Can wars be won decisively?
Speaking at the founding day of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that all India’s Armed Forces need to defeat Pakistan in seven to ten days. Was he talking through his hat? Can the world’s fourth-largest military power defeat the fifth-largest in just about a week or so? Particularly, when they are both nuclear-armed?
If the answer to all three questions is what seems obvious, ‘yes’ to the first and ‘no’ to the next two, we could be done with it with a 140-character tweet. We wouldn’t be wasting your time, labouring over 1,200 words.
The answers, therefore, are: First, that Narendra Modi is no delusional nutcase. If he wasn’t phenomenally smart, he wouldn’t have come this far. The second and third questions have one answer: Whether or not you can win a war in 7-10 days would also depend on how you define that ‘victory’.
The genuinely strategic issues do tend to be complex, and somewhat less fun than what prime-time debates on some commando-comic channels might want to make you believe. They can defeat Pakistan, maybe with China thrown in, in half-an-hour, leaving time for commercial breaks. In real life, we might need to explore history — strategic and political — and some non-classical definitions of victory and defeat. That’s why this week’s argument begins with Modi, will go back to the two Bhuttos, father and daughter, Indira Gandhi, VP Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and return to Modi.
The central truth is that a country or even a set of countries defeating another in the manner of World War II is now an impossibility. We don’t even have a significant instance of that happening since that war. The Americans, the mightiest of all, failed in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. A mere regime change isn’t a victory.
The Soviets’ failure in Afghanistan ended their ideology and military bloc. Saudi Arabia, enormously richer and more powerful, has failed to defeat poor Yemen in almost five years. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, hoping to take advantage of the chaos in the wake of the revolution there. Eight years later, all the two countries had was corpses, cripples and prisoners of war, but no tangible gains. This is by no means an exhaustive list. You might, for the sake of an argument, find an example here or there, such as Bosnia. But again, a regime change by a multinational force in such a small country wouldn’t really count for a victory in the sense of a nation defeating another.
Closer home, in 73 years marked with four large wars against two adversaries, China and Pakistan, two have ended decisively. It is easy to remember the one we won, in 1971 against Pakistan, and impossible to forget the one we lost, in 1962 to China. The war India won, 1971, lasted all of 13 days.
The defeat against China, in 1962, also came over about two fortnights of intense operations with a recess of sorts in between. This tells you something counter-intuitive to what our immediate reaction to Modi’s statement on NCC Day would be. So, don’t laugh at the idea that one strong country can defeat another in seven to ten days. Because our generation has seen exactly that at home, twice.
Which brings us to the nub of the issue. How do we define victory or defeat when modern nations fight? In 1971, the moment Dacca fell, Indira Gandhi offered Pakistan ceasefire in the more evenly-matched western sector. The moment Pakistan accepted, she could declare victory.
Similarly, in 1962, China offered India a ceasefire unilaterally, even announced it was returning to its pre-war positions (except in some small parts of Ladakh). The moment India accepted it, vowing to fight another day, China could declare victory. The Chinese knew the risk of getting into an unwinnable war of attrition if they ventured into the plains, and Mrs Gandhi, sobered by Soviet allies, also understood the relative military parity in the western sector.
A war is won, therefore, not when a country is comprehensively defeated, brought down to its knees, as with Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan, or as the norm was in the medieval era. It is won when one nation decides it has achieved its objective. To win a war now, you first have to set your objective clearly beforehand. And then have the foresight to seize the moment to declare victory. The earlier the better.
Apply this test to some other familiar situations. Kargil was a relatively tiny war and India won it only because Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his counsels defined victory narrowly and precisely as the mere withdrawal of Pakistan to the Line of Control. Pakistan had initiated that war with the objective of grabbing crucial territory and forcing India to negotiate Kashmir. Vajpayee set defeating that objective as his target and declared victory the moment it was achieved.
Both Pakistan and India claim 1965 as a win. Here is the equation if we follow the parameters we’ve just set. Pakistan started that war, with the objective of grabbing Kashmir. It had the technological, tactical and diplomatic superiority, and the strategic space and cushion to do so.
If India still denied Pakistan that moment, you can conclude who won or lost, although militarily, the war was a stalemate, the equivalent of a cricket Test petering off to a dull, pointless draw. Balakot is a more complicated case.
India bombed Balakot, deep inside Pakistani mainland, to deliver a strategic and political message. That objective achieved, it had nothing more to do except brace for a Pakistani counter. Whatever the score in the air skirmish on the following morning, the Pakistanis were left with an IAF pilot and the wreckage of his plane. This enabled both sides to declare victory.
A good example where no such thing happened was Op Parakram and ‘coercive diplomacy’, after the terror attack on Parliament. No clear objectives were set, and the build-up continued for so long, it became unsustainable. The moment to declare victory, however, had come very early in the day, on January 12, 2002, within a month of the Parliament attack, when General Pervez Musharraf made his famous speech suing for peace. India missed it, and the entire venture was wasted.
The duration of a war is more a function of rhetoric than strategy. The clearest example of this is senior (Zulfiqar Ali) Bhutto vowing a 1,000-year war on India while his troops were surrendering in Dacca. His daughter Benazir renewed this in the war-like summer of 1990 (her ‘Jagmohan ko jag-jag, mo-mo, han-han kar denge’ days).
It even provoked a weak-kneed pacifist like VP Singh, then prime minister, into asking in Parliament whether those who threatened 1,000-year wars could last even a thousand hours. That, by the way, adds up to 41 days and about 15 hours — more than the two wars, 1965 and 1971, combined.
How long you say you’d fight for, 1,000 years, hours or 7-10 days, is all rhetoric.
The reality is simpler: Do you know how you define victory and have the foresight to seize the moment to declare it? In the India-Pakistan context, it could have come even after just an hour on the morning of February 26, 2019 or, latest, by noon the following day. But for that, India had to have a decisive, deterrent conventional edge over Pakistan. If that is built in the years to come, it might even be possible to defeat Pakistan in less than a week. You could even win with deterrence, without fighting. Not, of course, if you are still flying MiG-21s.