Pulwama – Avoiding The Tactical TrapBloombergQuintOpinion
The fundamental difference between tactics and strategy is the perspective of time and span of the canvas. No matter how euphoric, by themselves, tactical victories seldom add up to strategic successes.
War, as the cliché goes, is an extension of politics by other means. While the essence of all war is to control resources, it needs a rallying narrative. So political, ideological, religious, patriotic and other narratives are developed to unite the populace against an enemy, legitimise their annihilation, glorify own righteousness and extol the sacrifice of an individual for the greater whole. Every country’s storyline portrays them as pacifists being forced into war by an unreasonable enemy. But regardless of the narrative, wars are not waged to establish victory by body counts. Instead, they are fought to exert coercion on another nation by damaging them economically.
The Tactics-Strategy Paradox
Hence while tactical leaders measure victory in terms of captured territory, high octane strikes, prisoners of war tallies or body counts, strategic leaders focus on the real scorecards of long-term economics and post-war power positions. The key being, ‘long-term’.
For instance, despite winning every metric of tactical operations against Vietnam, the United States lost strategically. In the 20-year war, that left millions dead in its wake, the Vietcong did not conclusively defeat the U.S. troops even once. Yet, not only did the U.S. ‘lose’ the war, it faced a humiliating withdrawal, and struggled for decades in the aftermath, while Vietnam went on to become a successful economy.
The Soviet Union suffered a worse fate in Afghanistan. Despite deploying its military might, the USSR dismembered in the aftermath of a decade long war with the Mujahid militia.
Closer home, Kargil is a great example of how a tactical defeat can be a strategic victory. True, the Indian army ejected Pakistani intruders from their occupied strongpoints and Kargil did end in a tactical defeat for the Pakistani army, but that wasn’t Musharraf’s strategic fallout. The backdrop to Kargil was the peace accord signed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif earlier that year. If successful, the Pakistan Army would have been sidelined and lost relevance in the Pakistani domestic power equation. Sharif would have gone down in Pakistani history as the democratic leader who brokered peace between two nuclear powers and rightsized the relevance of the army in Pakistan. That was an existential crisis for the Pakistani Army.
A tactical operation, even though it ended in defeat, achieved Musharraf’s strategic purpose of derailing the talks.
Not only did the Lahore peace talks fail, but Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup within months after Kargil. And while India deservedly celebrated victory and valor of her soldiers, a strategic opportunity of creating a democratic counterweight to the army in Pakistan was lost.
Similarly, tactically successful operations can add up to strategic disasters and they often do, because the winner’s hubris typically ends with defeating the enemy; not ending the enmity. That is the paradoxical relationship between tactics and strategy.
To analyse Pulwama in its strategic context, it is important to appreciate this nuance and work our way to its tactical and strategic implications.
What Would A ‘Strategic Win’ Look Like?
Regardless of historical claims over Kashmir, Pakistan initiated the military hand with an armed incursion using irregular soldiers in October 1947 and came within a whisker of seizing Srinagar. By the time United Nations-brokered ceasefire, Kashmir was thrust into “conflict in perpetuity”, becoming the battleground for two bellicose nations which continued the low-intensity conflict, erupting to three full-blown wars and several near-misses over the years.
This ‘no-war, no peace’ scenario is hemorrhaging India’s economy.
Sure, it affects Pakistan too, but that is not a consolation and ironically, because of its weaker position, Pakistan’s power centres have less to lose in case of a war with India. Pakistan can afford to do this because its populace is far weaker relative to India with respect to its power centres – the army, the deep state, and the politicians. In the eventuality of war, Pakistan will be pushed deeper into economic crisis but theirs is a dole-based economy anyway. On the other hand, India’s growth trajectory will be severely hampered. China, which stands to gain from a weak India, will encourage belligerence from Pakistan confident of controlling the nuclear threshold, and expanding its own regional influence, post-war.
The measured response for India should be to take this conflict into the strategic orbit and leverage its superior economic and technological strengths rather than reacting to the enemy’s provocative tactics.
To win strategically, we must build the foundations for a strong economy, social structure, and defence preparedness. By definition, this is a long-term process which even on a war footing, will take time. But we have demonstrated the ability to do so in the intervening years between the debacle of 1962 and the vindication of the same army in 1971. Not only did we rebuild a demoralised force into a juggernaut that liberated a nation, but also created foreign operations expertise in the form of the Research & Analysis Wing with formidable capabilities, which has and can pay rich dividends in an asymmetric war.
There is a pressing need to re-haul our national security doctrine and implementation processes and give it independent planning and execution horizons of at least a decade, instead of the piecemeal sporadic acquisitions that are stitched together into undermanned, cannablised and disjointed battle formations with logistical nightmares. Our defence establishments and ancillary institutions must be made transparent and accountable. This also involves integration and synchronisation of economic, manufacturing, education and defence indigenisation policies. We must pay special emphasis on creating a disciplined, knowledgeable and a reflective social environment. We must call out the hypocrisy of a section of the citizenry that demands compulsory military service but doesn’t send its own children to the National Cadet Corps.
Our national security policy must get the same mindshare and continuity as fiscal policy.
Anything short of this scope, timeframe and focus will continue to emphasise tactical successes rather than strategic capacity building.
So, ironically, the best response to Pulwama would be to recognise the difference between tactical and strategic victories and plan retribution that is meaningful and long-lasting. However, it takes ‘out of the box’ thinking, sustained resolve and statesmanship across the political spectrum to channelise vengeance into reducing the threat permanently, rather than punishing the enemy temporarily. Most importantly, it requires leaders with the vision and resolve to choose the unpopular strategic course, over the cathartic tactical one.
Raghu Raman is former CEO of National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). Views are personal.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.