The Myth of Indian Strategic Restraint

June 18, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: IndiaStrategyNational SecurityChinaPakistan

The Myth of Indian Strategic Restraint

Indian security policy is guided more by pragmatism than by moralism.

In May, the Indians began an intense ground, air and artillery campaign to dislodge the Pakistanis. Despite remaining on their own side of the LOC, Indian forces soon gained the advantage and began rolling back the Pakistanis. In early July, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to Washington, DC and signed an agreement to withdraw Pakistani forces from Indian territory in Kargil. The conflict ended in late July with the restoration of the LOC and a return to the status quo ante. Approximately 1,500 Indians and Pakistanis had died in the fighting.

As in the 1962 Sino-Indian War and the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, India waged the war at Kargil in a manner that demonstrated considerable resolve. Upon discovering the Pakistani incursions it responded aggressively, launching a combined arms offensive that utilized 200,000 troops; employed air power in Kashmir for the first time since the 1971 Bangladesh war; and demolished Pakistani positions with a combination of uphill infantry attacks, heavy artillery barrages and air strikes.

The Indians fought in this manner despite Pakistan’s possession of a nuclear weapons capability, which it had demonstrated through a series of tests in May 1998. The Pakistanis had believed that their nuclear capability would restrain the Indians at Kargil, preventing them from responding to the incursions with a large-scale conventional military offensive. In fact, the Indians reacted in a far less cautious manner than the Pakistanis had anticipated. In doing so, they demonstrated that the threat of nuclear retaliation would not deter them from responding to an attack with significant conventional force.

As noted by S. Paul Kapur in Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia, India remained on its own side of the LOC during the fighting at Kargil. The decision to do so did not result from military caution, however. Rather, India’s decision resulted from political calculations. Indian leaders believed that, by remaining on its own side of the LOC, India would maintain the moral high ground and highlight Pakistani perfidy in the court of world opinion. Indian political leaders made clear to the Indian Army that they would allow it to cross the LOC if doing so became a military necessity; the Army leadership had only to ask. Given the success of the Indian retaliatory campaign, however, the Army never felt the need to violate the Line, and was content to remain on its own side of the LOC for the duration of the conflict.

India did settle for a return to the status quo at the end of the Kargil conflict. Consequently, India did not increase the territory under its control, or coerce Pakistan into settling any aspect of the Kashmir dispute. But as in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, this should not be seen as a sign of timidity or of strategic failure. India did not seek to change the status quo in Kashmir through the Kargil conflict; it sought only to eject Pakistani intruders from Indian territory and to restore the Line of Control. By doing so, India achieved its war aims—despite the rigors of an extremely difficult tactical environment, the need to delicately balance political and military interests, and the dangers of Pakistani nuclear weapons.

THE THIRD prong of the strategic restraint argument claims that in those instances where India does fight, it does so half-heartedly and does not achieve favorable outcomes. The historical evidence does not support this assertion. In the three cases of Indian warfighting discussed above, India suffered a loss and failed to achieve its strategic aims in the Sino-Indian War of 1962, preserved the status quo and achieved its strategic aims in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, and restored the status quo and achieved its strategic aims in the Kargil War of 1999.

What of India’s other conflicts? In India’s first war, from 1947–1948, it fought Pakistan for control of Kashmir. A maharaja had ruled Kashmir during the British era, and he had been slow to commit to joining either Pakistan or India at the time of Independence. When Pakistani-backed militants marched on the territory in October 1947, the maharaja finally agreed to join India and frantically requested Indian military protection. India intervened, first confronting the militants and later engaging Pakistan Army forces. India failed in its efforts to acquire the entire territory. It did, however, capture two-thirds of Kashmir, including the capital of Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley, while securing the territory’s legal accession to the Indian Union. Thus, India got most, if not everything, that it wanted—including Kashmir’s most valuable regions, as well as the legal right to control of the territory.

