The war in Ukraine provided valuable insights that can be learnt if there is another war between India and Pakistan, one that shows the next war won't be a short one.
The guns had been ordered to stop firing at 11 am on 11 November. Their last recorded victim was American sergeant Henry Gunther, shot through the head near the French town of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, with one minute remaining before the First World War ended. Even as that last shot was fired, though, new wars were erupting across Europe. Led by the Ukrainian nationalist Dmytro Vitovsky, insurgents unfurled the azure-and-blue flag of their unknown nation in Polish-ruled Lviv. From the Arctic to Afghanistan, rebellions raged.
“Evicted from the trenches, frontlines and the official and regular struggle of militarised powers,” Lithuanian politician Michał Römer observed, the war “reached into human society and transformed itself into a state of permanent chaos.”
Facing a great arc of failing nation-states—a Pakistan besieged by jihadists hoping to build their own sharia-governed emirate; a military-run narco-state in Myanmar, riven by powerful ethnic insurgencies; a Sri Lanka fractured by an unending economic crisis—India needs to consider how it will fight the long and savage wars that could break out when exhausted superpowers finally end their struggle in Ukraine.
Their blood drained by the carnage of 1914-1918, Europe’s great powers lost the will to confront revolutionaries and warlords fighting over the carrion of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. “We cannot act alone as the policeman of the world,” British prime minister Andrew Bonar Law lamented in 1922.
The cult of easy victory
Early in August, 1914, as his troops marched into the battle, the German monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II promised: “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” Historian Stephen Van Evera observed that Generals were seduced by what he called “the cult of the offensive”, brushing aside evidence that rifled small arms and the machine gun had given defending armies decisive advantages. Future wars, strategist Jan Bloch warned in 1899, would involve “the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organisation.”
Even though some strategists understood a war would involve carnage, cult-of-offence theorists saw the state system as a Darwinian struggle for existence: Great powers must kill, or be eaten.
The Generals who promised President Vladimir Putin likely made the same promises the Kaiser received from his commanders.
Leaving aside their experiences of decades-long domestic counterinsurgency, military strategists in India have designed a military intended to fight short, decisive wars. The war of 1965 saw just over two weeks of intense combat. Indian troops took just thirteen days to reach the gates of Dhaka. Even the disastrous China-India war ran for just a month, and the Kargil war unfolded over three months.
Former Army Chief General Dalbir Singh, in an address delivered in 2018, underlined “the swift, short nature of future wars”. There has also been growing interest in developing doctrines to fight limited wars, like Kargil, in conditions constrained by the need of both adversaries not to involve nuclear weapons.
There are other wars India has fought, though, which might better resemble the long wars that lie ahead—even though they are little talked about. The disastrous counter-insurgency campaign in Sri Lanka against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an emirate carved from Pakistan’s North-West, incubating jihadists, or a military cradle for new North-East insurgents in Myanmar: These could conceivably escalate to levels needing cross-border intervention.
Few actual conflicts, Lieutenant-General Deependra Hooda noted, have in fact run to the sharp-quick-war idea beloved of Indian commanders. Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam did not, famously, run to Pentagon plans. Even though Israel triumphed over its Arab rivals in a succession of quick wars, it did so at the cost of creating a demographic crisis that today imperils its polity.
“The chances of a successful, short and swift war are minimal even when facing a much weaker opponent,” Hooda presciently observed.
Praveen Swami is a columnist for The Print.