Lacking in strategy

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

India's actions so far, which include the stationing of military units on the border, have indicated the lack of a clear strategic position against the challenges from across the border.

IT is rare for official spokespersons to state much that is original. But in this particular instance, the official who performs this duty for India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would certainly have wished that events in the real world did not underline her remarks with quite so much brutality.

The May 14 carnage in Jammu came just days after MEA spokesperson Nirupama Rao asserted that India had "every need to be vigilant" since the infiltration of militant elements from across the border had not quite abated. Concurrently, the intelligence services were putting out a tale of broken promises, of a crackdown on Islamic terrorism across the border that had not produced quite the anticipated results. All this came even as the U.S. resumed its mediation mission and analysts of regional strategic equations talked up the seriousness of the confrontation along the border.

The government faced a serious dilemma after the massive mobilisation of troops on the border. Following through on the inherent logic of the movement would have meant a military confrontation that India was not certain of winning. The mobilisation phase had witnessed an unprecedented degree of logistical ineptitude, unique to the stewardship of the Defence Ministry by George Fernandes. According to a written answer recently given in Parliament by the Minister, since the deployment began the Indian Army has suffered 176 fatalities in operations unconnected with combat. And the loss of physical assets - inclusive of the trucks that were blown up serially in the Rajasthan Sector in January - has been significant.

Lacking a clearly stated strategic purpose, other than "punishing" a rogue state - a notion which could extend from artillery action to air attacks and even armoured thrusts - Indian military units were compelled to settle down to an extended stay in adverse environments while the government desperately courted international endorsement. Approval was not extended for a variety of reasons, including the centrality of Pakistan to the Western crusades in Afghanistan. And once assets were moved into offensive postures, the armed forces found that conventional strategic doctrines were not quite adequate to the tasks they faced: the element of surprise was lost and a list of targets appropriate to the nature of the challenge of cross-border terrorism was not available.

With an unconditional mandate from Parliament and public opinion, a week after the carnage in Jammu the government was still discussing whether an armed response was appropriate at all. The Chief of the Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan, had in the immediate aftermath of the attack strongly urged an end to the indecision. He was speaking in the newly assertive mode for Army commanders that has the tacit endorsement of the political establishment.

The last overtly political statement from the Army chief had coincidentally produced an almost instant response from Pakistan. On January 11, General Padmanabhan after reviewing the mobilisation that had followed the December 13 armed attack on the Parliament premises, certified the process as complete and adequate to undertake the entire onus of coercive action that may be required in the circumstances. On January 12, the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, delivered his much-publicised speech over national television, vowing to reassert the authority of the state and stop the use of Pakistani territory for terrorist activities.

That was as decisive an outcome as could be expected from the Indian military mobilisation and it was occasioned in part by the pressure of world opinion which had begun to tell on Musharraf. This time around, though, the voices are mixed. There is a strong tide in world opinion which believes that Musharraf is on the road to failure if he has not already failed. Others believe that even if he has not got off to the most propitious start, he needs more time and the support of the global community in his endeavour. An influential section, though, endorses the dominant view within the Indian political establishment, that Musharraf is playing a duplicitous game with the world community, pandering to religious extremism within his country while making a pretence of fighting it.

Although influential, this view does not have a sufficient number of adherents to constitute a global mandate for military action by India. This is in part because the situation in Afghanistan, West Asia and the other theatres of the global "war on terrorism" remains muddied and complicated, with the U.S. seeking simultaneously to reconcile its own compelling interests with the conflicting objectives of diverse allies. Thus, even as much diplomatic lather was generated over the range of possible actions, the most decisive action that India could summon up a week after the Jammu attack was the expulsion of the Pakistan High Commissioner. Maintaining its appearance of moderation in the face of Indian pressure, a Foreign Office spokesperson in Pakistan deplored the summary eviction of the suave and urbane envoy, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, from Delhi. Such actions, he said, only increased tensions, when the concern of both governments should be to cool down tempers.

A few days later, an important signal of war preparedness was sent, with the unification under the Army of the command structure of all security and paramilitary agencies along the western border and the Line of Control with Pakistan. The Coast Guard, similarly, was placed under the command of the Indian Navy. And even though the artillery duels were continuing, neither side had put their air forces or formidable armoured corps in to play.

It is clear that India would have to wait for world opinion to crystallise before it is able to identify its best options. Global concerns right now seem to be running fractionally in India's favour. No time limits were fixed for Musharraf when he delivered his celebrated speech of January 12, but concerns have arisen in recent times about his intentions and capabilities. Although they have been playing themselves out for long, these concerns only came to the surface after Musharraf sanctified his self-proclaimed authority as President through a phoney referendum. Ironically, this only compounded worries about his waning utility in serving as the point-man in the struggle against global terrorism.

