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Need to Understand the Military

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 22, 2010

    The Pakistani military was instrumental in deciding the outcome of the recently held Foreign Minister level India-Pakistan talks (July 16-17, 2010, Islamabad). One suggestion that came up doing the various debates on this issue was that India should engage the Pakistani army either officially or in backchannel diplomacy. Past experience also indicates that dealing with a military administration in Pakistan is easier than dealing with democratically elected governments.

    This raises a question: if the accepted wisdom is to establish contact with the military of an adversary, why are eyebrows raised when the Indian armed forces attempt to put their point of view across on issues of national interests.

    It is an irony that expressing an independent view by the Indian armed forces is sometimes being viewed as defiance of the system. From this perspective it is important to carry further the debate raised by the article titled ‘Words can also hurt me’ (Indian Express July 9, 2010) and Civil-Military relations: Under scan (IDSA website, July 14, 2010). In the 21st centaury it is important to factor in the changing geopolitical realities to appreciate the compulsions of civilian and military setups working under democratic structures.

    Civilian primacy should always exist and armed forces are expected to play their limited part in the overall process of nation building. In regard to issues related to security and strategy, the armed forces mostly have an advisory role and rightfully so. However, the issue is whether “we have the governmental structures well equipped to appreciate the intensity and nature of modern day threats and remedies to resolve them”. No security problem could have only a military solution. Modern day problems demand solutions at the political and social levels too. The military can only talk about its role, though only military issues cannot be discussed in isolation. It is important for the military to bring to the notice of policy makers that political and social answers are to be found simultaneously and that otherwise their efforts could not bring results all by themselves. At times, talking in public helps to draw attention. If such talking is done in a nuanced way without any prejudice, then it should not be held against the individual.

    The making of a policy maker in India is a very elaborate process and people with very high calibre are selected and trained for this purpose. However, our policy making has not matured with the changing times. The problem is that investments are made to make policy makers generalists and not specialists. The training structure and employment policy for these people has not changed with the times. Policy ‘creators’ are often rotated every two to three years from one office to another. They jump from the sports ministry to science & technology and from the Latin America desk to Pakistan desk! Matters related to security are complex at times and without any background it becomes difficult for such personnel to appreciate the nuances on the very first day in their new job. By the time they develop and fully grasp the functioning of their departments, they stand posted out. Having subject specialists as advisers to these policy makers has its own limitations. For all these years a broad-spectrum understanding of security issues was sufficient for decision makers because of the nature of threat (conventional in nature). In the 21st century threats are more asymmetric in nature. Armed forces are also complaining that they are not trained to address issues related to non-conventional threats. Hence, to address modern day threats it is inessential to have policy makers who are specialists with multidisciplinary vision.

    Over the years significant changes have occurred in the role, employability and structure of the armed forces. The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has become a reality and has brought in significant changes in military doctrines at one level and in hardware at the other. Military technologies are changing rapidly and their procurement and induction demand a proper understanding of the wide array of the technology spectrum.

    Over the years public participation in guiding the decision making process had increased appreciably and 24 by 7 media is playing a major role in this regard. Also, various types of NGOs have mushroomed in the country and in some cases their agendas could be contentious. Under these circumstances it is important for the armed forces to put across their point of view for public consumption. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a case in point. Also, it is important to bring out the strengths and limitations of various military human-ware and hardware when their efficacy for utilization against internal security threats is being discussed. For example, the use of air power in anti-naxal operations. The propaganda carried out against the armed forces could be neutralised only if counter arguments are put forward by professionals and practitioners.

    On the other hand, it is important to understand the nature of troops which the present generation of military commanders are leading. Gone are the days when illiterate villagers were in the forefront to join the armed forces. Moreover, the presence of media, computers and mobile phones has increased the awareness level of the average villagers. Their family members are asking questions like: “Are there no human rights for the soldiers”?; and “People in the armed forces are ready to sacrifice their life for the country but why should they die as a result of erroneous policies”?

    Under these circumstances if the armed forces are found expressing their opinion then it should be taken in the right spirit. This is what Stanley McChrystal did when he made his assessment on Afghanistan public while giving an interview. But it is important to understand that in the ‘fog of war’ in the Afghanistan theatre it is always not necessary that only weapons would misfire, at times that could even happen with words too! His method was wrong though his concerns were genuine. His removal only shows the immaturity of American democracy. It is important to note that modern democracies are much more than about simply throwing the rule book at their militaries. The tenets of civil-military relations are many and this is just one view. A more nuanced debate is necessary.