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Asymmetric Wars In The Indian Context

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 13, 2011


    Asymmetric war is fought between two unequal opponents. In most cases the strong vanquishes the weak, but not always. The question is what makes the weak defeat the strong? What are the strategies that a weak opponent can adopt against a strong foe? This phenomenon is explored here through the `Strategic Interaction Theory` as postulated by Ivan Arreguin-Toft Ivan Arreguin-Toft, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, Cambridge University Press, 2005. and the same is tested in the Indian context.

    Some Definitions

    Strong Actors: These are essentially of two types. 1) Authoritarian, characterised by strict policy, population control, coercion and disregard for laws of war; and 2) Democratic, characterized by a just cause, just conduct and public sentiment.

    Weak Actors: They may be authoritarian or democratic but are characterised by weak governments and a weaker military though they possess a high interest in the outcome because their survival is at stake.

    Interests: Interests are indicative of the level of consensus in the polity and a nation’s appetite for risk and sacrifice. A nation or actor with high interest needs to be defeated whereas one with low interest need not be defeated in war.

    Vulnerability: Implies political vulnerability. Interest varies inversely with vulnerability. The higher the interest, the lesser is the vulnerability. An actor whose survival is at stake will have all the political support and, hence, less vulnerability.

    Time: Time or duration of conflict is critical to a strong actor. The elite (in authoritarian regimes) or the public (in democratic regimes) demand and expect a swift end to a weak opponent. When delays occur, issues of legitimacy, propriety, human rights, media, etc., overshadow the conflict particularly in democratic regimes and force a hasty end to it.

    In the light of the above definitions, Arreguin-Toft quotes Andrew Mack who proposed a theory on asymmetric conflict, which makes interesting conclusions. According to Mack:

    1. Power asymmetry determines interest asymmetry, i.e., higher power equals low interest. A typical example would be the US, a strong power, which had low interest in Vietnam.
    2. Low interest is inversely proportional to political vulnerability, i.e. low interest implies high vulnerability. Typical examples are: the US vulnerability in Afghanistan where little public interest and adverse public opinion have affected Obama`s ratings; or the outrage in Britain when a handful of Boers challenged the British Empire in the 1890s.
    3. High vulnerability varies inversely with the outcome of battle, i.e., high vulnerability implies a low probability of victory. In other words, strong actors look for a ‘face saving option’ like the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan or the proposed US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    Arreguin-Toft also quotes Gil Merom`s work, ‘How Democracies Lose Small Wars’ in which Merom argues that strong democratic actors cannot win small wars because they “find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory…. Essentially what prevents modern democracies from winning small wars is disagreement between state and society over expedient and moral issues that concern human life and dignity.” Typical examples are strong democratic actors like France in Indo-China in 1946-54 or the United States in Vietnam in 1965-75, who lost out to weak actors despite unleashing brutality, which only earned the wrath of their public and raised moral issues.

    The `Strategic Interaction` Theory

    Arreguin-Toft builds on Mack and Merom`s analyses and proposes his own theory - the` Strategic Interaction` theory. The innovation that he introduces is the relationship between the strategies of direct and indirect approach. He argues that when actors employ opposing strategic approaches i.e. direct-indirect or vice versa, weak actors are most likely to win; and when they employ direct-direct strategies strong actors win. He defines direct strategies typically as conventional attack and conventional defence and indirect strategies as barbarism and guerrilla warfare strategy (GWS).

    Barbarism is a strategy adopted to cause deliberate or systematic harm to non-combatants or the civilian population - basically to target the opponents`will` and `capacity` to fight. Typical examples of barbarism are carpet bombing in Vietnam; moving populations into concentration camps like the Nazis did during the Second World War; or even NATO’s strategic air campaign in Kosovo in 1999. Guerrilla warfare strategy (GWS) is the `organisation of a portion of a society for imposing costs on an adversary using armed force trained to avoid direct confrontation`. This includes terrorism or insurgency.

    The Arreguin-Toft theory is best explained by this figure:

    Arreguin-Toft’s strategic interaction theory targets two aspects of an adversary: the physical capacity to fight and the will to fight. The indirect approach targets the will: barbarism against the population (murder, torture, rape, camps) while GWS is against the military (troops, supplies, equipment and even civilians) – all aimed at breaking the will to fight. Direct approach - conventional attack or defence – refers to typical conventional operations fought between armed forces which target the other’s physical capacity to fight.

