Friday, 6 October 2017

Can Pakistan Turn the US Twist of Its Tail Into an Opportunity?

While US President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan speech in August laying out his Afghanistan policy was rather vague on details, his defence secretary, ‘Mad dog’ Mattis has busied himself lately with fleshing it out.

The major part of it is in threats described by James Mattis to the House Armed Services Committee as ‘enormously powerful number of options’ to Pakistan. Helpfully, he pointed to a couple of these being ‘diplomatic isolation’ and loss of major non-NATO ally status. As incentive, he offered a opening up of the regional economic links, to include those with India.

But his report that Trump is ‘prepared to take whatever steps necessary’ calls for being wary, especially since he ominously indicates the Americans were holding out to give Pakistan ‘one more time’.

President Trump’s Afghanistan policy speech, delivered at a military base near the Arlington National Cemetery, had it that ‘attack we will’ in a ‘fight to win’ over the ‘losers’. If the American foot-work over North Korea has any pointers, Trump’s speech can be taken as much noise, while his ministers go about setting up a diplomatic bypass.

(In the North Korea case, while Trump in his General Assembly address threatened to ‘totally destroy’ the country, his foreign secretary let on that the Americans were talking directly with representatives of Trump’s ‘rocket man’.) Apparently, both Mattis and Tillerson are to visit Pakistan in quick succession soon, perhaps conveying the possibilities ahead, with Tillerson holding out the carrot and Mattis the stick.

The last time the Americans went the whole hog with the stick was at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, threatening to bomb Pakistan back into the stone-age. Wisely Musharraf, demonstrated a bit of military decision making panache in his smart about-turn, promptly pulling the carpet from under the Taliban. Even as the Taliban regime collapsed, Musharraf was quick to play the double game, offering the Taliban sanctuary as they escaped – along with Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora - into Pakistan.

This time round, the Pakistanis have been blowing hot and cold. Its national assembly called Trump’s speech ‘hostile and threatening’. It was a useful reminder to the US that its supply lines are through Pakistan. But even as Mattis spoke, the Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Asif was in Washington DC, staving off any hard options in the Pentagon’s cupboard.

It is easy to reckon that – Trump notwithstanding - the US does not have very many hard options.

While Trump was clear that he would not repeat Obama’s ‘mistake’ in Iraq by leaving Afghanistan, boots on ground in Pakistan are not an option for the US. Its numbers in Afghanistan are set to increase by only about 4000. Its NATO allies are unlikely to cough up any more than they already have, including the American ‘poodle’, the UK, currently seized with Brexit. With these numbers, the US cannot take the war across the Durand Line. They already have the capability for another Operation Neptune Spear, a target-specific raid across the border. The Warrior Monk - Mattis’ other moniker - was then the commander of the US Central Command, overseeing its Afghan war. He therefore should know that this cannot help them much with clearing up the sanctuary Americans believe terrorists enjoy in Pakistan.

While expansion of the program of targeting the Taliban and the Haqqani network with drone attacks has been bandied as an option, the Pakistani Prime Minister at an event at the Council of Foreign Relations during his recent trip to New York for the UN General Assembly session, implied that the use of drones was disrespectful of Pakistani sovereignty. It increases extremist tendencies in Pakistan, adding to numbers of those radicalized. Collateral damage from drones being one of the main grievances impelling people from the frontier areas to head off for the conflict, an increase in drone strikes could only contribute to increasing Taliban popularity and gains in Afghanistan.

There are also other – worse – players, such as ISIS affiliates. It is not unlikely that the ISIS, with nowhere to go from its drubbing - now being wrapped up - in Iraq and Syria, could head for Afghanistan as the next site to ambush the US. The US, in degrading the Taliban, would be whittling a force that can best take on the ISIS. ISIS presence in Afghanistan is not at the expense of the Taliban. Just as the Iraqi military, the Afghan security forces – though also trained in Indian military institutions - are unlikely to do any better against the ISIS, especially if reinforced by fighters from conflicts in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, the ISIS bogey needs exposing. Though Pakistan can be credibly accused of many slippages in the war against terror, it would hardly be coy in case the ISIS comes visiting. The potential threat is being used as alibi to extend the American stay in the region, for strategic reasons other than to do with Afghanistan or, indeed, terrorism. Even a cursory look at the map shows up three American-skeptic countries – Iran, Russia and China – in the neighbourhood.

The US strategy appears to rely for its success on strengthening the Afghan national security forces. However, this has been the principal line of US military effort at least since Obama took office. The idea of the ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, that took US numbers into six figures, was to strengthen the Afghan forces, even as the additional US forces broke the back of the Taliban insurgency. As is well known, the Taliban waited out the surge and today control 40 per cent of Afghan territory.

Thus, it is unclear as to what is different this time round in the US strategy. Is Mattis wanting to play as defence secretary a hand he was unable to play as the military commander in theater then? Perhaps it is posturing on part of the US, hoping to pressure Pakistan to deliver the Taliban to the table. Obama had faltered in this by killing Mullah Mansour, the Taliban chief, in a targeted drone attack. The Americans by now know that the ticket out of their longest war can only be issued by the Taliban.

The Americans hope that by twisting Pakistan’s tail, it would force the Pakistanis to ‘go after’ the Taliban, pushing the Taliban to the table. For that, all Mattis appears to have is a set of sanctions up his sleeve. In his words, "There are a number of lines of effort being put together now in Secretary of Treasury's office, Secretary of State's office, my own office, the intel agencies. We are also working with Secretary General Stoltenberg to ensure that NATO's equities are brought to bear." Since China will bail out Pakistan, a Pakistani revision of their list of ‘bad Taliban’ is hardly likely.

