The capacity for conquest

The strategic impact of US victory in Iraq on South Asia.

On 20 April this year, as the United States military forces in Iraq changed gears from "war fighting" to "state building", two cartoons appeared in The Washington Post. The first has George W Bush asserting, "Syria isn't 'next on the list'. We don't even have 'a list'… It's more of a wheel". The adjoining caricature shows Bush next to a "wheel of fortune"; the arrow is pointing at Iraq, but Syria, Iran and North Korea are also on the wheel, wondering when it will turn against them.

The second cartoon in the Post was even more explicit. An official spokesman in an Uncle Sam hat stands at a lectern saying, "Iraq, then Syria, down through Jordan, then Saudi Arabia to Iran, Afghanistan again, for old times' sake, clean up Pakistan and India, through China to North Korea, back across Russia, straighten out Old Europe….". At this point someone in the audience asks, "What about the Mideast Peace Road Map?" Answers the official spokesman, "That's what I'm looking at". He holds in his hands a map of "the scenic route".

So is this what world politics has boiled down to in 2003? Are these cartoons accurate in their portrayal of the spirit and aspirations of Washington DC? What does it mean to live in an international system in which military capabilities are acutely concentrated in the hands of a single state? Are the rest of us truly at the mercy of the whims and fancies of the Americans? And what is the strategic significance of this state of affairs for South Asia and for its cardinal security dilemma, the India-Pakistan conflict? These questions, uppermost in many minds after the victory of the US (and UK) in Iraq, warrant an analysis of American power and policy, particularly as it relates to South Asia.

US on top
It is important to understand, right at the outset, the overwhelming superiority of American capabilities today. Both logically and causally, everything else flows out of this military dominance, which is both absolute and relative. In absolute terms, the US today has military capabilities that can reach any point on the planet accurately, lethally and in real time, thereby crippling the adversary while its own forces are sheltered to the maximum extent possible from the inherent dangers of war. The Iraq war demonstrated this absolute capability of the US beyond a shadow of doubt.

But even more awesome than the absolute capabilities of the US is the fact that no other power on Earth today can remotely match them. Depending on how you count and what you look out for, the US today spends more on its military than the next 10 powers combined. Historian Paul Kennedy in a recent article goes even further in asserting that the Pentagon budget is "equal now to the combined defense spending of the next 14 or 15 powers". This overwhelming military preponderance is overkill dominance, if there ever was.

But, in fact, this quantitative perspective understates US military dominance, for two reasons. First, many of the powers trailing behind the US on the military spending list are its own allies. Second, unlike most of the other powers on the list, a large chunk of the Pentagon's budget goes into military research and development, or in other words, technology. Thus, the military dominance of the US is not just based on higher military spending, but on a qualitative gap, a technological chasm that no other power can at present conceivably span.

However, it would be a mistake to attribute US military dominance to technology alone. Going hand in hand with its lead in technology are its vastly superior systems of military organisation and strategic planning. As the Iraq war demonstrates, strategic control of the war by the theatre commander did not stand in the way of tactical innovativeness on the battlefield itself.

The clearest example of this would be the surprisingly rapid fall of Baghdad. In the history of war, there have been only two ways to "take cities" that are in hostile hands: through siege (surrounding a city until it surrenders through starvation, exhaustion and attrition) or by urban warfare (fighting it out street by street, zone by zone). Instead, the American forces devised the novel tactic of "reconnaissance in force" that involved a small but highly mobile mechanised force penetrating deep into the city, occupying critical road junctions, and then staying put to fight a static infantry battle until reinforcements arrived.

The American tactics in Baghdad can be contrasted with the fiasco of Mogadishu a decade earlier when, in much less intimidating circumstances, the US suffered one of its most humiliating military defeats. Nothing demonstrates better the capacity of the US military to learn from the lessons of war and to improve its performance in 'the next round'.

Thus, the first imperial war of 'Pax Americana' clearly demonstrates the US lead in all things military — money, technology, planning and training – and begets the question: is there any way in which American power can be moderated or balanced? In the long term, of course another great power will rise to challenge and balance American power. This is the lesson of history and the logic of politics, as international studies scholar Christopher Layne has shown so convincingly. In 1660, France under Louis XIV was unchallenged; by 1713, England, Habsburg Austria and Russia were contesting French power. In 1860, the high noon of the Victorian period, Pax Britannica looked secure forever. By 1910, it was clear that Germany, Japan and the US had emerged as contenders to British power. Who can doubt that 25 years from now, another great power, most probably China, will be giving the US a serious run for its money?

