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#832, 15 August 2002
A Smoke Screen Called Limited War Firdaus AhmedFreelance writer on security affairs
The discussion in Indian strategic circles on Limited War in the subcontinental context has served strategic ends rather than expanding conflict theory. The Kargil episode and the Pakistani threat of ‘many more Kargils’ energized India’s strategic community into reflecting on Limited War to address the larger problem posed by Pakistan remaining unreconciled to India’s possession of Kashmir. In publicly reflecting on the possibilities of Limited War, India sought to get ‘war’ back onto the agenda and thereby reduce the significance of Chagai whereby Pakistan has sought to continue its proxy war with impunity. My contention is that the Limited War discourse furthered the information war that attended the recent Indian mobilization.
Indian theorizing departed from the Western concept of deterrence in the nuclear age by declaring that nuclear weapons can only deter nuclear weapons, and not conventional war. Therefore, if the military had to create options for the political decision makers, ‘war’ had to be made thinkable. This was the project of the Limited War theorists. This exercise was given media publicity through seminars organized by official think tanks. The Defense Minister was duly quoted on this issue periodically. Lectures and interviews of establishment figures that included one retired Chief and a retiring senior bureaucrat were assiduously reported. This served three purposes. One was to prepare public opinion and to appear responsive to it. The second was to build pressure on Pakistan’s security apparatus by getting them to believe that they were witnessing the build up of Indian resolve, if not recklessness. The third was directed at the international community to force it to restrain Pakistan, lest India, having armed itself with the Limited War option, undertook to exercise it.
Its evolution seems to have been designed to increase the nervousness of Pakistan’s India watchers. The provocatively named exercise, Poorna Vijay (Total Victory), was publicized as being designed to validate doctrine appropriate to a nuclear backdrop, and could not have made Pakistan comfortable. The name, Total Victory, appears apt given its overall intent. While it was easier for an Islamist military dictator to appear less than rational and thereby enhance Pakistani deterrence, it required a strenuous effort by democratic India to deflate this image. By appearing to take Pakistani nuclear capability ‘nonchalantly’ (Pervez Hoodbhoy, Gaurav Kampani), India could undercut the confident security perception under which Pakistan was emboldened to undertake its adventurism in Kargil.
The criticism that the Limited War thesis evoked from concerned strategists, especially the liberal-rationalist flank of India’s strategic community, suggests that India was right on course. A nuclear environment does not lend itself easily to brinkmanship, particularly if one of the two potential adversaries does not accept a ‘no first use’ doctrine. Given the inbuilt escalatory potential in a strategy that comprised nuclear signaling, conventional mobilization, border posturing, possible covert operations, political rhetoric and a diplomatic offensive, this cautionary advice is undoubtedly sobering. That India initiated and persisted with this strategy would have reinforced Pakistani perceptions of an Indian leadership not entirely in control. If brinkmanship involves projection of a mismatch between required and actual control, India appears to have succeeded in inducing this belief in the beleaguered Pakistani leadership. In retrospect, it is apparent that India was indulging in a game of ‘Chicken’.
In the event, Pakistan appears to have blinked, as evident from its public declaration of discontinuing terrorist infiltration. Thus India has obtained a summer’s respite from the influx of additional jehadis and war material into Kashmir; hence this ‘high cost, high risk, and high stakes’ strategy provided a fair payoff. The attendant dangers were that it could have compelled climbing the escalatory ladder. Rationalists became unwitting accomplices in furthering this perception of an India unwary of the fuller implications of Pokhran and Chagai. That the ladder has remained unscaled warrants the conclusion that criticism directed at the Government was a case of misreading its intent altogether. In doing so the strategic community, including the rationalists and the peace activists, played to a tune set by the astute Indian security managers. Is there a case, therefore, for assessing that the brinkmanship we have witnessed is explicable as psy war, with its information warfare component focused on the Limited War thesis, rather than an aborted Limited War?

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