The Lessons of Global Power

By Mohan Guruswamy 


New Delhi, 27 April 2003

If a more responsible person were the Defence Minister of India, he would derive many lessons from the swift victory of the Anglo–American expeditionary force in Iraq. A mere six divisions following in the wake of a precise and relentless aerial blitz swept away the largest standing army in the middle east, not once but twice in a dozen years with the ease of a hot knife slicing through butter. He would wonder if the outcome would have been any different if George Bush’s baleful finger stopped three places higher on the list of nations? But our Defence Minister, being a bit of a peripatetic fellow, seems to have little time to sit down and ponder, or have serious concerns. Maybe he thinks on his feet, but we have not much evidence of any worthwhile cerebral activity in the half a decade of his stewardship of the MoD. We have not seen a single white paper or even a policy paper outlining any perception of potential and probable threats and challenges the nation might face in the years ahead. The only other threat he saw some years ago was China and that is exactly where he is right now. And who can blame him for discarding any suspicions about the Chinese after savoring Peking Duck? Even without it the man is capable of the sharpest about turns. Remember his impassioned defense of Morarji Desai in Parliament in 1979 and his defection to Charan Singh’s side the next day?

It is not without some irony that in the past half a century in the nuclear age, the sole superpower is now the sole superpower not because of its nuclear arsenal, which is still vast and enough for this and other worlds, but because of the vastly enhanced potency of its conventional power. Nuclear weapons can be great equalizers to neutralize military and economic asymmetries, as was the case during the Cold War and as is now with India and Pakistan. But deterrence works if the threshold of pain is known to be low and leadership unstable enough to be willing for mutually assured destruction (MAD). Thus for MAD to work the leaders have to be, or more importantly appear to be, if not somewhat mad, most certainly willful and driven. Who would be more credible with nuclear weapons, Vajpayee or Togadia? Or Kim Jong Pil? See how less peremptorily George Bush II approaches Kim II. Would Kennedy have blockaded Cuba if Joseph Stalin instead of Nikita Khrushchev were the leader of the USSR in 1962? Clearly credibility has much to do with willingness than ability. 

A former Director General of Military Operations, now embedded in our television channels, on seeing the Anglo–American army in action could barely conceal his excitement on seeing the superb equipment on display. One can’t blame him. Any experienced infantryman and more so a highly regarded and shrewd military thinker would have taken note of that. Every US/UK soldier had the latest small arms, bullet proof vests, night vision, personal wireless communication, global positioning system that enabled him/her to fight equally well day and night, call for air or artillery support giving the most accurate co-ordinates, keep in touch with fighting buddies and ground commanders with less personal vulnerability. The troops were fully mobile with Main Battle Tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers keeping pace with Humvee’s and Land Rovers, armed with a weapon for every kind of opposition. Equally important were the command centers, fuel tankers, ammunition carriers running alongside field ambulances, and field kitchens serving up hot meals for soldiers tiring of MRE’s (meals, ready to eat). Even the British Viceroy’s annual duck shoot at Bharatpur couldn’t be better provisioned and the opposition more disadvantaged!

That every infantryman was as much an autonomous fighting unit of immense lethality as well as a part of a superbly structured fighting organization negated the numerical inferiority. If the US/UK were to go by Indian norms then they would have had to deploy almost a million troops to fight Iraq’s 300,000. Instead they went in with half that. Firepower, mobility and instant and constant communications go a great extent to make up for numbers. Given that they come with top class tactical and strategic leadership, such armies are usually invincible on the field. Of course airpower makes a great difference as it did in Iraq twice. But let us also not forget about how a British task force in 1981 voyaged 7000 miles to take the Argentines to task and recover the Falkland Islands? The Argentines had more men, more aircraft and more ships but were still outclassed, despite being dug in. Better equipment and superior leadership and training made all the difference. The preparation for any contingency was apparent. In contrast the Indian Air Force confessed that it did not have the tactics in place to dislodge the Pakistanis from the Kargil heights. For that matter it seemed that neither did the Indian Army. We lost 559 men to clear a string of half a dozen peaks. By contrast the US/UK forces lost less than a quarter of that in Iraq and more of them to friendly fire than to Iraqi resistance.

