Geopolitics

Two Front War Threat: A Historian’s Perspective
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 15 Sep , 2020

In April 2020, China amassed troops on Ladakh frontier with India prospect of a two front war has loomed large on Indian horizon. Two front war situations are brought about by geo-political factors and while armies must be ready to fight it, politics has to ensure that it is avoided. All possible alliances must be explored if a two front war is unavoidable. Wars are fought for political/economic objectives. As the Northern border of India heats up, the Western border with Pakistan remains as volatile as ever. While the Generals have to make sure that their forces are placed in an advantageous position to win in terms of equipment, timing and theatre of war, it is the politicians and diplomats who have their work cut out to extricate the country out of this situation.

Shivaji the Great, in the 17th century practiced great statesmanship to create a ‘Hindavi Swarajya’ and successfully deal with a two front situation. Shivaji is justly celebrated for his soldierly achievements like killing Afzal Khan in personal combat, leading a commando raid on Mughal garrison in Pune and daring escape from Agra. But his achievements in field of diplomacy and realpolitik are not so well known.

In the second half of 17th century as Shivaji embarked upon his campaign to establish ‘Swarajya’ (self- rule) he faced threat on two fronts. In the South, the powerful Sultanate of Vijapur was an immediate menace while the far greater threat of Mughal/Rajput combine lurked in the North. In the initial stages as he snatched territory from Vijapur, he adroitly exploited the Sunni-Mughal’s antipathy to Shia Sultanates of Vijapur and made sure of neutrality of Mughal/Rajput combine while he decimated the Vijapur Sultanate. At a later stage, when under Aurangzeb, the Mughal’s took on the Marathas and VijapurSultanate, Shivaji forged an alliance with Vijapur and helped them check the Mughal/Rajput Empire.

Anticipating the Mughal invasion from North, he shifted the centre of gravity of his kingdom from Deccan Plateau to Konkancoast. The terrain in rugged coastal area was unsuitable for movement of heavy guns, cavalry and war elephants of the adversary. In this latter period of his reign he used his resources to build a powerful navy and built many sea forts, an area where the Mughals were weak. He also stitched an alliance with the Bahamani Sultanate in the South and created a Southern Coalition. To ensure internal peace, he made sure that his soldiers respected sanctity of Mosques and Quran Sharif so as to ensure that his fight against the Mughals did not become fight against Islam. This is mentioned clearly by Kafi Khan, the Mughal court historian.  His astute diplomacy laid the foundation of Maratha Empire of 18th century.

Aurangzeb, who presided over the Mughal/Rajput Empire, flouted every norm that Shivaji followed. When Aurangzeb personally moved south to fight the Marathas, half his Mughal/Rajput army was left in the North to fight the Sikh and Jat revolts. He made no attempt to avoid a two front war. He followed a policy of religious intolerance, destroyed Mathura and Kashi temples and imposed Jiziya (poll tax) on majority Hindus. He also embarked upon a campaign of forcible conversions to Islam in many areas including Kashmir valley. By the time he died in 1707, a defeated and frustrated Emperor, he had destroyed the Mughal Empire.

Sadly the Marathas did not learn from Shivaji the Great and instead repeated the folly of Aurangzeb in late 18th century at Panipat. In 1761 as the Afghan ruler Abdali invaded North India, the Marathas marched nearly a 1000 km North to defend India (Kabul is closer to Delhi than Pune). But instead of concentrating all their resources, the Marathas left a full 1/3 of their army in the South, fighting an inconsequential campaign. Fighting on two fronts, the Marathas suffered a major reverse in third battle of Panipat that changed the history of India.

Closer to our time, during the Second World War, Hitler’s Germany went to great lengths to avoid a two front threat. On 23 August 1939, German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, signed a peace treaty that portioned Polland and also secured the Eastern front for Germany while it dealt with France. Germany only broke the treaty once it had secured the Western front after defeat and surrender of France. All this was done despite the full understanding that the two sides were mortal enemies. Even more tellingly, while the Soviet Union was fully engaged in fighting World War II after 1941, it made sure that it signed a treaty of neutrality with Japan in 1941! This treaty was repudiated only on 9 August 1945, just a few days before Japanese surrender. Soviet Union went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a two front situation.

Coming closer home, in 1962 as China attacked India and we suffered a major debacle in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). On 19 November 1962 (US Depart. Of State now de classified Top Secret telegramme no 4271) Prime Minister Nehru wrote to the US President requesting a support of 12 squadrons of all-weather supersonic fighters, manned by the Americans to provide air defence of Indian air space while the Indian Air force takes action against Chinese ground troops. Even earlier Nehru had asked Americans to ‘persuade’ Pakistan to not take any action against India while we dealt with the Chinese. The Pakistanis were  America’s allies and as a price to avoid two front situation, India agreed to talks with Pakistan on Kashmir issue (the Bhutto-Swaran Singh negotiating) in 1963. On 20 November 1962, the US put on alert its strategic bombers in Subic Bay (Philippines) base. Chinese immediately declared cease fire on 21st Nov and promised to withdraw from captured territory.

IN 1971, Indira Gandhi dealt with likely threat of Chinese opening second front while we liberated Bangladesh by signing a friendship treaty with Soviet Union on 9 August 1971. The Soviet’s, fresh from armed clash with Chinese (1969 Ussuririver island dispute), were glad to oblige. In place of normal 4 divisions, they massed 44 mechanized divisions on Chinese border to prevent China from interfering in South Asia.

The ball is firmly in political leaders court as India faces a potential two front threat. Bold actions to stich alliances are needed to defuse two front threats. While the Chinese have their Sun Tzu, we also have our own Chanakya who said 2000 years ago that enemy’s enemy is potential friend. Time to act on Chanakya’s wisdom and avoid a two front threat. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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One thought on “Two Front War Threat: A Historian’s Perspective

  1. In this current case, two front war is essentially from one country –ok legally two different countries –China and Pakistan, one country in reality. I am not surprised if Nepal takes some advantage too. So, our army cannot expect any political miracles. They just have to be prepared. Politically smart thing to do is to make sure we do not screw up our relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Assuming that, Indian Army should expect attacks in the border area from Kutch to Arunachal Pradesh.

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