27 December 2001

Reckless Rhetoric: Tanks no Answer to Terrorism

27 December 2001
The Times of India

Reckless Rhetoric
Tanks no Answer to Terrorism


TWO weeks on and the war rhetoric we've been hearing since the December 13 terrorist attack on Parliament has not abated. For all the prime minister's protestations about war being ''forced'' on him, the loose talk about a 'military option' on this side of the border suggests there is no shortage of people in government itching for action. Strike forces on both sides are taking up forward positions, missiles are said to be in position and the ugly smell of war lust has begun to pervade the atmosphere.

Mr Vajpayee's remark about a war to ''end the problem of terrorism once and for all'' might well have been aimed at goading the international community to tighten the screws on Islamabad. But words have a way of taking on a life of their own. Media speculation about weapons deployment is further ratcheting up the military temperature, with each side responding in kind to unconfirmed reports about the other already having acted.

By my reckoning, we are still some distance away from that proverbial 11th hour after which one foolishly conceived military provocation will lead us ineluctably towards a disastrous war. There is still time to pull back from the brink. Our politicians may not be unduly worried about the human cost of armed conflict but they must at least realise that for India to initiate a 'limited war' against Pakistan would be not just military folly but a strategic and political blunder of monumental proportions. It will not curb the menace of terrorism but will only further cement the role of the US as the guarantor - and enforcer - of security in South Asia.

The world may have changed since September 11 but the ability of a country to get away with the unilateral use of force still depends on the asymmetry of military might. Simply put, India is not the US or Israel - and Pakistan is not Afghanistan or Palestine. Above all, the government has to grasp the single most important outcome that the Afghan war has produced: The US is now a South Asian military power with a significant and more or less permanent armed presence in our region. Even as our analysts are dreaming 'limited war' scenarios, the US is building air-conditioned barracks for its soldiers at the Pakistani air base of Jacobabad. Whether Osama bin Laden is caught or not, the US is unlikely to abandon its first-ever military beachhead in the subcontinent.

No country which has given basing rights to the US has ever been attacked by a third country. The only time this happened, arguably, was South Korea, and the US went to war to defend its ally. The US will not go to war to defend Pakistan from an Indian attack - limited or otherwise - but there is no way it will allow its forces stationed there to be placed in harm's way.

Some Indian analysts believe the Bush administration has extended tacit support to military action by India provided this is confined to the part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan. But even though General Musharraf has been doing Washington's bidding so far, the Pentagon cannot be sure a local clash in Kashmir will not escalate into all-out war. Any military action by India, therefore, is more than likely to trigger a US-sponsored Chapter VII ceasefire resolution in the UN Security Council which Russia will not veto and which India can ignore only at its peril.

Even if the US does not intervene, it is worth asking what Indian military action can accomplish in terms of the officially stated rationale for going to war: Ending terrorism. Pakistan has probably already dismantled or shifted the training camps it helps run so there will be no terrorist targets for the Indian Air Force to hit. Indian forces are not in a position to conduct an Israeli-style 'snatch' operation to arrest and bring back terror suspects. And capturing and holding Pakistani territory would be a pointless military venture to embark upon. In any case, each of these scenarios will definitely provoke a military response from Pakistan, and matters could rapidly escalate. India will either have to back off or go for broke, a full-scale war. Pakistan, which has not abjured the right to use nuclear weapons first, could then consider itself at liberty to do the unthinkable.

The irony is that the Vajpayee government is prepared to countenance such a dramatic upping of the ante at a time when the groups engaging in terrorism against India are actually at their weakest and public support for them in Kashmir at its lowest. More than anything, the dramatic attack on Parliament is a sign of the growing desperation and isolation of the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Vigilant security and intelligence-gathering, coupled with imaginative diplomacy, are more than enough to deal with the problem.

The problem with the diplomatic steps the Vajpayee government has taken against Pakistan so far is that they are essentially aimed at drawing the US in as enforcer. Certain other 'diplomatic' measures being contemplated - such as abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty - are so dramatic
they will establish a point of no return after which any semblance of bilateral normality will be impossible to establish without third-power intervention. Such a step would also kill the Iran gas pipeline project for all time to come, for if India can contemplate using water as a foreign policy instrument, Pakistan would be within its rights to use gas.

Rather than the Security Council intervening on its terms to demand restraint or a ceasefire, India should seriously consider registering a formal complaint at the UN against Pakistan for being in breach of Resolution 1373. That resolution makes it mandatory for countries to take
legal action against terrorist groups in their jurisdiction. India should prepare a dossier on the involvement of Pakistan-based groups and individuals in specific acts of terrorism in India and ask the Security Council to force Pakistan to act.

Of course, the US - which was the prime mover behind UNSCR 1373 and which has been known to harbour persons wanted for terrorist crimes in countries like Cuba, Haiti and Chile - did not intend the resolution to be an instrument that other countries can freely invoke. But if the Vajpayee government is so confident of US support, it should demand a demonstration of that support at a multilateral, legally-binding forum like the UN rather than through unilateral demands conveyed by Washington to Islamabad behind closed doors.

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