The problem for the rest of the world is that 25 years is a long way off. What happens in the interim? Do we just grin (or grimace) and bear it? Put in these terms, it is clear that today there is only one body that could moderate the exercise of American muscularity, and that is the Atlantic alliance itself. As the member of a security community, the US has an enormous interest in keeping the alliance of liberal market democracies alive.

This is what makes Jacques Chirac's miscalculation such a terribly damaging one, not just for France but indeed for all of us. Instead of grandstanding in the UN Security Council and taking on the Americans so publicly, French diplomacy ought to have been working within the confines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to convince the United States that the multilateral route to disarming Iraq was the only one worth taking. That was a role that France, with ambitions of greatness, could have played to perfection. At this moment of world history, to have expected multipolarity to alchemically emerge from an overt confrontation with the US was at best wishful thinking, at worst, a blunder of historic proportions.

Realpolitik school
In the top military school in America, where I am on a short visiting stint, basic American strategy and interests are debated and analysed and future American generals and admirals are trained to see the larger picture. If there is one place where one would expect to find an exuberant triumphalism about the scale of the US victory in Iraq, this is it.

Incredible though it may seem, I can honestly say that I have detected none of that. Instead, what one senses are a quiet satisfaction and a steely resolve. On 11 September, America was attacked. Now, the US will attack whomsoever it feels is threatening its security. It all seems to be as simple as that. The point, then, is that the US not only has the capabilities but also the conviction and commitment to use the overwhelming force that it commands to protect its security.

But is the American definition of security threats not unduly expansive? Even many of those who sympathised with and supported the US after 11 September felt that Iraq did not pose a security threat to the American homeland. That, in effect, was at least one of the criticisms of American policy leading up to the Iraq intervention.

The US, obviously, viewed the situation differently. Its consideration was not just the possibility of Iraq passing on weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, which the US government made so much of in the days before the war. The very fact that the US faced a terrorist threat in the first place was placed at the door of Saddam Hussain. The argument went something like this: terrorists (Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda) targeted America due to the presence of US forces near the holy sites of Islam in Saudi Arabia. US forces were deployed in Saudi Arabia due to the threat that Saddam Hussain posed to Iraq's neighbours. Thus, regime change in Iraq was in the vital security interest of the US. As can be seen, one of the first decisions the Bush administration took after the Iraq war was to deploy American forces from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.

The intention here is not to revisit the question of whether US intervention in Iraq that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussain was justified or not. Replaying both sides of that argument would serve little purpose, given that both positions are well known and firmly held. The idea here is to discern the pattern of US intervention in recent years to ascertain under what circumstances the US feels free to militarily intervene in other states. That is obviously a matter of significant import for South Asia.

Thus, if Iraq suggests that the US is predisposed to intervene militarily in other states, North Korea presents a completely different reading of its propensity toward intervention. In the latter case, the US has made it clear that what it is most concerned about is not Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions per se, but rather its nuclear commerce. It is North Korea's threat that it would sell nuclear and missile technology that most worries Washington DC.

Given China's security guarantee to North Korea, and given the latter's conventional capability to obliterate the city of Seoul, a US military intervention in North Korea is highly unlikely. But the litmus test for Washington DC appears to be the extent to which its own security is threatened, not its broader interests. Protection of its immediate security, rather than the promotion of its long-term interests, will determine the likelihood and timing of US military intervention. Thus, along with power and purpose, both of which Washington has in abundance, we need to add a third factor, protection (critics of the US would be tempted to use the word "paranoia" instead), as a test of when the US will intervene and when it will not.

It does not appear that the military capabilities that the US currently commands, and its commitment to use that capability when it feels it needs to, will make 'Pax Americana' a period of crusades and conquests. The US still seems to view the world in classic realpolitik, or even machtpolitik (power politics), terms. If there is a desire to crusade and conquer, it comes not from Washington but from London. In recent years, it is the British who would appear to be articulating and promoting a moralpolitik understanding of what they undoubtedly regard as "Anglo-American" dominance. Robert Cooper, a key foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair, has even suggested the need for "a new kind of imperialism" that actively intervenes in cases of state failure and humanitarian crises. But as long as the realists rule the roost in Washington DC, crusades and wars of conquests are unlikely. Wars of revenge and retribution should remain the name of the game.

Dialogue of the deaf
Given this scenario where the US will pursue war only in response to security threats of an immediate nature, what does all of the above mean for South Asia? Immediately after 11 September, South Asia became for a brief moment the cockpit of world politics. The "global" war on terror was located in South Asia because of the widespread and deep-rooted perception in the US that it is primarily from there that the terrorist threat emanated. The Iraq intervention has changed all that. South Asia has been safely returned to the periphery of world politics.