Mattis’ betrayed his weak hand in saying that being considerate with Pakistan had led to his declining to consider Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan. In his trip to India last month, India’s new defence minister categorically ruled out the possibility. However, that Mattis has included a possible opening up of economic ties in his strategy suggests an Indian input during his visit. He has apparently been led to believe that India would do so, but India’s expectation is that Pakistan will perhaps be goaded into taking on the Taliban on its soil. This is disingenuous on India’s part.

The upshot is that the US does not have the options it claims. Pakistan does not then have to reflexively push back. The best way to prevent radicalism is to deprive it of a context filled with violence and contestation. Pakistan can use the opportunity of the ‘one more time’ on offer by the US for shepherding the Taliban to respectability, duly incentivized for good behavior. It can thereby gain a say in the indefinitely into the future of Afghanistan; set at rest the fears of all its neighbours; and inveigle its way back into US good books by enabling the Americans to depart in keeping with Trump’s original instinct.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Usual September Indo-Pak Slugfest

Not one to pass up an opportunity for grandstanding, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the annual UN General Assembly session for two years in a row makes some sense in that it deprives Pakistan of an opportunity, when it is its turn at the podium, to take potshots at India’s take in the Assembly. Since India sent its foreign minister instead, its slot has come after the heads of government have had their say. This gives India an opportunity to take potshots at Pakistan.

The India-Pakistan slug fest that develops in the august chambers of the General Assembly, indubitably hyphenates India with Pakistan, even if India gets the better of Pakistan with its choice of phrases.

This time round the speech of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was overshadowed by India’s rebuttal made by its very able first secretary, Eenam Gambhir, to the speech by Pakistan’s stop-gap prime minister, charactering Pakistan as ‘terroristan’. Gambhir had shot to fame last year with her phrase characterizing Pakistan as the ‘ivy leagues of terrorism’ in her exercising the right of reply to Nawaz Sharif’s speech at the Assembly chamber.

That speech was useful cover for India to launch its ‘surgical strikes’, multiple raids across a wide front on terror camps across the Line of Control (LC). Pakistan for its part had struck a military installation in Uri just prior to the General Assembly meeting, so as to draw attention of the gathering to the instability in Kashmir, setting the stage for Pakistan’s India bashing.

Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif was doubly required to indulge in this then, since only earlier in the month last year, a media report had exposed a rift in Pakistan ruling elite, between its civilian government and the army, on its India policy. That the media report was close to the truth was soon made clear by the hounding of a leading columnist for Dawn, Cyril Almeida, who did the expose. In the event, Sharif hued closely to the script, authored by the army, making most of the unrest in Kashmir last year that has followed the killing of Burhan Wani.

This time round, while mostly-ailing, Swaraj’s performance bears her usual work (wo)manlike stamp, the saving grace has been in Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN Maleeha Lodhi tripping up in her invective, flashing the wrong picture to embellish her case against use of pellet guns in the Valley. The cacophony in the usual circles in India over this gaffe does nothing to obscure the tragedy brought about by the use of such weaponry in the Valley. So, Lodhi’s is not quite the hitwicket it is made out to be amongst the converts.

However, the Pakistani side had something notable to show for its US visit, liable to be lost in the orchestrated chorus over Maleeha Lodhi’s going ballistic in the Assembly chambers.

Of significance was Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, statement at an engagement at the think tank, Council on Foreign Relations. He said, “As far as tactical nuclear weapons (are concerned), we do not have any fielded tactical nuclear weapons. We have developed short-range nuclear weapons as a counter to the 'Cold Start' doctrine that India has developed. Again, those are in the same command-and-control authority that controls the other strategic weapons."

The importance of noting this is that it sets at rest the debate surrounding what Pakistan intends to do with its short range ballistic missile system, the Nasr, unveiled in 2011. Nasr’s warhead was taken to be a tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) and its utility for Pakistan, as admitted to by Abbasi, was to stymie India’s cold start offensives. The debate in India – carried further into the august pages of the leading international relations journal International Security – was that since the TNW numbers required to stop Indian mechanized offensives would be numerous, Pakistan would be self-deterred from using it in a low-threshold early-use mode. It also did not have the Nasr system in sufficient numbers to be able to stop such offensives.

As it turns out from Abbasi’s statement, this is a misreading of Pakistani intent. Even when Nasr made its debut, the Inter-Service Public Relations press note had it that it was part of the strategic deterrence capability of Pakistan, with the short range missile complementing the longer range missiles in its inventory. This was glossed over in Indian strategists rush to prove the offensive and aggressive intent of Pakistani nuclear first use. Also, self-servingly they had it that since Pakistan could not dare use it in the numbers required as it would lay waste to Pakistan itself over which Indian offensive columns would be advancing, India could afford to go down the cold start option of proactive operations.

Indian strategists needs revising this expectation. Reading the Indian debate and hoping no doubt to bolster its ‘full spectrum’ deterrence, that includes pulling the deterrence cover down over the conventional level also, the Pakistanis appear now to have clarified that the Nasr is a strategic weapon, even if of small yield. This is in keeping with theory in that the aim behind a weapon’s use would determine the type of weapon it is. For instance, in case a small yield nuclear bomb is dropped on an urban area, it is a strategic use of the weapon. Thus, all small yield weapons are not TNW.

Pakistan thus has clarified a strategic utility to the Nasr. It is not so much intended to stop India’s integrated battle groups or strike corps in their tracks, as much as to raise the ante to a level as to ensure culmination of international pressure in favour of escalation control and conflict termination. Its use would be akin to a ‘shot across the bow’.

