The dogs of war

Print edition : January 05, 2002

The Vajpayee government is provoking a military confrontation which could have devastating consequences for both India and Pakistan.

THE prospect of war menaces India and Pakistan as thousands of troops, missiles, tanks and heavy artillery are deployed on the border, and as the rhetoric of mutual hostility is ratcheted up with each passing day. The military build-up is vastly larger than the preparations before and during the Kargil war. Greater too is the use of devious political argument and varied forms of pretence and deception. This last category includes the show of injured innocence by the leaders of the two countries.

Thus, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told a Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha rally on December 25 that India "does not war"; war is being "thrust" upon it. Home Minister L.K. Advani took the same line. But their government is daily cranking up its belligerent anti-Pakistan rhetoric. On December 27, it upped the ante for the second time in a week by taking tough diplomatic measures against Pakistan. There are signs that India has arbitrarily broadened its agenda and now wants Pakistan to take "effective" action against all terrorist groups, not just against the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. It has rejected Pakistan's December 26-27 moves, including the detention of 30 militants, as "cosmetic" and insincere.

The Vajpayee government has also contemptuously dismissed the suggestion that it should share with Pakistan the evidence of the LeT's and the JeM's culpability for December 13. At the same time, it charges Pakistan with failure to discharge its "responsibility". It says Pakistan is not doing "enough" to fight terrorism, but does not say what constitutes "enough". It increasingly appears unreasonable. This unreasonableness goes back to September 11 and even earlier. It bears recalling that India was peeved when President Bush first demanded that Musharraf join the so-called "international coalition" against terrorism, or face the consequences. India protested against Pakistan's inclusion and proposed that a "Concert of Democracies", excluding Pakistan, should be the right agency to fight terrorism.

According to highly placed sources in the defence services, the Vajpayee government had made, well before September 11, a plan to launch punitive attacks against Pakistan across the Line of Control. The "October 20 Plan" was inspired as much by the Bharatiya Janata Party's communal antipathy towards Pakistan as by its desire to "teach Islamabad a lesson" for fomenting terrorism in Kashmir. September 11 put paid to this scheme. Other aggressive plans were also made under Vajpayee, as part of its "pro-active" Kashmir policy.

The Vajpayee government is now planning just such a misadventure under Right-wing pressure related to Uttar Pradesh politics. Many political commentators have long suspected this. Now there is strong evidence. On December 20, Vajpayee was grilled for two hours by Rajnath Singh at a meeting attended by top-ranking leaders of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh including L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Jana Krishnamurthy and Kushabhau Thakre. (The Telegraph and The Asian Age, December 22.) They reportedly told him that all of Rajnath Singh's Hindutva work in Uttar Pradesh would be wiped out unless India launches military strikes to show that it is not a "soft state". War may be the BJP's sole vote-winning device after it has lost all its trump cards. If the BJP loses Uttar Pradesh, the ramshackle National Democratic Alliance could itself come tumbling down.

Given its visceral hostility towards Pakistan and aggressive past plans, the Vajpayee government is being sanctimoniously hypocritical in claiming that it "does not war". In reality, it is making all the belligerent moves. It is painting itself into a corner as it takes a tougher and tougher line, from which it will find it hard to climb down. The logic of this position is, simply put, war.

Nothing could be more undesirable in strategic, social, political and economic terms, or more unproductive as regards India's stated objective of countering terrorism, than war. To demand that a military attack on Pakistan, however limited in range, must be averted at all costs is neither to minimise the gravity of what happened on December 13, nor ignore Islamabad's overall complicity in terrorist activities, especially in Kashmir. Rather, the rationale of the argument is that India's diplomatic options are broader and worthy of trial. It is India's duty to explore and develop them fully.

The top brass of India's armed forces is opposed to the use of military force in today's circumstances. It has repeatedly expressed this reluctance in the Cabinet Committee on Security and even in public statements. This is also the mood among a majority of retired Generals and Admirals who have publicly commented on the issue, including V.P. Malik, L. Ramdas, V.N. Sharma, Shankar Roychowdhury, V.R. Raghavan and Afsir Karim. The restraint they advocate contrasts sharply with our political leaders' sabre-rattling.

In fact, we may be witnessing the first disconnect since Independence in perceptions between the country's political and military leaders. Even when Sam Maneckshaw offered to quit over pressure to attack East Pakistan prematurely in early 1971, he disagreed with Indira Gandhi over the timing, not the basic military strategy.

The services chiefs reportedly believe that attacks on Pakistani territory will yield poor results while carrying high risks. Our forces lack accurate information on the location of such few "training camps" as remain after most were shifted deep into Pakistan. (Most Kashmir militants do not undergo rigorous training which needs elaborate and permanent facilities, as opposed to temporary parade/drill grounds and firing ranges.) Given the information constraints, high-altitude air strikes will be largely ineffective. Low-flying planes will be vulnerable to ground fire. Most suspect camps are beyond the range of heavy artillery.

That leaves the options of "pro-active" ground attacks and "hot pursuit". These are fraught with high casualties. "Hot pursuit" over land, as distant from the sea, is legally problematic unless it is subsumed under self-defence. Any ground-troops operation is likely to escalate. Today there can be no "limited war" or swift "surgical" strikes between India and Pakistan. Given their relative strategic parity, any military confrontation will last several weeks. This might mean opening up many fronts, on some of which India is vulnerable.