In the 1971 Bangladesh War, India intervened in East Pakistan to end mass bloodshed perpetrated by the Pakistan Army against East Pakistani civilians. Large-scale uprisings had erupted to protest the Pakistan government’s refusal to honor the East Pakistani Awami League’s victory in national elections. When the Army, ostensibly sent in to stem the disorder, began massacring the population, millions of East Pakistanis fled into India, causing a major humanitarian emergency. India’s intervention, in the form of a blitzkrieg attack, achieved an overwhelming victory, cutting Pakistan in two and creating the state of Bangladesh. In doing so, the Indians achieved both their immediate goal of ending the crisis, and their larger aim of truncating Pakistan and securing India’s position as the dominant power in South Asia.

India’s quixotic 1987–1990 intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war initially saw it support the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who sought to establish an independent Tamil state on the island of Sri Lanka. India’s large Tamil population was sympathetic to the rebels and had pressured the Indian government to help them in their independence struggle. When India subsequently sought to enforce the terms of a peace accord by disarming the Tigers, they resisted and Indian forces became embroiled in a bloody fight against the LTTE. India ultimately withdrew after losing approximately 1,200 soldiers and failing to achieve its objective of disarming the rebels. The war ground on for another two decades before the Sri Lankan government finally succeeded in decisively defeating the LTTE.

As the above discussion shows, of the six wars in which it participated, India failed to achieve its strategic objective twice. Admittedly, this is not a perfect war record. But it is hardly one of constant failure to meet India’s objectives. Rather, the record shows that, when India goes to war, it meets its goals about two-thirds of the time.

Some might argue that even if India’s military record against other states demonstrates more alacrity and success than is generally acknowledged, its response to ongoing attacks on Kashmir and on India proper by Pakistan-backed militant groups has been lacking. India, in this view, has failed to take action that could have inflicted costs on Pakistan or the militant groups themselves, and potentially have ameliorated the problem. For example, following the 2008 attacks against Mumbai by Pakistan-supported Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives, which killed over 160 people and paralyzed the city, India threatened but did not carry out military retaliation. Thus India’s response to one of its most significant strategic challenges, which erodes its financial and military resources, kills significant numbers of civilians and security personnel, and challenges its authority in Kashmir, appears to have been characterized less by energy and aggression than by passivity.

It is true that India often has not physically retaliated against militant attacks. This is the case for a number of reasons, including a paucity of high-value militant targets, a desire to avoid squandering resources in a drawn-out conflict with Pakistan and the threat of Pakistani nuclear weapons. But India’s overall response to the problem of Pakistan-backed militancy has not been passive. It includes stationing hundreds of thousands of troops in Kashmir; building physical barriers to prevent military infiltration into India; passing potent counterterrorism legislation; improving intelligence collection and dissemination capabilities; significantly augmenting the full range of Indian conventional military assets; launching so-called surgical strikes against terrorist infrastructure in Pakistani territory; and improving India’s capacity for rapid conventional mobilization. These measures not only augment Indian defenses against possible militant attacks; they also improve India’s ability to respond against Pakistan or militant groups offensively, as punishment for future provocations. Pakistan’s recent efforts to develop a battlefield nuclear weapons capability, which is designed to ward off even relatively modest Indian conventional attacks, demonstrate that the Pakistanis understand and fear these developments.

THE “STRATEGIC restraint” view of Indian national security behavior is misleading. Indian security policy is guided more by pragmatism than by moralism. India defends itself energetically when attacked by other states. And, when it fights, India usually achieves its strategic objectives. India, in short, is not a passive giant. What does this imply for growing U.S.-India strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region?

Rising Chinese power presents both the United States and India with an enormous strategic challenge. China will increasingly be able to create institutions, promote norms and impose rules in a vast area stretching from Asia to Africa. Chinese behavior, including the economic and military coercion of its neighbors, the promotion of a debt-trap developmental model, territorial reclamations and the rejection of international dispute resolution, suggests that these institutions, norms and rules are likely to have a distinctly authoritarian flavor, to the detriment of the region. A strong, confident India can work with the United States to resist such an outcome, literally standing in the way of creeping Chinese hegemony. But India can do so only if it is willing to act. If it is overly cautious, as the strategic restraint view expects, even major improvements in Indian strategic capacity will probably be for naught.