The Third Eye: The new norms of war and peace

The Third Eye: The new norms of war and peace


By D.C.Pathak

New Delhi: World War II with its crippling global devastation produced a lasting period of Cold War that was rooted in a sharp ideological division of the world in the competing philosophies of International Communism on one hand and Capitalism based on the free market economy resting on competition, on the other. 

The Cold War years were marked by a tight military balance between the two nuclear-armed superpowers -- the US and the Soviet Union -- and the deterrence of mutual assured destruction (MAD) kept either side from resorting to the so-called 'First Strike'.

It is the forced withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan that led to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the demise of International Communism in 1991 and brought an end to the Cold War -- creating a unipolar world order in which the US would drive all global trends.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, in the last Politburo meeting of CPSU in April 1991, announced that Democratic Centrism or ‘one-party rule’ was being given up in favour of ‘party pluralism’ and formally ended the doctrine of a Communist State.

The termination of the Cold War has in many ways altered the concepts of war and peace.

First, it has ushered in the era of ‘proxy wars’ with open warfare giving way to ‘covert’ cross-border attacks, insurgencies and separatist movements instigated from outside. There were some 200 such localised conflicts recorded in the immediate aftermath of this transformation.

It is interesting that the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan totally backed by the US and the CIA was run in a proxy war mode as militant outfits reared in Pakistan were let loose on the ‘God-less’ Soviet army on the war cry of ‘Jehad’.

The American stinger missiles in the hands of the Jehadis caused havoc to the Soviet troops.

Within a few years of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the USSR found it impossible to economically sustain the occupation and made a forced exit bringing down in the process the very existence of the Communist Super Power.

The phenomenon of ‘proxy war’ has evidently come to stay as it serves the military purpose of a hostile neighbour without putting on it the blame for indulging in open warfare and precipitating the prospect of a possible global conflict. No nation really wants another World War.

Secondly, what is far more serious than ‘covert’ warfare is the rise of terrorism as the instrument of proxy war in the post-Cold War period. This all began in Afghanistan where the radical Al Qaeda founded by Osama bin Laden was also a part of the anti-Soviet armed campaign along with Saudi-funded Lashkar-e-Taiba and Pak Jamaat-e-Islami’s offspring Hizbul Mujahideen.

Islamic radicals carry the historical memory of the anti-British Wahabi movement launched on the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century with NWFP -- now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) of Pakistan -- as the epicentre of that Jehad.

Terrorism is classically defined as ‘resort to covert violence for a perceived political cause’ -- terrorists do not make an open attack and secretly plan their offensive. Since they invoke a ‘cause’ they have a ‘commitment’ that in turn is a measure of their ‘motivation’.

Protagonists of Jehad use Islam as a faith to provide this ‘motivation’ which admittedly was always very strong. Those guiding radical outfits could even raise suicide bombers using the pull of faith, interpreting Jehad as a fundamental duty in certain situations and drawing attention to the rewards of the afterlife. It is this ‘faith-based terrorism’ that has made the world an insecure place even in the absence of open wars.

A third feature of the present era is the tendency shown by major powers of our times to cloak a military attack on a neighbour as an ‘operation’ and deny it as a ‘war’ offensive. This is how President Vladimir Putin of Russia described the military action initiated by him against Ukraine in February 2022 and justified it as a response to the need to protect the interests of Russian-speaking people of South and East Ukraine against the unfair treatment meted out to them by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.

In a cautious move, the US and its NATO allies responded by rushing military aid to Ukraine in support of the latter and imposing economic sanctions on Russia -- they did not do anything that would precipitate a larger ‘war’. This response was thus in a ‘proxy war’ mode and since proxy wars always turned into protracted confrontations, this is precisely why the Russia-Ukraine conflict has remained an unending combat. If the West thought that what happened to the USSR in Afghanistan would play out for Russia in Ukraine, this has not taken place so far -- comparatively speaking the losses suffered by Ukraine seemed to outweigh those encountered by Russia.

Fourthly, the retaliatory military action taken by Israel in Gaza against the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, is different from the Russia-Ukraine conflict in as much as the former had created danger for the democratic world from the rise of faith-based terrorism of Islamic radicals in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world particularly West Africa and South Asia -- especially the Pak-Afghan belt.

With Iran jumping into the fray in support of Hamas and against Israel, the conflict can escalate fast making it a wider clash of interests between the US as the closest ally of Israel and the emerging Iran-China-Russia axis.

Drones supplied by Iran have been used by Russia in Ukraine and Iran’s proxies like Hezbollah operating out of Lebanon and the Houthis of Yemen are directly targeting Israel.

There is a geopolitical shift towards a Cold War type of situation even though the ideological divide in the world is non-existent and the possibility of a nuclear war is totally discounted.

Whatever the nature of military conflicts, however, the fact that the Israel Defense Forces killed over 33,000 Palestinians including a very large number of civilians -- women and children have perished in huge numbers -- has brought up once again the matter of human rights in war theatres, as a front issue of global concern.

The UN is reported to have blacklisted Israel for causing the death of thousands of children in military operations.

The question cannot be sidetracked on the plea that counter-terror operations were of prime importance -- the unwarranted human killings are going to ultimately benefit the hold of terrorist forces as has been demonstrated in Gaza. In any military conflict, civilian casualties therefore have to be consciously minimised and this norm has to be enforced even in an ‘asymmetric war’.

The fifth angle of war and peace relevant to the present age is linked to the new concept that "national security is inseparable from economic security".

The covert attacks so characteristic of the post-Cold War era can be directed against the economic assets of the target to make the latter substantially weak.

Sabotaging the strategic establishments, damaging the economic lifelines of the nation and disrupting vital systems through cyber attacks are the new facets of ‘proxy war’.

Further, social media has become an instrument of combat and a weapon of ‘information warfare’. This has necessitated the introduction of laws to prevent the spread of misinformation and punish resort to ‘deep fakes’ for malicious objectives.

An entirely new way of pulling down a targeted democratic regime is to influence the electoral outcome and build adverse ‘narratives’ against it. Non-military methods of defeating an adversary set new norms of war and peace and call for new strategies for handling international relations and defining new yardsticks of friendships and opponents.

India has adopted a sane foreign policy to deal with the shifting world scene of armed conflicts and the new threats to global peace.

Since foreign policy by definition is a product of national security and economic concerns -- in that order, India has opted for bilateral and even multilateral friendships based on mutual interests that did not prejudice the cause of world peace and human welfare. In the post-Cold War era, this is a new strategy of practising ‘non alignment’ and contributing to the stability of a peaceful world that worked for human advancement. This has enabled India to become a world power that represented the voice of sanity in today’s geopolitics.

India’s stand on Russia-Ukraine confrontation and the Israel-Hamas conflict have earned the country a universal appreciation for supporting what was right in both cases. It advocated a peaceful resolution through mediators who understood the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine and while denouncing the terrorist attack of Hamas on Israel called for restraint of military offensive of Israel in Gaza and a solution-finding resting essentially on the recognition of ‘two states’ in Palestine.

India has also given a timely warning to the US that the rise of radical Islamic forces in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world must be checked before they posed a formidable threat to the democratic world as a whole.

(The writer is a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau. Views are personal)

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