There is a definite intertwining of war and politics, but at some level, the political and military functions should also be separate

by Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd)

This election season has seen a lot of focus on national security, mainly centred around terrorism, surgical and aerial strikes, and about the display of firm resolve by the government in dealing with Pakistan.

This is only a visible manifestation of the changes that have taken place in the last few years in the way that the political leadership seeks to frame the security narrative of the country. Some of these changes could now have acquired a permanence in our policy making as they cannot be easily altered, irrespective of the political party in power.

A government’s security strategy directly impacts the military, and it is, therefore, essential for the senior military leadership to study the changing landscape in order to craft an appropriate way ahead. In my view, three fundamental shifts have happened during the tenure of the current government that deserves the attention of our military.

The first is the militarisation of our foreign policy with respect to Pakistan. This government did initially make a sincere effort to pursue the diplomatic path with Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif was invited to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony, and Mr. Modi himself made a surprise visit to Pakistan in December 2015, the first by an Indian PM in one decade. However, the Pathankot and Uri attacks put a lid on diplomacy, and the Balakot airstrikes have hammered the lid home.

Of course, this could change if the Pakistan Army eschews the use of terror groups against India, but this is unlikely in the short term. As Christine Fair explains in her book, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, “Because the (Pakistan) army defines defeat in terms of being unable to mount a challenge to India either territorially or politically, the army will prefer to take risks than do nothing at all, which is synonymous with defeat.”

It is, thus, appearing amply clear that the use of military force will increasingly be seen as the first option in responding to major terror strikes that emanate from Pakistan.

The second shift is in the linkage between popular perceptions and the conduct of military operations. There is a raging debate on whether military actions should be publicised or not, but there is no getting away from the fact that ‘surgical strikes’ result in positive political gains.

The enthusiasm in the social media, the noisy debates in TV studios and the praise for the government after the 2016 and 2019 strikes have ensured that the military will be increasingly invoked in the political discourse. Having seen the success of this strategy in past elections, it is unlikely that any future government will hesitate in following this path.

The third shift is a blurring of the political and military sphere. Wars have always had a political purpose as encapsulated by Mao Zedong’s statement, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”

There is a definite intertwining of war and politics, but at some level, the political and military functions should also be separate. As Samuel Huntington explains in his book, The Soldier and the State, “The area of military science is subordinate to, and yet independent of, the area of politics. Just as war serves the ends of politics, the military profession serves the ends of the state.”

Unfortunately, the neat line suggested by Huntington between politics and the military does not exist today. There is much talk about a free hand being given to our military to prosecute operations. At the tactical level, the military has always been free to carry out its operational functions, but anything beyond this level has larger civil-military implications. Neither should politicians abrogate their responsibilities nor should military leaders become the visible front for major policy decisions.

How should our military leadership respond to these shifts in our politico-military relations? In many ways, India has been an ideal model of civil-military relations in a democracy. Stephen Cohen, in his book about the Indian Army writes, "Probably no other group in South Asian society is so critical of politicians…and yet is so strong in its support of the political system." The basics of this ethos remain, but the current environment also cannot be ignored.

In dealing with this environment, the first focus area of our military leaders will have to be on our operational readiness. The military will have to be prepared to respond quickly to significant terror attacks, and many options will need to be explored. While forces must be prepared to execute cross-border operations, the real test of readiness will lie in our response to retaliation that could come from our adversary.

The military will also have to war game the escalation process that could result from limited operations. Ad hoc and unplanned reactions can quickly spin out of control and lead to unforeseen consequences. Remaining in a higher state of readiness puts additional stress, both on manpower and equipment. Managing these stresses in a time of reduced budgets will be a huge challenge for the military leadership.

The importance of military advice will become more crucial. With all due respect to our political leadership, they are not schooled in the nuances of warfare.

Traditionally, the military has a positive, can-do attitude but it also cannot ignore its larger responsibility for ‘management of violence’ and defence of the country. It must give honest and professional advice. Elliot Cohen, in his influential work, Supreme Command, has described this as an ‘unequal dialogue’ in which both sides convey their views forcefully and bluntly, with the final authority being with the statesman. But military advice is an essential constituent of this dialogue.

As we see a greater intrusion of politics in military affairs, military leaders must also insist on reviewing the nature of our civil-military relations. Our current structures have kept the military away from the policy making framework. If policy, politics and military actions are going to be intermixed, military leaders must be directly available to discuss options with our political leaders. This will require a restructuring of our national security planning architecture.

There is some concern today about what is being termed as the politicisation of the military. I do not seek to enter into this debate but view the situation from a realist's perspective. If what we are witnessing is going to be the new normal, current and future military leaders will have a vital role to play. They will have to navigate choppy political waters with professionalism while ensuring that the basic military ethic remains unaffected.

The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army