Imagine the metal glinting off the great ranks of armoured battle-elephants standing in front of the walls of Megara, illuminated by the summer light of the Ionian Sea, bearing the banners of Antigonus II Gonatas, King of Macedonia, ruler of Greece, destroyer of the temple of the god Poseidon. Fear and despair, would have spread through the port city as it confronted this unstoppable engine of war—until, the Roman chronicler Claudius Aelianus tells us, someone had an idea.
“They smeared some pigs with liquid pitch,” Aelianus wrote, “set a light to them, and let them loose against the enemy.” “Goaded with pain and shrieking because of their burns, the pigs fell upon the troops of elephants, driving them mad.” The panicked elephants broke ranks, and mowed down their own army.
Megara’s improbable triumph, sometime around 267BCE, tells students of war something important: the goddess of the battlefield favours the smart, not the strong.
Modi begins his second term in times where that lesson is key. He is cognisant of the challenges ahead: a powerful home minister, Amit Shah, and a cerebral external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, now share power with national security adviser Ajit Doval, sole strategic affairs czar from 2014-19.
Modi’s new national security team must now walk a perilous path through India’s neighbourhood, one strewn with landmines and lethal traps.
“Nothing,” said the man who has now become India’s prime minister again, in a 2014 campaign speech on 26/11. “Indians died and they did—nothing” “Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language,” Modi went on, “because it won’t learn lessons until then.” Earlier this year, when missiles slammed into a Jaish-e-Muhammad training facility in Balakot, Modi sought to do just that: the jihad Pakistan’s intelligence services have waged would no longer go unpunished.
Research and Analysis Wing assessments suggest, for example, that 10 terrorists or less were killed in Balakot — a less than effective demonstration of India’s ability to punish or pre-empt terrorist attacks. Islamabad’s counter-strikes have persuaded it, rightly or wrongly, that it can raise the stakes to levels where India will back off.
Eighty metres from the mountain pass where Indian troops blocked China’s efforts to build a new border road in 2017, hardened, all-weather bunkers have mushroomed. The snaking path through the Chumbi valley that led up to China’s forward positions in Doklam is now a paved, high-quality road. There are multiple new military buildings, emplacements for artillery, and helicopter landing-pads.
To understand the significance of Modi’s strategy, though one needs to look deeper: this was the first effort to rewrite a stale national security script that had long ceased to awe the audience.
Former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf backed down, and deescalated support for jihadists in Kashmir from 2003 on — leading to a dramatic fall in violence. But the infrastructure of jihad was carefully protected, and unleashed again from 2008.
“The enemy has realised that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated,” Modi had said, following the first cross-border clashes of his tenure in 2014. Faced with low-grade provocation across the LoC that summer, he authorised Indian forces to use disproportionate forces against Pakistani military fire, and declined to engage in dialogue while the fighting continued.
From the government’s own data, we know that Pakistan was not deterred. This was bad news: LoC clashes made it difficult to defend against infiltrating jihadists, India’s experience before the 2003 ceasefire with Pakistan showed.
Perhaps more important, the ISI began to test the prime minister’s threats.
His hand forced by Uri in September 2016, Modi struck across the LoC for the first time. The attack wasn’t as radical as it appeared: the Indian Army regularly staged unpublicised retaliatory actions across the Line of Control.
Indian planners hoped that making public such an attack would signal to Pakistan its willingness to use military force to deter cross-border terrorism but it didn’t work.
Lawrence Freedman, the great scholar of war, defined strategy as “being about maintaining a balance between ends, ways and means; about identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods available for meeting such objectives.” In his first term, Modi laid out his ends — deterring the use of force by regional adversaries like Pakistan or China to secure their interests. The results of his actions, though, have also shown India doesn’t have the necessary ways and means.
K Illango, a senior R&AW officer passed over earlier this year for appointment as its chief, stitched together opposition alliances in Sri Lanka and Maldives, which were able to defeat pro-Beijing regimes. These were signal victories for India in times where its regional influence has been sorely tested.
Islamabad’s ability to continue sponsoring terrorism is facing its most testing challenge since 2003, too, and not because of Indian military pressure. Modi’s diplomats have succeeded in persuading the multinational Financial Action Task Force to threaten sanctions should Pakistan not shut down terror infrastructure—forcing it to rein-in the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish.
The truth, however, is that India needs deterrent teeth. India’s armed forces have been slowly hollowed-out, losing their technological edge over those of Islamabad and Beijing. In addition, India’s covert services have suffered from the same kinds of lack.
Islamabad is betting it can deter India’s efforts to impose deterrence by escalating violence sharply. Following Balakot, the Pakistan Air Force demonstrated it has the resources to do just this. Had the PAF’s bombs hit Indian military facilities, we would have an entered a world where the inconceivable might have become real.
Every step up what is called the escalation ladder—the set of steps that lead from a sub-conventional conflict, like terrorism, all the way up to full-blown war and nuclear-weapons use—has to be carefully thought through. Leadership in war should always be a cold-blooded business. Modi’s second-term strategies should be driven by a clinical appraisal of what can be achieved — not what India wishes might be won.
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