Book review: Dragon On Our Doorstep

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab’s clear-eyed analysis on the blinders India wears when it comes to its military strategy against China and Pakistan


Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

In an interview with India Today last month, the chief of army staff, General Bipin Rawat, made a comment worthy of attention. When asked if the Cold Start doctrine was still an option in response to high-profile terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan, he replied: “The Cold Start doctrine exists for conventional military operations. Whether we have to conduct conventional operations for such strikes is a decision well-thought through, involving the government and the cabinet committee on security.”

This is an audacious statement. Cold Start was born out of the failure of Operation Parakram—the Indian response to the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba attack on Parliament in December 2001. The logistics of the military build-up at the border meant that by the time three strike corps were in place, Pakistan had deployed its troops. Thus, Cold Start—a doctrine envisioning a response within 48 hours of provocation, with integrated battle groups pushing across the border. The problem was that Cold Start was never in any position to start at all. The army lacked the wherewithal and the appropriate organizational structure, while the army and air force had scant experience of the combined arms operations necessary. Worse, talk of Cold Start, empty though it was, gave Pakistan cover to develop tactical nuclear weapons.

Given this context, what did the fact that the chief of army staff had put Cold Start—mothballed years ago in favour of a less provocative “proactive strategy”—back on the table mean? Rawat later explained that his doing so was meant “to communicate to the rank and file and field commanders the kind of preparations they have to carry out for future combat”.

Dragon On Our Doorstep—Managing China Through Military Power: By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Co., 458 pages, Rs799.
Dragon On Our Doorstep—Managing China Through Military Power: By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Co., 458 pages, Rs799.

I suspect Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab would be less than convinced. The muddled thinking that would position an unfeasible doctrine in the public domain as an aspirational ideal is one of the themes they dissect in Dragon On Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power. The title is something of a misnomer: Sawhney and Wahab consider the challenges China and Pakistan present to be deeply linked and likely to become more so, given the growing interoperability between their militaries and the centrality of Cpec (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) to China’s One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative. In their reading, both states exhibit an advanced level of military power—the optimum utilization of military force (troops and materiel)—relative to India’s focus on military force.

War-making—and its obverse, a secure peace through the threat of effective war-making—depends on decision making filtered through three levels. The strategic level is the “why” of conflict, decided by the political leadership with the aid of the services’ headquarters—that is, the political objectives of any military initiative. This informs the military leadership’s decisions pertaining to allocations and logistics and underpins the second tier of decision making—the operational level. The plans designed here are translated into actual combat at the third level—the tactical. Plainly, effective war-making is possible only when there is coherence between all three levels. For different reasons, Pakistan and China are both able to exhibit this—the former because of the primacy of the army, ensuring a throughline in decision making, and the latter because of the state’s authoritarian nature.

India, Sawhney and Wahab show in convincing detail, fails at the strategic level, setting off a cascade of failures at the subordinate levels. Successive political leaderships, from 1947 to the present day, have failed to display a true understanding of the uses and deployment of military force. And the almost pathological need to assert what is by now an entrenched fact of Indian democracy—the primacy of the civilian over the military—has led to the military leadership being kept out of the highest level of decision making. The result is that, “deposing before the nineteenth Estimates Committee of the tenth Lok Sabha, the defence secretary in 1993 admitted that no policy directives had been issued to the defence services since Independence. This position remained unaltered under the Modi government which took office in May 2014”.

Given this, the authors’ contention that New Delhi has been unable to recognize or respond to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy, and taken on a greater military burden with the 1993 and 2013 agreements under the guise of de-escalation of the border problem, is convincing. Similarly, their argument that the political leadership, by prioritizing a counter-insurgency role for the army in Jammu and Kashmir, has degraded its ability to fulfil its primary purpose, inculcated a lack of clarity in the military leadership and allowed Pakistan to dictate terms along the Line of Control.

The strength of their arguments and the solutions they offer lie more in their rigour and exhaustive detail than any unique insights. That said, while some of their suggestions are conventional—military reforms and technology enhancement, for instance—their logic for resolving the Kashmir issue seems somewhat misplaced. They are correct in arguing that the state’s internal dynamics must be addressed politically, not by military means, and that the military must be eased out of its counter-insurgency role. But those benefits are not, perhaps, as directly linked to changing Pakistan’s calculus as they seem to hold. It is questionable if Rawalpindi is truly more interested in resolving the Kashmir issue than in ensuring its own primacy in Pakistan, as they mention in passing.

This does not, however, detract from the book’s merits or its timeliness. This is the age of Donald Trump, with all the concomitant geostrategic uncertainty, and the expansion of China’s strategic interests via Obor. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated his goal of having “India position itself in a leading role, rather than (as) just a balancing force, globally”. From Sawhney and Wahab’s clear-eyed—and therefore gloomy perspective—that is biting off substantially more than New Delhi can chew.

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