Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2020-02-01 12:12:11 Published on Feb 01, 2020
Even short of nuclear war, it is open to debate if India, the preponderant South Asian military power, has the capacity to beat Pakistan at this juncture.
A balance of forces: The very meaning of ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ in a war has changed. Ask the Americans

Perhaps we should discount as electoral posturing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim, made earlier this week, that India’s military can defeat Pakistan in 7-10 days. Even so, it is difficult not to be alarmed. He’s not only the prime minister of the country, he is also the head of the Nuclear Command Authority. The so-called surgical strike of 2016 and the Balakot attack in early 2019 may not by themselves have been a winning factor, but they were an important element in the heady hyper-nationalistic brew that helped BJP prevail in the UP state assembly and the general election subsequently. But both were clearly limited events linked to specific Pakistan-backed terror strikes, and this was acknowledged by the government itself.

Now without any immediate provocation, the PM is talking about a general war. If so, he should know that in our era, the very meaning of “defeat” and “victory” has changed. Ask the Americans who “won” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And when it comes to war with nuclear weapons, things are even more topsy-turvy. Before accepting “defeat” the losing party has the ability to unleash weapons that will make the winning party’s “victory” look like defeat. The scale of destruction — whether the winner loses “just” five cities, to the loser’s 20 — would be epochal. The devastation would make it difficult for the winner and the loser to survive as functioning societies. Some argue that India can push the Pakistani red lines without inviting a nuclear response. But pushing red lines is hazardous business. It can trigger escalating responses that are out of anyone’s control.

Actually, even short of nuclear war, it is open to debate if India, the preponderant South Asian military power, has the capacity to beat Pakistan at this juncture. This goes as far back as 1971 when, despite the splendid military victory in the eastern front, superior Indian forces fumbled in the west. None of their offensives — in Kargil, northern Kashmir, Shakargarh, or the desert, went anywhere. Indeed, the net result was the loss of Chamb. Nothing has changed since, and we should not be taken in by the hype surrounding the small and carefully managed “surgical strikes” and the Balakot attack. Pakistan has long maintained “effective parity” and it continues to maintain it, even without counting its nuclear weapons. Islamabad may lack the forces to launch a conventional attack on India, but it has rugged and prepared defences along its borders that would make any but the shallowest ingress very expensive. The option often mooted is to confine the fight to Jammu & Kashmir. This is an illusion, any major action there will spill over to the plains.

There is nothing currently in the Indian armed forces’ organisation, equipment or doctrine, to suggest that they can overwhelm Pakistan in quick time. The military has been seriously underfunded, curbing its effectiveness. Even if with its numerically superior forces, India gains an upper hand, it will be unable to exploit this because the big powers will not let two nuclear armed adversaries slug it out till mushroom clouds rise. Actually, even a limited conventional war this time around will be hugely destructive given the arsenal of ballistic missiles and bombs that both sides possess.

And then, there is China. Will it stand by and allow its only real ally to be defeated even in a limited sense? Unlikely. Indeed, the prime beneficiary of an India-Pakistan war could well be Beijing since it will weaken both South Asian parties regardless of who “wins” or “loses”. Truth be told, the government’s Pakistan strategy has painted it into a corner. Using hostility towards Islamabad for electoral gains has left it with a one dimensional policy and with just one instrument in hand — a hammer — that can be used only in limited ways.

This commentary is originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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