Military power is never about the number of troops, tanks, ships or aircrafts. If military power was all a country needed to establish superiority, America would not have been beaten by Vietnam, the Soviet Union would not have been routed by Afghan tribes and the juggernaut that is the Indian Army would not have been held at bay by a few thousand Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
A country’s military power is actually determined by a combination of economic realities, governance frameworks, national will and strategic thinking – which work together to deliver a punch worthy of its weight.
Comparing India’s military power to Pakistan’s from this perspective actually yields a startling conclusion.
In 1999, Pakistan’s army chief at the time was mid-air when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decided to sack him. Denied permission to land in Pakistan and faced with the option of making an emergency landing on Indian soil, the sacked general decided to land in Karachi anyway. He communicated his orders to his military subordinates through the civilian aviation channel and by the time his plane landed, Pervez Musharraf was firmly back in the saddle while Sharif had been toppled off his. That is the power of the Pakistani military.
Now compare the Pakistani army’s swiftness to India’s handling of the Kandahar hijacking in 1999. When the Indian Airlines flight was taken over by terrorists and parked in Amritsar over the course of its long journey, the Indian establishment could not decide between blocking the aircraft’s departure or letting it go. That ambivalence cost India the advantage it had in being able to control events happening on its own turf.
India may have one of the best special forces in the world, but its inability to mobilise rapidly was demonstrated yet again during the terrorist attacks in 2008, when special forces didn’t deploy until 14 hours into the Mumbai attacks. This just demonstrates that a country’s military superiority is the product of several moving parts working together and not determined by the prowess of any one of them.
To that end, the military in Pakistan is a stronger organisation than the military in our country.
Indians still expect Nawaz Sharif to rein in the terrorists in Pakistan when it is really the military that controls the relevant levers to do so. Anyone familiar with body language could discern that the Pakistani premier was unconvinced by his own speech at the UN. He was simply parroting a script written by the military. And that is the strategic message that the Pakistani military has been sending India for decades now. Generals, not ‘democratically elected’ politicians, are the real leaders of Pakistan. This message has been delivered to us several times now: in the form of the Kargil attacks, when Vajpayee’s government attempted to deal with Pakistan, later reiterated by the Pathankot attack and then most recently followed up by Uri. Our military is butting heads with counterparts who have far more freedom for manoeuvre and far less accountability.
Three nuances of national strength
Firstly, the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy cannot have the same kind of cavalier attitude as the politician masquerading as his counterpart in Pakistan. If the Indian prime minister mentions even the possibility of a conflict, billions of dollars of potential foreign investments will freeze. The sustained lobbying efforts for building ‘India’ as a global brand, our anticipated growth trajectory and thousands of investment projects will plunge into limbo. All this can hurt us far more than all terror attacks put together.
Secondly, the Pakistani premier’s rhetoric is meant only for one audience – his countrymen. Sharif knows that even the most ardent of Pakistan’s advocates do not buy the country’s claims of innocence anymore. Not after Osama bin Laden was caught on Pakistani soil. The fact that the US chose to hide the raid from its ‘ally in the war against terror,’ demonstrates Pakistan’s credibility to the world. Sharif is only going through the motions, like a lawyer whose client is undoubtedly guilty. He knows he’s losing the case but has to plead nonetheless.
Modi on the other hand has to address several audiences. There is an internal audience that is baying for vengeance that must be appeased. Another faction is taunting him with reminders of his bellicose stance on Pakistan when Modi was in the opposition. Strategically speaking, however, India risks far more in terms of opportunity cost than Pakistan. We are a country with hopes of achieving economic success, while Pakistan is barely stemming off failure. If it weren’t for dole from China and the US, Pakistan would be teetering economically. This is why Pakistan has to tolerate the blatant intrusion of its airspace by the US and land by China. Pakistan’s leaders are literally parcelling territorial deals to cling onto power. Pakistan’s communication is tactical – lurching from crisis to crisis. India’s has to be strategic, with an outlook spanning decades not weeks.
The surgical strikes announced last week are nothing more than an attempt to get national closure after the Uri attack and restore morale amongst Indian soldiers who have grown tired of India’s empty rhetoric. The raids will also take the pressure off the Indian leadership’s shoulders and create manoeuvring room for them to execute a more long term solution. And therein lies the key.
Three strategic realities India cannot overlook
Firstly, much as jingoists, TRP seekers and chairborne strategists would like to screech otherwise, it is in India’s interest to have a stable and economically growing Pakistan. Having a neighbour which is combusting due to civil war (Balochistan) or spiralling into fundamentalism or one with a military which will do anything to stay in power (including risking a limited war with India) – is not in India’s best interest.
Secondly, ‘isolation’ is not a strategy, it is merely the preamble to a more meaningful endgame. Isolated countries (North Korea, for example) don’t become acquiescent just because they have been excluded from global affairs. If anything, the controlling regime becomes stronger and draconian to the point of successfully brainwashing entire generations, who then refuse to listen to reason.
And lastly, using war as a tool for extending political influence is neither an effective nor an enduring approach. If it were, we would not be in this continually hostile relationship with Pakistan despite ‘winning’ at least two of the four wars – unequivocally.
Given these realities, we are perhaps ignoring the Achilles’ heel of any emerging economy, including Pakistan – its middle class.
Regardless of a nation’s economic or political circumstances, the conditions of the rich and the poor remain largely unaffected. The rich flourish in the poorest of countries and under the most repressive of regimes. Similarly, the poor live a life of daily struggle everywhere.
