Reading the Arthashastra: The proper use of détente

Using hostile peace to tilt the balance

By distinguishing enmity and offensive action, Kautilya makes a sophisticated argument about the use of a ‘hot peace’ to accumulate economic power, that will, in time, allow a state to defeat the counterpart—by military force, if need be.

He classifies three types of what Dr Shamasastry calls “neutrality”. But this translation is not very appropriate, because Kautilya is not advocating sitting on the fence. One needs to study the Sanskrit, but from the context, the word “quiescence” may be more appropriate. Quiescence can be:

“Keeping quiet, maintaining a particular kind of policy is sthana; withdrawal from hostile actions for the sake of one’s own interests is asana; and taking no steps (against an enemy) is upekshana.” [Arthashastra VII:4]

The first arises out of a stable balance of power, where the adversaries are compelled to keep to their places. The second is deliberate, similar to what has been termed “masterly inactivity”, the phrase most famously used to describe colonial British policy towards Afghanistan under Governor-General Sir John Lawrence. It also refers to a state of détente. Finally, the third variety of quiescence arises from dereliction of duty, or impolicy.

Kautilya favours the policy of “keeping quiet after proclaiming war” when it can strengthen one’s own state and inflict injuries on the enemy. The latter could be due to exploiting the enemies internal troubles or, interestingly, through seizing an advantage by influencing patterns of trade: by “(preventing) the import of his enemy’s merchandise, which was destructive of his own commerce” or drawing “that valuable merchandise…to his own territory, leaving that of his enemy”. In fact, in what might militate against the contemporary view on the issue, Kautilya sees inward immigration from neighbouring states as a benefit. He places immigration in the benefits side of the analysis in several places in the Arthashastra.

This, according to Kautilya, is the way to both impoverish the enemy and not only accumulate, but also exhibit one’s own power.

So under what conditions does the king “march after proclaiming war”? The case for offensive action is based on the internal condition of the enemy and the geopolitics without. The enemy’s internal troubles must be beyond redemption, the state in a terminal decline and its people ready to desert their master. External conditions require a favourable disposition among the front and rear allies. The offensive action could be taken independently or in partnership with the allies depending on the circumstances.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

American pundits show signs of irony deficiency

No realpolitik please, we’re Americans

Many American geopolitical pundits are behaving just like their economic counterparts. If the latter believed that a long period of growth and low inflation meant the demise of the business cycle, the former convinced themselves that the long period of relative peace between the world’s great powers indicated the “end of history”. Then facts intervened.

In today’s Washington Post, Ronald D. Asmus and Richard Holbrooke argue that “this moment could well mark the end of an era in Europe during which realpolitik and spheres of influence were supposed to be replaced by new cooperative norms and a country’s right to choose its own path.” Perhaps it was the supposition that was wrong. They go on to argue that the US needs “to counter Russian pressure on its neighbors, especially Ukraine—most likely the next target in Moscow’s efforts to create a new sphere of hegemony.” They pull off a remarkable feat—they condemn realpolitik and advocate it. Of course, they only condemn realpolitik when it is practised by the Russians.

And in another essay in the same newspaper, Robert Kagan (John McCain’s foreign policy advisor) writes that “Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even — though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities — the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives.” It is, of course, understandable that Mr Kagan should use the phrase “return of history” as that’s the title of his recent book. But it is amusing to note that “the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives” in the 21st century should be shocking.

The irony deficiency is bipartisan. The New York Times reports: “Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality. The essential Russian calculus, he says, is, “Anything we can do to weaken the U.S. is good for Russia.”” So what is NATO expansion but the Russian calculus in reverse?

But it is Dick Cheney who takes the cake. “Russian aggression must not go unanswered,” he told Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, who had launched the war, “and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the US.” Surely, Mr Cheney can’t be thinking that the consequences of answering it will be any less serious?

Update: It’s spreading! The FT catches it now.

