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|April 19, 2002||
Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni
The cost of confrontation
Right in the middle of London, just off the Mall, is a statue of the Duke of York atop an imposing pedestal. The duke had no claim to fame except that he later became King James II, but the guide will gleefully tell you that he was the hero of the delightful nursery rhyme many recited when they were young.
Oh, the grand old Duke of York,
The Indian Army is, of course, a far cry from the ten thousand men of the duke. But at present it is fast falling into the danger of becoming "neither up nor down".
Last December, after the unsuccessful militant attack on Parliament, the government took various measures to boost its macho image. Our high commissioner was recalled. Pakistani commercial aircraft were denied overflight rights. India demanded that 20 militants required to face trial in India be handed over. And finally the army was deployed close to the border, leading to predictions of imminent war or at least attacks on the training camps of the militants.
Pakistan retaliated as expected and both armies today are in confrontation mode. It is now over four months since these actions were taken and an opportune time to make a dispassionate audit of our moves.
The deployment of the army on the border was possibly gunboat diplomacy Indian-style in the 21st century. The term came into being in the nineteenth century when British and American gunboats on the Chinese rivers habitually trained their guns to coerce the local population into submission.
The mobilisation and deployment of a country's armed forces into provocative positions on the border is not a matter to be taken lightly. It has obviously been done with a precise aim and a determination to take the next step if the aim is not achieved. When gunboats were deployed, in many cases the British were prepared to land troops and seek action if the sheer show of force failed to elicit the desired result.
No one spelt out the precise aims of the deployment of the army in December. Neither does one know to what extent the government is willing to go to meet those aims.
It appears clear now that the various measures taken last December were done, probably in haste, in an apparent bid to "do something" after the attack. The impunity with which the militants were beginning to undermine our security measures was starting to rile us. The public was losing confidence in the government to tackle cross-border terrorism. There were growing calls for some action, including the bombing of terrorist camps across the border. In this environment it was necessary to project the image of a hard state a la Israel and show Pakistan that our patience had run out and we would not take things lying down anymore.
Among other things, we expected Pakistan to crack down on cross-border terrorism and hand over at least some of the fugitives taking shelter in that country.
There was indeed a crackdown on militant organisations in Pakistan. But that was apparently more to please the Americans than because of anything India had done. Even that so-called action against extremists was temporary and hardly evoked any reaction in that country. The action has already stopped and in some cases is even being reversed. President Musharraf has deftly managed to walk the line between hardliners and moderates.
For some time the incidence of terrorism in Kashmir reduced. But that could have been as much due to the passes remaining closed during the winter months as the crackdown on militants in Pakistan. Now that the passes are beginning to open again, terrorist acts are again on the increase.
As far as the handing over of fugitives is concerned, not a single person has been handed over. In fact, hardened criminals like Dawood Ibrahim are reported to have been given Pakistani passports and allowed to live a life of luxury in that country.
It is clear that the deployment of the army on the border in unlikely to make Pakistan quake in its shoes and concede the Indian demands. Even a defenceless country like Palestine, fighting with sticks and stones, refuses to meet any Israeli demands. Pakistan is far stronger than Palestine militarily and is aware of American backing should India adopt tougher measures.
Finally, if it was our aim to destabilise General Musharraf, he remains confident as ever. So sure is he of his position that he intends to remain president of Pakistan for the next several years, that too with the "consent" of the public in a referendum.
So where do we go from here? The army says it can remain on the border indefinitely. The defence minister talks of a long-term deployment. No one is counting the costs on men and equipment. Figures are vague, but vary from Rs 500 crore to Rs 2,000 crore a month. That amounts to about a quarter of the total defence budget. The five per cent surcharge on income tax can hardly be expected to underwrite these enormous costs.
Above all, the weapons and equipment, in a perennial state of readiness at the border, must be taking heavy punishment. Retired senior army officers uniformly state that such a posture cannot be maintained for more than a few months without having a damaging effect on the efficacy of the forces. No boxer can keep the "on guard" position forever.
India has achieved the maximum it is likely to achieve by eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Frankly, the attempts at gunboat diplomacy have failed. The cost has been considerable and the results not commensurate with the expenses. The time has come to cut costs and normalise relations with our neighbour.
They say the difficult part in mountain climbing is climbing down. More lives have been lost on the return trip than when getting to the top. The question is, how can we get back to the pre-December positions without losing face.
The Vajpayee government can do this quietly without publicity, reducing the numbers deployed, or resort to one more display of statesmanship by calling for normalisation of relations between the two countries.
There is, of course, a third way. At the height of the Vietnam War, when American forces were taking heavy casualties, Henry Kissinger suggested a way out. "Let us just say we have won and get the hell out." India's leaders may like to consider this alternative to get out of the stalemate on the border.
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