A poor farmer in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) does not care about who is in power. He is just trying to keep his body and soul together and has no say in shaping his country’s narrative. A measure like cutting off water supply is only likely to consolidate the anti-India feeling amongst PoK’s poor, leaving them with no choice but to rally around their leader. Putting pressure on the poor and expecting them to rebel against their regime has never succeeded, as the Allied forces found out after the First Gulf War, which left Saddam Hussein more firmly entrenched despite Iraq’s defeat.
Similarly the rich have no incentive to change the status quo. After all – that is what made them rich in the first place .
The middle class on the other hand, has what can be called the ‘trajectory of marginal growth’. What this means is that when a class of people is on an upward growth trend, things considered to be luxuries quickly transform into necessities for members of that class. Take the middle class in Indian cities for instance. Four decades ago, fans were a luxury for Indian middle class citizens. Three decades ago, fans became a necessity and coolers were considered a luxury and now in many cases even air conditioners have become a necessity. The rich always have air conditioners and the poor still bear the heat. Nothing has changed for them.
This ‘trajectory of marginal growth’ is a powerful lever for influencing Pakistan’s national discourse. And to achieve that, India must use its military as a ‘holding action’ and actually attack with its economic and commercial strength.
Using economic leverage to influence Pakistani economy
Pakistan has one-eighth of India’s GDP, with agriculture accounting for over 23% of its output. More importantly, 44% of Pakistan’s population is dependent on the export of wheat, cotton, meat and fruits and vegetables. These cash crops are also India’s forte, in terms of both quantity and quality. We are amongst the top three global producers in all these categories. With an economy eight times the size of Pakistan’s, India should enter every Pakistani export market and undercut Pakistani pricing, constricting the cash flow of its internal economy. Pakistan’s three main benefactors – the US, China & UAE account for just 30% of Pakistan’s export markets, leaving the other markets – starting with Afghanistan – wide open. This puts pressure on the Pakistani middle class who will start bearing the brunt of their military’s adventurism within months.
Expose and target value chains of Pakistan’s military businesses
The Pakistani armed forces run several business enterprises accounting for over $20 billion, which is three times their annual defence budget. Run under the guise of rehabilitating ex-servicemen, serving Pakistani generals hold portfolios in businesses with no relation to soldiering. This conflict of interest,which is tantamount to corruption, though well-known internally, hasn’t triggered any public questioning about the total cost of ownership incurred by the Pakistani military’s top brass. The Pakistani media stays clear of this area as well. The Indian media doesn’t need to. A ‘Panama Papers’ style exposé of Pakistan’s generals will rip the veneer off their patriotic fervour and reveal their commercial avarice.
Similarly, an exposé on the personal wealth of senior and retired officers, the flamboyant lifestyle of radical leaders and the disparity between what they preach in public and practice in private, will undermine the Pakistani army’s moral authority to equate itself with the professional, apolitical Indian Army.
Combine ‘strategic depth’ with ‘strategic stretch’
One of Pakistan’s nightmares is its lack of ‘strategic depth’. In layman’s terms, this means that the lay of Pakistani land does not allow them margins of error in case of Indian conventional thrust lines, which in theory, can slice the country along geo-political fault lines. This is why the Pakistani military goes berserk when it sees signs of Indian dominance in Afghanistan. To a military mind, this is pure and simple encirclement.
The Pakistani army is currently stretched to the point of exhaustion. Operations in Waziristan and along its western border with Afghanistan are chewing up Pakistani troops. The very same troops have to be switched back and forth between Pakistan’s western and eastern borders. Its army’s morale too is alarmingly low, primarily because of the duplicitous narrative of Pakistani leaders who urge soldiers to fight the ‘Hindu infidels’ and protect Islam on the eastern front, but within weeks deploy them to attack fellow Muslims on the western front.
These natural fissures must be leveraged by India, and the Pakistani military apparatus must not only be encircled by stepping up Indian military aid and nation building initiatives in Afghanistan, but also be stretched by forcing it to adopt a ‘two-front’ operational readiness. Coupled with Pakistan’s internal security commitments – which are increasingly becoming the army’s responsibility, India should leverage its strategic resilience instead of orchestrating ‘surgical strikes’.
All of the steps described above are well within India’s capability to execute and sustain for prolonged periods, allowing India to cause trauma where it matters – the Pakistani middle class – which has on previous occasions shown tremendous capability to shape the country’s national narrative.
Between 2007-2009, it was this segment of Pakistani society which rebelled against the constitutional travesties hoisted upon them through the joint efforts of their military officials and politicians. The movement was spearheaded by middle class professionals such as lawyers, activists and courageous media persons who were fed up with being exploited and so successfully thwarted Musharraf’s designs.
One of India’s weaknesses is that it tries to shape long-term strategy with short-term tactics. That’s a bit like trying to jump a ten-foot wide ditch by taking two five foot wide jumps. To achieve meaningful strategic outcomes, India needs to stop its tactical jingoism from being paraded as a strategy and develop an actual blueprint which leverages all the available levers by synchronising their collective energy into a concentrated point of decision.
War may be the continuation of politics by other means, but there are also means other than war that can advance the political aims of our country. Our ability to exploit the full spectrum of the means available to us is what will help India achieve a strategic détente.
Raghu Raman is the former CEO of NATGRID and Group President Reliance Industries. He tweets @captraman and the views expressed here are personal.