Limited war: unlimited folly (Praful Bidwai)
- The News (Pakistan)
May 23, 2002
Limited war: unlimited folly
When it comes to the enunciation and elaborate fabrication of
dubious, woolly or altogether spurious strategic doctrines, otherwise
impoverished South Asia must be the world's most productive region.
It is certainly hard to beat as regards the practical pursuit of such
doctrines through military strategies and ground-level operations --
at an enormous cost to the public.
Take a few examples: "strategic depth", "minimum nuclear deterrent",
"striking terror in the heart of the enemy" (as a method of winning
war), "search for parity", "stability through nuclear deterrence",
and now, "limited war" between two de facto nuclear powers.
This latest is the rationalisation which many of India's self-styled
strategic "experts" proffer in support of military attacks on
Pakistan to avenge the revolting butchery of 30 people, at Kaluchak
near Jammu, on May 14. The Vajpayee government claims to have
identified the terrorists involved in Kaluchak as Pakistani citizens.
But it has produced no significant evidence that they acted as
Put simply, the Kaluchak incident does not on present evidence
constitute a casus belli, or reason for war. Responsible states do
not start wars without establishing serious causal connections
between real threats and military action.
As with other kindred doctrines, the notions of "limited strikes",
"targeted attacks", or "limited war" mask a devious intent -- in this
instance to "teach Pakistan a lesson", like the US did to the
Taliban/Al-Qaeda, or the Israelis to the Palestinians.
Such conceptually bogus doctrines have always served the South Asian
public badly. "Strategic depth" -- an archaic notion of refuge in the
event of a hostile pursuit -- was used for eight long years to
support Pakistan's disastrous Afghanistan policy of recruiting,
arming and supporting the Taliban. The result was Afghanistan's
devastation, the growing Talibanisation of Pakistan, the
strengthening of Islamic-fundamentalist forces (and of
Hindu-extremist reaction to them), and the eventual entry of the US
into this region.
Logically, it is ludicrous to equate "limited strikes" and "limited
war", as many Indian strategists seem to do. The first only denotes
the action taken by a state; the second one of many possible
outcomes. These outcomes depend on the adversary's response and the
initiator's counter-reaction too.
You might launch a limited, small-scale, strike. That you use, say,
20 guns or six warplanes, instead of the hundreds you have, is no
guarantee that the conflict will remain limited, localised or small
Barring situations of great asymmetry, where one state is simply
overwhelmed and collapses, there are no reliable in-built mechanisms
which can limit military engagement once it is initiated. In the
India-Pakistan case, there are certainly none. Despite India's
conventional 2:1 or 3:1 superiority -- and nuclear superiority
doesn't matter given the mass-destruction potential of these weapons
-- the disparity between the two isn't so large as to inhibit a
retaliatory attack that escalates the conflict.
Thus, India is vulnerable on many points on the Line of Control in
Jammu and Kashmir because of the terrain. Pakistan would be tempted
to exploit that weakness by crossing the LoC at some of those. India
could then take counter-measures where Pakistan's vulnerability is
high. Full-scale war would follow.
Pakistan is not the equivalent of the Palestinian Authority in the
Middle East analogy. The PA has essentially municipal powers, with no
regular army or sovereign territory. Pakistan has an army half of
India's size, although it is a proportionately smaller country.
India's conventional superiority will of course matter in the long
term. In the short term, it won't get easily translated into
Pakistan and India have a rich history of strategic miscalculations.
In 1965, Ayub Khan thought that parachuting soldiers into the Kashmir
Valley would instantly ignite a popular revolution. He started a war
which he did not win.
Even routine military exercises by either state can spin out of
control, as happened in 1986-87 and 1990. Misperceptions about each
other's capabilities, strategies or intentions can enormously
complicate matters by fuelling suspicions and hostility.
Even our stated nuclear doctrines are not exempt from misperception.
Thus, India presents No-First-Use to signal strategic restraint and
sobriety. But many Pakistani strategists see it as a menacing,
confident assertion of India's capacity to absorb a Pakistani first
strike AND then visit devastation upon Pakistan with a second strike.
Contrariwise, Indian strategists see Pakistan's refusal of a
No-First-Use pledge as indicating a willingness to use nuclear
weapons to pre-empt defeat in a conventional conflict. To add to
this, there is fundamental confusion about the circumstances in which
either state might use nuclear weapons to deter "unacceptable"
damage, or how each state defines how much damage is "unacceptable".
There are few worthwhile confidence-building or crisis-defusion
measures in place between the two strategic rivals. The "hot line"
between their two Directors-General of Military Operations is often
not activated, as it is supposed to be at a fixed hour every week.
The failure is especially pronounced during crises.
There has never been a stable deterrent equation between India and
Pakistan at the nuclear or even conventional level. We know from the
history of the Cold War that there never was a viable, long-term
nuclear deterrent equation between East and West, or the US and the
USSR. That deterrence was always fraught with mishaps, accidents,
misperceptions, panic responses -- and above all, an arms race, which
altered the balance of power, and hence the original deterrent
The India-Pakistan situation is much, much worse. The two hostile
neighbours have fought three and a half wars, without resolving any
of the issues that fuel their mutual rivalry. As the last Column
argued, this is the only region of the world which has witnessed a
continuous hot-cold war between the same two adversaries for over
In India-Pakistan, a crisis with a potential for escalation can be
triggered off by any number of causes or factors: suspicious military
movements, territorial incursions (or fear of these), extra-regional
events (Pakistan joining a Western alliance in the 1950s), or purely
internal developments (eg the Sindh agitation of the 1980s, or the
Babri mosque demolition).
Today, a "limited strike" will probably precipitate a full-scale war,
with a significant possibility of escalation to the nuclear level.
Yet, there is some desperately wishful thinking in India that the US
would somehow prevent such escalation by restraining Pakistan.
This seriously underestimates Islamabad's bargaining power vis-a-vis
Washington. In today's circumstances, the US priority is to secure
Musharraf's participation, whether through coaxing or bullying, in
its war against Al-Qaeda in the tribal "agency" areas. It also
grossly overestimates Washington's capacity to enforce restraint and
cap hostilities -- at the eleventh hour.
"Limited war" was overblown by Defence Minister George Fernandes, one
of India's most reckless politicians, into a strategic principle or
doctrine. In February 2000, he declared that Kargil's main lesson is
that nuclear weapons can only deter nuclear weapons. Two nuclear
weapons-states can "safely" fight a limited conventional war.
Fernandes then promptly challenged Pakistan to such a war at a place
and time of its choosing -- and be defeated!
These ideas are insane and dangerous. Those who want peace must
oppose them. The way out lies in decent diplomacy and, yes, joint
patrolling of the LoC by India and Pakistan to prevent militant