This has two implications. One is that the recently advertised readiness of India for cold start offensives needs to be tamped down. The army chief acknowledged cold start doctrine in his first meeting with the press on the eve of the Army Day early this year. He has recently twice voiced the army’s readiness for a two front war, with this doctrine informing the strategy on the western front to quickly knock off Pakistan. In this context, Abbasi’s statement should be taken as a timely warning that the expectation of a high enough nuclear threshold to permit cold start offensives might be unwarranted.

Second, are implications for India’s nuclear doctrine. Abbasi’s statement suggests a lower order nuclear first use. India’s professed nuclear doctrine has it that it would take out Pakistan in case of any manner of nuclear first use on its part. This doctrine would be ‘unimplementable’, to borrow the phrase made famous by Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in a different context.

India needs revising its nuclear doctrine accordingly to enable multiple options of retaliation, including quid pro quo, in such a case. Thoughts of first strike – entertained by former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon – need to be abandoned forthwith, since there is no call to invite a second strike – of which Pakistan is quite capable – just to get a Nasr or two readying for discharge. India must admit to the state of Mutual Assured Destruction prevailing in the subcontinent.

The India-Pakistan September exchange has acquired the status of a yearly fixture on the strategic calendar. The last year it was ‘surgical strikes’. This year it is about the nuclear prospects that such strikes can well set off, as would surely, their elder brother, cold start offensives. However, it is best that exchanges – howsoever charged up - are in fora such as the General Assembly rather than on the battlefield.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Pakistan: Not down for the count, yet 

There is some exultation in India that Pakistan has thrown in the towel. Its army chief has finally reckoned that the political track is the route to go down in tackling the bone of contention between the two, Pakistan's jugular vein, Kashmir. The inference is that the Modi-Dovel doctrine of a tough line on Pakistan is working. With Trump having turned the screw, right in wake of Modi's visit to Washington, D.C., the understanding in such circles is that Pakistan will finally have its comeuppance. All India needs doing is to hold on to its hardline and watch Pakistan wallow, under the twin pressures from the US and India. 

Pakistan for its part has turned up its chin on the Trump demands, indicating that it has seen it all before and can stare down the US. It believes it still has a few cards up its sleeve, putting its geography to play once again. Since it would not want to have two powers breathing down on it, it is seeking to defuse both with placatory language. It is reminding the US that it is an indispensable ally in the war against terror and to India it is messaging peace. This would allay pressures for now, allowing it to fight another day. 

Pakistan's trump card is that it can get Taliban to the table or, indeed, keep it away. It had locked up one leader, Mullah Baradar, who was getting close to the Americans. Taliban has sanctuary in Pakistan and this keeps it dependent to a degree on Pakistan. Pakistan knows that the US exit from Afghanistan is dependent on Taliban playing along. The Taliban for its part will only talk if US exit is also on the agenda. 

For a superpower, talking to the Taliban would be humiliating, especially two decades into a war against it. The last time it was readying for talks, its leader, Mullah Mansour, was knocked out in a drone attack. The US instead would like a negotiated solution between the Taliban and its protégé regime in Kabul. This would keep the US alone at the high table as the two Afghan sides jaw it out on the side table. The Taliban has denied US the satisfaction so far. US desperation is beginning to show. 

US generals who got to be generals by their showing in Afghanistan believe they need to now fight the war they could not fight when they were earning their spurs. So perhaps for the third time they hope to up the ante. The last two times were in the operations to take out the Taliban by supporting the Northern Alliance and the second was Obama's surge strategy, replicating under Petraeus what he had tried out in Iraq earlier. It is not certain what additional ingredient their current strategy has from the earlier iterations that can induce the Taliban to roll over. 

The last time the surge lacked a peace surge. It is also uncertain if a military surge works at all. The example from Iraq is no lesson since there were multiple reasons for the ending of the Sunni insurgency in the Sunni triangle in Iraq, including Sunni tribes aghast at the tactics of the Al Qaeda in Iraq. Pushing into Pakistan after the Taliban has been tried through drones. This time the Trump rhetoric - 'Attack we will' - suggests that they would carry the war into Pakistan, perhaps restricting their incursion if any to the sanctuaries in the tribal areas. 

At best the drone strikes can be beefed up by air and missile strikes. Putting American boots on ground would be to take a chance. To begin with, the Pakistanis would put up a grand show of taking out the Taliban, going after the 'bad' Taliban in the bargain. The Pakistanis having outlasted two two-term presidents expect to see off Trump, who can at best be a one-term wonder, if not impeached earlier for the links of his election campaign team with Russia. 

This longish prelude via Trump's 'attack we will' strategy to get back to the start point on Indian jubilation over the expectation that Pakistan is cornered, collared or clobbered is to show that for the bhakts in the strategic community to fire off the success signal is trifle premature. The Pakistan army chief's wish for a political solution is not because he is intimidated by the Indian army chief's reference to Indian readiness for a two-front war twice-over in as many months. 

Responding to a question at the American think tank, Council of Foreign Relations, while on his visit to the US for addressing the General Assembly, the Pakistani prime minister showed the Pakistanis have some cards up their sleeve. While disclaiming possession of tactical nuclear weapons he said they had short range nuclear weapons, under the same command and control arrangements as their strategic nuclear weapons. This brings out the strategic purpose of their nuclear weapons: not to stop India's cold start offensive in their tracks but to stop the war itself by going nuclear. This in theory is deescalatory escalation, escalation to deescalate. 

India's army chief, dilating on a two-front war at a seminar organized in wake of the two sides - India and China - standing down at Doklam, had in relation to Pakistan, said "Because of this proxy war, there is always scope of conflict with our western neighbor." Since surgical strikes have been tried out, and, in the event of proxy war continuing and another attack that Rawat apprehends occurring, that leaves India with its as yet untried answer, cold start. 

