January 18, 2002


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

War or Peace?

War is the least likely option today notwithstanding the war of words and the unprecedented military mobilisation on both sides. But neither is peace around the corner despite General Pervez Musharraf's defining speech of January 12. In fact, the situation remains as it has been for the last decade: no war, no peace. Even after India is able to curb cross-border terrorism, peace will be a long time coming to the subcontinent.

It is being argued that this is the last chance for India to put an end to the proxy war that has bled its soldiers since 1990. A number of reasons are cited. Pakistan's armed forces are committed on both its western and eastern fronts; its military is involved in governance down to the district level, and by the end of next year its shortfalls in tanks, guns and helicopters will be made up.

China is no longer a factor because, unlike in 1965 and 1971, there are now formal treaties with it on non-aggression. Further, Pakistan has been identified as a sponsor of terrorism, which it describes as an indigenous freedom struggle. India is finally being recognised as a victim of terrorism and the massive buildup on the borders is seen as a legitimate response to the dastardly attack on Parliament.

It is true that the balance of conventional and nuclear forces is to India's advantage. It enjoys numerical superiority and has been the victor in the last two wars/encounters of 1971 and 1999. The mood in the armed forces is upbeat and the urge to avenge the undeclared cross-border war is strong and widespread. But these favourable moral and ground conditions are unlikely to spell significant military success because India is dealing with a situation of strategic equivalence despite its edge in conventional strength. There are imponderables too. Both countries have not fought a war for 30 years. There is a generational change in combatants and hardware.

Modern-day wars are not simply a factor of comparing numbers -- of tanks, ships and aircraft -- but realisable politico-military objectives in a short time frame as intervention by the United Nations Security Council and USA is inevitable even before the shooting match has started. This time, the world's sole superpower has its military armada already deployed in the region, part of it located on Pakistani soil still fighting the war in Afghanistan. It does not want them to be caught in a nuclear exchange. India missed its opportunity to cut Pakistan to size a long time ago. The cut-off date for hot pursuit and bombing was in the mid-1990s after the security forces had rolled back the proxy war with the recapture of Sopore and other areas in the valley.

The Indian military victory in 1971 defaulted in double jeopardy. First, the failure of the political leadership to translate it into a final settlement of J&K on its terms; second, allowing the military capability to rust. In the three decades since then, even after three indecisive wars in J&K, India failed to build a conventional deterrent in the hill state as well as a decisive military superiority in the plains sectors on Punjab and Rajasthan. Barring a brief period in the mid-1980s, India's defence spending has idled around a little over 2 per cent of the GDP. Kargil was born out of this crass neglect.

Now, not only does India not have the military capacity to defeat Pakistan, it is also unable to apply its conventional superiority to achieve any sizeable gains, even after discounting Pakistan's nuclear shield. In the conventional battles fought in 1965 and 1971 (in the west), neither side was able to make any worthwhile headway with its mechanised forces and the two armies stalled to a stalemate in 14 to 17 days with Western nations putting the stops. There is no reason to configure an outcome on the battlefield today that will be substantially different from those in the past.

This time, there is one other problem -- the difficulty of converting the political objective of ending cross-border terrorism and raising the cost for Pakistan for indulging in jihad into a package of military objectives, especially in the aftermath of 13/12 when terrorist bases have evaporated and jihadis masquerading as good terrorists have intermingled in the towns and villages close to the Line of Control. Recapturing Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, though still a parliamentary objective, is a pipe dream.

Surgical air strikes are of questionable utility. Similarly, seizing infiltration launching pads will have limited strategic value and will not be commensurate to the costs involved. The concept of limited war advocated by India after Kargil has few takers in Pakistan. The space for it is more in the minds of commanders than on the ground.

India holds the moral high ground. Even during Kargil it did not cross the LoC. It is debatable if it will be worthwhile now, when antagonists are fully deployed. Nations go to war when they're certain the gains from it will outweigh the costs and the situation after the war will be better than before it. After three wars and two skirmishes -- in the Rann of Kutch and Kargil -- both sides should know that wars are neither winnable nor a means of conflict resolution.

Given these limitations, why has India initiated the unprecedented mobilisation of its armed forces? It is principally to assuage national sentiment after the outrage of 13/12, demonstrate the political will to avenge Kandahar and Kargil and persuade Pakistan to 'lay off' in J&K -- a military slang used first by General Pervez Musharraf to warn India against any misadventure during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Operation Parakram -- the hot war deployment at the highest levels of readiness -- is in essence a strategy of coercion that is also designed to draw the attention of the international community, which is pledged to fight terrorism.

India is not spoiling for a fight because war is no longer an option. But it wants to win this limited war without fighting it. In Kargil victory came from military force backed by diplomacy. This time diplomacy is being backed by military power. The game plan is to achieve a politico-diplomatic-military environment that will force Pakistan as part of the global coalition against terrorism to rein in the jihadis and curb cross-border terrorism. The battle cry of Op Parakram is to create the scenario the West fears the most. The strategy is working slowly as Pakistan has begun to act against terrorists. In the days ahead, Musharraf has to operationalise his commitment to stop jihad.

It is almost certain that the full-scale deployment of the military at appropriate levels of readiness will remain in place till Pakistan, either on its own or more likely under US pressure, abandons its failed policy on jihad. With Musharraf caught in a pincer, the Indian political leadership can ill afford to pull back without getting the general to back off in the proxy war.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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