LT GEN N.S. BRAR (RETD) | 14 SEPTEMBER, 2018
Let the Soldier’s Questions Be Answered
The neglect and politicisation of the military bodes ill
The country is at war, make no mistake.
Many eyebrows will be raised asking, ‘Where is the war?’ Von Clausewitz had many aphorisms of which the most famous is ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means.’ And today those other means have graduated from direct conventional conflict to the pursuit of national objectives through low-cost terror, proxy surrogate insurgents, disinformation or misinformation, propaganda, undermining instruments and institutions of state, and in fact any means aimed at imposing your will on the adversary.
We are witnessing all this in Jammu and Kashmir. That is where today’s war is being fought. When all instruments of state fail to contain the situation, the army is employed, albeit in a role for which it is not trained or structured, a role that is not legally or constitutionally mandated.
For any conflict with a military dimension, the triad of government, people and the military must complement each other. The government must set clear policies and objectives, the people must support these objectives and the military must thereafter prosecute the military objectives, from sub-conventional to all-out war. A clearly defined politico-military objective is the base on which national policies are formulated, military capabilities created and action directed.
National security is ultimately a question of evaluating security threats and national interests and deciding on capabilities to meet or secure them. Capabilities, in turn, mean expenditure. The first must take the shape of a ‘Strategic Defence Review’ which will define our responses in terms of the military capabilities to be created and maintained. In India we have never formally articulated our security concerns or how we intend to address them. We are insecure about stating our security concerns.
Countries spend on the military in proportion to their economic development or in direct response to immediate security threats. We seem to be guided by neither. Defence spending as a percentage of GDP is the lowest it has been since 1962. We have a dysfunctional civil-military equation and no formalised, structured forum for collective analysis and policy formulation at the highest level. The views and concerns of the military are more often ignored and sidelined and all is assumed to be well. If and when a crisis situation does develop, the response is naturally ad hoc. In other words there is no formally articulated policy and approach for handling our security concerns.
The lack of adequate funding over a long period has resulted in a ‘hollowness’ in our capability to sustain a conventional conflict. As a result we do not have the wherewithal to move up the escalatory ladder in response to sustained Pakistan-sponsored proxy terrorism.
We have an army which has never been adequately equipped even with basics like boots, helmets, rifles and bulletproof jackets. Not much has changed since the army chief’s Kargil declaration to ‘fight with whatever we have’. The option of a conventional response has been foreclosed.
As Churchill said, the armed forces are not like a limited liability company to be reconstructed from time to time as the money fluctuates. The military is a living thing. If it is bullied it sulks, if it is unhappy it pines, if it is harried it gets feverish, if it is sufficiently disturbed it will wither and dwindle and almost die. And when it comes to this last serious condition, it can only be revived by lots of time and lots of money.
What then is our perceived policy towards the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir? Indian policy appears to be, on one hand to eliminate as many ‘terrorists’ as possible and force a political solution, and at the same time to accept security forces casualties as inevitable.
What has not been factored in is the intangible and intrinsic aspects of terrorists’ staying power, of fresh recruitment, homegrown or externally sponsored, and the attitude of the local population. The Americans in Vietnam hoped to achieve a ‘tipping point’ and force the North Vietnamese to negotiate by aerially bombarding the North and killing Vietcong in the South. It never came. Unremitting Pakistani sponsorship of the proxy war would and should result in retching up the escalatory ladder up to the full conventional level to deter and punish. That response is precluded due to lack of capability.
Handling insurgencies has followed a pattern of ‘military pacification’ followed by ‘political purchase’. Military pacification has been brought about in J&K on more than one occasion, however, the political purchase has eluded the political leadership. J&K is essentially and ultimately a political problem.
Pakistan may not have succeeded in cutting away Kashmir from the Indian Union but the three-decade employment of the army in its sponsored proxy war has resulted in the army’s being permanently employed on an armed constabulary role, while the 1.4 million strong Central Armed Police Forces and paramilitary have practically relinquished their primary internal security mandate.
The present government’s nomination of the army chief by stepping over others for his experience in ‘counterinsurgency’ has put an official stamp on this role. The next chief in all probability will also be selected by supersession citing similar experience. This was further reinforced by the pay commission’s equating, and in some areas lowering, the armed forces’ pay in relation to these forces.
Three decades of armed constabulary work has resulted in the army imbibing the ethos, culture, attitude and approach to the civil population of these forces. The day may not be far off when the army too thinks, acts and performs as such with the attendant duplicity, political game play and un-soldierly conduct.
The army cannot be deployed on internal security duties in ‘aid to civil power’ or ‘disturbed areas’ without the mandated legal sanction and protection. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act was enacted for this purpose. Politics and judicial intervention has practically left the soldier devoid of this cover with resultant prosecution and confusion.
In the past the military shrugged off the politician and politics as of concern to it. The politician’s disinterest in matters military was a consequence of his total ignorance of such matters. While the ignorance remains, the newfound interest of the political class is driven by political mileage and not the interest of the military or national security.
The perception that successive pay commissions have handed out an unfair deal, ignoring the anomalies, disrupting rank equations and issues like nonfunctional upgrades rankle both the serving and veteran community.
In such conditions a soldier perceives himself as being expendable, inadequately equipped, equated with a policeman, failed by his senior leadership, used by the politician and unfairly compensated. The government has failed the army by not providing clarity of objectives, a legal framework, capability and ethical backing. The senior military leadership has failed the rank-and-file by not using correctives built into the military justice system to deal with any acts outside the laid-down parameters, if there was any transgression, and not standing by the rank and file if there was none and they were being hounded on false grounds. The rank-and-file perceive the senior leadership to have failed or at any rate incapable of safeguarding the institutional and collective interests of personnel.
The middle rung of the army leadership, most affected by their employment and informed through social media, is the most disenchanted, unlike the lower ranks that are relatively indifferent in their ignorance and bound by discipline, and the higher echelons cocooned in their self-centred careerist pursuits.
This is manifest in the recent Supreme Court petition by nearly 800 officers and men. It portends far reaching effects on the culture and cohesion of the army. Any qualms servicemen may have had about going to the courts, once considered un-soldierly, were laid to rest when a serving chief sought redressal from the Supreme Court. Not many supported his claim and the relief sought, but many supported him for taking on a government perceived to be insensitive to soldiers’ concerns.
The army has been, and has consciously considered itself, the neutral instrument of state policy. When given commands it does not ask ‘Why?’ or ‘What for?’ If the military is to be used for political ends and their concerns ignored, can it continue to be the innocent automaton?
That soldier fights best who has the fewest questions and doubts about why he is fighting. Under the prevailing circumstances the soldier asks ‘Why am I risking my life and limb?’ When he does not perceive or receive a convincing answer, his response and attitude turn to indifference if not avoidance of the task for which he is deployed. When this attitude becomes all-pervasive the consequence is that the country’s last resort is also gone.
Let the soldier’s questions be answered before we reach a stage like the Americans in Vietnam, where the soldier saw himself as the unwilling, led by the unqualified, to kill the unfortunate and die for the ungrateful, with ignominious consequences.
(N.S. Brar is former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff.)