    Arreguin-Toft supports his theory by discussing the case studies of Murid war (1830-1859), Boer War (1899-1902), the Italian conquest of Ethiopia (1935-1940), the US war in Vietnam (1965-74) and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979-1989). In each of these cases, the weak actor was a non-state actor. But is this theory applicable to a conflict between states? In other words, do nation states, especially nuclear powers, resort to indirect strategies? Yes. In Kosovo, the US led NATO air attacks crippled Serbia by killing thousands and laying the country to waste. Closer home, Pakistan used `mujahideen` to infiltrate across the Line of Control in the Kargil-Batalik Sectors as an indirect strategy despite both nations being nuclear capable states. In the light of this argument, I will attempt to apply this to the Indian context.



    India is the world’s largest democracy with vibrant democratic institutions, voluntary armed forces, an active media and above all a historical culture that has strong religious and moral beliefs. Given its strong democratic ideals, India’s political vulnerability is high.

    Pakistan, on the other hand, is a weak democracy propped up by a strong and powerful military and a fanatic religious and radical lobby. With weak democratic institutions, a stifled judiciary, a feudal system where people’s rights are subdued and a media that is controlled, the state borders on the authoritarian model. Indeed, Pakistan has been under military rule for much of its history. Pakistan’s political vulnerability is therefore low. Time and delays are irrelevant for such a regime as long as the elite remain in power.

    In the 1965 and 1971 wars Pakistan applied the direct-direct approach strategy and consequently failed to achieve its strategic aim. Subsequently, it reverted to the indirect approach, unleashing terrorism/GWS first in the state of Punjab and then in Jammu and Kashmir. Initially, this strategy achieved results by tying down the Indian Army and increasing the cost to India. It required the Indian military to change its strategy to one of combating GWS before bringing the situation well under control. The transformation strategy included the raising of the Rashtriya Rifles (a force detached from the conventional army), changes in the methodology of training, tactics, equipment and force structure. In addition, strategies such as WHAM (Winning Hearts and Minds) and population control measures (denying support and sanctuary to terrorists) brought about a significant change in negating Pakistan`s strategy. In short, once the Indian Army adopted the indirect approach to combat Pakistan`s indirect approach, the stronger (India) won. Resultantly, there is peace in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

    According to Arreguin-Toft, direct-direct strategies also result in victory for the strong actor. Therefore, the obvious approach for India is to transfer the gains of the indirect approach strategy (GWS) to the Para Military Forces (PMFs) till they attain a certain degree of expertise in combating GWS. At the same time, in order to decisively defeat Pakistan militarily, India should prepare for a direct-direct approach (conventional war).


    China is a major power in the making. With a GDP four times that of India’s and an official military budget three times that of India’s, China is way ahead in terms of power. However, it is a single party based regime. Authority is vested in the Party, society is somewhat closed, the media is controlled, religious beliefs are shunned, although there are a few democratic institutions. China typifies an authoritarian strong actor.

    While applying the `Strategic Interaction theory` to the India-China scenario, it would be correct to state that China’s interest is low but being a power in the making it cannot be seen to `lose face ` in the eyes of its public to a weak adversary. Thus China’s vulnerability is high.

    China views India as an adversary in its quest for regional hegemony and dominance in Asia. Naturally, with economic power grow military aspirations. In recent years, Chinese belligerence has become more pronounced. China has begun modernising the PLA on a massive scale, expanding its reach and aspirations beyond its borders. India has taken cognisance of China`s military expansion, but its response has been both slow and tardy. In the interim, till India builds adequate capacities to match up to China, there is a need to prepare for strategies to `deter` China.

    Applying the Arreguin-Toft theory, India as the weak actor needs to adopt indirect strategies vis-a vis China. It must be remembered that such strategies are a function of time. An authoritarian regime may not tolerate indirect acts for long and, when the elite or public get restive, the response may be that of barbarism or direct confrontation, both of which do not suit the Indian state in its present state of preparedness.

    Some of the interim indirect strategies that have been suggested can best be explained as vigorous applications of India`s soft power. These are:-

    1. Support the Dalai Lama`s cause and reach out to the restive, discontented and oppressed Tibetan population, particularly the youth, in Tibet.
    2. Support the cause of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR).
    3. Develop superior Cyber Warfare capabilities to defend against cyber attacks, as also support the cause of free expression and use of internet in Tibet.
    4. Develop superior Electronic Warfare capabilities to thwart propaganda and assist own communications in border areas.
    5. Develop Special Forces (SF) in a big way to consolidate gains.

    The urgency in time and necessity of developing capabilities and capacities vis-a-vis China cannot be overemphasised, particularly if India is forced into a direct confrontation with China in the near future.