Has a ‘fifth generation war’ started between India and Pakistan?

What do recent revelations about an Indian disinformation campaign against Pakistan tell us about regional dynamics?

Pakistani Rangers and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel salute their national flags as they perform during the daily beating of the retreat ceremony on the India-Pakistan Border at Wagah on February 20, 2017 [File: AFP/Narinder Nanu]

Earlier this month, the Brussels-based organisation EU DisinfoLab published an investigative report titled Indian Chronicles, which revealed a staggering network of misinformation and propaganda against Pakistan.

The report exposed an operation that took place over 15 years in 116 countries, featuring more than 500 fake media outlets and a dozen fake NGOs. This network endeavoured to push a pro-India and anti-Pakistan narrative in the European Union and the United Nations.

In addition, the report implicated Asian News International (ANI), an Indian news agency, for covering and disseminating fake news produced by the network. Though the report was careful not to tie the network to the Indian state, there is little doubt that such a vast enterprise could and would exist only with the government’s knowledge.

The revelations led Pakistani nationalists and supporters of its security establishment to gleefully remind opponents: “we told you so”. If only critics were not steeped in blissful ignorance, if only they realised the extent of the security threats facing the beleaguered Pakistani state, they would lay off the army and intelligence services.

These claims repeatedly deployed one rhetorical cudgel – that of “fifth-generation war”. The basic idea behind this term is that in the modern era, wars are not fought by armies or guerrillas, but in the minds of common citizens.

A ‘fifth-generation war’?

Perceptions, information, propaganda, and “fake news” are all tools in this ostensibly modern form of warfare. In the wake of the EU DisinfoLab report, it was argued that Pakistan is facing a new type of holistic war, one that encompasses everything from bombs to bots.

One problem with this logic is that, at least as far as international relations or international security scholars are concerned, “fifth-generation war” is not a widely accepted idea. Searching the content of five well-regarded international relations or international security peer-reviewed journals – International Security, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Peace Research, Journal of Strategic Studies, and Security Studies – the term “fifth-generation war” does not appear in the last five years, a period in which these journals have printed roughly 5 million words between them. It would be curious for such a revolutionary concept to have escaped the eye of experts in the field.

In all likelihood, this lack of scholarly attention to fifth-generation war is because its validity is limited. The term brings to mind another oft-repeated refrain, that of “hybrid war”, one that became popular amongst the Transatlantic security community to describe Russian foreign policy and alleged acts of sabotage perpetrated by its intelligence.

As with “fifth-generation war”, critics say that “hybrid war” was in many ways is a meaningless term, conjoining disparate elements of war with the practice of diplomacy.

All war is politics, but not all politics is war

In truth, terms such as “fifth-generation war” and “hybrid war” are often used to lend a veneer of strategic gravitas to ultimately vapid analysis. Contrary to such breathless arguments, the practice of amplifying fissures in adversaries’ societies was well established by the early 20th century. Indeed, since the end of World War II, such tools have become a standardised element of counter-intelligence tactics.

For instance, the Soviet Union and the United States sponsored propaganda and misinformation against each other during the Cold War. The US eagerly expanded the scope of its propaganda and psychological operations under President Dwight Eisenhower and went on to build an impressive infrastructure of institutions, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, that were devoted to the task.

For its part, the USSR enjoyed focusing on racism in the US. Propaganda posters would often juxtapose symbols of American democracy, such as the Statue of Liberty, with emblems of slavery, racism, and domestic terrorism, such as the Ku Klux Klan or the police.

The point here is not merely to dispute the nomenclature of “fifth-generation war”. Rather, by considering disinformation and perception management as tools of war rather than “normal” politics and diplomacy, states risk exaggerating the severity of the threats they face. Though all war is politics, as Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously observed, not all politics is war.

Hard power vs soft propaganda

Above all else, the key difference between the hardware of real war and tools of so-called “fifth-generation”, “hybrid”, or “grey-zone” wars is that the former are weapons but the latter must be weaponised – and that too with the connivance and cooperation of the target.