Cold start is a proactive response at the conventional level to subconventional provocation in the form of limited objective attacks designed to stay below the nuclear threshold. Whereas its army chief has been uncharacteristically placatory, it is with good reason. Pakistan has deployed its prime minister to remind India of the nuclear ace up its sleeve to counter cold start. This papers over the crack that had opened up in its civil-military relations with the departure of Nawaz Sharif, in a military-judicial quasi-coup. 

Pakistan has thus not only replied to India's army chief, but has also tried to show repair to the possible blow India had administered it in Mr. Modi's overly effusive jhuppi of Nawaz Sharif. The cracks had begun to show in the Cyril Almeida case in which he reported of a rift between the army and the civilian government over the ISI-army's support for 'good terrorists'. The army promptly ordered the attack on the Uri garrison in India to put paid to any thought that it would obey the civilians. Finally, it eased off Sharif, perhaps seeing him as the unwary victim of India's rather up-front and in-your-face intelligence operation of creating a schism in Pakistan's national security elite. 

Pakistan remains in the ring, riding out twin punches from General Rawat and President Trump. India would be naïve to take President Trump too seriously. The backdrop of his sudden announcement of the Afghanistan strategy was the Charlottesville episode. The president was in the dog house over his seeming siding with white supremacists in equating them with the liberals they had violently confronted at the University of Virginia campus. This seeming endorsement of the far right by the president had even his military worried. The US military has disproportionate numbers of coloured people in its ranks, who are from America's poor seeking employment and upward mobility. The four joint chiefs of staff had all tweeted their condemnation of racism, distancing from their president's remarks. Trump has apparently tried to win them over by allowing them a loose rope in Afghanistan. That the Afghanistan strategy lacks sufficient elaboration suggests it is a product of American domestic politics. It would be naïve for India to take it too seriously. 

Given Doval's adeptness at pirouetting - evident from the several about-turns in India's Pakistan and Kashmir strategies in the Modi period - perhaps India can do yet another twirl and surprise Qamar Javed Bajwa by accepting his plank of talks as the means to a solution to Kashmir.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Dilating on a ‘Half-front War’

The reference to a “two and a half front war” by Army Chief General Bipin Rawat is critically dissected. The “half front” apparently covers large tracts of India and a significant number of its marginalised people. The thought of a war on the half front, as conjured by this term, needs to be controverted outright. The army’s imagining of such a war and preparation for it is questioned.

Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has been in the limelight ever since he was picked up for the job superseding two of his seniors. This time around, he figured in the media over an interview to a news agency in which he expressed his satisfaction that the “Indian Army is fully ready for a two and a half front war” (ANI 2017). The backdrop to his statement is an ongoing face-off with Chinese forces at Doklam, a disputed territory between China and Bhutan adjoining the tri-junction of the India–China–Bhutan border. The general, perhaps, felt it necessary to bolster national morale by reassuring Indians that the army could fight off not only the Chinese, but also the perennial foe, Pakistan, in case Pakistan—in the circumstance of an India–China conflict—sensed an opportunity.
Some, such as the acerbic strategist Bharat Karnad, have questioned the general (Karnad 2017). In light of the figures recently put out in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on critical shortages in the ammunition for tanks and artillery, their critique is plausible (CAG 2017: viii). Apprehending as much, the defence minister—who, being the finance minister too, is at best a part-time raksha mantri (defence minister)—declaimed in Parliament that the armed forces were “reasonably and sufficiently equipped,” cryptically adding that it is not in public interest to disclose the actuals (Hindu 2017).
As for the “half front,” Bharat Karnad is somewhat glib in believing that, “on the half front, there’s no issue.” He reasons that the army will “quickly rid the landscape of insurgents at will, if the brakes on its actions in J&K or in the northeast are removed by the government,” given that, “[e]ven with the AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act] shackles, the army can do its job of denying the insurgencies the success they crave” (Karnad 2017).
Though Karnad is sanguine, it bears reminding that the Kargil War—the anniversary of which India, under its ultra-nationalist ruling dispensation, has begun observing as Vijay Diwas (Victory Day)—had witnessed an upsurge in insurgency and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Even the additional deployments in the nearly year-long Operation Parakram (2001–02) were unable to staunch the insurgency. It is arguable that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s political sagacity in reaching out to the Kashmiris in April 2003 on the basis of insaniyat (humanity) and to Pakistan through the back channel resulted in the unwritten ceasefire agreement of November 2003 and the Islamabad declaration of January 2004. As for the supposed “AFSPA shackles” that the army has on, according to Karnad, the army only adopted the “iron fist in velvet glove” philosophy when relative quietude returned to Kashmir through the “healing touch” policy internally and the composite dialogue with Pakistan externally.
Outlining the ‘Half Front’
In other words, the half front—a euphemism for internal security—is a consequential front. This is not so only in relation to the communication zone (the rear areas of military operations through which troops and logistics intended for the front are located or transit). The two parts—combat zones and communication zones—comprise the theatre of war. While the army, perhaps, restricts itself to this area, the term “half front” potentially goes well beyond this and therein lie the dangers.
In case of a “two-front war,” the areas to the rear of the two theaters of war—northern, against a twin threat from Pakistan and China; eastern, against China, and western, against Pakistan—are taken as sensitive enough to club into a half front. This would understandably include areas in J&K and the North East that abut the combat theatres, and the states along the western front. Further, and more troublingly, in the strategic lexicon, the half front straddles most of the rest of India. Deeper in the hinterland is the Red Corridor that would, in the imagination of strategists, kick in in case of a war with China, and Muslim inhabited areas that are taken as likely areas in which a Pakistan-affiliated fifth column based on “sleeper cells” would activate. At a juncture in the nation’s life when dissent is being equated with sedition, a redefinition of the half front can be taken as ongoing, with even liberal bastions and spaces, such as free-thinking universities, being included.
The formulation “half-front war” conveys the impression of an India at war with itself. It is not clear as to what the army has to do with any such war inside India, restricted as its mandate is to the defence of India externally and only secondarily to assisting civil authorities in internal security duties. Using the term “war” in relation to internal security is questionable as a dangerous mindset that can set off a self-fulfilling prophesy. The army needs cautioning that, even if it imagines the half front in a restricted manner as the area directly impinging on its operations, there is a danger of the expansive interpretation taking over. This would not necessarily demand the army’s attention as providing an arena for its current-day political masters and their assorted supportive pseudo-cultural political formations to expand their takeover of India.
Dissecting the ‘Half Front’
It is a reasonable expectation that J&K could turn restive at the onset of war. Pakistan has not sustained the insurgency in Kashmir out of a sense of affinity with Kashmiris alone. Its military overlords have national security and the military’s institutional interests at heart. Operationally, they wish to undercut India’s conventional military advantage prior to its application on the western front. Keeping rear areas insecure helps in interdicting and disrupting the Indian forces en route to the frontline. An example is Pakistan’s choice in the late 1990s of the Hill Kaka area in Surankote tehsil as a base for terrorism. Not only would the terrorist base prove useful for disrupting India’s defences in Poonch sector from the rear, but would also help sustain the insurgency across the Pir Panjal range in the Kashmir Valley. The base was finally evicted in a division-level operation, Operation Sarp Vinash (2003), on the heels of Operation Parakram (2001–02).
Sensing Pakistan’s game plan in Punjab and Kashmir, the army had raised the Rashtriya Rifles. Additionally, the home ministry has at its disposal massive Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). However, the interface has seldom been smooth. During the Kargil War, with the army’s Kashmir-based formations concentrating on operations on the Line of Control, the Rashtriya Rifles headquarters based in New Delhi were brought forward to Srinagar to handle the spike in terrorism and insurgency. The move met with backlash from the forces, answering to the home ministry, which refused to come under operational control of the Rashtriya Rifles headquarters. From the handling of the stone-throwers in Kashmir last year with the use of pellet guns, it is evident that under the conditions of war the situation would be considerably more fraught and human rights that much more expendable.
As for the eastern front, India’s sense of vulnerability is heightened by an unstable North East stretching behind it. Though insurgency-related deaths in the North East have been the lowest in 2016 since 1997, the army’s “worst case scenario” most likely has it that insurgent groups in the North East would be armed by the Chinese. This is especially so since the army itself probably has plans up its sleeve of waging an asymmetric war in Tibet using Tibetan irregulars behind Chinese lines. India, however, lives in a glass house of its own making. There are over two dozen suspension of operations agreements across the North East. These are at best interim, since peace is not merely the absence of violence. A few hundred AK-47 rifles can set the accumulation of grievances and greed alight.
The North East’s insurgent groups being under an umbrella organisation—the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia—with links to China, heightens India’s threat perception. This will inform its suppressive reaction in case of hostilities.
A significant stretch of the half front is the Compact Revolutionary Zone, visualised as the Red Corridor running in an arc through forested central India, from the Terai region astride the Nepal border to the Telangana region. Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister, had once referred to Naxalism as India’s “biggest internal security challenge” (PTI 2010). Noting a declining trend of left-wing extremism-related incidents since 2011, the home ministry’s annual report in a self-congratulatory mode claims an “unprecedented improvement” in the current government’s tenure (MHA 2017: 4). While Naxalism has no external linkage of any military significance, it can be expected that the opportunity offered by a border conflict, particularly with China, would be used to legitimise forays of the Operation Green Hunt variety. Operation Green Hunt, disclaimed by the government after its launch in 2009, was a search-and-destroy mission that continues till today, though under a different guise and scope.
The least visible aspect of the half-front war is related to “terrorism in the hinterland of the country” (MHA 2017: 4). The devotion of merely one paragraph to it in the home ministry’s annual report indicates the actual level of its significance. Nevertheless, prime-time noise and headlines on terrorism, and the supposed inroads by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence earlier and by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant lately into India’s largest minority, its Muslims, leave the impression of a large-scale problem.
This politically motivated identification of Muslim communities with terrorism has been going on for over a decade. This image has been forged by police reflexively picking up Muslim youth in the wake of incidents of domestic terrorism. Such a perception of Muslims indicates that Muslim mohallas might well find inclusion within the half front; for instance, Batla House in New Delhi, the site of a supposed encounter against a terrorist cell in September 2008 (Sethi 2012). In June 2017, 15 Muslims were arrested at various places for allegedly celebrating a Pakistani cricketing victory in the Champions Trophy (Suri 2017). In case of a war with Pakistan, increased security surveillance of Muslims and security-related impositions can easily be imagined.
Additionally, the spate of lynchings and rowdyism by cow vigilantes suggests how any such war will play out for Muslims as a part of the half-front war. This identification of Muslims with the Pakistani “other” is best illustrated by the unsolicited advice of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Inderesh Kumar in reaction to former Vice President Hamid Ansari voicing the concerns felt by India’s Muslims regarding their security (Thapar 2017). Kumar called for Ansari to leave the country for “some place he feels secure” (Deshpande 2017). Presumably, after the fashion lately, Kumar had Pakistan in mind. This conflation of India’s Muslims with Pakistanis can only reach a crescendo in the case of military setbacks in war. If the war goes nuclear, its intercommunity impact within India could rival partition.
Last but not least is the opportunity that a war will offer cultural nationalists for further throttling liberal voices. At a recent observation of the Kargil Diwas in Jawaharlal Nehru University attended by its vice chancellor, the university was likened by Major General (retd) G D Bakshi, with his cultural nationalist credentials, to a “fort” that had been conquered, and he called for similar conquests of similarly oriented universities in Hyderabad and Jadavpur (Shankar 2017). The overt displays of nationalism are now de rigueur, such as the installing of giant-sized tricolour flags in public places, including university campuses; playing of the national anthem before movie screenings; and mandatory singing of the national song, Vande Mataram (I pray/bow down to thee, Mother), twice a week in schools in Tamil Nadu. This is happening in peace time with mere border stand-offs with both neighbours as the backdrop. War will increase the “holy cow” status of national security, legitimising the invasion of liberal spaces.
Prevention as Answer
It would appear that, irrespective of the military showing on either front, India’s national fabric can only suffer a setback on the half front. This is one more reason—added to several others, such as nuclear escalation—why war should not figure as an option. Working meaningfully towards its prevention assumes importance. This means going far beyond, for instance, diplomatically addressing the Doklam crisis. Instead, India needs to clinch the 19 rounds of special representative–level talks so far with China on the border issue, with a determined display of readiness for mutual compromise and accommodation. On the western front, India must discontinue its current policy against substantial engagement with Pakistan and within Kashmir of ignoring political outreach as the best and only way to tackle violence and public disaffection.
Such a line of reasoning might not impress cultural nationalists, who hold the reins of power. To them, a round of bloodletting might be just the potion the nation needs to unify it and bring in the discipline, uniformity and cohesion attributed to wars. Though Vajpayee denied likening Indira Gandhi to Goddess Durga (Vincent 2016), today’s bhakts (devotees) would welcome a similar profile as a war leader for Narendra Modi. The communalists within their ranks would welcome the prospects for further marginalisation of the minority community. This explains India’s strategic direction in terms of the absence of engaging with political solutions. To them, the possibility of war is an acceptable alternative to negotiated settlement of problems.
ANI (2017): “Indian Army Prepared for a Two and a Half Front War: Army Chief General Bipin Rawat,” Associated News International, 8 June, viewed on 20 July 2017,
CAG (2017): “Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for the Year Ended March 2016: Union Government (Defence Services) Army and Ordnance Factories, Report No 15 of 2017,” Comptroller and Auditor General of India, New Delhi, 21 July, viewed on 27 July 2017,
Deshpande, V (2017): “Go Where You Feel Secure, RSS’s Indresh Kumar Tells Hamid Ansari,” Indian Express, 13 August, viewed on 15 August,
Hindu (2017): “Armed Forces Equipped to Face Any Crisis: Jaitley,” 28 July, viewed on 1 August 2017,
Karnad, B (2017): “Is the Indian Army Ready for a ‘Two and Half’ Front War?” Qrius, 20 June, viewed on 25 July 2017,
MHA (2017): “Annual Report 2016–17,” Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi, viewed on 25 July 2017,
PTI (2010): “Naxalism Biggest Threat to Internal Security: Manmohan,” Hindu, 24 May, viewed on 28 July 2017,
Sethi, M (2012): “Batla House and the Problem with the Deluded Journalist,” Kafila, 28 February, viewed on 23 July 2017,
Shankar, A (2017): “JNU V-C M Jagadesh Kumar Wants an Army Tank on Campus as Inspiration,” Indian Express, 24 July, viewed on 30 July,
Suri, M (2017): “India Arrests 15 for Celebrating Pakistan Cricket Victory,” CNN, 21 June, viewed on 27 July 2017,
Thapar, K (2017): “Asserting Your Nationalism Day In, Day Out Is Unnecessary: Hamid Ansari,” Wire, 9 August, viewed on 12 August,

