Have you ever thought out scenarios in your mind – when you are the Prime Minister of India and you order a successful military strike on Pakistan in response to a major terror attack on Indian soil? Some of us have had the privilege of participating in war-games and dialogues and the one big take back of those has been – nothing ever happens as you planned.
For most of us Indians as sure as we were of having “penetrated the enemy’s psyche”, this came as a rude shock. Clausewitz’s paraphrase “war plans go out of the window the moment the first bullet is fired” is known to all of us, but war-games prepare you for this in a way nothing else can. Forcing you to think on your toes - frequently it is terrifying and frustrating at the same time.
These exercises are purely military in nature and all decision making is done by the participants like a military high command would. What are missing are the checks and balances in a country like India; like a risk-averse bureaucracy (which would ask whether we can control the events once we launch the counter-attack) or a business community (that would worry about the opportunity cost) or the regional political pulls (what if Jayalalitha says she won’t risk a mushroom cloud above Chennai over the killing of 185 Mumbaikars who kept quiet when Tamilians were being beaten by the Shiv Sena).
As a result almost invariably without these checks – the exercises hurtle into war. This has been a subject of frequent criticism by the participants but that misses the whole point which is to see what exactly will the militaries of both countries would do. The latest round of these held in Dubai last month were more of a post mortem of previous exercises focussing on war termination and crisis de-escalation – precisely because the main lesson of those previous exercises was that both parties took actions they had no idea of either predicting or managing the fallout. Sadly many of the stereotypes held, these also turned out to be surprisingly good sources of intelligence gathering.
Perhaps the most important lesson to emerge from these war games was that Pakistan does not go in for a nuclear first use, despite grave provocation. In fact when a Pakistani tactical nuclear device “went off” – suspected to be the sympathetic detonation of its nuclear warhead when the missile carrying it was blown up in an Indian airstrike, the Pakistanis (surprisingly for us) chose to ignore the fact that it had gone off. Now while this may be considered “good news” in some circles – such results only tend to encourage jingoism and bellicosity in India. Ultimately the question is will any Indian leader risk losing a million citizens to avenge the loss of a few hundred based on the results of a war-game?
The second lesson was equally disturbing – that the Pakistanis are as schizophrenic and clueless as we have always suspected them to be. Almost immediately after a terror strike they go into a huddle denying responsibility for any attacks, but also insisting that they “will not act under Indian pressure” (i.e. terrorists may roam around freely). But what is so touchingly naïve about them is they actually believe in a “solution” to the India Pakistan problem. In many ways Pakistani “moderates” that refuse to accept the intractability of the situation tend to give succour to those who use terrorism against India – if for nothing else than to get India to the table or to accept these childish “solutions”.
The Indian side though does not come out looking much better. Almost invariably we have gone in for actions such as blockades, air strikes and ground actions that have drawn surprising ferocious and unexpected reactions from the Pakistanis. Revealingly there was also a generation gap in the role of third parties. While the younger participants are quite at ease getting external powers to help out in their game plan, the older generation of Indians seemed to have little trust in them. Surprisingly it was some of the new dimensions – the non-lethal reactions that India might opt for including economic warfare such as the denial of first to ninth flight rights to Pakistan, and primary secondary and tertiary trade boycotts which though debilitating to the Pakistani economy have not elicited a Pakistani response (yet). This combined with a strategic restraint regime – seem to be the best options for India – until in the next iteration the Pakistanis come up with an effective response to these as well.
In short – these games are a humbling exercise – they brutally reveal any flaws in planning and they bring about the realisation that despite our belief that we know how the enemy will react – we never really know how the enemy will actually react. Obviously this does not necessarily make peace activists of all of us – seeking juvenile “solutions” – but it does force us to think of a broader set of alternatives and forces us to examine our preconceived and frequently erroneous assumptions.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra works as programme coordinator at the National Security Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation. His work focusses on military and nuclear dynamics in South Asia as well as the impact and of technology on militaries, bureaucracies, doctrines, production and supply chains. He has been visiting fellow at Sandia National Laboratories and the Stimson Centre and holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Monash University, Melbourne.
Abhijit tweets as @abhijit_iyer