When India acquires jets, missiles, or frigates, Pakistan has no choice but to grimly prepare for their use. Pakistan is obligated to deter or neutralise such instruments because they can kill human beings regardless of their social or political context. As such, it is best to steel oneself.

By contrast, India’s employment of tools such as misinformation is, in and of itself, not dangerous. Rather, it requires Pakistan’s participation. Foreign actors the world over poke and prod opponents’ domestic vulnerabilities, but they find fertile ground only in those situations where the government has created, deliberately or unwittingly, a vacuum for armed opposition and foreign interference to step in.

In Pakistan’s case, it is an indisputable fact that innocent Baloch are arbitrarily imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by Pakistani security forces. This is not an Indian invention.

Pakistani chief justices have precipitated national crises on Baloch missing persons. Pakistani journalists have lost their lives while reporting on Baloch missing persons. Pakistani human rights groups have invited labels of treachery in highlighting Baloch missing persons. And Pakistani political parties have raised their voice in favour of Baloch missing persons. When propaganda is based on real grievances, as with the Soviet targeting of race relations in the US, it resonates.

The real Indian threat

When it comes to security threats, it is important to separate the wheat from the chaff. Just because the misinformation threat is not “war” does not mean that Islamabad does not have a bone to pick with India.

India’s aggressive foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has been destabilising. Aside from its assertive nationalism on display in Kashmir, New Delhi’s support for Baloch separatism and terrorism has only served to escalate tensions in South Asia, already the world’s most geopolitically dysfunctional region.

Given its narrow ambit, the EU DisinfoLab report understandably did not go so far as to discuss Indian geopolitical behaviour more generally. But in highlighting just how tightly India’s news media is so aligned to its government, especially concerning foreign relations, the report is useful for Pakistan’s diplomacy.

The symbiosis between the Indian government and its media is not new. Just eighteen months ago, India and Pakistan found themselves in the midst of a dangerous crisis that risked nuclear war. In those nervy and tense times, the Indian media, according to a Polis Project study, “largely ascribed to itself the role of an amplifier of government propaganda”, regurgitating baseless claims and pouring jingoistic fuel on to a raging nationalistic fire.

Simlarly, the EU DisinfoLab report has proffered evidence that India’s “private” mainstream media is in many ways an arm of the Indian state. In so doing, it has strengthened Pakistan’s position regarding the degradation of India’s national political institutions. India’s reputation as a democracy, so crucial to its soft power, has already taken a battering under Modi. This report does not help.

Of course, the West maintains good relations with India not because of its democratic status, but rather because of its potential to balance China and fuel economic growth. It would be unreasonable to expect this report to fundamentally alter this trajectory.

But at the very least, Islamabad has been afforded ammunition for a diplomatic argument it has repeatedly voiced since Imran Khan’s ascension to power: this is not your grandfather’s India. It is dangerous and demagogic. Wake up before it’s too late.

The most certain outcome of the report

Irrespective of its effects on Indo-Pakistani dynamics, EU DisinfoLab should be commended for meticulously uncovering a network of disinformation this extensive. Unfortunately, the most certain consequence of the publication of this report will be harmful.

This is not the authors’ fault; they are quite careful in offering caveats that exhort decision-makers to hear what Baloch and Pashtun organisations have to say, even if such voices are amplified by New Delhi. The report explicitly states that “our investigation is in no way a judgement about the situation of human rights in Pakistan, nor should it serve to undermine the credibility of minority movements in Pakistan.”

Regrettably, that is exactly how this report will be used in Pakistani discourse. Pakistan’s current “hybrid regime” – full-blown military rule cloaked in the thinnest of civilian façades – has severely constrained space for journalists, political parties, dissidents, Baloch nationalists, Pashtun rights leaders, and others. Invoking national security and nefarious designs from abroad is the oldest trick in the establishment’s book when it comes to crushing dissent and sidelining opposition.

The EU DisinfoLab has given Pakistan’s national security establishment an ace in the hole. It is a card it will relish playing against both India and domestic challengers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.