Vincent, P (2016): “Footnote to Fabled Story on Indira,” Telegraph, 27 February, viewed on 5 August 2017,

Friday, 4 August 2017

Debating the 'harder military approach'

In wake of the attack on the Amarnath pilgrims that took a toll of eight innocent lives, Lord Meghnad Desai in an op-ed lamented that, 'A harder military approach will be urged. That has been tried since 1989. Time may have come to try something different ( article/opinion/columns/the-opportunity-in-kashmir-death-of-pilgrims-amarnath-yatra-attack-hurriyat-jihadists-naga-tribes-4752306/).' 

As if on cue, a hardy contender for the vacancy coming up soon in the Raj Bhawan in Srinagar, while agreeing that '… no proxy conflict of this kind can ever be defeated by military means, 'countered that, 'I disagree, however, that India's approach to the proxy conflict has so far only been militaristic or through the security prism and not from the angle of winning the support of the people ('

He gives an article long summary of the army's engagement in Kashmir covering inter-alia its Operation Sadhbhavna initiatives. More pertinently, perhaps referring to his tenure at the helm of Srinagar corps, the author, who is a retired member of the army brass, has this to say: '2011-13 saw the conscious calibration of the balance of hard and soft power through the Hearts Doctrine which created hope and attempted restoration of dignity to the conflict stricken people, incidentally by the army itself; a situation not politically exploited ('

The general appears to have drawn cudgels with the academic over the latter's understanding that a 'harder military approach' has been tried since 1989 and has been found wanting. His article attempts to highlight two aspects to the military's engagement in Kashmir. One that the military is indispensable to managing the situation of such violence as encountered in the 'proxy war' in Kashmir; and, two, that despite this, the army has attempted to win 'the support of the people', by largely following the counter insurgency doctrine of 'winning hearts and minds (WHAM!)'.

