Tuesday, 8 May 2007

It's magnificent, but it's not war

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th May 07

The release of Justice Eliyahu Winograd’s interim report on Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon was bad news for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, blaming him for a bad decision to go to war, and his defence minister and military brass for implementing that faulty decision incompetently. With his opposition in no mood for fresh elections, Olmert is surviving for now, but it is clear to all that if Justice Winograd’s interim report has him in such trouble, the final report will sink him without further ado.

In a country like Israel, which India’s establishment often admires for its hard outlook on security, failures on national defence do not go unaddressed. An iconic Prime Minister, Golda Meir, shuffled off into the sunset after Israel’s less-then-optimal performance in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, even though she had been absolved of blame by the Agranat Committee. The logic is simple: if a government’s prime responsibility is the security of its people, security failures are taken seriously.

It is not just Israel that fixates on military failures. The UK, with so much to feel proud of in its military history, obsesses single-mindedly on the campaigns that did not go so well, even those that were fought over a century ago. Never mind Lord Alfred Tennyson’s immortalisation of the Light Brigade’s cavalry charge at Balaklava in 1854; the British parliament focused instead on the words of the Frenchman, Marshal Pierre Bosquet, who assisted in the withdrawal of the Light Brigade remnants: “It’s magnificent, but it’s not war.”

Whitehall’s examination of the Falklands campaign of 1982 focused less on Britain’s implausible success in a war fought 8000 miles away from home, and more on why the UK was taken by such surprise that the first report of the Argentine landing reached the UK through ham radio. After the recapture of Falklands, major changes were implemented in British strategy. The Royal Navy’s planned downscaling gave way to the building of two new aircraft carriers. In all these cases, causes were examined, lapses were documented and existing structures and methods modified so that history could not repeat itself. If another war had to be lost, it would be lost for different reasons.

Compare that with the way India has drawn lessons from the wars it has fought. The official accounts of the 1948 J&K campaign and the 1965 and 1971 wars against Pakistan lie unreleased for reasons best known to the government, so no serious examination of failures has ever taken place. The Henderson-Brookes report on the disastrous 1962 war with China is still “Top Secret”, its key findings unaddressed. After the 1999 Kargil conflict, the report of the official Kargil Review Committee was tabled in parliament on 23rd February 2000. By then India’s political myth-makers had obscured the real narrative of political short-sightedness, intelligence failure, inter-service rivalry, higher military incompetence and logistical deadlocks. Instead, written with the blood of over 500 dead soldiers, was a fairy tale of political sagacity, heroic generals and brave and determined soldiers. Only the last was true.

While Israel does what it must, it would be worth recalling some key features and recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee report, to see how far lessons have been assimilated.

At the broader strategic level, the report indicted successive PMs for taking nobody into confidence on nuclear strategy other than the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister. This is still the case.

The Kargil Committee pointed out that India’s nuclear posture remains unknown to India’s military chiefs, in contrast to Pakistan, where the military chiefs control not just nuclear strategy, but the actual instruments of its nuclear deterrent. While nobody suggests that India’s structures must mirror Pakistan’s, the complete disconnect between India’s conventional and nuclear forces gives rise to a yawning gulf in operational planning, especially at the level of the nuclear threshold.

The Kargil Committee correctly drew attention to the absence, in successive governments, of a long-term strategy to deal with insurgency, pointing out that the Home Ministry, state governments and paramilitary forces assume that the army will always be there to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. That is exactly the situation, seven years later. The army has repeatedly declared that it cannot end the insurgency in J&K; the military can only create conditions for a political dialogue with militants, which they have done. But the Home Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) find themselves unable to effectively take that next step.

The Committee noted that the infantry, which primarily bears the responsibility for guarding the high-altitude borders, needs to be equipped with lighter rifles, greater firepower and better equipment. Today, the grandly-named Infantry Modernisation Plan still draws mere driblets of funding while the bulk of India’s defence expenditure goes on big ticket items like aircraft carriers, submarines, tanks and fighter aircraft which may never be used in the kind of wars that India will fight.

In an ironic paragraph, the Kargil Committee seemed aware that its recommendations would never be implemented, because “The political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishments appear to have developed a vested interest in the status quo. National security management recedes into the background in time of peace and is considered too delicate to be tampered with in time of war and proxy war.”

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