June 1, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Lt Gen (retd) Satish Nambiar

Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar heads the United Services Institution of India, a tri-service think tank based in New Delhi.

During his long and eventful career in the Indian Army, Gen Nambiar held several sensitive posts, including that of director general of military operations and deputy chief of army staff. His hour of glory came when he refused to give in to NATO pressure as the first force commander and head of mission of UN forces in former Yugoslavia. He finally resigned.

Gen Nambiar is respected for his independent views and for directing the USI into becoming India's premier interface on strategic discussions for serving and retired service officers, and other analysts.

In an interview with Josy Joseph, he analyses the present standoff between India and Pakistan.

What is the present situation like? How far are we from a war?

The first point is that there is a general feeling that we have taken this nonsense from Pakistan far too long without making them pay a price for it.

Some of these terrorist actions in the normal course would have necessitated an immediate response. And I think that is why the business of restraint becomes too much for anyone to swallow. Basically our tolerance threshold has been breached long ago.

There is a requirement to take some action. The government has no option. After all these verbal attacks, they have to prove their credibility.

Internationally, over the past few years, there has been a sort of strategic partnership [with India]. The Americans, EU, Japan, Russia, the southeast Asian countries have been looking at us as a stable partner for interaction. That credibility is also taking a knocking. Because, if we are going to be kicked around, and do nothing about it, then who would want to partner with us?

The armed forces were deployed after the attack on Parliament, not because the country wanted to go to war. When people like us talk about war, we don't talk lightly. We have seen war.

We have to take some action against the terrorists who did this act against us, which means we have to attack them wherever they are. We are not talking about training camps etc, because the camps can close down and open up somewhere else. Based on the information given by our intelligence agencies we must hit them. In Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, even in Pakistan.

If we undertake such an action, in my view it should be primarily by air strikes, or missile strikes or long-range artillery. I do not subscribe to the view that today we must use ground forces, special forces, something like that. I think the time has not come for it.

When you undertake such an action, Pakistan will retaliate. If that retaliatory action is of nature that can escalate into a war, immediately or gradually, we must be prepared. So our forces are mobilised and ready. Which again forecloses that option for Pakistan. Because then their capacity to take us by surprise is limited.

No one in today's context can advise us not to exercise the option of dealing with terrorists considering the international situation. I think we have got that much of legitimacy on our hand. If Pakistan and its agencies are giving any support to terrorists, they must be prepared for the consequences. That is the sort of thing we are talking about, this is not a war. Not initiating a war, but carrying out punitive strikes, to the extent that we can. War will then only break out if Pakistan initiates.

I don't think the Americans want a full-scale war on their hands in this region. I think there would be some pressure on Pakistan so that the situation does not escalate into a war situation. In the worst-case scenario, if Pakistan escalates and there is a war, then we will deal with it. We must be prepared. We have been fighting a war with one hand tied for the last 15 years.

After the Parliament attack, the government and strategic community in general went into a belligerent mood. This time again, after the Kaluchak attack, there is belligerence. And hardly any action on the ground. There is also a section in government that believes the J&K elections should come first. What should finally happen? Also, don't these shifting stances and verbal assaults take away the credibility of the government?

I am very, very surprised and saddened to see that things like this are linked to elections. There have to be political aspects. Yes, elections in Jammu & Kashmir are important and must be conducted. But that should not preclude the option of dealing with the situation as it arises. If this is not dealt with now, you will find the elections will be compromised, they will be interfered with by the same groups. Elections will take place, I don't think the two should be linked. Certainly not with any political gains kept in mind.

The point here that the government is not acting must be for any number of reasons. One must be that we have convinced ourselves that we are a nice set of people. Nice guys have no place in this world today. I am not saying that we must all be bad guys. But you have to display a certain degree of self-respect. If you have self-respect, they will give you the respect.

Obviously the Western world, the Americans, are putting pressure on us. They are not going to suggest to go ahead and have a war. They will all try to dissuade us. But they're not interested in our national security; they are only interested in their own aims. We have to deal with it on our own terms.