Even so it is quite evident that many of our experienced military thinkers have not derived the appropriate lessons, especially if one had to go by the analysis provided by Maj.Gen. (Retd.) KS Randhawa, a former trainer of the Iraqi Army whose optimism expressed on CNN gave former Iraqi Information Minister Ali Sahaf’s a good run for his money. Sahaf’s optimism can be understood for after all he was just a sycophant dressed in a uniform, but when a senior officer albeit a retired one of a professional army cannot see any better, one hopes that such optimism is not endemic. Our Army, particularly the infantry is stranded technologically in the 1950’s and much earlier than that organizationally. It’s fine for Pakistan, but not by very much.

Many centuries ago a prominent statesman, Cornelius Tacitus I think, said that a country must not judge a neighbor by its motivations but by its capability. In the modern age the world is much compressed and the neighborhood greatly expanded. It would be a happy situation if our adversaries were just Pakistan and China, in which case the creeping invasion by Bangladesh would be our severest challenge. When Iraq had to be bombed USAF B-52 and B-1 bombers took off from Oxfordshire in England and Diego Garcia deep in the Indian Ocean. Some sorties of B-2 stealth bombers took off from the USA. Britain and Diego Garcia are six hours away and the USA eleven hours away. Tomahawk missiles were launched from the Mediterranean and Red Seas, apart from the Persian Gulf. The neighborhood is not the same anymore.

Must we worry about US intentions? Maybe not. But remember, less than twenty years ago the USA and Saddam Hussein’s regime were together in trying to bring Iran down. Many believe that Saddam Hussein was even helped by the CIA to get rid of the military dictatorship of Maj. Gen. Kassem. In 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, then an oil industry executive, but nevertheless a top ranking Republican, met with Saddam Hussein to seek his favour for Bechtel to construct a pipeline to the Mediterranean from Mosul. The US even forgave Saddam Hussein for sinking the destroyer USS Stark in the Persian Gulf in 1987. The testimony before the US Congress by the former US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, reveals that Washington did indeed suggest to Saddam Hussein that the US “would not be unduly concerned” if Iraq took steps against Kuwait for stealing its oil by horizontal drilling. One would not be far off the mark to suggest that for a good period till 1990 when Iraq occupied Kuwait, the USA and Saddam Hussein were, if not thick as thieves, certainly in cahoots with each other. But in the world of realpolitik there are no permanent friends, just permanent interests.

What are the USA’s permanent interests? Cheap oil is one for sure. But there is more. Zalmay Khalilzad, now the US special envoy in the Middle East, in his widely read book “From Containment to Global Leadership” writes “the US should preclude the rise of another global rival for the indefinite future.” India may not be a potential global rival, but its not willing to be pussycat either! Richard Haass, Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department, said in a recent interview: “The goal of US foreign policy should be to persuade the other major powers to sign on to certain key ideas on how the world should operate. Opposition to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, democracy, markets. Integration is about locking them into these policies and then building institutions that lock them even more.” It is in pursuit of this locked-in world order that Paul Wolfowitz, US Deputy Defence Secretary, espouses the doctrine of the use of pre-emptive military force and punishment of any threat by a variety of means including attacks on military bases and missile silos.

The last time India embarked on a military mobilization to threaten Pakistan with war, the USA struck at us by issuing a travel advisory that crippled the tourism business and slowed down the expansion of the software industry. We couldn’t protest. After all one will look rather ridiculous to expect tourists to visit and export orders to be placed on a country on the verge of war, possibly even a nuclear war. Suppose we disturbed the West’s equanimity again with another threat of a possible nuclear war, would the USA stop with issuing another travel advisory?

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