Military & Aerospace

Reflection on Conflict Duration
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Issue Vol 24.3 Jul-Sep2009 | Date : 14 Sep , 2012

The new Indian Army doctrine dilating on the nature of future wars reads: ‘Emerging at short notice, being of short duration and being fought at high tempo and intensity.’ These are valid assumptions and consequently form the basis of the doctrine. That it is the very first bullet on the Army’s view of characteristics of future wars implies its importance. On this account there is a need to think through the implications. The aim of this article is to discuss conflict duration with specific reference to future conventional conflict. The article deals with the topic first looking at conflict scenarios as they obtain at present in India and that may transpire in future.

In case a conflict lasts indefinitely, at an indeterminate point in future, power equations could come about as to restrict the options of the government. Festering conflicts fuel developmental problems.

Thereafter it looks at factors that effect conflict duration and lastly reflects on likely conflict duration of future conventional conflicts. The conclusion is that many caveats go with the expectation of a short war based on a reading of military history, international politics and possible internal political trends in conflict. This brings out the necessity of more deliberate thinking on how to avoid the resulting long duration conflict.

Conflict Scenarios

General. Conflict duration is only superficially dependent on the type of the conflict. A ‘limited war’ may be limited in duration. An insurgency on the other hand may be of indeterminate duration. Equally, a limited conflict can be of extended duration, such as along the Line of Control and in Siachen. Likewise, an insurgency of the foco type or a revolution could be of restricted duration. It is moot that conflict duration is dependent on aims of the conflict and the military ability to achieve these. A ‘total war’ would likely last as long as the military is able to bring about the aim set. For instance the war in the Pacific during the Second World War could have lasted longer but for the use of the nuclear weapon to hasten its end.

However, in contrast, despite the speedy achievement of the expansive aim of the regime change in Iraq, the conflict situation continues. This owes to the conflict metamorphosing in form since the opposition is also a factor in the conflict, for it is by definition but a clash of wills. Therefore it can be seen that conflict duration is a complex issue. The following discussion in this section is on the implications for conflict duration of present conflict scenarios in India.

Insurgency. This type of conflict has an extended duration and is observable in parts of the North East. With political will the issues can be addressed as has been done in Mizoram and partially Nagaland. Duration of the conflict is thus dependent on political will, which in turn is a function of the situation on the ground and its impact on willingness of the insurgents to come to the negotiating table. However, for the State, the duration of the conflict is not a primary concern since India has the demonstrated ability to withstand the long haul. Of greater significance is episodic intensity of the internal conflict.

The longer this conflict is left unaddressed through political means, the more likely would be eventual Army deployment to contain it.

It is moot that in case a conflict lasts indefinitely, at an indeterminate point in future, power equations could come about as to restrict the options of the government. Festering conflicts fuel developmental problems that keep insurgency simmering, working to from a cycle. Therefore, the government cannot ignore conflict duration for it owes citizens in such disturbed areas a duty of earliest return of normalcy as part of the agenda of good governance.

Naxalism. India had contested Naxalism successfully in the seventies. However, this has resurfaced as a Maoist movement in Central India over the past decade. It is virtually poised on the verge of entering Phase Two of Maoist insurgency theory. In keeping with the sub-conventional doctrine, this is being first tackled by police and central police organizations, in conjunction with local militias as Salwa Judam. Beyond a threshold, the paramilitary such as the Rashtriya Rifles and the Army could be called in depending on availability, threat, geographical spread and external linkages. The longer this conflict is left unaddressed through political means, the more likely would be eventual Army deployment to contain it.

Proxy War. Where external support is the main driver of an insurgency/militancy as obtains in J&K, the conflict is characterized as a proxy war. This requires application of all instruments of power in concert at the level of the affected state and the Center. Owing to external complicity, the duration of conflict is dependent as much on external interests as own measures. Vested interests in the conflict on both sides and external powers are likely to act as to extend the conflict duration. At present a peace process is underway at a pace marked by wariness.

Since the inter-state dimension is predominant, political conditions for ending the conflict are dependent on relative positional strength. This is variable and is never absolute. Often internal political weaknesses of the government make consensus on political initiatives elusive, such as was the case of the Musharraf regime in signing the peace deal reportedly arrived at in the ‘back channel’. There is little impetus to arrive at early conflict settlement in this war of attrition for either side since it is complex and there is a need to avoid being perceived as ‘weak’. There are two circumstances for conflict termination – one is with respect to loss of political resolve in the victim state and the other political change in the interfering state.

