Michael KreponThe Perils of Small-Group Thinking

Quote of the week:

“I have nowhere
to go and

nowhere to go

when I get
back from there.” — A.R. Ammons, “Still”

Creativity can be a singular expression or can be nurtured in small groups. The longer the workplace corridor and the more authorizations required, the more creativity can be rubbed out. Creativity can also be reflected in military plans that offer the element of surprise. But creativity in military planning still requires a multitude of check-offs. Is there proper logistical support? Is there a Plan B? Have all downside risks been properly considered? Are the underlying assumptions behind military plans sound? Military planning based on small group thinking can come back to haunt.

As was the case with the Pakistani plan to surreptitiously cross the Kashmir divide and seize the high ground above Kargil in 1999. The plan’s objectives were to pay India back for its stealthy occupation of the Siachen Glacier fifteen years earlier, to pressure New Delhi to reach a favorable Kashmir settlement and to re-energize a flagging opposition in Muslim majority areas of Kashmir ruled by India. But the political context for the plan’s execution was all wrong, coming soon after India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices when global concerns about nuclear dangers on the subcontinent were heightened. Moreover, Prime Ministers A.B. Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were laying plans to significantly improve ties, including creative approaches to tackle the Kashmir dispute.

The separate tracks of military adventurism and high-level diplomacy collided when the intruders were discovered three months after Vajpayee met Nawaz in Lahore, travelling by a newly opened bus route over the bloodstained tracks of Partition. This event, heavily freighted with symbolism, included Vajpayee’s visit to the Minar e-Pakistan, a monument to the aspirations of Muslims on the subcontinent for a separate homeland. In the distinguished visitors’ guestbook, he penned in a neat hand:

“I want to assure the people of Pakistan of my country’s deep desire for lasting peace and friendship. I have said and I say this again, a stable and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s favor. Let there be no doubt about this.”

Vajpayee wanted to turn the page. The plotters of Kargil wanted to turn back the page. The most promising opportunity since Partition for India and Pakistan to reconcile was ruined by a daring and senseless military gambit at elevations up to and over 16,000 feet. When Vajpayee learned of Pakistan’s intruders, he accused Nawaz of betrayal.

Pakistan’s cover story — that the intruders were Kashmiri freedom fighters and thus independent actors — was unsustainable. Soon enough, the world outside of Pakistan would know that they were Northern Light Infantry troops. By employing this fiction, Army Chief Pervez Musharraf forfeited the option of a stout military defense of his jawans, one that also required air power. But Pakistan’s Air Force Chief, who was not included in the planning, balked on the grounds that this would leave the international border with India unprotected in the event that the Indian Army were to open a second front.

How could such a cockamamie scheme — one that could not possibly end well for Pakistan, one without proper logistical support and joint planning, one without plausible explanations to foreign audiences, and one that raised the specter of utterly irresponsible Pakistani nuclear stewardship — have possibly been undertaken?

The answer lies in small group thinking. It happened before, in 1965, when Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders kicked off Operation Gibraltar (also employing soldiers in the guise of freedom fighters) in the expectation that Kashmiris would rise up and throw off their shackles. They didn’t, and when New Delhi opened a second front on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan’s deciders found themselves in an untenable position.

Follies like Operation Gibraltar and Kargil can happen again when decision making is highly exclusionary and based on wishful thinking. These conditions could well pertain to the battlefield use of nuclear weapons.

Nasim Zehra has performed a great service by writing From Kargil to the Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan (2018). Her  investigative account of small group thinking and its aftermath is marred by poor copy editing, but this doesn’t detract from its utility. The military “clique” that dusted off old plans to take advantage of the winter recess in manning forward posts along the mountainous Kashmir divide consisted of four officers — Musharraf; two hand-picked co-conspirators, his Chief of General Staff and the Corps Commander within whose jurisdiction the operation would be carried out; as well as the Commander, Force Command Northern Areas who would supply most of the the infiltrators.

Had the plan been properly vetted, it might have been tabled. But Musharraf wasn’t looking for naysayers. As Shuja Nawaz wrote in his essential book on Pakistan’s military, Crossed Swords, “Once the Chief of Army Staff has signed off on the plan and it is discussed at the corps commanders meeting after the event, no one in his right mind will challenge the chief. There is a great emphasis on being a team player and not rocking the boat.”

The clique mistakenly assumed the 1998 nuclear tests would serve as a useful backdrop, with the threat of a “flashpoint” serving to mobilize international support for a diplomatic settlement. They firmly believed that Indian troops would not acquit themselves well in battle and would be unable to dislodge the intruders. Every optimistic assumption behind this plan except one — that Kargil would not prompt the opening of other fronts — was utterly wrong-headed, but the clique was too insular to realize it and disinclined to ask other senior officers, let alone civilians for second opinions.