So you believe that India can put the onus of a full-scale war on Pakistan? And consequentially, isn't there a possibility of a nuclear war? Can we discount a nuclear strike?

I think it can't be totally discounted. I don't think we should be pushing the threshold beyond a point. Obviously the aim of anything that we do, even if Pakistan initiates a war, cannot be like in the old days -- destroying the Pakistani war machinery, etc. The international community will not allow that today and the position has also changed due to the nuclear situation. So it will have to be within certain parameters only. The parameter today is to deal with terrorists and their sponsors. That is all. That is the limited, holistic option we are talking about.

So we bring in a clear distinction between the Pakistani State and terrorists?

I don't think the intention here is to destroy the Pakistani State. That again will not be to our advantage. But they must pay a price for what they are doing. That is the point. And because of that, as long as we keep that in mind, the Americans in particular will not allow this escalation to go into a nuclear dimension.

We in any case do not intend to use it [nuclear strike] in the first place. As it is, Pakistan's nuclear capability is an issue of worry for Americans. And I would presume that the Americans are keeping a close watch on the Pakistani nuclear capability and installations. Pakistan itself, notwithstanding what we may say about their rulers and ruling elite, they are not so foolish as to wish to destroy themselves.

Assume that Pakistan decides to launch an attack. Can we prevent it?

If they manage to bring a plane across, or fire a missile, I don't think we have the capabilities to prevent it. When we are looking at these options, we must look at the ultimate scenario also. If that is where we are going, India can take it more than Pakistan. We can survive, Pakistan will not. This is what Pakistanis themselves must realise.

Can New Delhi survive a nuke attack and carry out a second strike?

This whole story is focusing on nuclear aspects; it would be more of a nuclear war scare scenario. I am not one who is keen to see such a story. It is the wrong perception that will be conveyed. Purely, hypothetically, I don't find any problem. Our contingencies for a nuclear attack are not 1998-born. The days when I was military operations director in 1991, we had contingency plans. These are the defensive measures we take.

For 15 years, the army has been battling terrorism. It is tired, this has had a tremendous impact on the army's morale. Given India's political reluctance, shouldn't it look at new strategies, such as covert counter-terrorism acts? Also, should we give the army some respite, withdraw them and replace them with paramilitary forces?

Yeah. But you have made a lot of presumptions there. Firstly, at the lower ranks, let me assure you there is no dearth of people. There is no dearth of entry for the other ranks from any part of the country.

As far as the deficiency goes, it is at the officer level. This business about officers being reluctant to join, I have heard this when I joined in the 1950s. They preferred to go to industry rather than join the army. The armed forces can never offer you the financial remuneration that industry can. But there is a certain quality of life in the Indian Army that will always remain. There is camaraderie, a certain relationship with men. I am not suggesting that everyone who joins it joins for patriotism. It is another profession.

Deficiencies in our system are due to the shortages in short service commissions. That is because we don't offer them the right future prospects. And no army can be based on regulars because of the pyramidal structure. Which means you have a lot of people coming in at the bottom, but after a few years some of them go. These short service entry people, youngsters who come into the army at the age of about 21 and leave at about 30 or so, can't start life afresh. They must be equipped to do so. These are things that have been discussed over the years. Regrettably, successive governments, the political establishment, have not given it their attention.

This is nothing to do with our deployment in Jammu & Kashmir or elsewhere. J&K is a part of life, people do go there, some of them might get a little more tired than others.

But is there no need to rethink our counter-insurgency measures?

You have to deal with counter-insurgency situations. If you hand over J&K to Pakistan, do you think our problems are over? You must be a very optimistic person to believe so. They will find some other place, Junagadh or Hyderabad or wherever they choose. You have to understand that J&K is only a symptom of the larger problem. There is a larger problem, which will take you a generation or two to get over.

The issue of counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism requires rethinking of concepts, doctrines, and methods of training, which is being done any way. Even in terms of equipment, the kind of equipment needed is different from a conventional war, which means you have to invest in it. This I agree with you.

Is the government ready for such a change?

