The term ‘Known Unknowns’, hitherto fore unheard of in India, and definitely not in the Indian strategic context, is a clarion call for Indian strategists to wake up to the reality of a post modern scenario where the severity of multifarious situations poses new and inexplicable dangers to the very sovereignty of the nation; if unheeded, it threatens to annihilate the very concept of united India as we know it. An initial look did surprise us of the extent to which the Indian establishment chose to ignore or conveniently overlook such very real possibilities. We try and put down some thoughts garnered from perspective; the factual information has been gleaned from very public sources of information and nothing written in succeeding paragraphs purports to be classified at all. In fact such is the free flow of information in contemporary times that it is shocking at times how “frog-in-the-well” our entire attitude has been; though equally encouraging is the role being played by an ever increasingly aware media and the growth of strong, democratic and independent thought which has an increasing influence on public thought and policy & decision making.
Another imperative for prompting such thought is that the world today is no longer a place where entire countries can choose to exist in seeming isolation. Severally connected and hinged economies often give rise to the term ‘shrinking world’, and not without reason. Such has the interdependence of trade and commerce become that it is no longer possible to survive singly. The other facet to this rule is the fact that policies, not only foreign but domestic as well, need to be shaped and re-shaped with each shift in the global tide. Often clarity of thought and purpose is lost in the intertwining of so many factors contributing towards fashioning the strategic and national aims of a country; this especially true when the focus is on new concepts and fresh ideas. As in the post-crisis business world, innovation seems to be the key word.
Concept of Known Unknowns and relevance in the Indian context
The concept of Known Unknowns has been studied and written about by Nathan Freier for the US Army War College. It is essentially unconventional strategic shocks in defence. Such shocks that by their sheer strategic impact, surprise and the potential for disruption and violence, they would demand the focused attention of defence leadership, as well as the decisive employment of defence capabilities in response. The US found 9/11 and the events after that catastrophe challenging for its defence establishment, but according to Lt Col Freier, a strategically dislocating surprise would be next, and just around the corner. And sure enough, we have a global war against the Islamic State, which is now threatening to turn into a new cold war between the US and Russia owing its dimensional shift in Syria. What with so many imponderables as Iran, North Korea, and even its failure in Afghanistan and its inability to deal with the Taliban in frontier districts of Pakistan, could the ‘strategically dislocating surprise’ come from this part of Asia? Could the stand off between India and Pakistan, both nuclear states be the catalyst to reorient strategy, investment and missions in so far as the US is concerned? Given that unconventional challenges lie definitely outside the realm of traditional war fighting, does not necessarily mean that it is non-violent, non-state, or unorganized.
Risks to national security which may not be fully anticipated or predicted would thus constitute Known Unknowns; that they exist can be conceived but yet they are not being imagined or expected. Defence strategy usually faces the critical flaws of being reactive in nature and lacking imagination. This is attributed to the otherwise strict hierarchical controls owing to the nature of the job; it however leaves strategy planning and decisions susceptible and vulnerable to surprise. Aversion to institutional change is another key factor. Yet the Known Unknowns stretch conventional wisdom to such an extent that it becomes difficult to ferret out a likely and suitable response, whereas their broad and fundamental implications rise and mature fast leaving little room for the system to adjust itself to the strategic and inherent changes. Concepts face the challenge of change and existing paradigms are questioned; prevailing strategy and assumptions are undermined leaving strategists little choice but to venture into uncharted territory.
What does this concept mean for India? The relevance of such disruptive and strategic shocks would find its roots in the very nature of India’s sub continental environment and the rapidly changing global economic scenario, which forces India to look into newer and unexpected areas of likely conflict. Given the history of animosity that engulfs the country historically, it becomes that much more a lucrative target for various sections of neighbouring establishments. Also with the rapid economic growth of modern India and its increasing clout in global affairs, it needs to forge new and meaningful relationships to further strengthen and consolidate its own position on the world stage. In drawing a parallel to the US, India has had its share of challenges like 26/11 and every new day announces new stories of insurgent and naxalite violence. China and Pakistan continue to be painful thorns in the side, and with both neighbours taking a hostile stand, the security establishment has its work cut out for it. Central Asia has always been strategically important and in the last three decades has faced intense turmoil with it being the new arena for wars, conflicts, socio-political changes and mushrooming religious fundamentalists. Its proximity to India and the vulnerability associated with it, should give a new focus to our policies, both domestic and foreign. New avenues for meaningful dialogue need to be explored and all available means of ensuring territorial integrity and the security of Indian citizens will have to be undertaken. Above all, conceptual framework should be reinforced with a strong military establishment, and a proactive doctrine. Indian strategists will do well to always be on their toes, since most state and non state antagonists are unlikely to change or just disappear; instead they may find new and innovative means to bleed the Indian behemoth.
