a full blown military conflict between the two nuclear powers.

A nuclear strike on Indian soil by Pakistan—and consequent annihilation of Pakistan by multiple Indian retaliatory strikes—remains a distant possibility that has to be factored into Indian calculations. This being so, it has been generally assumed without further questioning that Pakistan’s decision to brazen it out is solely because of its nuclear arsenal. The possibility that Pakistan’s military establishment believes that India does not have credible conventional military capability is not given adequate credence.

But for any diplomatic offensive to succeed it must be backed by the threat of a strong conventional military action. Indian diplomacy, however, has been more focused on Western powers levering their influence over the Pakistani state to bring justice to India. This has failed for two very obvious reasons. First, Western powers have their own interests in the region which dictate their policy towards Pakistan. And second, the influence of the United States over Pakistan was overestimated by the mandarins in New Delhi. Pakistan was thus able to wrangle itself out of a tight corner, to the extent that the itinerant British Foreign Secretary saw it fit to hitch Britain’s wagons to the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s line, connecting Kashmir to jihadi terror attacks in India. Overall, the gains of the last decade in de-hyphenating India and Pakistan in the international discourse might have been been squandered away after the Mumbai terror attacks.

A dispassionate analysis shows that more than the Pakistani nuclear blackmail or half-hearted support from the Western powers, it is India’s declining credibility as a military power that led to the failure of the diplomatic offensive. After 9/11, when the United States was able to threaten General Pervez Musharraf with ‘bombing Pakistan back to the Stone Age’, the Pakistani state did a U-turn on its policy on the Taliban. Even the Indian military mobilisation of 2002 elicited certain significant concessions from the Pakistani state which eventually led to a decline in terrorist activity in Kashmir.

Some media reports suggest that the Indian armed forces were unwilling to guarantee the Indian political leadership a successful military campaign against Pakistan after the Mumbai terror attacks. Since independence, with a few exceptions like the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh, the Indian state has generally failed to formulate the political objectives of a major military campaign (which are then translated into strategic objectives for the armed forces). The clamour for more modern equipment for the armed forces is facile unless underpinned on well-articulated political and strategic objectives.

The doctrine of Cold Start, developed by the Indian Army after the mobilisation of 2002, has neither been accepted by the other two services nor promulgated by the defence ministry. Jointmanship between the three services still remains a dream while the institution of a Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and integrated theatre commands is not even on the horizon. Small wonder then, that India, despite being one of the highest defence spenders and with numerous big-ticket acquisitions, continues to lacks credible military options today.

As the recent naval deployment in the Indian Ocean against pirates has demonstrated, the changing geopolitical situation predicates a need for the Indian armed forces to have the capability to insert, station and support troops overseas. Rather than being limited to token and ineffective deployments under the United Nations, the Indian armed forces will need to operate jointly under the Indian flag, by themselves or as part of a multinational force in ‘away’ theatres like Afghanistan. The Indian armed forces will also need a doctrinal change and increased jointmanship to land expeditionary forces in Indian Ocean littoral states to secure India’s strategic interests.

The successful assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir have been accompanied by lowest ever level of violence since the start of the insurgency in 1990. This is perhaps an opportune moment for the Indian army to redefine its balance between counterinsurgency and conventional operations. The public mood for a credible military action to punish Pakistan also provides the Indian armed forces with a great opportunity. The three services and the defence ministry should look at restructuring themselves and undertake a root-and-branch reform of the complete set-up that will remove all doubts on their credibility as a viable option against Pakistan. While the focus on inducting modern weapon platforms and systems is welcome, it will achieve little without concomitant changes in the organisations, structures, processes, systems, policies and culture of the defence set-up.

Diplomacy can succeed only when it is backed by a credible military option. Paradoxically while a strong military capability will lead to successful diplomacy, the military machinery will itself not be called into action when diplomacy starts yielding results. There is a range of coercive military options on the spectrum—from mere mobilisation to a fullscale conflict—available to the Indian state that can back up a diplomatic initiative. By rejecting outright this range of options due to fears of a surgical military strike blowing up into a full-blown war or due to threats of a nuclear strike, India is playing into the hands of Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. After the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on November 26th last year, the Indian government moved forward with some urgent action to reform internal security. What has so far escaped public attention is that the attacks call for urgent reforms to India’s military doctrines and capacity as well.


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