The academic, however, was questioning whether India's Kashmir policy that has been rather military dominant, could succeed, and on that count advocating a shift in tack from a military reliant to a political approach. A politics-up-front approach would have political outreach to Pakistan on one hand and an internal political settlement with the Kashmiris on the other. Lord Desai appears to believe that India has erred in not taking the two prongs of the political strategy to their logical conclusion in a settlement in Kashmir, even though its Kashmiri citizens have been imposed upon as a consequence for over a quarter century. 

Since Lord Desai's remark is a concluding one in his article on the routinisation of conflict and approaches to conflict in Kashmir, space constraints precluded his articulation of his position in these terms. But this appears a fair interpretation of his position, since he calls for a change of tack from the direction Indian has been on since 1989. 

He is entirely right. The political prong of strategy has never been the dominant one in tackling India's Kashmir problem. Over the preceding two score years to 1989, India firmly retained a hold in Kashmir, by lining up its military along the Line of Control and deliberately foisting corruptible regimes in Kashmir. The Swaran Singh-Bhutto talks of the early sixties were not sincere. This was brought out in an evening talk by PN Haksar at the India International Center in the early nineties at which this author was present. Haksar recounted asking Swaran Singh what the aim of the talks had been, with Swaran Singh letting on that it was a charade to keep the Americans at bay. The Simla Agreement is similarly a promise regarding the representatives of the two sides to meet 'to discuss further the modalities and arrangements for the establishment of durable peace and normalization of relations… a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir… (italics added).' It is about 'talks about talks'. 

The story of the nineties is little different. The weak coalition governments then - even if led by a bleeding heart at one time, Inder Gujral - were hardly in a position to change tack on Kashmir. When Nehru and Indira in their prime were unwilling to walk down the road to peace politically arrived at, it would be too much to expect of the prime ministers in the nineties. The late nineties saw some political activity, such as the composite dialogue initiation under Gujral and its spirit carried forward by Vajpayee. However, the leeway either had in clinching the issue through compromise was non-existent. Gujral was a stopgap, while Vajpayee had Mr. Advani on his flank to be mindful of, as revealed unmistakably at the Agra Summit a few years on. Since India was also rather hard pressed through the upturn in the proxy war in Kashmir in wake of the Kargil War, it could hardly be seen to be compromising in face of such pressure. 

Even so, it is to Vajpayee's credit that he allowed the backchannel to enable a start to the composite dialogue, by creating the conditions for this in an unwritten ceasefire along the LC and on its heels with the Islamabad declaration. However, in retrospect, it is questionable whether Vajpayee could have gone the distance, even if the BJP's India Shining campaign had worked out. Within Kashmir, the 'healing touch' campaign could not even get the AFSPA sway diluted, though some of the army was depicted as returning to barracks - which incidentally was a sleight of hand since only additional troops deployed for Operation Parakram reverted to barracks. 

This remained the case even as the indices of terrorism were brought to negligible as the composite dialogue progressed desultorily under Manmohan Singh. Manmohan Singh's incapability was stark in his inability to convert the quiet in Kashmir to India's advantage by acting purposefully on the feedback from his three roundtables, five working groups and his team of three interlocutors. For its part, the Congress was unable to convert the penalty corner into a goal owing to its political sense telling it that India was then veering away to the right, buoyant from a high growth rate, increasing great power aspirations, diaspora influence into its polity, imbibing of cultural nationalism and, therefore, was unlikely to countenance any let up on Kashmir. All it's tuning in to the national mood could not keep the Congress from being swept into history - as history will record soon enough. 

Mr. Modi's strategy is what Lord Desai was ruing. An opportunity to foreclose a deal with Kashmiris internally has been lost. The PDP chief minister in alliance with the BJP, Mehbooba Mufti, is right that Modi holds the cards. She is only naïve in thinking he would play it in the way she hopes. The unnecessary standoff with China on the Doklam plateau suggests the lengths the two - Modi and Doval - have invested in a militarized template for India's security policy. In this, resort to politics is a sign of weakness. The Hindutva cultural paradigm entails revitalization of Hindu masculinity. Muscles, brawn and testosterone now matter, since India's eclipse a thousand years ago is attributed to their absence. A national security policy on steroids cannot but singe its Kashmir policy. 

This exposé of the absence of a political prong to India's Kashmir policy, leaves one just enough column space to touch upon one of the general's pet projects, which happenstance he does get to Rajbhawan he will surely thrust onto a hapless state administration. In his own words, this is: 

…if the chief minister has to walk this talk it will need the support of one organisation which can make all the difference, the Army; it has the deployment, reach, contact with people and the robust ability to secure a grand engagement plan. It cannot be a creeping plan. It just has to be bold with transformational approach. All the talk about not talking will vanish once the government, the politician and security forces are speaking with the people and not the leadership ( article/india/handling-jk-what-is-right-and-what-more-needs-to-5333.html). 

Perhaps an elaboration is merited: absent politics, there is only the military left. But the matter is best left to the reader.

Monday, 12 June 2017

An Army to fear: The Army's future?