The former cannot be the case with India. However, an interfering power may cease involvement in a dramatic circumstance, such as in case Pakistan was to take action against Islamists that are posing it an existential threat. Indian strategy has been to contain proxy war internally and posing the threat of escalation that ensures Pakistan keeps below Indian threshold of tolerance. It has of late been more proactive in conveying to Pakistan its diminishing patience and this has led to Pakistan tempering its interference to an extent. It has not ruled out accommodative solutions in case Pakistan was to refrain from proxy war.

Vested interests in the conflict on both sides and external powers are likely to act as to extend the conflict duration.

Potential Conflict Areas. These include presently quiet positions on the LC, the AGPL and the LAC. The treaty of peace and tranquility has made the possibility of conflict with China along the LAC remote. The AGPL is inactive for the moment being covered by the ceasefire operative since Nov 2003 along the LC. It is being addressed at the bureaucratic level diplomatically. However, wariness of the other side prevents closure of agreement, as also the issue being held hostage to the larger J&K question for which it is a useful pressure point. The ceasefire on the LC is only partially co-extensive with the peace process as a sign of its good health or otherwise. It is a pressure point that can be opened up after an operational level consideration of desirability of its effects. In case strategic impasse resulting from non-compliance of Pakistan with its Islamabad undertaking of Jan 2004 this may well be the case.

Conventional Conflict Scenarios. It is perceived that conflict would be of short duration. This is based on the logic that external powers would not countenance a war between nuclear armed rivals with any equanimity. Since the professed aims of countries, including India and both of its potential adversaries, is growth, it is unlikely that any would prefer a long duration war. War aims are also not of the order as to require a Total War for attainment.

Rational governments with institutionalized strategic and decision making mechanisms exist. Governments in all three states are notably moderate. Prospects of an extremist take over in Pakistan are becoming increasingly plausible but the threat is also exaggerated. Military strategy in both Pakistan and India favors short duration war. For both the idea is to ‘grab early and hold out’ till negotiations. War readiness levels indicate preparation for a short war even if war would imply national mobilization. Possible nuclear redlines also call for limitation in war, thereby making the nuclear backdrop an additional limitation to conflict duration.

Factors Influencing Conflict Duration

In Theory. Absolute War theorized by Clausewitz has it that war has a tendency to expand and escalate through the dynamics between the Trinity – the government, the people and the army. Two elements keep it restrained, these being friction and political control. Friction is specific to the military and only indirectly impacts on the duration of wars. Conflict duration is influenced directly by the latter. The aspect of political control is evidenced by the ending to the 1971 War with India denying itself the satisfaction of turning to the West to take on a demoralized Pakistan. India’s Limited War doctrine implies limited aims and at one remove short duration.

Rational governments with institutionalized strategic and decision making mechanisms exist. Governments in all three states are notably moderate.

Duration Enhancers. History informs that every war has begun with the intention of being kept short. Wars, that in the event turned out to be total wars of long duration, such as the First World War and the Second World War in both the European and Pacific theatres, were begun with the understanding that they would end early. The Iran–Iraq War, Iraq War II, the two wars in Afghanistan, Vietnam War, etc have been of long duration but were not intended at the outset as such. This indicates an in-conflict dynamic not amenable to prior strategic assessment or control. These include irrationality in decision makers, aroused public passions, dogmatism of military leaders, implementation of a deliberate strategy of attrition and assessments of future strategic equations.

Duration Dampeners. Conflict termination is a political function that is informed by military input but not determined by it. The rational primary considerations are of whether political aims have been met; in what proportion; and if further application of military means would make a material difference. In case of the 1971 War, India determined its aims as having been met with the liberation of Dacca, while Pakistan realized that release of its Strike Corps under Tikka Khan would not make a difference to the result.

Attitude of External Powers. This is crucial to conflict duration, in that the expectation and receipt of support from foreign powers would prolong a conflict. Churchill held out through the Battle of Britain in the expectation of the US joining the war eventually and rendering aid in the interim. Pakistan expected that the fall of Dacca in 1971 could be delayed till the arrival of US pressure in the form of gun boat diplomacy by its Seventh Fleet, an expectation unraveled by India’s lightening campaign. In insurgency situations, direct support of foreign powers, support of non-state actors and tacit support of people and governments act to prolong conflict.

A major influence on the attitude of outside powers is the gains from a war that accrue in terms of strategic equations being formed and economic gains through arms lobbies. The Iran-Iraq war is a classic example of the Iranian revolutionary zeal being sublimated in a regional war while the arms industries of western powers profited through arms sales to both sides and in the wider region.

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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

Ali Ahmed

 is a retired infantryman, blogs on security issues at He is author of India's Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). 

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