Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Fighting a ‘limited war’ by Lt-Gen Harwant Singh (retd)

The Tribune
Tuesday, August 3, 2010, Chandigarh, India a ‘limited war’

It is a flawed concept

by Lt-Gen Harwant Singh (retd) IT is not clear as to when the idea or the concept of a “limited war” was first evolved and articulated. Maybe it was the fallout from the procrastination, dithering and timidity in our response and an alibi for the missed opportunity of a suitable riposte to a major mischief by Pakistan at Kargil. Such response would have put an end to the slow-bleeding of India by Pakistan. Or was it the result of the fiasco of “Operation Parakaram” (mobilisation of Indian defence forces consequent to the attack on Indian Parliament) where we thought we could go in for a limited war and then backtracked on conjuring up the prospects of a larger conflagration?
It takes a minimum of two contestants to make war. Therefore, both must subscribe to the idea of a limited war. It cannot work when one of the contestants does and the other does not fall for it. Then there is the issue of both scale and duration of the conflict. Here again there is the problem of the two adopting the same concept and course of action. There is also the hazardous undertaking of forecasting and then chartering the future course of a war and preparing for just that one contingency.

It is easy to start a war but difficult to conclude it on own terms. The German army, after nearly two decades of study, planning and preparation and detailed knowledge of every inch of the ground over which operations were to be conducted, prepared the Schlieffen Plan and catered for no other contingency. With over 350 army divisions, it undertook to over-run France in 40 days during World War I. The war lasted four years with disastrous consequences for Germany. The American war in Afghanistan is a case in point.

The second issue relates to a conflict between two nuclear-armed contestants. The parameters and compulsions for either side to transcend from a conventional war to a nuclear war are not that simple or easy to overcome. A whole range of considerations and possible consequences come into play, especially if the opponent has the wherewithal, the will and the capacity to completely devastate and lay waste the whole country. Consequently, in such a setting, the conflict will remain within the bounds of conventional warfare. Then there is the inevitable issue of reaching a stage (also sometimes called “threshold”) where the very survival, nay the existence, of the nation comes into play when a fatal decision to go in for the nuclear option can be considered. Sooner than later, world pressure is likely to prevail in ending the conflict.

Coming to the specifics of the Indo-Pak setting, neither side is willing to concede territory. This has led to extensive obstacles being created by both sides close to the border and these are effectively held. Consequently, major battles will be conducted within a few kilometres on either side of the border. Such was the case in 1965 and 1971 on the western sector. That has been and will remain the dominant reality of a conflict between these two neighbours. It is here along the plains of J and K and Punjab where the centre of gravity of the two countries lie, more so of Pakistan, and it is here that decisive battles, if and when they occur, will be fought.

The second and more important issue relates to meshing together the military and political aims of a war. These two cannot work in isolation or exclusion of one from the other. Clausewitz records that “war is continuation of policy”, but there has to be a “policy” to carry forward to war. Sometimes there can be a conflict or variance between the policy and the war aim. In such situations, it is the bounden duty of the military commander to lay bare before those who formulate national policy the full implications of pursuing a war which is at variance with military aim.

If in the opinion of the military commander, he is compelled to adopt a course other than what is in the national interest and the interest of his army, he should quietly make way for someone else. Had the then Army Chief in 1962 told some home-truths about the state of his Army and military infrastructure and offered to quit, the political leadership would have seen the reality and India could have been spared that humiliation and the Army the ignominy of a rout.
There are indeed innumerable instances where military commanders were able to carry their point and they proved eminently correct. The Russian army was required to defend Moscow against Napoleon’s advance. The Czar and his entourage insisted that the city must be defended. But, purely from the strategic military angle, Marshal Kutozov thought otherwise. Withstanding enormous pressure from the Czar and others, Kutozov did not defend Moscow and in the process saved Russia, its army and eventually brought about complete destruction of Napoleon’s army. During the invasion of Europe in World War II (Operation Overlord), as a political decision, the governments of the United States and Britain decided to keep “Strategic Air Command” outside the command of Eisenhower; the Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord. Eisenhower told them that in which case he would have to find someone else for command purposes.

As at Kargil, Pakistan had a distinct tactical advantage in its offensive at Chamb during 1965. Consequently, the Army Chief impressed upon the then Prime Minister the imperatives of wresting the initiative and opening another front against Pakistan across the international border and obtained his clearance for the same, though politically no one wanted a full-scale war. This was at a time when Pakistan enjoyed marked superiority in armour (qualitatively and quantitatively), and our edge in infantry and artillery was only marginal. In a span of just two weeks India was able to bring about the destruction of Pakistan’s armour and much else.
In 197,1 the political compulsions and the policy demand was to march into East Pakistan in May-June to relieve the unbearable pressure of influx of millions of refugees. The strategic military compulsions were quite different. The Army Chief had become the subject of a malicious whispering campaign. When the then Prime Minister told him that she was under great pressure from her Cabinet to march the Army into East Pakistan, Manekshaw told her that he could resign if that would help her. She had to then orchestrate diplomatic moves to gain international support, etc.

Weigh this against the meeting on May 18, 1999, where the Service Chiefs meekly accepted the orders from the PS to the Prime Minister (not the Prime Minister) without a whimper, detailing the defence forces not to use air power and permitting “hot-pursuit” of the enemy, only in the area of the ingress! Thus driving troops into suicidal frontal attacks up those impossible heights and slopes over a terrain where fire support was so much less effective.
It was left to a Pakistani brigadier to spell out through a newspaper article the course the Indian Army should have adopted rather than bash its head against the Kargil heights and suffer avoidable heavy casualties, thus discrediting generalship. In times of war the top military leader bears an enormous responsibility both to the nation and his army. He must fearlessly and forcefully advice the government on strategic military compulsions, and where he fails to carry his point he must act according to his own light and conscience.

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