The jury is out on whether the army chief was put up to it by his political masters or whether his rewarding the protagonist in the infamous ‘human shield’ case was of his own volition. From the broadside by one commentator likening the chief to General Dyer, it is clear that there are some who believe that the army chief acted on a suggestion from his superiors. That broadside from an academic would likely have been directed, less at the army chief himself, as much as the one whose bidding he was doing. But with the army chief going out on a limb (yet again) with his defence of not only the indefensible action of Mr. Tactical Innovation himself, Major Leetul Gogoi, and his own award, it is quite clear that the army chief has the courage of his conviction. That is the good news.
The bad news is that the conviction is itself wrong-headed. Courage of conviction in such cases leads to persisting in the wrong direction. Precedence in the case of a predecessor of his pursuing an age related case for a year’s extension at the helm of the army suggests as much. Incidentally, that general titled his memoirs, Courage and Conviction. Worse could follow. The generals of the First World War were not for nothing dubbed ‘donkeys’, for their outsized determination in trying to breakthrough trench lines with tactics that failed to work for several successive years at the cost of a million lives.
The pattern of persistence in wrong headedness in Kashmir is discernible. There has been a reversion to cordon and search operations. The unwritten ceasefire dating to end 2003 is in tatters. Just as the army went after the JKLF in the early nineties, believing it was wrapping up the indigenous insurgency then, this time round too it has a list, a score entries long of local militants it wants to take out by summer’s end. The army chief has warned off people from complicating military operations, lest they be taken as overground workers. Since it is well known what happened to overground workers, among others, through the nineties, he is harking back by a decade and more. The earlier measures having failed to end the insurgency, it beats imagination as to how these can possibly succeeded in their second iteration.
This time round the difference is in the army chief setting the tone out loud. He has required that the army be feared. Earlier - at least up front - the army preferred being respected, if not quite loved. It certainly wished to inspire fear in the enemy. This enemy was usually the adversary state across the border and its army, and in Kashmir, the jihadi mercenary, usually Pakistani Punjabi.
However, in terms of internal security, Jawaharlal Nehru had early on clearly spelt out how the army needed to be appreciated in such circumstance as a protector of the people. The then army chief taking cue in sending the army into Nagaland in 1955, had in his Special Order of the Day phrased the political terms of reference given out by Nehru in these words:
You must remember that all the people of the area in which you are operating are fellow Indians. They may have different religions, pursue a different way of life, but they are Indians and the very fact, that they are different and yet part of India is a reflection of India’s greatness. Some of these people are misguided and have taken up arms against their own people and are disrupting peace of this area. You are to protect the mass of the people in the area from these disruptive elements. You are not to fight the people in the area but to protect them.
General Rawat has upturned this. He has pronounced that ‘Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you. We are a friendly army, but when we are called to restore law and order, people have to be afraid of us.’ He argues that the proxy war the army is coping with is a ‘dirty war’. He cannot have people throwing ‘petrol bombs and stones’ while his soldiers ‘wait and die’. He needs to keep their morale up by allowing them to fight innovatively, including through use – in the incident that prompted his defence of himself – of human shields.
Happily, he was quick to clarify that, ‘It (human shield) is not a general norm. As a practice it is not supported.’ What he misses is that tactics is to be guided both by norms and the humanitarian legal code, be it in war or internal conflict. Situations cannot guide tactics. Tactics are responses to situations that have to be ethically and legally compliant. By shifting the goal posts the army chief is arbitrarily changing the accepted doctrinal principles of Indian army in subconventional operations. 
This could possibly be on his initiative. His extensive experience in counter insurgency that got him his job, perhaps persuades him that the doctrinal principle of ‘one hand tied behind the back’ is superfluous. It was never quite popular within the army, with its counter insurgency trope largely bewailing the imposition. This is what prompted the army’s somewhat tough approach and action in the nineties in Kashmir, such as through use of proxy groups as Ikhwan, disappearances, firing on LC without concern for collateral damage etc. The new fangled technique - perception management - was to manage the fallout. The army’s flagship publication on subconventional operations - ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ - coincided with the start of the decade long hiatus of peace in Kashmir. It is apparent that the tenets on the use of force in the document are liable to be liberally interpreted by those who have cut their teeth in counter insurgency operations, such as the army chief.
In other words, has the army dropped its veneer? Though veterans with equal claim to operational experience are aghast at the brazen shift, that its slip is showing does not appear to embarrass the army any.
This brings one to the second possibility. The shift away from the central doctrinal pillar of people-friendly operations is perhaps an imposition by its political masters. They have chosen well in choosing an army chief with like sentiment. The government is explicit that talks are not the way out, even if its home minister promises a solution to the troubles in Kashmir. The army will therefore be held to the till. A tough line to go with the image of its national security minder – the national security adviser - and his boss - the prime minister - is politically useful. In any other dispensation, even if it was not knocked on its knuckles privately, the army could not have been this willful.
The problem with doggedness is that it can be in the wrong direction. The army in Kashmir is on such path. It mistakenly insists that it is confronted with a proxy war. There is surely Pakistani chicanery, but a decade long talks process with several false starts cannot but have let Pakistan continue as an  interested party and ill motivated player. The equally long and coextensive engagement with a political solution in Kashmir has been abandoned, leaving the people – even girls - with little choice than to take to stones. Whether this is a product of information war on social media - as the army chief suggests – is up for debate.
Instead, a self-fulfilling prophesy will likely develop, with a jihadists supposedly in search of Khorasan overrunning the indigenous dimension – yet another throwback to the mid nineties when the JKLF was eclipsed by the Hizb and the late nineties  when the Hizb was outshone by the Lashkar. This would be welcome in New Delhi. Turning the army into one feared by people would be small price to pay and it would exactly what is needed by an authoritarian regime. Hopefully, this is not a future the army envisages.   

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Book Review 
Armed Forces and Insurgents in Modern Asia, Kaushik Roy and Sourish Saha
The book is a product of collaboration between an unlikely duo: a history professor at Jadavpur University and a bio-statistical consultant for pharmaceutical companies based in the US. It began in a conversation over coffee at Kolkata’s Park Street in which the two discussed governance, poverty and armed rebellions in India, with the discussion expanding to include comparisons and contrasts with the experience of insurgency and counter-insurgency across the globe. In the event, the two restricted the scope of the book that emerged to Asia. They intended the book as a ‘sort of reference book for researchers’ (p. vii). The bibliography at its end covering 19 pages makes this claim plausible.