Russia’s behaviour in the southern Caucasus is a reversion to spheres of influence and balance of power politics. If Moscow really believes the west is behaving the same way, that is the sort of difference a new strategic partnership with the EU would resolve. This way, it will never get one. In fact, Russia will never get to where it wants to be in the 21st century by behaving like a 19th-century power. [FT]

Reading the Arthashastra: On declaring war

Calculations of relative power

The decision to go war, according to the Arthashastra, is a rational one—the king should choose war or peace, whichever is most advantageous. So Kautilya is not a pacifist, but neither is he a warmonger, for he advises that in the event expected advantages are of equal character, “one should prefer peace”, for war always comes at a disadvantage.

If that sounds reasonable, it was ignored in the decades following his death. The vast empire his protege Chandragupta Maurya founded in the fourth century BCE quickly fell apart after Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhist pacifism. As Paddy Docherty writes in The Khyber Pass, “The decline of the Mauryan dynasty after Ashoka was dramatic…Princes schooled in otherwordliness—in a concern for Dhamma and the freeing of oneself from the ego—make bad rulers.” (pp 57)

Kautilya used calculations of relative power to determine war or peace decisions: peace with kings with equal or superior power, and war against weaker kings. The metaphors are pithy: attacking a stronger king will meet the same fate as that of a foot-soldier opposing an elephant; attacking an equal power is like the mutually destructive collision between two unbaked mud vessels; attacking a weaker king is like a stone hitting an earthenware vessel.

When confronted with superior power, Kautilya advises pragmatism: the weaker king should submit to the stronger one and take the attitude of a conquered king. Or, alternately, seek the protection of a stronger power. For his part, he advises the stronger king to accept proposals for peace from the weaker one, lest the latter be provoked into war. Here it is implicit that Kautilya thinks that such a confrontation is undesirable and hence, to be avoided.

What about a king of equal power who resists proposals for peace? The answer, well, is what we would today call tit-for-tat.

When a king of equal power does not like peace, then the same amount of vexation as his opponent has received at his hands should be given to him in return; for it is power that brings about peace between any two kings: no piece of iron that is not made red-hot will combine with another piece of iron. [Arthashastra VII:3]

That’s consistent with the conclusions of modern game theory: tit-for-tat is the optimum strategy for iterated prisoner’s dilemmas.

One important factor tempers the war or peace decisions derived from calculations of relative power—the disposition of the people.

When a king in peace with another finds that greedy, impoverished, and oppressed as are the subjects of his ally, they do not yet immigrate into his own territory lest they might be called back by their master, then he should, though of inferior power, proclaim war against his ally.

When a king at war with another finds that greedy, impoverished, and oppressed as are the subjects of his enemy, still they do not come to his side in consequence of the troubles of war, then he should, though of superior power, make peace with his enemy or remove the troubles of war as far as possible. [Arthashastra VII:3]

Kautilya doesn’t explain why this should be so. But we can make some inferences: in the first case, the weaker king can neutralise his weakness by weakening his stronger adversary’s hold over his estranged citizens. In second, popular support adds to the strength of a weaker power, narrowing the gap.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Russia vs Georgia, outside the Olympics

And the dubious wisdom of provoking a stronger, aggressive adversary

A military misadventure under the cover of the Olympics did happen. But in South Ossetia (where?), a Russian majority region in Georgia.

Georgia, more than any other former Soviet republic has been the site of a geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West. In the military space, the Georgian armed forces have, on the one hand, have drawn into a close relationship with the United States. Russian troops, on the other hand, have used their presence in South Ossetia (where they are peacekeepers in the conflict between the South Ossetian rebel militia and the Georgian armed forces) to harass Georgia.

Now, Georgians would rightly have a lot to complain about this unhappy state of affairs. But considering he has at most 30,000 troops and political support from the West, what could have caused Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, to provoke a war with Russia? The Georgians might have calculated that they would take Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, cut off the tunnel and the sole road link that connects to Russia, under cover of the Olympics before the Russians had a chance to react. There being no airstrips in the region, the Russians would be hard pressed to deploy troops and equipment quickly, buying the Georgians time to secure a favourable diplomatic settlement.

At this time, it looks like the Georgians miscalculated. Georgian troops failed to take Tskhinvali and the Russians escalated sharply in response. President Saakashvili called for the US to intervene—but other than support at the UN, the United States isn’t going to enter into a military conflict against Russia. In any case, assuming that taking Tskhinvali and shutting off the road would end the matter was foolhardy—for Russia might well have decided (and could yet decide) to open a new front wherever it chose to.

