If the military art could be reduced to arithmetic,” observed Soviet General Andrian Danilevich, “we would not need any wars. You could simply look at the correlation of forces, make some calculations, and tell your opponent, ‘we outnumber you 2:1, victory is ours, please surrender.’ But, in reality, you could outnumber your opponent 3:1 and still suffer a crushing defeat.” War involved “a sea of specific subjective factors, or even random events, which reduce these objective factors to nil.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin either never read, or chose not to heed, the wise General’s caution. His gamble on Ukraine, premised on the overwhelming superiority of the Russian forces, has ended in a punishing stalemate—at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, and the lives of thousands of troops.
There is an important lesson in these events for New Delhi, and they’re not to do with the price of oil or geopolitics. Ever since independence, India’s superior conventional force has proved a reliable tool to coerce Pakistan into tamping-down covert warfare in Kashmir. There’s this to consider, though: Rolling the tanks means rolling the dice, and there’s no telling where they’ll land.
The secret India-Pakistan back channel
Ever since the summer of 2018, when a polo-playing aristocrat from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) met a senior Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) counterpart at a London hotel, India and Pakistan have been engaged in quiet back-channel dialogue to mitigate the risk of ending up at war. The back-channel, conducted on behalf of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, briefly collapsed during the Pulwama crisis—but is again operational.
Last week, the United Kingdom’s high commissioner to Islamabad, Christian Turner, told a select audience that General Bajwa was seeking concessions—among them, the restoration of the scrapped Article 35A of India’s Constitution, which gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir the right to designate “permanent residents” entitled to purchase land.
General Bajwa believes he’s helped New Delhi by reining-in jihadists and thus ensuring violence in Kashmir remains at historically low levels. The General, in his telling of events to British interlocutors, has resisted pressure from hawks to escalate in Kashmir—among them, Prime Minister Imran Khan.
There’s little appetite in New Delhi, though, to make concessions on Kashmir, and not because of bloody-minded nationalism. India believes that the Pakistan Army has held back jihadist violence because of the asymmetric costs a military crisis would have for its flailing economy. There’s no need, therefore, for political concessions.
Experience has shaped New Delhi’s conclusions—but the time may have come to rethink them.
The many iterations of India-Pakistan crisis
From the moment of their birth, crises have defined the India-Pakistan relationship. The war of 1947 birthed Pakistan’s long covert campaign in Kashmir, which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru described as “an informal war”. The end of the war, though, didn’t result in peace. Large-scale raids by Pakistani irregulars in 1951 led India to mobilise its military, historian Srinath Raghavan has recorded.
The war that seemed inevitable, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru brooded, would be “neither brief nor gentlemanly”. He predicted, instead, “a bitter conflict full of suppressed hatreds.”
Each crisis—and outright war—did indeed give India some gains, but these were less-than-durable.
Islamabad backed off in 1951, but only for some time. In 1965, the country used irregulars in a bid to seize Kashmir. The 1965 war ended in something of a draw, India’s official war history observes. This proved inadequate to deter Pakistan from continuing to sponsor covert violence.
The war of 1971 was, clearly, not a draw—but even then, Indian progress in the west was less-than-stellar, scholar Manoj Joshi has noted. The seizure of Dhaka, too, involved an element of luck. East Pakistan’s capital wasn’t a war objective, and its capture came about when Lieutenant-General Sagat Singh saw opportunity, and seized it.
Even the punishment delivered in 1971, more importantly, didn’t deter Pakistan from sponsoring insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir inside of a decade: Coercion, events showed, gave limited results, and at a high price. India won the Kargil war in 1999—but levels of violence in Kashmir actually increased from then on to the military crisis in 2001-2002, which followed the terrorist attack on Parliament House. Indeed, India lost more security force personnel in that period than it did soldiers in the Kargil war.
The 2001-2002 crisis did lead to a massive drop in jihadist violence, and pushed Pakistan’s former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, to begin secret peace talks on Kashmir with two Prime Ministers — Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. His successor, General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani, however, reversed course—leading to 26/11.
The limits of coercion
Like other exercises in coercion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had ambiguous outcomes. Following a series of jihadist attacks on Indian targets—notably at Pathankot and Gurdaspur—India struck across the Line of Control (LoC) when 19 soldiers were killed in Uri by the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The ISI, though, retaliated with a succession of Fidayeen suicide-squad attacks in Kashmir.
Again, when India bombed a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp inside Pakistan in 2019, after a bombing in Pulwama claimed the lives of 40 central police personnel, Pakistan struck back—almost hitting the headquarters of the 19 Infantry Brigade in Rajouri. The two countries turned to foreign friends to avert a potentially-catastrophic escalation.
There has been no authoritative appraisal of why Pakistan chose to raise the stakes so sharply in 2019. Former Lieutenant-General Tariq Khan, once a commander of Pakistan’s key strike formation, the Mangla-based I Corps, however, provided insights in posts to a private online group during the Balakot crisis.
Each Indian coercive effort since 2001-2002, General Khan noted “erode our position of deterring war through our nuclear capability.” That, in turn, meant Pakistan would “become more and more vulnerable to an asymmetric conventional threat.”
What we don’t know for certain is if the next crisis can also be defused. There is, clearly, risk for both sides—but is it one India would be wise to take?
Learning lessons from Ukraine
“The important thing to keep in mind about Vladimir Putin is that he is a spy and not a soldier,” the great scholar of military strategy Lawrence Freedman noted in a recent essay. “He has an instinct for the covert, the fabricated and the dishonest, for gaining advantage through manipulating perceptions, leaving his opponents disoriented.” In contrast, Freedman argued, military officers must necessarily “rely on honest appreciations of the situation in which they find themselves.”
“At the start of wars,” he wrote, “they might be prey to their own delusions about their military position and overconfident about the victories to come, but there is still a harsh reality to war that cannot be gainsaid.”
The time has come for Indian generals to provide the country’s political leadership with a clear-eyed appraisal of India’s own harsh realities. Pressured in by an increasingly aggressive China, India needs space and time to focus its resources, and consolidate its military modernisation. It cannot achieve this end while having also to prepare for potential crisis along the western borders.
There’s no room for starry-eyed optimism on what India-Pakistan dialogue might yield: Its outcomes have been no more roseate than war. There’s plenty of reason, though, to seriously explore what General Bajwa is willing to bring to the table, even if it involves politically-awkward concessions.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.