The Day After, a 1983 film, was set in the scenario of a nuclear showdown between the US and the erstwhile USSR. Instead of painting the story on a global canvas, director Edward Hume portrayed the horrifying aftermath of nuclear fallout on a small town in Kansas. Hume showed how the dead were luckier than survivors, who die painfully of radiation and starvation, murdering each other for scraps of food. A striking feature of the film is the surreal background chatter of radios and TV panel debates which underscore the build-up to war. The conversations are strident and jingoistic, labelling those advocating a strategic pause as cowardly and anti-national traitors.
The current media chatter in India is reminiscent of the film.
Though hawks promise otherwise, wars have never ever resolved any conflict. Both the First and the Second World Wars were touted as the “war to end all wars”. As were countless other wars through history. They weren’t.
Neither is there any such thing as a ‘short and decisive’ war. Even the most powerful country in the world is continuing its “mission accomplished” war – three presidential tenures later. So the narrative of a decisive strike against Pakistan while engaging in a two-and-half-front war (holding action against China and internal insurgencies) foisted by TV and Twitter warriors is misplaced patriotism rather than military pragmatism. Numerous official reports lay bare the war-withal of the Indian Armed Forces and deficiencies that need to be made up in virtually all its weapons platforms even if we have to go into a one-front war – let alone two and half.
Moreover, going to war is a very expensive way to find out that it doesn’t work. Two relatively small operations (compared to a two-and-half-front nuclear threshold war) namely Indian Peace Keeping Force and Kargil, should serve as a primer that even a ‘short’ war will set back all stakeholders by several decades of progress even without factoring in the human cost. Negotiation is the only meaningful way forward in any conflict – even if it is carried out under the spectre of jingoism.
But as seasoned negotiators point out, there are four major obstacles to negotiations that must be overcome to make meaningful strategic progress.
The first is the ‘tribe’ mentality, or as Bob Dylan pointed out in his 1960s song, all parties believe that ‘God is on their side’ and they are fighting a righteous war. Actions of the adversary are prefaced with pejorative adjectives whereas own exploits are laudatory. So the enemies’ attacks are ‘dastardly’ and own are ‘heroic’. The enemy indulges in ‘unprovoked’ instigation while home team display ‘restraint’ and a ‘measured response’. Those wielding power create these ‘tribal’ narratives to rally resolve against the enemy. The righteousness of the act depends on whose actor it is.
Second is the element of ‘taboo’ subjects. These are topics that if spoken about, will get the advocate ostracised from the ‘tribe’ and punished. So, for instance, after the Second World War, Americans could chronicle stories of Nazi cruelty but rarely speak about detonating two nuclear warheads on non-military targets. Those who composed paeans of US soldiers’ in Vietnam were adulated but those who pointed out atrocities of napalming entire villages were skewered. This also leads to certain topics becoming sacred, which are pigeonholed by both sides as non-negotiable. For instance, “Kashmir is an integral part of our country” is a statement considered inviolable by leaders of both countries.
The third hurdle is getting past the ‘repetition compulsion’ which is an incredulous penchant of repeating the same tit-for-tat incessantly and hoping that this time around different results will be achieved. So small arms firefights escalate to artillery shelling, which then spirals to cross-border raids until both sides are at a precipice with mobilisation of their nuclear armies. Exactly like it happened 2001.
Thankfully, on most occasions, better sense prevails and the situation is defused temporarily. But since the underlying issues still fester, the cycle is repeated continually as indeed it has – for the last seven decades.
Unfortunately, since these impediments are nuanced, it’s much simpler to shoot the messenger and brand them as anti-national traitors than to learn from history. And history tells us that war with Pakistan has not worked. Both nations have slugged it out four times in the past and also had two near misses – in 1986-87 (Operation Brasstacks) and post the parliament attacks. Hawks could argue that peace talks haven’t worked either – but talks don’t cost lives. War does. Even preparation for war does. Hawks don’t like to advertise the fact that the mobilisation for 2001 caused more casualties than the Kargil war on both sides.
But the fourth reason is the most insidious of all. It is mistaking tactical action for strategic thinking.
A strategic question we should be asking is, what emboldens a country which is a fraction of our size in every metric to “provoke” us repeatedly? Where is that confidence coming from? Is this Pakistan playing proxy war using terrorists or China playing proxy war using Pakistan? After all – that’s the playbook they have perfected with North Korea. Analysts seeking to join the dots, ought to begin with the quintessential question. Cui bono, or who benefits if India and Pakistan go to war?
China’s aspires to be the next sole global superpower. As a matter of fact, hegemony is essential for her burgeoning growth. From the Chinese perspective, India needs to be subdued for the former’s global expansion. Over the last two decades, China has systematically rebuilt her armed forces, acquired blue ocean dominance, created a string of bases around the Indian subcontinent, weaned away India’s traditional regional allies and dominated our buffer states. She has also built axis of maintenance with Pakistan and achieved interoperability of military equipment with the latter.
During this same time, we haven’t procured even the artillery pieces recommended after the Kargil war or fighter aircrafts needed to sustain our fast depleting air capability. Let alone interoperability with other countries, the three arms of our armed forces still operate largely independently and our war equipment requires supply chains from multiple countries.
We can’t ostrich away China’s sizeable posture in Doklam, which effectively pins down our Eastern Army as well chunks of our Northern formations. Our plans of raising additional formations in the Eastern theatre are basically cannibalised from our war wastage reserves. In addition, the environment is ripe for fomenting internal disturbances within India, glimpses of which were witnessed during past few months. With contentious elections looming, India’s leadership focus is divided.
We are perhaps missing the forest for the trees.
Ironically, Sun Zu, the great Chinese strategist, explained this 2,500 years ago. He observed that if we don’t know ourselves or our enemy, we will lose every battle. If we know ourselves but not our enemy, every victory will come at a great cost. But if we know ourselves and our enemy, then we need not fear the results of a thousand battles. Before we go headlong into a bias for action, it might be prudent to evaluate who our enemy really is.