I think the government is. It is not only the government, but also the armed forces, and I think there is greater realisation and understanding that some of these things needs to be done. Obviously they cannot get the funds at one go. It takes time. Similarly, in terms of our maritime capability. We require a very strong maritime capability. Soon it will start impacting on our ability to not only protect our shores but also our capability to explore our [exclusive] economic zone.

The murder of Abdul Ghani Lone has been a setback to the peace process in Kashmir. Aren't the moderates frightened?

These are setbacks in the process. People who are striving for peace will always be at a disadvantage against those who are striving to destroy peace. I don't think it must be taken as anything more than a sort of setback that occurs in these processes. And it should not deter us from our path.

Basically, the problem of Jammu & Kashmir has to be solved politically. It never was a military problem, it never has been. Militarily we have to deal with it to create space within which the political process can take place. Particularly because it has a trans-border dimension. That is why the military angle is so important. But the political process must be there and I think it will be continued. I feel there is a good chance of success.

The average person in Jammu & Kahsmir is fed up of the nonsense. More so because the whole movement has been taken away from their hands, it is now run by outsiders who have no stake in the system.

I agree with you that there may be some initial setback due to the killing of Lone, but we must show the determination to deal with it. Today, I am not sure we have shown them except in our verbal expression that we are prepared to deal with them more forcefully.

And what about the elections?

The election process must be allowed to go on. I think the business of people talking about free and fair elections is to suggest that the earlier elections were not free and fair. I think it is ridiculous to be saying such a thing. When you look at the Pakistani elections of Nawaz Sharif or others, what is the percentage of turnout? The referendum that Muhsaraf had, has been accepted.

As far as we are concerned, we have been doing pretty well. Isn't there rigging in Bihar and other parts of the country? Whether it is state-organised is a matter of opinion.

There is a widespread feeling that Indian think tanks have failed to provide a general direction to India's defence preparedness. When Kashmir began to burn, there were no credible warnings about where it was headed, at least there were none that the government listened to, and today the government doesn't seem to be taking seriously most of the strategic warnings. Do we lack a strategic culture, a long-term strategic focus?

This is something that has been said often. But you portrayed it as a totally negative thing. I suppose there are good reasons for you to say that.

But let us look at it from three four angles. At Independence the political parties and persons who came to power had never dealt with security because security was being dealt with from London. So you had a group of people who assumed power without having that sense of how national security was dealt with. And they were idealistic, in the Gandhian mode. Non-violence, we are nice chaps and we will make the entire world non-violent. But that was shattered, we had to come to terms with reality. Mahatma Gandhi himself was a victim of violence.

We were into a war in Jammu & Kashmir within months of Independence. In 1962 again our false hope of being a great friendly nation were belied.

So the concept of national security, strategic thought was missing because of that background. But we must be proud of our political masters because they safeguarded democracy all through, while the rest of the countries around us have been taken over by military dictatorships. It is a great strength that we should be proud of. Having said that, one must realise that the thought processes took some time for the people to understand. Even today, the generation that is ruling us is the generation of the Independence movement.

There was a brief period when younger people were in power and there was a greater inclination to look at it [national security]. Not that I am trying to praise someone or run down anyone. It was in the mid-80s that the modernisation of the armed forces took place in some form. That is related to the stage when Rajiv Gandhi was in power. Taking the armed forces into confidence was something that Indira Gandhi started during the 1971 war. It is still not very institutionalised. Now they have tried to set up a National Security Council, National Security Council Advisory Board, but there is somehow the lack of involvement of the political elite in armed forces.

Unfortunately, the political elite does not even have their children in the armed forces. Their concepts of national security, their connections to the armed forces, will take a long time to evolve. I don't think we must be too pessimistic about that.

I cannot believe, having been part of the system for under 40 years, that after the December 13 attack, our establishment sat back without taking any steps. Knowing the system as it works, there would have been various contingencies worked out.

When the media speculate that the government is yet to decide on options, it may not be correct. The government would now be discussing which option to exercise, at what time. It won't be a knee-jerk reaction. I am quite confident all that has been worked out. But the political authority is also conscious of the fact that the advice of the armed forces is vital. I think that is very much part of our system.

Terrorism strikes in J&K

Design: Lynette Menezes

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