An Indian attack will certainly trigger Pakistani retaliatory strikes. Musharraf cannot afford to be seen cowed down by India. After the Taliban's defeat, and the collapse of Islamabad's quarter-century-old Afghanistan policy (including its reversal by him), he has no option but to hit back hard. Already he is facing flak from the religious Right for "selling out" to the Americans and losing the "strategic depth" supposedly offered by Afghanistan.

A PROTRACTED war will all but destroy Pakistan's fragile economy. India's own economy will be set back by many years. Besides, there is a likelihood that the war will escalate into a nuclear conflagration. Any use of nuclear weapons is totally, absolutely, unacceptable - irrespective of the circumstances. Even the threats of use must be defused. Nuclear wars cannot be won. They are suicidal and genocidal for all concerned. They must never be fought.

We must pause and ask what New Delhi will achieve even if, short of a nuclear holocaust, it "wins" the war - leading to Musharraf's fall (or assassination), a general collapse of Pakistan's state, and its disintegration along ethnic lines. A failed state collapsing on one's borders is disastrous enough - as Pakistan has discovered in respect of Afghanistan. A nuclear power disintegrating would be catastrophic for India.

The legitimate purpose of any anti-terrorist operation cannot be Pakistan's disintegration, but effective action to rein in militant groups and put Pakistan on the road to moderation. By embarking on an open-ended confrontation, New Delhi will have pushed Pakistan's extremists further down the terrorist path. This would be self-defeating. One cardinal lesson of September 11 is that all states, no matter how powerful, are vulnerable to terrorist attacks on their homeland.

We must acknowledge that our military options against Pakistan are limited, fraught with grave danger, or ineffectual. Instead of discouraging terrorism, they will, at minimum, encourage extremist, irresponsible conduct on the part of an embittered neighbour. Tragically, India's rulers are contemplating such a course. Their motivation is profoundly irrational and vengeful. It is to teach Islamabad a U.S.-style or Israeli-style "lesson". But Pakistan is not Gaza. And India's ability militarily to bend Musharraf to its dictates is limited.

More important, Indian leaders know that Musharraf probably did not order the attack on Parliament House. He would have to be insane to do so when he is under watch or attack, both externally and internally. On the one hand, he is under close, probably intrusive, American scrutiny, and under pressure to deliver on his premise to act against terrorists. On the other hand, he is targeted by religious extremists. His Interior Minister's brother was recently killed by them. They describe him as a "traitor" and a "sellout". In all probability, December 13 was an amateurish operation by a group acting independently of Musharraf. Even assuming that some rogue elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were behind it, a military confrontation would only strengthen them.

Vajpayee capitulated to Right-wing pressure when he took harsh diplomatic measures against Pakistan on December 21 and 27. He is now under even greater pressure to ratchet up hostility till war becomes likely, even inevitable. Besides cancelling Pakistan's most-favoured-nation trade status, the government is considering abrogating the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, an act that could lead to starving Pakistan of much-needed water.

Such measures will erode India's diplomatic leverage, and inflict heavy punishment upon Pakistan, thus breeding more resentment - without encouraging moderate, reasonable conduct on its part. They will also weaken secular Pakistani opinion which stands for moderation. Abrogating something like the Indus Treaty would be tantamount to laying economic siege to a country, which is impermissible under international law. (India once almost invited stiff Security Council sanctions for choking off the flow of the Ganga to Bangladesh.) The Treaty pertains to the Indus Basin (26 million hectares), the largest irrigated area of any one river system in the world. It comprises the eastern rivers, the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi, and the western Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. The Treaty basically allots the waters of the eastern rivers to India and most of the flows of the western rivers to Pakistan. Much of Pakistan's agriculture is critically dependent on these flows. Killing the Treaty will cause it irreversible damage.

The Indus Treaty is one of the few abiding stories of success among many failures and disasters in the history of Indo-Pakistan relations. It was brokered by the World Bank by means of tortuous negotiations. If India abrogates it, renegotiating it will be an extremely difficult task.

THERE is a sane, rational, cool-headed, low-risk alternative to such destructive measures. India should take the December 13 terrorist issue to the wider world, in particular to the Security Council on the basis of solid evidence. It should invoke Security Council Resolution 1373, mandating all states to take effective action against terrorism - on pain of sanctions. This will generate the right kind of pressure on Musharraf to take verifiable measures, including the arrest of extremist leaders, a clamp-down on their facilities and assets, and destruction of their ISI links.

This course has the merit of winning - and retaining - the support of the international community on a transparent multilateral basis and of impelling Musharraf to fight a menace for which Pakistan has paid heavily. This will also help New Delhi build upon today's favourable situation in Kashmir. The Taliban's defeat has had a huge impact on the Valley. This creates a big opening to revitalise the political process and get the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference to participate in the next Assembly elections. War will close that opening. Good diplomacy will expand it and create conditions in which terrorism gets thoroughly discredited and foreign militants get isolated.

However, as a precondition, the government must abandon its military-adventurist approach. The Left has been pushing for this change. Now Centrist parties such as the Congress(I), Samajwadi, Bahujan Samaj and the NDA's "secular" components must join in. They must not lend uncritical, unconditional support to the government's "anti-terrorist" fight. Such life-and-death issues are too precious to be left to any one group, especially the sectarian-communal BJP-RSS.

The time has also come for citizens to act. They must firmly say no to war. It has never been more imperative to give peace a chance.

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