Why there can be no winners in a limited war between India and Pakistan
With the cross-border firing between India and a Pakistani making the headlines, some of the hotter heads in both countries have begun to argue, especially on social media, for an escalation of hostilities. The implication is that a limited war would somehow be decisive, by “teaching the other side a lesson, and making it behave.” But is a limited war possible?
The answer is proverbial - it is possible but the probability is very low. At the outset two fundamental points must be made.
First, nuclear weapon-armed states cannot fight a full-scale conventional war of annihilation or even absolute defeat of the adversary. However, below the “nuclear threshold” space exists for a limited war - limited in time, space and aims.
Second, a war is waged to achieve political aims. A war of retribution is a war without an aim.
The nature of war has undergone a change in the last two decades. What we face today is a Hybrid War which is a complex hybrid of conventional, asymmetric, information, political, diplomatic and economic warfare. It is fought as a continuum without timelines and fought simultaneously over the entire multi-dimensional spectrum of conflict.
India is already engaged in a Hybrid War with Pakistan. However, over the last 15 years we have remained well below the threshold of a limited war. Kargil,1999, was a classic limited war initiated by Pakistan. India also restricted its aim to restoration of status quo and won a victory both militarily and diplomatically. India planned a limited war as a reaction to the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001, but could not go to war due to a combination of international pressure, political dithering, lethargic mobilisation and an unsure military.
Due to primordial religious emotions, the deprivation of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947 and its dismemberment in 1971, Pakistan considers India as an enemy state and its political aim is to seize Jammu and Kashmir and achieve international parity with India. It has an unambiguous National Security Strategy to wage a Hybrid War backed by military, political and public consensus. Essential features of its strategy are: wage a deniable fourth generation warfare (4GW) in Jammu and Kashmir and hinterland of India; avoid a limited war and if it is forced upon it, stalemate India with conventional capability, “irrational nuclear brinkmanship”, and actual use of tactical nuclear weapons if required.
India’s political aim in relation to Pakistan is simple - prevent it from interfering in its internal affairs through a Hybrid War and if it does so, maintain good relations. To achieve its political aim India’s strategic options are: contain the 4GW being waged by Pakistan; surgical strikes in POK/Pakistan; wage a counter 4GW in Pakistan; and wage a proactive limited war to compel Pakistan to stop a 4GW in India.
Pakistan has the capacity to respond in a quid pro quo manner to all Indian threats/actions below a limited war while continuing to wage 4GW in Jammu and Kashmir. Given its military limitations, it is disadvantageous for it to initiate a war. Thus the onus is on India, either to accept status quo or to force compliance through a limited war. And this is the scenario - a limited war with a nuclear backdrop - that worries the world most. Will a limited war be cost-effective and decisive enough to force compliance on Pakistan? That the Indian government including the present one has not exercised this option despite the 1,000 cuts, answers this question.
Can a major change in the strategic situation force the Indian government to initiate a limited war? The casus belli could be a 26/11 type of terrorist attack or the situation in Jammu and Kashmir going completely out of hand. Since terrorism is calibrated by the ISI it is unlikely to repeat 26/11 and doomsday predictions notwithstanding, despite the “intifada” the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is militarily well under control. Can charged political and public emotions force the government’s hand? In my view the present political leadership while exploiting and manipulating public emotions, is smart enough not to fall prey to them.
Since the probability of a limited war is very low, let me paint a hypothetical scenario. The year is 2022. Indian economy has grown at 8-10 per cent. Major national security reforms have been undertaken. Armed Forces have been restructured and reorganised, and a clear technological military edge over Pakistan has been established. Situation in Jammu and Kashmir is under control but Pakistan continues to bleed us with 1,000 cuts. International environment is in favour of “war on ‘terrorism’ “.
India has decided to adopt a strategy of “compellence” against Pakistan through a proactive limited war. The political aim is to compel Pakistan to peace on own terms. Essentials of likely politico military strategy: the war will be initiated as a pre-emptive strategic offensive; maximum territory will be captured in POK for permanent retention; a belt of 20 kilometre relative to tactical objectives will be captured across the IB for post war negotiations; maximum damage will be caused to Pakistan’s war waging potential particularly its Air Force, Navy and mechanised forces; maximum damage will be caused to Pakistan’s economic potential; all objectives will be achieved in 10 days, however, prolonged operations may be undertaken in POK; Armed Forces must be prepared for use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons by the enemy.
Until the conditions for this hypothetical scenario are created it may be prudent to continue with “strategic restraint”.
Lt Gen H S Panag, PVSM,AVSM (Retired), is a former Army commander, Northern Command and Central Command
The views expressed are personal