COMMENT: States and conflict —Shahzad Chaudhry - Monday, March 14, 2011

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Both the Indian and Pakistani armies are structured to attain objectives that have gradually become irrelevant in the prevailing operational environment

States and conflict will coexist with time. Along with inter-state conflict, the 21st century has an accompaniment, which is intra-state conflict, enabled by the dawn of that shadowy, grey character, the non-state actor. As weapons and militancy become the elements of the new franchise, states will have to confront challenges from within in defining the control of ideologies, politico-religious and ethnic space, as indeed the ultimate plum, i.e. the control of the state and its resources. With central control of the state in serious contention, the space becomes wide open for various challengers, including inter-state influences and local franchises, who will offer their services to these inter-state interests. Pakistan today is suffering from such an example of an internal fray. If translated, it would mean the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) and the extremist religious groups principally remain interested in Pakistan for their own objectives. It is an acknowledgement of a sufficiently fragmented state that is in need of urgent repair.

Intra-state conflict resolution will only gain pre-eminence if sufficient freedom is gained from the inter-state obsession that drives a state’s security mindset. What keeps the state from weaning itself away from the inter-state conflict dynamics that Pakistan remains tied down in? In understanding this, one may discern why intra-state conflict matters remain unattended.

Inter-state conflict, in essence, revolves around the tools of war. States, to this day, continue to harbour military power as the ultimate arbiter of conflict. However, conflict has continuously mutated to take varying forms; intra-state conflict with a profusion of franchised armed and militant groups being the latest phenomenon. Modern militaries find their origin in Clausewitz’s teachings, tying them to a methodology of conception and application in pursuit of extending a state’s interests vis-à-vis another.

Clausewitz himself was a student of the Napoleonic wars and, though he fought against Napoleon in the Prussian armies, he remained a keen observer of Napoleon’s dominating war-fighting philosophies. If an applying force can beat the adversary in time and space, the firepower and momentum of the forces in play will carry the day for the applied force. This remains the kernel of success in force-application, as per modern theory premised on the combined philosophical thrust of Napoleonic conception and Clausewitz’s theory.

There are two strategic objectives of any war in conventional thinking — the destruction of the opposing force, or occupation of space. Most military applications are designed to achieve one or the other, or an implicit combination of the two. The most recent force applications, as in the first and second Gulf Wars, will evince these objectives succinctly. Around the turn of the century, a parallel thought in strategic thinking evolved, which considered both space- and force-based objectives obsolete in contemporary terms, since the international order did not subscribe to redrawing of borders or large-scale military operations aimed at annihilation. It was soon after put to naught by the US’s adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan. But then that is the US and it has evolved a rubric to cover its tracks. Application of force to coerce through pain and punishment became the more relevant strategic objective in the neo-modern era. Consider how Israel has applied force in recent times, and what India threatens to do if Pakistan errs on the issue of terrorism again. Tools for each objective are different, as tanks add mass and enable manoeuvre, while infantry adds to the mass and is used to retain occupied space as per contemporary operational thinking. A combination of the tank, mechanised columns and the infantry provide the mass as well as the momentum to move across wide spaces and either encircle an enemy force to destroy it or capture a large space in addition. Both the Indian and Pakistani armies are structured to attain objectives that have gradually become irrelevant in the prevailing operational environment.

There is, however, one impediment to this design other than a global aversion to apply force to destroy the opposing force or to occupy territory. Clausewitz calls it ‘friction’, which is both allegorical as well as literal in conception. In its literal sense, ‘ground friction’ impedes manoeuvre, slows down an advance and mutilates the time and space matrix of a manoeuvre. Both India and Pakistan have laid out a maze of obstructions, most natural and others man-made, to hinder exactly such a design of wide manoeuvres by the opposing forces. So, while their forces are structured to provide such effects, the playing ground has over the years changed extensively to defeat such designs. A defensively laid out battlefield neutralises any possibility of a successful offensive. One recalls how both 1965 and 1971 did not permit completion of even a single operational cycle. Such was the impact of the then friction from the ground. That friction has now multiplied manifold. Prevalent force structures in both India and Pakistan are thus unable to apply with any meaningful effect.

A derivative of conventional force structuring remains an entrenched operational mindset. Both India and Pakistan remain heavily embedded in operational thinking that can neither deliver force nor space. However, military teaching continues to revolve around this basic datum as it builds on the theories of Clausewitz and Napoleonic evolutions. What does that do to any efforts made to politically resolve differences over intractable issues? The Indian army considers that evacuating Siachen would mean having to win it back in another round and they do not wish to expend force again. Even while it talks of China as a new threat, its structuring forces it to remain focused only on Pakistan in pursuit of archaic strategic objectives, irrelevant to post-modern needs. Pakistan has the same problem. Unable to change the course of operational thought, comfort lies in known fundamentals, pushing the structures to endure.

Clausewitz still remains relevant, as is Napoleon, in conceptual terms, but strategic thinking in both countries has not kept pace with the needs of either the neo-modern or the post-modern strategic realities. Militaries will still pursue manoeuvres, firepower, and the centre of gravity of the opposing side, but will need different sets of tools. It may appear parochial but if space and force were no longer relevant objectives, and only coercion through pain and punishment was, air power and its various manifestations will need to be heavily relied upon. Armies will need to modify drastically with lighter, more manoeuvrable footprints in multifaceted composite packages against limited objectives. India’s Cold Start comes to mind but it shall need to break from the bondage of traditional thinking to develop force structures capable of implementing that strategy. That will need giving up the mass army concept for smaller force structures, which may in turn mean give eminence to other means, i.e. air force and navy, which shall take some doing. Both India and Pakistan are, therefore, caught in this vicious circle of a pervasive conflict, which postpones drastic reformulations of existing structures. In the meanwhile, the needs of post-modern conflict, which have forced themselves onto the Indo-Pak operational arena, remain inadequately addressed.

The writer is a defence and political analyst

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