By Praveen Swami
December 31, 2016
Macedonian historian and rhetorician Polyaenus advised Indians to use pigs rather than elephants, in his masterpiece Strategems of War, written around 161 CE, and dedicated to the greatest of the Roman Emperors, Marcus Aurelius: “At the siege of Megara, Antigonus brought his elephants into the attack; but the Megarians daubed some swine with pitch, set fire to it, and let them loose among the elephants. The pigs grunted and shrieked under the torture of the fire, and sprang forwards as hard as they could among the elephants, who broke their ranks in confusion and fright, and ran off in different directions”.
For generations of military history students, the story of how the humble pig defeated the Indian elephants of the King of Macedonia, Antigonos II Gonatas, has had a simple lesson: in war, it’s often the smarter side, not the stronger one that wins.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national security advisors could do worse than spend some time contemplating that lesson over the New Year weekend as they consider the course of events during what has been an extraordinarily fraught twelve months for India-Pakistan relations. Frustrated by Pakistan’s continued patronage of jihadist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and stung by terrorist attacks on Pathankot and Uri in particular, India struck across the Line of Control in September.
Even though many Indians were euphoric, the strikes failed to deter Pakistan: in November and December, jihadists operating from Pakistan struck back repeatedly, notably hitting the XVI Corps’ headquarters in Nagrota.
More worrying, the short-term impact of the cross-Line of Control strikes was to blow apart the ceasefire that India and Pakistan put in place in 2003. Should Pakistan escalate cross-Line of Control firing come spring, it will be hard for India to rebuild its fencing, 75 per cent of which is brought down by snowfall each winter. That, in turn, will mean more terrorist infiltration—and more violence.
From a record low of just 17 in 2012, Indian security force fatalities in Kashmir have inched up steadily in Kashmir to 87 this year, the worst since 2008. Killings of terrorists have risen, too, to 165, the highest since 2010, and a sign of steadily increasing infiltration.
Thus, Prime Minister Modi could soon face a tough decision: should he resort to more attempts to coerce Pakistan, like the cross-Line of Control strikes—to use his elephants, as it were—or instead look for creative battle-pigs?
For an answer, India’s national security strategists might begin by taking a clear-eyed look at the country’s interests. Though the word “strategic” has been routinely used in public debates, almost as a magical incantation, there is little understanding of what it actually means. Lawrence Freedman, in his magisterial work on strategy, defines it as being thus: “identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods for meeting such objectives”.
In Pakistan’s case, the objectives are clear. Though some Western analysts lament what they claim is a lack of rationality to Pakistan’s use of covert warfare against India, it is in fact entirely strategic. Hostility with India legitimises the army’s primacy in Pakistan’s political life, and unites the population behind the generals. The alliance with anti-India jihadists, moreover, beats back jihadists who are seeking to overthrow the Pakistani state.
Thus, jihadist violence in Kashmir, calibrated to avoid full-scale war—something Pakistan cannot afford, both economically and for fear of defeat—is a low-cost method to secure the Pakistan army’s strategic goal.
India, though, has very different ends—key among them, economic growth that will allow it to enjoy its position as an Asian power secure in the face of China’s rising might.
Full-scale war could scare away the investment India desperately needs to secure this end; as the richer state, it has more assets to lose, moreover, in a substantial conventional or nuclear war with Pakistan, no matter who might be the notional winner.
How, then, might India address continued jihadist warfare by Pakistan?
The first step is in judging the threat Pakistan-backed terrorism actually poses, so that Indian thinking is not coloured by either rage or panic. This year, violence in Kashmir cost a total of 266 combatant and non-combatant lives; by way of contrast, Maoist violence claimed 428 lives (and traffic accidents over 150,000 lives). India has not faced a major urban terror strike in years. This is not to trivialise terrorism; just to underline the need for a calm response to something that is not an existential threat.
Secondly, India needs to substantially enhance its domestic counter-terrorism capacity, so as to be able to preempt and contain threats—lessening the need for risk-enhancing strategies like the cross-border strikes. Little noticed, central government support for police modernisation has been cut off since Prime Minister Modi’s government took office; state after state has also slashed hiring and budgets. Police training and human resource standards remain abysmal: constables, across India, are hired and paid on par with unskilled labour.
Third, no significant investments have been made in modernising the intelligence services. Both the Research and Analysis Wing, and the Intelligence Bureau, continue to suffer from staff deficits of over 30 per cent—this based on staffing levels decided in the 1980s. Language and technical staff, as well as executive personnel, are in particularly short supply; Indian electronic intelligence capabilities lag decades behind the state of the art.
Finally, India is yet to invest in the capacities needed to strike at the jihadist leadership across the border. Though the Air Force and Army both have assets that allow for limited, and relatively crude, attacks on training camps and logistics facilities, there is no capacity for targetted strikes on key leaders and operatives—a fact underlined by India’s failure to eliminate key 26/11 perpetrators roaming free in Pakistan. In addition, India needs to think hard on the economic and military tools in needs to inflict costs on the Pakistan Army, without risking war.
Last, India is yet to enhance its counter-insurgency apparatus in the theatres where it operates. That almost half of the Indian police and army fatalities this year in Kashmir were caused because of lapses in perimeter security or poor training speaks ill of capacity; so, too, does the crude and brutal means used to control crowds, which have generated ill-will that will last generations.
These issues may not be as glamorous as high-profile cross-border actions, or diplomatic summits: they involve granular attention to long-festering problems in India’s national-security apparatus that will take years to address and resolve. The gains of action, however, will be lasting.
Failure to begin now, though, will ensure Prime Ministers years, even decades from today will continue to flail in the face of crisis.