However this conflict might end, two things are clear. First, Russia has made its Vladimir Putin’s “this far and no further” warning to NATO’s expansion more credible. If the United States and the European Union do not try to challenge this position, it is possible that Eurasian balance-of-power will move towards a new stability. This need not imply a new “cold war” as some suggest. Second, political risk attached to oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russian control will remain high or increase even further.

As for South Ossetia, the West can hardly raise any issues of principle should Russia go to the extent of annexing it entirely. Prime Minister Putin has only to cite the recent example of the US and EU position on Kosovo. For surely, if the Kosovars had a case to break away from Serbia, South Ossetians should hardly be blamed for breaking away from Georgia? Shoe, other foot, and all that.

Related Links: A number of good posts on this issue in the blogosphere. Starting from Nikolas Gvosdev who has several posts covering the issue. Robert Farley has two detailed ones (via the Duck of Minerva, where Daniel Nexon offers his take). Richard Gowan contemplates international options at Global Dashboard.

The attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul

It’s not going to move India

It is said to be the worst terrorist attack in Kabul since 2001—terrorists killed over 41 people and left more than 139 injured in a suicide bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul today. Four of those killed were Indians. The rest, most likely, were all Afghans.

According to early reports, the bomber set off the bombs when two embassy vehicles were entering the compound. Brigadier R D Mehta, the defence attache, and V Venkateswara Rao, the political and information counsellor were in those cars. Ajai Pathania (Rathore?) and Roop Singh, security personnel guarding the embassy, were also killed in the blasts. It does not appear to be a random attack on the embassy—the timing suggests that the attackers deliberately targeted at the Indian diplomats.

It is reasonable to speculate that the attackers want to browbeat India into stepping out of Afghanistan. India has played a quiet but determined role in the Afghan reconstruction, and the attack could well suggest that this is threatening the Taliban and those opposed to the Hamid Karzai government.

Attacking construction crews in the Afghan countryside is one thing. Attacking top diplomats at the Indian embassy in Kabul is another. Why the Taliban sought to escalate their violence against India remains the question. Not least when they are engaged in a two-front war—against the US & NATO forces in Afghanistan, and, to some extent, against Pakistani forces in Pakistan’s tribal areas and NWFP. The embassy might have offered a target of opportunity and the attack might have been a tactical success, but its strategic utility is suspect.

That’s because India is quite unlikely to be deterred by this attack. It is unlikely to scale down its reconstruction initiatives. If the attacks were intended to provoke and suck India deeper into Afghanistan, then that too is unlikely to happen. In all likelihood, the Indian response would be to harden the targets and move on.

That opens up the other possibility: is this the handiwork of Pakistani interests? The political turmoil in Pakistan has certainly created a window of opportunity for the tradition “strategic depth” seekers to try and play their old games again. Knowing that the “noise” makes a retaliatory Indian tit-for-tat response unlikely, it is possible that one of the factions in Pakistan’s security establishment ordered the strike. Tactical success, but again, the strategic value remains uncertain.

One thing is clear though—as far as the United States is concerned, the war in Afghanistan needs its own General Petraeus.

Update: On what India should do now.

The other General Kiyani

An angry retired general on television

Lieutenant-General (retd) Jamshed Gulzar Ahmed Kiyani, who served as a corps commander of the Pakistani Army under General Pervez Musharraf had a lot to say about his former chief. And none of it charitable. General Kiyani has joined the ranks of a number of former general officers at the head of an ‘ex-servicemen’s movement’ against General Musharraf. Here are two of his recent TV appearances: first, on PTV’s Live with Talat, and a second, more beans-out-of-the-bag one on GEO TV’s Meray Mutabiq show with Shahid Masood (via UB). The latter is 90 minutes long, but is worth watching in full. (alternative link, report).

In the early stages of the interview with Dr Masood, he boasts that a Pakistani general is far superior to an Indian one. And then he blames the top leadership of the Pakistani army for the “debacles” in East Pakistan and Kargil. He points out that the Pakistani military leadership did not expect the “intense response” from the Indian side, that used air power and ‘state-of-the-art’ Bofors howitzers (when the latter were at least 15 years old in 1999). On the other hand, he does admit that “you can’t dictate terms to the enemy” and admits that the fighting was done by young Pakistani army personnel—that ‘mujahideen’ fig-leaf being fully dead.

