New Delhi: Conventional wisdom says future wars in the subcontinent would be short and decisive. Reasoning for this far-reaching conclusion is not provided. Nevertheless, the Indian military is geared to this. One would presume the Pakistan armed forces also hew to this thinking although they might just as conceivably take an independent line. The Chinese PLA is another matter. It is generally opaque on matters of strategy but it is known to adopt disruptive tactics. It may or not subscribe to the short-and-decisive-war theory. But how much substance is there in it regardless of the Chinese? Should India base its war doctrines on them?

In the India-China-Pakistan war dynamic, there is one constant. All three are military nuclear powers. They could annihilate one another’s civilization several times over. If there is at all a war, Pakistan and China together will take on India. Pakistan’s political objective for war would be to gain Kashmir and to dismantle the Indian state. This would also avenge the 1971 war defeat and the creation of Bangladesh. China’s objective for war would be to annex Arunachal Pradesh and deal a body blow to Tibet separatism. In the process it would seek to cleave the Northeast states and either absorb them or more likely leave them as buffers with India. In any case, they would have to pay tribute to Beijing. This is over and above Pakistan’s destructive plans for India which China will encourage to eliminate forever the strategic threat from India.

What are India’s comparable war objectives? There is no straightforward answer. India is a liberal democracy whereas Pakistan and China are not. Pakistan is a militarized state with certain civilian features. China, on the other hand, is a totalitarian state with no democratic characteristics. Democracies usually do not instigate wars. While India’s political objectives for war would be to seize Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and break up Pakistan, it will not instigate the conflict. Public opinion will not support extreme jingoism, Public opinion is absent in China and of little value in Pakistan. In sum, India faces a threat of war from Pakistan and China, and they would doubtless collude. Pakistan and China, however, face no dynamic war threat from India. If the past is a guide, Indian defensive actions would be restricted to the borders and the respective notional LAC/ LoC in the east and west. That said one cannot be sure. Cross-border strikes would happen in future too but they would not qualify as war.

This being the broad state of play, it is difficult to prove the validity of the conventional wisdom about short and decisive sub-continental wars. Suppose Pakistan does a repeat of Kargil and China joins the conflict with the aim to seize Arunachal Pradesh. If India keeps the war conventional, it is bound to lose vast territories in the two flanks and no government would survive the defeat. Indeed, India may not survive in the present state. Early in the conflict, therefore, India will issue nuclear ultimata to Pakistan and China to restore status quo ante; and should they pay no heed, it will carry through the threat knowing full well the apocalyptic consequences to its own existence. In the outre case that India moves to grab PoK, Pakistani nuclear triggers will be set off. Pakistan has a declared policy of nuclear war-fighting, and no firewall exists in truth between theatre and strategic nuclear weapons. The conventional wisdom of a short and decisive war is a dangerous chimera that oughtn’t to be encouraged through thoughtless repetition.

What, indeed, may happen? War is unpredictable. You may start a war but you may not be able to end it. War has its own dynamic. Armies as a rule oppose war because they have to fight it and are intimate with its horrors. However, unforeseen circumstances could trigger a war. For example, China used the diversionary cover provided by the Cuban missile crisis to attack India in 1962. It had a limited aim of “punishing” India presumably for giving asylum to the Dalai Lama and prolonging the Tibet independence movement. China today has a broader aim of seizing Arunachal Pradesh which would result in an all-out war verging on the nuclear. In the case of Pakistan, the generals, facing mounting domestic unrest, might resort to a diversionary attack on Kashmir. India would have to restore the status quo ante or go nuclear. A sub-continental war is scarcely likely to be short and decisive. And it runs huge risks of turning nuclear.

In the past, the world was expected to intervene to end a sub-continental war in good time. It worked in the India-Pakistan dynamic lastly in Kargil. But China has entered the calculation. And India may no longer accept a brokered peace if it lets off the instigator. Moreover, with persistent terrorist infiltrations and periodic war instigations, the Line of Control may lose the sanctity it once held for Atal Behari Vajpayee. All bets are off, therefore. The sooner disputant parties understand the dangers of instigating wars with terrible consequences, the better for South Asia. The important difference from prior in the nuclear age is that no party can lose and be seen to be losing. War is not an option for India, China and Pakistan. The only war that the nuclear age will permit is trade wars. It is bloodthirsty, unreal and far from wise to speak of short and decisive wars.