With Musharraf and Nawaz at loggerheads, somebody had to take the fall for this fiasco. Not surprisingly, it was Nawaz, who hardly distinguished himself in Nasim’s account, a man susceptible to flattery who didn’t have sufficient wits about him to ask essential questions or foresee dire consequences until they were staring him in the face. And even if he had tried to assert his authority, Nawaz would still have been hamstrung by his Army Chief’s decisions, which he dared not reverse until there was no other option but to seize on the fig leaf of an exit strategy offered by President Bill Clinton. Musharraf sidestepped and then steamrolled Nawaz before deposing him. Small group thinking exacts a toll.

It’s hard to envision a repeat of the Kargil operation, but it’s not hard to conceive of greater tragedies. What is the most consequential realm of small group thinking? Without a doubt, it is a decision to detonate a nuclear weapon. In the United States, where congressional declarations of war are a rarity, this decision is purposefully relegated to just one person. The personality and habits of mind of this individual have no bearing on the process. Speed is presumed to be of the essence: there isn’t much time to deliberate when a ballistic missile carrying nuclear warheads is heading in your direction.

There are deliberative bodies on paper in nuclear-armed states consisting of the “decider’s” key cabinet officers and advisors. Whether there is time to solicit their advice is another matter. If so, and if that advice is to refrain from crossing the nuclear threshold first, the decider is free to disregard that advice. Alternatively, the predilections of the decider and the decider’s inner circle might be in concert — as was the case with the Kargil misadventure — with sound advice being muted or withheld.

Who would gainsay a decision by Kim Jong Un to cross the nuclear threshold first? Who would block a decision by Donald Trump to cross the nuclear threshold first? James Clapper, a wizened veteran of the US intelligence community whose last assignment was as Director of National Intelligence, put it this way:

“In a fit of pique he [Trump] decides to do something about Kim Jong Un, there’s actually very little to stop him. The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising the nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”

Who would countermand an order by Vladimir Putin to cross the nuclear threshold first? Unlike US nuclear deterrence mavens who have gravitated toward minimalist nuclear options, there is no appreciable interest within Soviet/Russian strategic culture in such “tit-for tat” exchanges. Writing for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Alexei Arbatov has concluded that,

“If deterrence fails, the task of the armed forces is to implement assigned missions as massively and effectively as possible. A hint of this traditional way of thinking emerged from Putin’s speech at the Valdai forum of 2015, when he said: “I learned one rule on the streets of Leningrad fifty years ago—if a fight is inevitable, strike first.”

Or take Pakistan, which has set up a National Command Authority with the civilian Prime Minister at its apex. Would the Army Chief, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and Director General of the Strategic Plans Division — assuming they were all on the same page — bring the Prime Minister into confidence on what might well be viewed as a military and operational decision to detonate a nuclear weapon to ward off advancing Indian troops? And if consulted, would a civilian Prime Minister stand in their way? Would the Army leadership defer to a civilian Prime Minister on such a matter? The Kargil story suggests not.

Yes, these are hypotheticals that could be readily dismissed. We take refuge in believing that nuclear nightmares just don’t happen. After all, the nuclear threshold hasn’t been crossed — despite wars, despite urgent appeals, despite everything — for over seven decades. By now, this bar is quite high, even for strongmen whose grasp of reality might be impaired. All it takes is some semblance of humanity to recognize the consequences of crossing this threshold. Or so we hope.

And yet, the employment of nuclear weapons is the quintessential domain of small group thinking. A mushroom cloud could appear once again in warfare by accident, breakdown of command and control, or by top-down decision. If not by accident, the decision to cross the nuclear threshold would be made by a flawed, insular human being who relies on a deterrence architecture predicated upon the threat of first use. This command decision would likely be based on insufficient situational awareness and would be required in an impossibly short time line. The consequences of small group thinking would then shift to a nuclear-armed adversary that has resisted first use, but now, with deterrence having failed, stares at terrible choices.


  1. Sultan (History)

    Michael! Whether it is an ‘alleged’ small group syndrome or not, no nuclear armed state can afford to go to war with each other. In South Asia, as is true elsewhere, the role of NWs should be to deter ‘all’ wars (including the CSD) and not only the nuclear war. And if there is no military aggression from the other side, it is unlikely that NWs would ever come into play in South Asia.
    On the working of Pakistan’s NCA, one could come up with several hypothetical assumptions, but such inferences would be applicable for any nuclear armed state, including the United States under the current Trump Adminsitration.
    If at all there was a ‘small group’ syndrome that may have led to Kargil conflict; it would be unreasonable to generalize it. The successes achieved in the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and Pakistan’s ability to deter its principal adversary, despite the conventional disadvantage do reflect that the decision-making is not only institutional but is endorsed by the entire nation.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Happy Anniversary!
      I agree: the small group syndrome applies across the board when it comes to first use.
      Best wishes,