Military action against Pakistan

GOING TO war out of anger is surely ill-advised. The current desire for military action against Pakistan is entirely understandable, but its goals are less clear. While failing to take the war to Pakistan during the Kargil encounter may have been a mistake, because it created the impression that nuclear deterrence had eliminated the threat of conventional military action against Pakistan, it is not clear that waging war now is appropriate. The aims of such military action must be as unambiguous as possible and the potential for adverse political outcomes for India needs to be assessed as well.

The elimination of terror camps will mean little, except a possible temporary respite for India followed by renewed terrorist vigour if only to portray Indian military action as a failure. In any case, these terrorist camps have already been mostly denuded of personnel and material. They can also be reassembled at short notice. The goal for India is not merely degrading the military capacity of terrorist outfits being used by Pakistan, but enforcing a political decision by them to desist sponsoring terror in the future. Terrorist capacity is an arm of Pakistan's military and intelligence services and can be renewed unless India strikes a blow of great severity. India, presumably, is not intending to severely disable the Pakistani state itself because that would be an improbable goal. But the critical question that must be asked, amid all the recrimination, is whether or not any Pakistani regime can cease such terrorist activity against India and survive politically. Quite clearly, only at very high cost because Islamic radicalism and militarism have become Pakistan's raison d'etre in what has, effectively, become a Ghazi state. The fear of punitive U.S. action forced Islamabad to ignominiously give up its Afghan adventure, but New Delhi does not possess the leverage to make something similar happen in relation to either Kashmir in particular or India more generally.

Even a resolution to the Kashmir issue on terms favourable to Pakistan is unlikely to end Indian headaches because Kashmir is the occasion for Indo-Pakistan conflict rather than its exclusive cause. India's relations with Pakistan are a product of more general regional rivalry between them, as well as the need of the latter's military-feudal class for a dispute with India to justify and ensure its own and, indeed, Pakistan's very survival as a political entity. Pakistan only exists as a historic and political counterpoint to India, by rejecting peaceful coexistence between Islam and Indian secularism, however defined. It has sought to legitimise its claims over Kashmir in the West by asserting that it has well-founded historic grounds. But Pakistan also argues to its people at home that, as its Deputy High Commissioner to the U.K. insisted in a debate with me at Oxford recently, it reserves the right to go to the aid of the oppressed Ummah anywhere in the world. It will, therefore, find provoking unrest elsewhere in India irresistible, especially given the low cost. Worse still, Pakistan is a remarkably effective and inexpensive vehicle for Chinese foreign policy aims in the region, which is to keep India off balance for as long as possible. Indian military action against Pakistan cannot, by itself, solve these deeper structural problems for which terrorism is only an ancillary tool. In the long term, growing Indian political and military primacy will deflect Pakistani ambitions. The short-term answer is primarily diplomatic, which means international fear of nuclear-related terrorist spin-offs from jehadi groups, although military action might be a subsidiary instrument.

Indians are much exercised about the evident hypocrisy of the West over the war against terrorism and the palpable existence of double standards. As India's Law Minister pointed out recently, the life of a white person is apparently more precious than that of a non-white one. But this iron law of social relations is no real surprise since such racism is routine in Britain, for example, where white juries are reluctant to convict whites accused of causing serious physical injury to, or even murdering, a non-white person. But the authorities easily convict innocent non-whites by employing underhand methods. In international politics such duplicity is the norm rather than the exception, especially when white countries calculate their interests vis-a-vis non-European ones. The idea that the U.S. should modify its policies in the interests of truth and justice is an immature expectation, particularly when its vital national interests are being prosecuted. Pakistan was much more useful to the U.S. than India before 1989 and circumstances dictate, however perversely, that it is so again.

It is imperative for Indian decision-makers to calculate how to make the best of a bad job instead of acting precipitately in anger and creating an even less favourable situation. India is unlikely to achieve a legal resolution to the dispute over Kashmir any time soon and the reduction of cross-border terror to a manageable level is the best that can be hoped for, with an eventual return to the sullen but relatively peaceful status quo prior to 1989. Much will subsequently depend on Indian political sagacity to elicit Kashmiri Muslim acquiescence towards prevailing political arrangements and persuade Hindu refugees to return to their homes from elsewhere in India. Such wisdom was notable by its absence, as I had inferred during my solitary visit to Kashmir in 1989 as a tourist. Such an outcome is within the realm of possibilities since the U.S. is putting considerable political and economic pressure on Pakistan, quite publicly now, to curtail the activities of various terror outfits. It may not last, but after so many years of pain it might be wise for India to allow the present U.S. campaign in the region to be rounded off before considering its own radical options. U.S. interests do require a clampdown on Islamic militants generally, for whom the U.S., not India, will always remain the principal target. India is, in fact, the object of well-considered policies of the Pakistani state rather than the automatic first choice of Islamic terror.

Military action might at present, in fact, worsen India's situation if the U.S. shows its displeasure by providing arms and even more economic aid to Pakistan, since there is no shortage of manpower ready to take up arms. It will surely give a new lease of life to terrorist groups currently in retreat. U.S. indifference to terrorist actions against India might even be coupled with a cynical calculation that sustained efforts to divert their attention towards it might well suit the West, as India itself fears. No moral angst and doubts will arise to constrain such a policy. The U.S. may then also allow Pakistan to rebuild its influence in Afghanistan. As the astute Mr. K. L. Rasgotra, India's distinguished former Foreign Secretary, reminded me earlier this month, ``having U.S. friendship may not amount to much, but its enmity could be disastrous''.

Yet, paradoxically, India's current diplomatic and military posture is proving pretty shrewd. Substantial curtailment of ties with Pakistan was long overdue anyway and should be intensified and made durable. These measures, accompanied by a heightened state of military tension and some calculated skirmishing along the border, are useful for signalling to the West that Pakistani terrorist incursions into India must be restrained. But care must be exercised to ensure that diplomacy remains in command and sabre-rattling is a calibrated adjunct and the crossover point at which the latter takes over to become war is avoided. Covert action inside Pakistan as well as relentless action against terrorists within India's own borders are also appropriate, though, typically, the latter seems to have fallen victim to domestic electoral politics. One story doing the rounds in Islamabad is that the U.S. wishes an Indian military assault to provoke Pakistan into readying and therefore exposing its nuclear arsenal, which will then be neutralised. Hopefully, this is only a rumour. This is one baby India does not want to be left holding in case things do go wrong.

(The writer teaches in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics & Political Science.)