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1 February 2013, Gateway House

Can a war be limited?

After each terror attack in india, there are strident demands for military action against Pakistan. ‘Surgical’ strikes and limited war in a bilateral nuclear age are not really options. What is needed is more decisive action on non-military fronts

Brigadier (retired)

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The recent alleged beheading of two Indian soldiers at the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu has once again brought forth cries of retaliation, of extracting an eye for an eye, of “ten heads to ogne.”

These outbursts follow a pattern in India: In the aftermath of each terror incident, a “foreign hand” is blamed, and politicians, the media, and the public demand decisive action. At times, these strident demands have reached a point when, due to the public pressure, the government is forced to turn an ill-considered public reaction into the national response.

This happened, for example, after the attack on Parliament house in New Delhi in December 2001, when the Indian armed forces mobilised into the unprecedented Operation Parakram and remained on the border for nearly two years. This was done at great financial cost to the nation; even India’s defence equipment suffered great wear and tear.

Cries for emphatic action were also heard after the Akshardham attack in Gujarat in September 2002 and after the attack on 26 November 2008 in Mumbai. After these and other terror attacks, experts and lay persons have made various recommendations, ranging from “surgical” air or ground strikes on terrorist camps (after November 2008) to a “limited war” on the LoC. It is all the more worrying when even senior members of the government make such pronouncements. Some of these reactions are understandably emotional outbursts, but it is necessary to understand the national implications of such proposed actions.

India had not carried out a mobilisation on the scale of Operation Parakram since the 1971 war with Pakistan. Parakram, in fact, went further and nearly became unlimited war. This is an especially terrifying prospect when two nuclear weapon-capable countries are involved. The massive mobilisation, which cost India approximately Rs. 20,000 crores, remained indecisive; that is, it did not escalate into war. Many perceived this absence of resolute action as a sign of India’s weakness.  This is undesirable, because if India is repeatedly seen to be weak, it undermines the credibility of the Indian response. And this might allow Pakistan to act again without fear of reprisals.

Both countries are nuclear powers. The warfare spectrum between terrorist attacks, conventional war and the use of nuclear weapons will always be very narrow. India and Pakistan have not fought a conventional war after 1971. A conventional war now could very rapidly threaten to go nuclear. By appearing to be irresponsible in its proposed use of nuclear weapons, Pakistan has successfully played the nuclear card in reducing the effect of India’s overall conventional superiority.

This stance – of an apparent willingness to use the nuclear option against India – forces international intervention in what the world sees as a potential nuclear flashpoint. Wanting to be seen as reasonable and rational, India acquiesces to international pressure to desist or de-escalate, as it did after Parakram. But this nuclear shadow, along with our perceived weakness to react, allows Pakistan to attack India without fear of any actual retribution from India.

Can a war be limited? A country has the option to start what it perceives to be limited war, but the responses of the adversary and progress in favour of, or against, either side will determine the course of subsequent actions.  The initiator has few options once hostilities commence.  Iraq and Afghanistan are recent dramatic examples, where investments of enormous amounts of capital and manpower over prolonged periods have failed to produce a solution.  Neither of these wars has unfolded in the manner envisaged by the initiators, because the adversary in each case has switched track to a mode and place of asymmetric warfare that has not favoured the better-equipped force.

India too could start limited strikes across the LoC, as many have suggested, but what will prevent this from escalating into an all-out war? Or from turning into asymmetric warfare, for which India is ill-prepared?

Others have recommended “surgical strikes” against terrorist camps. It is important to consider that the air force and air defences of Pakistan are well-developed and can inflict casualties on striking aircraft.   Apart from the fact that a military aircraft crossing a border without permission is internationally understood to be an act of war; an exchange of fire by opposing aircraft would lead to an escalation.  Besides, such strikes would be more symbolic than military, as a “camp” without terrorists is just another village.

India needs to keep its powder dry with conventional deterrence in place. But India’s policies and processes related to acquiring military equipment have resulted in a debilitated war machine with decrepit equipment, in the army in particular.  It takes a lot of money and time to rejuvenate run-down armed forces. Although the war of the future may be limited or asymmetric, India needs to always retain a credible military machine.

India’s senior political leadership over the years has acted responsibly in the face of enormous threats. Despite grave provocation – for example, after the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 – India has not allowed the situation to spiral out of control.

It will be some time before political stability is established in Pakistan and international opinion fosters accountability. Meanwhile, India needs to take determined but responsible action against provocation – which does not result in war.

A more firm foreign policy would be one alternative to an aggressive military response. India could also consider sanctions against Pakistan, on diplomatic, commercial, cultural and other fronts. Lobbying to generate greater international pressure is another option. Irresponsible talk of war or aggression can only strengthen the mandate of the military regime in Pakistan.

Xerxes Adrianwalla is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army and a regular contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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