Points to ponder for the Indian political and defence establishments
What is India’s geo-strategy? What are its regional and global objectives? Is there focus on forming a coherent long term strategy or are we just blundering our way about international diplomacy? All these questions and more need to be answered by the Indian polity and thereafter the defence hierarchy. Endemic to the Indian system where the military functions as an arm of and under a civilian government, is the greater role played by the polity and the bureaucracy, in formulating policies. The defence establishment which implements these policies also needs to be given greater autonomy as also an implicit faith imposed in their ability to function apolitically, yet at the same instance provide valuable inputs to further governmental policies. Such a move has historically has been viewed with apprehension by the civilian establishment (and indeed, the sub-continent is rife with enough examples, both Pakistan and Bangladesh being cases in point). However this would also pave the way for flexibility and innovation in the functioning of the defence forces and thereby reduce the chances of getting shocked strategically!
In the regional context of the sub-continent, we continue to face relentless attack by subversive forces under various garbs. Does the fact that a country which is not only one eighth of the Indian landmass, but has been carved out of it, continues to implement strategy with impunity with the sole aim of bleeding India, tell us something? Are we indeed unable to deal with this imbalance for almost 70 years? Where dialogue and diplomacy may not work due to the inherent nature of the Pakistani mindset (it has always found itself threatened by India), can we switch tracks and look at such an infusion of economics, that it will becomes impossible for Pakistan to ignore the impact and therefore be forced to change its policies, or at least reign in those non state players who work towards subversion in Indian territory?
Where China has had the liberty of implementing various policies to bring it to the point of being an economic giant, India has been progressing too, albeit ponderously. On the one hand is the vibrancy of the Indian democracy and on the other is the lack of political will to implement measures for growth. These have in fact worked to further China’s subversive strategies, giving it a perfect platform to fuel naxalism inside Indian territory. Indeed, the growth story in India sometimes seems to be despite the government, not because of it! With its economic status well cemented, China also harbours ambitions of being a global power militarily. To that end, it has made rapid strides in bringing in technology and upgrading the fighting capabilities of its forces. It postures more frequently in a threatening manner, based on its historic border disputes with India. The recent spate of military/ naval posturing in the Indian Ocean region, the South China Sea, and the upcoming China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or the new Silk Route, are all signs of muscles being flexed by the Chinese dragon. However there seems to be little or no response and definitely a complete lack of coherent and well thought out strategy on our part. This is further taken as a sign of weakness and exploited increasingly. Alarming reports suggest that China has managed to slowly extend its hold over disputed border territory. Its increasing military clout is evident from its growing presence in the Indian Ocean which is essential to China’s projection of its power, but also a potential threat to Indian interests. What are we doing about these issues? At the end of the day, we do not have any cogent long term strategy in place and only now and very slowly waking up and gearing ourselves for a potential conflict with China. In its quest for energy and petroleum globally, China seems to succeed much more than does India. The infusion of Chinese funds into African economies and the number of successful bids in Central Asia and Africa for oilfields, is surely putting China in a more secure position by the day. Even the conduct of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was meant to announce its arrival on the global stage. Surely these issues need to be examined.
Traditionally India held its non aligned status (but with a dash of convenience thrown in) through the Cold War years. With the break up of the USSR and the US emerging as the single and uncontested global hegemon, India found itself drawn into a closer relationship with the US. On its part the US also cannot ignore the rapid growth of Indian economy and has shown all signs of positive engagement with us. Yet, as they say in diplomat-speak, ‘There are no permanent friends, only permanent interests’. Contradictory to its engagement with India, the US continues to indirectly fuel conflict in the sub-continent through its policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. To be fair to the US, it is unable to deal with its own creation (yet again!) and therefore cannot afford the collapse of the Pakistani establishment (and the nuclear dimension to boot!) and the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It then becomes incumbent on India to initiate positive relations by whatever means possible. Ultimately, Indian interests must be supreme for India and going by the analogy of permanent interests, it too should re-examine all avenues for its growth, security and consolidation of status. Post the economic meltdown in 2008 the US found itself more and more dependent on economies with strong growth. And what better candidate than a democracy (surrounded by all other forms of governance) with tremendous prospects in the foreseeable future. The question therefore is where are we headed in our relations with the US? Can all these positives not be leveraged to bring about a change in our regional equations? Policies may not change overnight, but concerted efforts would at least pave the way for a brighter future.
Indian capabilities both overt and covert face the prospect of erosion due to the lack of coherent long term strategies and egoist polity and bureaucracy, which resists the very idea of fresh infusion in thought processes. A paradigm shift in our outlook based on where our national interests lie is essential to the continued economic success and to obviate any possibility of attacks on our security and territorial integrity. It is therefore of paramount importance that a proactive and consistently innovative approach be adopted to geo-strategic concerns. Such a move would invariably herald the renaissance of India.
*Amitabh Hoskote, PHD (Development & Conflict Studies) & Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote, MA, MPHIL (International Relations, Political Science & Development Communication)