While General Kiyani comes out as a harsh critic of General Musharraf, he is more sympathetic to Nawaz Sharif. He first absolves Nawaz Sharif as having knowledge of the Kargil operation, but then goes on the describe a meeting of leading figures where Sartaj Aziz, the foreign minister, opposed it on the grounds that it would be diplomatically indefensible, and General Majid, the minister of Kashmir and Northern Areas grilled the Rawalpindi corps commander on whether the army had the logistics capability to support the offensive. Mr Nawaz Sharif himself is quoted as saying that he would support it as long as the going was good, but would ditch them if things fouled up.

General Kiyani calls for an impartial closed-down inquiry into the Kargil debacle. It remains to be seen if Mr Nawaz Sharif himself would want that.

Duh Roy

And duh Dilip?

Arundhati Roy asks rhetorically (via Dilip D’Souza who asks inquiringly):

Roy: I think speaking out against the occupation is the bravest thing that a soldier can do. I have always admired the U.S. soldiers who spoke out against the Vietnam War. In fact, in places like India, when people get randomly racist and anti-American, I always ask them: When do you last remember Indian soldiers speaking out against a war, any war, in India? [War Times]

Imagine you were an Indian soldier. Would you speak out against war when Pakistan attacks India at Kargil, Pakistan-sponsored terrorists attacks the Indian parliament, when terrorists habitually kill your fellow citizens and conduct ethnic cleansing in your own country? Or when terrorists kill your own family members? Would you speak out against war when a murderous Pakistani military dictatorship is conducting genocide in Bangladesh driving 10 million refugees into India? Or when the Sri Lankan government is brutally repressing the Tamil minority, again driving refugees into India?

If you were an Indian soldier, you would be very unlikely to speak out against a war that is imposed on you.

And let’s not forget that the Indian armed forces do not engage in public debate over policy, but professionally execute the political decision to use military force. And that’s generally a very good thing.

Preparing for global warming wars

The Indian National Interest community launches its first policy brief

Climate Change and National Security: Preparing India for New Conflict Scenarios

Policy Brief No 1 - CoverThe global debate on whether there is indeed a process of anthropogenic climate change in progress has been for the most part settled by the international scientific consensus surrounding the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The trajectory of global warming is expected to have a major impact on human society as a whole: calling for a co-ordinated international response towards mitigation and adaptation to a warmer planet.

This policy brief analyses how climate change will affect regional security in the Indian subcontinent and implications for India’s national security. It argues that glacial melt, rising sea levels and extreme weather will exacerbate ongoing conflicts and will require India to develop military capabilities to address a range of new strategic scenarios: from supporting international co-operation, to managing a ‘hot peace’, to outright military conflict.

Get the document from the INI Policy Briefs section.

A lesson in statecraft, for Mr Varadarajan

Nepal is Nepal, and India is, well, India

“If the Indian Maoists have something to learn from their Nepali comrades,” Siddharth Varadarajan argues, “the same is true of the Indian establishment as well. While Nepal’s erstwhile ruling parties are building peace with their Maoists, India is stuck with the disastrous Salwa Judum.”

Now the use of Salwa Judum by Chattisgarh is wrong, and is the most obvious indicator of the UPA government’s failure to develop a cohesive strategy towards subduing the Naxalite movement. But it is also important to remember that Salwa Judum is a relatively new phenomenon (India’s Naxalites have been around for almost four decades) and is restricted to just one state. So to equate India’s long war against the Naxalite movement is more misinformation than analysis. Mr Varadarajan ignores the anti-Naxalite strategies adopted in other states and at other times. For instance, under Chandrababu Naidu’s chief-ministership, the Andhra Pradesh police almost broke the Naxalites’ back. That advantage was lost not because the use of force by state authorities didn’t work. It was lost because the Congress Party decided to lower the heat and attempt negotiations. The Maoists used the opportunity to regroup and before long, returned to their armed struggle.