A car bomb explosion in an upscale part of Karachi on May 8 was the General's wake-up call. With a large number of French defence personnel being among the casualties, the West sat up to take fresh stock of the competence of the Musharraf regime. Memories of a massacre of Christians in Bahawalpur were still fresh, as also of the March 17 attack on a church in the diplomatic enclave of Islamabad. The new halo of democratic legitimacy seemingly had done little for Musharraf's authority.

Musharraf's intent, however authentic, has been blunted by the force of events and the unchangeable realities of Pakistan. The Western assessment now is that all the militant elements who had been rounded up when the U.S. war in Afghanistan began and in particular after the January 12 speech have now returned to roam the streets. More than 100 doctors belonging to the Shia faith have been killed over the last two years in Karachi alone. Distinguished public figures like Hakim Saeed, Shaukat Rizvi and Ghulam Murtaza have been murdered without the slightest compunction.

The only concession that Musharraf made to India in January 12 was to reaffirm the ban imposed on two militant outfits, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which were believed to be responsible for the December 13 attack on Parliament House compound. India's demand that a list of "most wanted" terrorists be handed over was formally rebuffed. The General had then firmly rejected any notion of handing over a Pakistani national for trial in India. And if there was any foreign national on the Indian list, then he would be dealt with appropriately when found, he promised.

There was, of course, never the least chance that Pakistan would jump to fulfil Indian demands. This expectation was itself delusional, founded in part upon the alacrity with which Pakistan has acceded to U.S. demands that have been made of it. But in recent times there have been clear signals from the U.S. government itself that Pakistan's cooperation in the war against terrorism is not up to scratch. These complaints have emerged when military operations led by the U.S. have moved into Pakistan's tribal areas, where the two most ardently sought trophies of the war against terror - Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar - are believed to be hiding.

The worry in Pakistan, of course, is that overt participation in these operations in the nominally autonomous tribal areas would create conditions of mass insurrection. Mush-arraf's main challenge since January 12 has been to deal with the threat of internal disorder that the burgeoning strength of Islamic militancy poses. And, to an extent India was concerned about this aspect of his endeavour since much of the violence in Kashmir is a spillover of competitive sectarianism in Pakistan. Musharraf had to announce credible measures to rein in the religious hotheads who had been elevated to conspicuous influence under the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. He had to do this at a time when the vanquishing of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had seriously constricted the space for manoeuvre. And he had to avoid any impression that he was capitulating to India's demands, which would have been unacceptable within the Army command hierarchy and the religious seminaries.

Initial achievements registered in these directions have, in the assessment of most observers, now been squandered. Musharraf has brought into existence ordinances that empower the government to regulate the activities of all religious endowments, trusts and institutions. These powers extend to the minute details of the specific purposes for which loud-speakers will be allowed in mosques, the syllabi of instruction in religious seminaries, and the registration of such institutions with government authorities. But perhaps in the distraction of seeking popular legitimacy, the new powers have not been enforced.

Although India's own international image has been tarnished on account of the Gujarat incidents, still it could conceivably make a credible case in international fora for sanctions against Pakistan for the sustenance of cross-border terrorism. The basis for constructing this case exists in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, adopted shortly after the September 11 attacks in the U.S. This Resolution, framed under Article VII of the U.N. Charter, which makes compliance obligatory, requires states to "refrain from providing any form of support... to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts", "take the necessary steps to prevent the commission of terrorist acts", "deny safe havens to those who finance, plan, support or commit terrorist acts", and "prevent those who finance, plan, facilitate or commit terrorist acts from using their respective territories for those purposes against other states or their citizens".

Commentators, who have not been swept up by the belligerence of the military mobilisation, have urged this course of action, rather than an unfocussed series of armed strikes that would only compound a situation of radical instability in the region. Beyond the prospect of civil strife erupting on an unprecedented scale, there is also the menacing shadow of the nuclear arsenal that both India and Pakistan have built up. Recent revelations by a senior official of the Clinton administration have shown that Pakistan did attempt to use nuclear compellence to win some strategic advantages during the Kargil conflict. That episode should provide certain lessons for India. It would also perhaps be prudent to pay attention to the sub-text of the U.S. official's recent narration: that for a Pakistani leader, being seen to capitulate to the threat of military force from India, is a virtual kiss of death.

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