The only reason that Washington DC pays any attention to South Asia is because of the dangerous instabilities that persist in the India-Pakistan nuclear scene (it can hardly be dignified with the term "equilibrium"). As the crisis of May-June 2002 clearly revealed, in the India-Pakistan context the gap between asymmetric warfare and a nuclear exchange remains uncomfortably small.

The reason for this is obvious enough: in order to counter Pakistan's asymmetric warfare ("cross-border terrorism"), the temptation for India to initiate a sub-conventional war (small special forces operations against terrorist targets) remains strong. The problem is that sub-conventional war, which the Indian policy community has labelled as "limited war under nuclear conditions" (not to be confused with "limited nuclear war"), has the distinct potential of escalating into a full-fledged conventional war. If that were to happen, Pakistan's avowed (albeit unwritten) doctrine of first use/early use could lead to nuclear weapon use by Pakistan, followed by a nuclear second strike by India.

In doctrinal terms, it would appear that the basic problem is that the need for credibility imposes very different requirements on Pakistani and Indian nuclear doctrines. With their nuclear first use/early use doctrine to compensate for Indian conventional superiority, Pakistani planners have to grapple with the issue of nuclear thresholds, ie the point beyond which Pakistan would have no option but to use its nuclear weapons. For India, in sharp contrast, the entire issue of credibility revolves around the question of avoiding nuclear war, ie waging limited conventional war under nuclear conditions.

As Pakistani statements from General Musharraf downward would indicate, a number of different thresholds are being signalled by Pakistan — geographic, military, political and even economic. How political or economic instability in Pakistan would translate into nuclear weapon use against India is far from clear. In effect, Pakistan seems to be laying down not one but multiple tripwires for India, some of which are all but invisible to New Delhi.

Pakistan's Kashmir policy makes it a revisionist state in the bilateral and regional context. Nuclear weapons, which by their very nature buttress the status quo, thus pose a huge dilemma for Pakistan. As the weaker state, nuclear weapons are good news for Pakistan, since they guarantee its security in perpetuity. On the flip side, however, nuclear weapons spell finis for Pakistan's Kashmir policy. This explains why Pakistan, to get around the status quo, is now deliberately shortening its nuclear fuse vis-à-vis India by enunciating a host of nuclear thresholds. Given its lack of conventional superiority, nuclear first use in the case of Pakistan is also likely to involve early use, which is precisely the signal that Pakistan wishes to get out to its adversary.

India's nuclear doctrine, in contrast to Pakistan's, is based on a completely different understanding of the role of nuclear weapons. If India "went nuclear" because of the belief that only nuclear weapons can deter nuclear weapons, then it would appear that Indian policy makers now also subscribe to the converse proposition: when both sides have them, nuclear weapons deter only nuclear weapons. The intent, clearly, is to establish a deterrence relationship with Pakistan that leaves some space open for limited conventional war.

Communication with the adversary is the sine qua non of limited war inasmuch as it signals that no core interest is at stake in the engagement. Kashmir, however, is a core interest for both states. For this reason, the hope of some that the Kargil conflict of 1998 would become the Cuban Missile Crisis of South Asia and make both nuclear sides stand down has been stillborn.

The crisis of summer 2002 would indicate that both India and Pakistan are on a steep learning curve when it comes to building a robust deterrence relationship, which must necessarily be based on the notion of partnership with the adversary to prevent and manage conflict. This would suggest that as long as Pakistani policy is predicated on nuclear compellence (leveraging its nuclear capability to "internationalise" Kashmir in order to force a settlement upon India), a stable deterrence relationship is unlikely to emerge between the two states.

Given the nature of the security dilemma in South Asia, the fear that the summer of 2003 would be an action replay of 2002 — snows melt, terrorism increases, India warns, Pakistan responds, standoff ensues, the world wonders — is therefore totally realistic. The problem with an annual India-Pakistan standoff is that, in the absence of a stable deterrence relationship, there is absolutely no guarantee that the situation will not suddenly escalate out of control.

However, as long as the India-Pakistan standoff does not threaten the security of the US itself, any possibility that Washington DC would forcibly intervene in the region can be totally discounted. Neither Pakistan nor India, in that sense, is Iraq. Washington DC, as a matter of fact, wants good relations with both states, and both of them in turn are craving good relations with the US.
The fact that there will be no significant strategic impact of 'Pax Americana' on South Asia is good news. It would of course be even better if India and Pakistan could end their dialogue of the deaf and begin a genuine dialogue. The recent conversation between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers may yet signal a new beginning.

~ Varun Sahni teaches international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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