But what of Mr Varadarajan’s lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India? Well, he argues

“If the Indian establishment wants the Maoists to give up their armed struggle and take part in elections like their Nepali comrades, it will have to rely on more than political osmosis. For the Nepali ‘model’ is not just about the Maoists adapting creatively to changes in the national and international arena; it is equally about the ‘bourgeois’ parties there demonstrating a degree of statesmanship that has so far been completely absent in their counterparts south of the border.

Indeed, so backward is our political culture in relation to Nepal’s that instead of seeking ways of peacefully ending the naxalite insurgency, the Government of India has actually fuelled a new civil war.

In Nepal, the political parties and the Maoist rebels realised that the civil war in their country would not be resolved militarily. The king was the only one who failed to recognise this reality and paid the price for his folly. In India, however, despite the military stalemate which prevails, both the establishment and the Maoists continue to believe in the supremacy of arms.” [The Hindu]

Mr Varadarajan, like some other people who write in the opinion pages of the Hindu betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Indian state. He fails to understand the fundamental difference between legitimacy of a democratic republic and that of a sometimes-absolute, sometimes-constitutional monarchy. Even if one were to ignore the immense differences in the state’s hard capacity—in the ability to muster up economic and military resources—the government of India enjoys a moral strength (of course, the Naxalites and their apologists will deny this) that no government of Nepal ever had. [See There are alternatives to Naxalism]

In other words, unlike Nepal, the Indian state won’t simply lie down and surrender. Here Mr Varadarajan would do well to learn some lessons from Indian history: in the end, it is the insurgents who cry Momma. The second lesson for Mr Varadarajan is that the democratic nature of the Indian state allows these militarily defeated insurgents to honourably enter mainstream politics.

Indeed, Mr Varadarajan might discover the ultimate lesson of statecraft were he to examine how Nepal’s Maoists came to power. Narratives of Indian pusillanimity apart, does he really believe that Pushpa Kumar Dahal would be so close to political power, and legitimacy, if the ‘Indian establishment’ hadn’t allowed it?

It is not as if negotiations haven’t been tried in India. They have. That they have not led to the Naxalites dropping dogmatic armed struggle and entering mainstream politics tells you where the problem lies. It is understandable that Mr Varadarajan is heady with vicarious triumphalism due to the success of Nepal’s Maoists. He should restrict himself to savouring the moment. As for lessons in statecraft, there’s a lot that Maoists—on either side of the India-Nepal border—have to learn.

Remembering the East Pakistan Genocide

Truth and reconciliation elude the victims of the 1971 mass murders

Thirty eight years ago this day, the Pakistani army’s tanks moved in to Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, as part of the General Yahya Khan-led junta’s plan to bring the autonomy-seeking province to heel. “We have to sort them out” said Colonel Naim of the Pakistani army’s 9th division, “to restore the land to the people, and the people to their Faith”. Operation Searchlight officially got underway on March 25th 1971, although in his memoirs, Major General Sujan Singh Uban writes that the Pakistani army had begun repressive measures a few days earlier.

Thus began the genocide.

It was perhaps among the few in recent decades that did not come as a surprise, not least to the victims. It accompanied the birth of a new nation leaving horrible birthmarks that disfigure Bangladeshi society to this day. Bangladesh in 1971 was the site of multiple conflicts: a civil war between the the two wings of Pakistan, communal violence between Bengalis and non-Bengalis, a genocide, an guerrilla war, a conventional war and a counter-genocide. In each of these conflicts perpetrators, victims and onlookers often exchanged roles. Here is my essay (PDF, 200kb) that examines the causes, course and results of one sub-conflict—the genocide against Bengalis by the West Pakistani army—and attempts to explain it through a Realist perspective.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power indicts the realist underpinnings of US foreign policy for its indirect complicity or reluctance to intervene in several 20th century genocides—including those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

While that may indeed be the case, the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. (The essay contains a small section disagreeing with Sarmila Bose’s recent revisionist study that concludes that the term genocide was a product of exaggeration.).

Download the essay here

From the archives: Archer Kent Blood, RIP; Who claimed Bangladeshi independence?; Indira called Nixon a…?; Bangladesh celebrates victory day; Children of a failed theory; Foreign Policy Naifs (Barbara Crossette edition)