Has a ‘fifth generation war’ started between India and Pakistan?
Ahsan I Butt, an Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University/Aljazeera
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 focusin
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.