Hasty Military Action will Jeopardize Long-term National Interest

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's pithy observation that "nobody wants war" should serve as an appropriate response to the acerbic comment made earlier by Pakistani Army Chief, General Pervez Kayani, that Islamabad could retaliate within minutes of any Indian pre-emptive strike on Pakistani territory.

A month after the Mumbai terrorist attacks (Nov 26) a veritable war of words has ensued between India and Pakistan, and the situation remains brittle.

In the face of repeated obfuscation and denials by the Zardari-led civilian government over the Mumbai attacks, the Indian government has maintained diplomatic pressure over Pakistan and reiterated that "all options will be kept open".

This turn of phrase has been interpreted by Islamabad as a signal that India will launch a pre-emptive strike against suspected terrorist camps in the Pakistani Kashmir area, and over the last week the Pakistan military has been creating a war psychosis in that country.

On Dec 22, senior Indian government officials reiterated that it was Pakistani propaganda and media speculation that India was about to launch a surprise military strike - but the developments on both sides are indicative of raising the military ante.

The Pakistani Air Force has flown its fighter aircraft over major cities - as if to reassure the people about their preparedness; and in India apart from the prime minister and the defence minister meeting with the three service chiefs, the Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor is reported to have visited Siachen and other parts of Jammu and Kashmir.

Does this kind of heightened military activity signal a limited India-Pakistan war reminiscent of Kargil of 1999? My personal assessment is no - not at this juncture. India is wiser after the experience of Op Parakram in 2002 that was mounted in the wake of the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. The net gain in politico-diplomatic terms was limited.

After the Mumbai attack, there should be clarity about what India wants. The objectives are clear. One is to ensure that there is no repeat terrorist attack in any other part of the country - and this is a very daunting task.

The second is to ensure that justice is pursued to bring the perpetrators (and their handlers) of the audacious Mumbai attack to book. It merits recall that apart from the huge loss of life and property that India suffered, there were other countries whose nationals also lost their lives in the Mumbai tragedy.

Any impulsive military option by India at this stage will not advance either objective. India, at this stage can and must pursue the politico-diplomatic option against the Pakistani military, which is the real support constituency for the terrorist groups operating from that country.

An objective review a month after the Mumbai tragedy would suggest that contrary to the general feeling in the country that India has done nothing - some major gains have been realized.

For the first time in the bitter and hostile India-Pakistan bilateral relationship of the last 61 years, the global community as represented by the UN Security Council has passed a unanimous resolution calling for Pakistan to comply with India's demands. This kind of international support for India in the bilateral context has always been thwarted either by the US or China - or both. China has now joined the majority in censuring Pakistan.

Equally significant is the fact that the Taj and Oberoi Trident hotels that were the scene of the long drawn-out hostage saga have reopened - and to that extent thwarted the objective of the terrorists - which was to disrupt the rhythm of Mumbai and its unique spirit.

This of course is of limited satisfaction to those who have lost their loved ones in the Mumbai tragedy - and Pakistan's denial strategy and related brinkmanship do not help matters.

The reason for this flip-flop on the Pakistani side has to do with the deep and complex power struggle going on between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The former is the seat of the civilian political leadership and the latter is the General Headquarters of the Pakistani military - the army in particular.

The two major political parties - the PPP led by the late Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharief had come together last year after sinking their very bitter differences with a single-point agenda - to send the Pakistan Army back to the barracks. And it was this determination that forced a reluctant General Musharraf to finally relinquish political power.

It is ironic that the current (accidental) Pakistani President Asif Zardari reached this high office due to the assassination of his wife in December last - probably at the hands of the same constituency within Pakistan that had planned Mumbai. Yet he has not been able to resist the pressure applied on him by the Pakistani military apex - where the true power in that country resides.

Thus what India will have to do is to evolve a comprehensive strategy that will dilute the power base of the Pakistan military within that country.

Here a paradoxical situation obtains, for the Pakistan military is the more favoured constituency for its major external interlocutors - the US, China and Saudi Arabia. Post Mumbai there is reluctant recognition in Washington and Beijing that a Pakistan Army that supports religious extremism and related terrorism can affect the vital interests of the US and China - but this is still tentative.

The assumption of office by Barack Obama on January 20 as the next US President may herald a change but the reality of the dependence of the US military on its Pakistani counterpart for the safety of the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan will temper any major policy change.

India needs to evolve a long term policy towards Pakistan and build appropriate capacities along different strands. The anti-India venom in the military-dominated security discourse of Pakistan needs to be purged and a national catharsis is called for to examine contested issues like identity and aspirations - but this is a task that the people of Pakistan will have to address themselves.

In the interim, India will also have to acknowledge that despite all the well-meaning talk some walks have to be pursued alone.

By taking hasty military action against Pakistan at this stage that may have some electoral benefit for the ruling United Progressive Alliance, the long term national interest will be jeopardized.

This is a time for distilling the essence of the Chanakyan tenet which identifies the imperative of clinically tackling the roots of any thorny problem. Not just the recurring, but the transient symptom.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at cudayb@gmail.com)


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