The outcome of modern wars is decided in the mind
Armed combat, of course, is not about to disappear, although it may increasingly take the form of ‘asymmetric warfare’ as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It could also take the shape of proxy war, like the one India is fighting in Jammu & Kashmir and the United States and NATO are fighting in Afghanistan. But days in which armed combat alone decided the fate of wars ended a long time ago: with World War II and perhaps, the India-Pakistan war of 1971.
This is old hat. All out war became unimaginable as soon as the major powers acquired nuclear weapons. Those that didn’t have their own usually came under the umbrella of one of those that did. The game of nuclear deterrence—in spite of bizarrely escalating to the level where there were thousands of warheads—kept the peace. The stability/instability paradox argued that while nuclear deterrence ensured stability at the highest (nuclear) level of escalation, it nevertheless created instability at lower (non-nuclear) levels. The United States relied on this to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. But the Pakistani general staff realised just how low the ceiling was at Kargil in 1999-2000. It worked so long as they were only arming and injecting jihadis into Jammu & Kashmir. But when they decided to take a step further and actually try to capture and hold territory, they quickly found out exactly where the buck stopped.
But the outcome of most of these asymmetrical, low-intensity wars can go either way. The larger and more powerful combatant uses a fraction of its total available strength in these conflicts and can theoretically fight hard enough to destroy its opponent in short order if it can somehow accept the massive collateral damage that this will result in. Theoretically, it can also fight long enough to frustrate the opponent into defeat if it can somehow stay in there. Armed combat is a tool in this war, a sort of a meta-weapon that a state deploys in some fronts. It can, at times, produce decisive results—but is bounded by whether it is given the time and resources to have a chance of doing so.
By most definitions of victory, India won the Kargil war in 1999. But it miserably failed in the battle (yes, it was a battle) of Kandahar in 2000, when the NDA government gift-wrapped and hand-delivered the ransom that Pakistan sought. India is committed for the long-haul in Kashmir: and despite the Manmohan Singh government’s confused vacillations, this is unlikely to change. Over in Assam though, the commitment to defeat ULFA waxes and wanes. Meanwhile, India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s is seen as a failure causing an overreaction that has made subsequent governments reluctant to use force in the neighbourhood. The United States too lost in Viet Nam, won in Afghanistan (in the 1980s), in Iraq (in 1990). It now stands on the verge of losing Afghanistan II and Iraq II. In almost all these cases India and the United States were the stronger, better-equipped combatants. Yet they lost some and they won some. Why?
Because the outcome of the war was decided not on the battlefield. It was decided in a battle of minds, in a battle of collective resolve and in a battle in the court of public opinion. Kargil was won because Indians were overwhelmingly in support of the cause. For the same reason, India is prosecuting the long war in Kashmir. Kandahar was lost because public opinion was manipulated into ‘saving the hostages at all costs’. In Sri Lanka and periodically in Assam, domestic public opinion was against the further use of force. Similar reasons apply to the United States in its Iraqi and Afghan outings.
That public opinion matters is not new. Public support for the cause and morale during the war itself were always important. What is new is that the outcome of the war itself is increasingly decided by public opinion—with all its uncertainties, vagaries, whims and susceptibility to manipulation. Of course, this has been true in authoritarian states and closed societies for a long time, where the outcome is unquestionably what the regime says it is. In democratic societies with a free (and freewheeling media) the outcome of wars is becoming what public opinion says it is.
This poses a special challenge to open and secular democracies where there is no supremacist religion or ideology that has an irrational hold on the mind, and the media is more susceptible to manipulation by cynicism, populism or worse, by enemy interests. Indeed, technological change has shifted the control over mass media from the government to corporations and eventually, to citizens themselves. No longer can governments use their exclusive control of the “channels” to spread their “message”.
What this means, in effect, is that citizens have become combatants in the war of convictions. The side that believes that it has won wins. The side that believes it has lost loses. It is misleading to think of this as being about propaganda or public relations theatre, which though important, can be exposed or seen through. It is about truth, not necessarily the objective truth, but what is widely regarded to be true. The study of how public opinion forms has become all the more important. What instruments should the state have to fight this war? How should it equip its citizens? More importantly, what are the rules of the game? Is it even possible to ‘win’ wars any more?
Centuries ago, war was all out combat between one group against another; the distinction between combatants and non-combatants came later as a moral upgrade to that ugly business. Wars then largely became contests between armed forces of countries (although non-combatants continued to be killed). In the nuclear era, war became a game played by the strategic elite. The war of the future may go back a full circle—pitting entire populations, combatants and non-combatants alike in a complex clash of convictions.
Update: An interesting discussion on this post over at Winds of Change.