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Home > News > Columnists > Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

'India was on brink of war twice'

January 02, 2003

General Pervez Musharraf's chilling disclosure on December 30 that Pakistan's nuclear weapons deterred India from going to war came on the last day in office of outgoing army chief, General S Padmanabhan when he noted that he was 'absolutely ready' for war and also to cope with Pakistan's nuclear capability.

General N C Vij, the new army chief,  has recalled that it was Musharraf who said that only a madman could think of using nuclear weapons. But why did India's coercive diplomacy, which included Operation Parakram, not succeed in full and why did India not go to war?

Pakistan has claimed a moral victory. It believes it can continue to bleed India in the proxy war including cross border terrorism without running the risk of retribution. Is this true and should Pakistan and the neighbourhood live with its grand delusion? This and other questions arising out of the India-Pakistan confrontation follow in the Q&A below.

What were the ingredients of India's coercive diplomacy?

Besides the political and diplomatic measures, the military was the weapon of last resort to back diplomacy. Built into Parakram were both the implicit threat of and the actual use of force. Some Western security experts called the massive deployment a 'show of force' rather as 'play-acting,' suggesting that India sought Pakistani compliance without intending to go to war and that the fear of a nuclear conflagration would secure international, notably US cooperation in meeting India's objectives. Others believed India was dead serious about the deployment.

Did Pakistan deter both by its conventional and nuclear capability, India from forcing compliance?

This is serious misjudgement of India's conventional superiority and second strike nuclear
capability, especially the former across the International Border, in the air and at sea. Unfortunately Pakistan drew the wrong lesson from Kargil turning its defeat into victory. During Parakram, it touted its nuclear weapon to deter India, only later it changed tack: that its conventional forces were adequate to contain an attack.

Pakistan has a history of lowering its nuclear threshold to attract international attention and internationalise J&K. The first nuclear threat was delivered by Pakistan in 1987 during Operation Brass Tacks to the then Indian high commissioner in Islamabad, S K Singh. This was followed by nuclear threats in 1990. During Kargil the Pakistan foreign minister issued nuclear threats four times and during Parakram at least twice, once each by President General Musharraf and (then) foreign minister Abdul Sattar. India chose not to cross the Rubicon for other reasons. Pakistan's military and nuclear deterrence was not one of them.

How close was India to taking punitive military action against Pakistan?

On the very brink and twice. Once, in the first flush of deployment around January 7, 2002 when Pakistani troops were still off balance. But General Musharraf's January 12 speech of partial compliance resulted in the postponement of D-Day. The US played a key role in getting more time for Musharraf. Infiltration dropped noticeably. Then Kaluchak happened in May and a new D-Day was selected -- 15 June.

At US prodding Musharraf made his May 27 speech reaffirming compliance. Once again operational plans were deferred. But now the window for war had also closed. It would reopen only after the monsoon in September-October when elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir.

What were the other reasons for India not going to war?

The US figures high on this list. The presence of US soldiers and airmen in Pakistani air bases and its naval armada in the Arabian Sea, fighting the war in Afghanistan. The Indian Navy had to be limited in its deployment up to 72 degrees longitude to ensure separation of forces. It is no secret that Indian diplomacy failed to get the US to make Musharraf act on his pledge and in the words of US Secretary of State Colin Powell to end cross border terrorism permanently, irreversibly, visibly and to the satisfaction of India. In fact, George Bush said that India has the right to defend itself against terrorism.

But the paramount reason for India's 'restraint' was the knowledge that any military action would not achieve the political objective of stopping cross border terrorism. It would inflict punishment but not extract total compliance within the threshold of limited war, the gains from which were estimated to be of doubtful utility. The cardinal principle of war (which is the failure of diplomacy) is that you don't start it unless you are sure you can end it by being better off.

Is India's restraint a liability?

It is reflected in the political will and reluctance to follow, unlike the Israelis, the policy of instant retribution: eye for eye and tooth for tooth. India's restraint in the face of constant provocation is both a matter of marvel and mirth to outsiders. Even so, there is space for offensive action across the LoC like doing a reverse Kargil.

During Parakram, the Pakistan army tested the waters by intruding 800 m inside the Neelam sector in J&K and were immediately repulsed by an overwhelming application of force that made Musharraf call up Colin Powell to say India had declared war. It is clear that India did not pick up the gauntlet no doubt after undertaking a cost benefit analysis. In Pakistan's perception, India's tolerance threshold has lowered even further.

How much strategic autonomy does India enjoy in the choice of options?

After the nuclear tests India claimed it would now exercise greater strategic autonomy. A study of recent history belies this notion as autonomy has been receding gradually. This was most telling during times of war. In 1947, India and Pakistan fought for 18 months, in 1965 for 16 days, in 1971, 13 days and in 2002, 0 days. But for the six Soviet vetoes in the UN, the victory in 1971 would not have been a total surrender for Pakistan. A nuclearised subcontinent has made outside interference even more imminent, reducing both the time and space for application of force not to mention the long term presence of the US on the subcontinent.

In 2002 US restrained India twice from going to war. Travel advisories given by US and UK to
its citizens were direct pressure on India and Pakistan to de-escalate.

What was the cost benefit of this standoff?

Gen S Padmanabhan has noted that the deployment forced Musharraf to admit on January 12, 2002 the culpability of that country in cross border terrorism. It amounts to saying: we 'admit we made a mistake and it will not happen again.' He also said infiltration had reduced by 53 per cent this year compared to last year and he could exercise his whole army during the deployment, repudiating Pakistani claims that troop morale was low due to deployment fatigue. The money and material costs of coercive diplomacy are huge: nearly 187 mobilisation-related casualties plus nearly Rs 7,500 crore. The Pakistan figure is near Rs 4,500 crore. But the US has given to its stalwart ally, a handsome package of $ 1.3 billion and military assistance for the help it has provided in fighting the US war in Afghanistan.

What are the lessons from the confrontation -- the war that never was?

Much before our own ultimatum, the lesson in coercive diplomacy was taught by the US to Musharraf in September 2001 when he accepted 100 per cent the terms stipulated by the US to abandon the Taliban. For India it is essential that the National Security Advisory Board and the newly-created Integrated Defence Staff start working on the lessons. A limited war is feasible even for a limited political objective.

Pakistan's nuclear bluff (make Kashmir a nuclear flashpoint) needs to be called and its military disabused of its delusion of deterrence. To hurt Pakistan below the nuclear threshold so that it gives up jihadi terrorism refining both overt and covert capabilities which are usable is a must. The last question is: how to wish the Kashmiris a Happy 2003.


Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)


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