How will the Modi doctrine pan out?

The true character of the Modi doctrine will be apparent only as events unfold in the subcontinent. Will its priority be domestic public opinion or the erosion of Pakistani national power?

The celebratory drum-beating that followed the September 29 “surgical strikes” by Indian Army special forces against terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir was expected given that terror attacks on India over the years have all gone unchallenged.

While we might have finally scored a goal, let us not forget for a moment that the match is far from over. The September 29 strikes will not be the real test of the Narendra Modi Doctrine or whatever else we choose to call the strategy that prompted the military response against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Prior to this, despite the damning evidence pointing invariably to Pakistan, the risk-averse Indian leadership never retaliated against its nuclear capable neighbour.

The “surgical strikes” therefore came as a paradigm change; and with change comes uncertainty.

Central to any prognosis arising from latest counter-terrorism strike is the likely response of Pakistan’s ruling elite. Two fundamental factors shape the Pakistani establishment’s intrinsically offensive strategic mode — its Timurid mindset and the necessity of the smaller combatant to adopt an offensive posture.

In military theory, the defensive side over time loses through attrition and a smaller power thus will theoretically always lose in such a situation.

The Pakistani elite appear to have founded their national goals on founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s belief that they had been given a “moth-eaten” country. Forming a country that was “deserving” of the Pakistan dream meant annexing Kashmir, Balochistan and parts of Afghanistan. It is this dream that the Pakistani elite have been pursuing ever since the country’s independence in 1947.

They have been spurred on by a mindset that was formed centuries ago in the steppes of the Asian continent by Timur, the Lame. He and his successors saw themselves as the natural rulers of Asia, particularly its south and central regions.

This thinking was responsible for the near-total exodus of the Muslim elite from India at the time of Partition, leaving the masses of poor and nationalist Muslims to their fate in what they believed to be a “Hindu India”.

Conflict thus became a part of the Pakistani ethos at the moment of its creation and the direct fallout of this reality is the unrelenting terrorist and military assaults inflicted on India over the decades.

Will this dynamic change? The short answer is: unlikely.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s continued provocations over Kashmir and reports of a massive terrorist buildup on the borders are hardly encouraging signs.

Therefore, India must prepare for more bloodletting. Sadly, our weakness is not so much at the borders as it is in the chaotic cities of the heartland.

India’s internal security pillars undermined by decades of political interference, systemic callousness and the rise of anti-national subcultures makes for a vulnerability that a determined enemy can exploit at will.

Another event like the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the 2001 Parliament attack or even the Pathankot terror strike will create enormous domestic pressures on the Modi government and compel it to retaliate.

The extent of retaliation and its form will determine the success of the Modi doctrine. For the total war option would prove disastrous not just because of the nuclear arsenals both nations possess but also because of its economic impact.

A full-fledged war will inevitably drain India’s economic resources and set the development process back by decades, specially now that the economy is poised for a dramatic transformation.

Pakistan would be weakened more than India, perhaps even terminally, but we would fall way behind China in terms of economic power and resilience. This would spell long-term disaster for our global ambitions.

This is perhaps one reason why Prime Minister Modi has not overplayed the September 29 attacks and recently asked his political colleagues to refrain from jingoistic chest-thumping.

Retaliation, after all, can take many forms other than war, including covert action to destabilise Pakistan internally and economic warfare to undermine its economy. These actions cannot, however, be publicised in the same way as a “surgical strike” and therefore will not yield similar political dividends.

The Modi doctrine could perhaps take a leaf from the United States’ secret but unrelenting war against the Soviet Union waged over at least three decades. At no point did the militaries of the two superpowers confront each other eyeball to eyeball; yet the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed.

The true character of the Modi doctrine will be apparent only as events unfold in the subcontinent. Will its priority be domestic public opinion or the eventual erosion of Pakistani national power?

Will tomorrow’s battles be fought over media headlines or in the backrooms of undercover operations?

Will New Delhi be able to absorb the many cuts that its neighbour will continue to inflict or will it lash out in an all-out military assault?

The possibilities are finite but whichever way it pans out, the biggest danger of any long-term doctrine is the danger of strategic overreach. Not matching aims with capabilities has historically been the Achilles’ heel of many a grandiose strategy.

Much is at stake here, indeed the entire future of South Asia.

Military historians often cite the example of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) of ancient Greece when democratic Athens was defeated by the militarised state of Sparta to illustrate the concept of strategic overreach.

A disastrous military expedition on distant Sicily by the Athenians, which clearly constituted an act of military overreach, paved the way for the eventual defeat of liberal Athens and began the rule of tyrants. This was a turning point in Greek history which proved that a more evolved civilisation does not always win.

On the other hand, the United States, forced into World War II by the Japanese knockout attack on Pearl Harbour that virtually destroyed the American Pacific Fleet, recovered and successfully struck back.

National resilience was the secret of America’s success. This allowed the creation of a huge military force capable of fighting halfway across the world. Unlike in ancient Greece, the US overreach in World War II succeeded. The enabling factors included a massive industrial base — that enabled the production of defence material on a huge scale — and vast human resources.

A strategy that will ultimately force the Timurids in Islamabad to give up and change course will depend entirely on how we emerge — as the Athenians in ancient Greece or the Americans in the Second World War.

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant

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About the author

Asia Metro Editor

Surjit Singh Flora
editor@asiametro.ca

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