Speaking at a seminar on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war, army chief General Dalbir Singh said that the army was ready for “the swift short nature of future wars”. This was interpreted by many as a nod to the idea of a limited war against Pakistan.
A limited war would be needed, the argument goes, in case India suffers another 26/11-like terror attack originating from Pakistan. A full-fledged war is out of the question between two nuclear-armed neighbours, and a “no response” won’t be an option for the muscular government of Narendra Modi. The options between a no-response and an unlimited nuclear war are rather sparse: covert military action or a limited war.
A recently retired director general of military operations explained that even if India could undertake covert strikes inside Pakistan, it will not be a politically viable response to a 26/11-like provocation. A terror attack will need a visible, robust military response because the government’s message will also be directed at a domestic political constituency.
But what exactly is a limited war? As India’s military planners see it today, it is a short, small, punitive military action against Pakistan under the nuclear threshold. The three obvious ways in which the war will be limited is in geographical space, in terms of time and by military resources employed.
As per Henry Kissinger, limited wars have limited political objectives. But Thomas Schelling noted that a war could only be limited if the limiting points or saliencies of either side were known to the adversary.
But how is victory defined in a limited war? In a limited war, while the military is used as a visible instrument of state policy, it is operationally constrained. Limited military operations can then be perceived as a sign of weakness by the adversary, causing escalation from either side (theoretically leading up to a nuclear exchange). Ergo, adhering to the limits set in a limited war makes it impossible to gain a full military victory, and ending a war without victory politically resembles defeat.
Even setting aside the issue of political optics, Schelling’s point about knowing each other’s saliencies is critically important. Unsure of Modi’s intentions, India’s limited objectives could be viewed as unlimited and unacceptable by Pakistan. How will India convey its political and military saliencies to Pakistan without allowing Rawalpindi to better plan its response? If these limits are not conveyed, the conflict could easily escalate into unpredictable dimensions. This is a contradiction that needs to be resolved at the highest levels if a limited war is now viewed as a realistic option.
The Kargil conflict is often cited as an example of a successful limited war. In a classic military sense, Kargil was a conflict on a much smaller scale than a limited war. India publicly announced its salience of not crossing the LoC, or extending the war to the IB. This placed serious limits on India’s operational plans, leading to heavy military casualties, for which the government was heavily criticised. The government, under pressure, started a partial mobilisation of forces on the IB. The Pakistani military leadership then came under pressure and rumours about Rawalpindi considering the deployment of nuclear weapons then are still rife. However, by partially mobilising its troops, India had already stepped up the escalation ladder.
If not for the sacrifices of our soldiers, and the American ultimatum to Pakistan on July 4, the Kargil conflict could have easily escalated. In an increasingly untenable position, the beleaguered Pakistani military leadership could have read the situation as one warranting extreme decisions. India’s restraint in Kargil was dictated, in part, by these fears of desperate measures from a nuclear Pakistan. Similar fears also restrained India’s response after the 2001 Parliament attack.
Half a century ago, Ayub Khan and Z.A. Bhutto launched Operations Gibraltar and Grandslam, believing that war would be limited to J&K. But Lal Bahadur Shastri chose to escalate by opening a front in Punjab and the Indian army was soon at the outskirts of Lahore. The 1965 war holds an important lesson: a war can’t be limited just because one side wishes it to be.