May 29, 2002


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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

War of the Poseurs

Thanks to Osama bin Laden and his brand of vengeful Islam, there is no dearth of recruits for the fidayeen [suicide squads] ranks. But even the most ardent among the newbies is no match for the newest among them: Pakistan President - General Pervez Musharraf.

How else do you describe a man who has shown scant regard for not just his own life -- which is what any dime a dozen terrorist from across the LoC does -- but that of millions of his own countrymen? In fact, if there were an Al Qaeda-Taliban equivalent of Param Vir Chakra to commend the fidayeen, the newly elected Pakistan president's candidature is a shoo-in.

Musharraf's address to his nation on Monday -- but which was meant more for his opponent, India, and proponent, the United States -- was expected to be on the lines of the one he delivered on January 12, but in fact turned out to be a virtual rebellion. It was a dare, on the face of it to India, but more importantly, to the United States.

No wonder, for more than 24 hours after his speech, there has been no comment or reaction from Washington. This, when the speech has taken the subcontinent -- a region that not so long ago was described by the US as a nuclear flashpoint -- closer to the brink. Contrast this silence with the United States' ready encomiums for Musharraf's January utterances.

But then, it's hard to react when one's pet but truant child digs his heels in before the guests, and that's the position Washington finds itself in. However, it is not an unusual position for the United States to be in. In its long march to being the world's sole superpower, it has had the mortification of seeing its vassals develop a spine, and knows well how to deal with it.

It is India's predicament that needs watching, for its response now will decide the course the subcontinent's future will take. Personally, too, I have a special interest in this since the city I live in, is in the crosshairs of the only country that has threatened the first use of nuclear weapons. Mumbai's existence on the map could well be decided in the next fortnight -- a city that is paralyzed by the rains every year cannot be expected to survive a nuclear attack.

Prime Minister A B Vajpayee's comment in the hill retreat of Manali, that India should have retaliated soon after the December 13 attack on its Parliament ["but the world counseled us restraint", to use the full quote as Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh insisted on Tuesday], reflects the predicament New Delhi finds itself in.

In India's favour, yes, there's a global atmosphere against the export of terrorism, and yes, nations like the United States and Israel have shown how to deal with the scourge. But unlike the US which has redefined the concept of war thanks to technology, and unlike Israel which is fighting Bedouins bereft of anything save their determination to harm, India is eyeball to eyeball with an enemy who is not just its neighbour but who is almost a military match for it. What Pakistan may lack in men and munitions, it will more than make up with its visceral hatred for everything that India stands for.

This realization has been dawning on the Indian leadership too. But the question is, having painted itself into a corner with no exit route, what can India now do when the general, far from capitulating at our minatory moves, has moved his own troops to battle position?

The most obvious move is for Indian troops to cross the Line of Control and go after the merchants of death who would presumably be waiting there to engage in a do or die battle. Crossing this particular Rubicon, a question of 'when' and not 'if' since last December, has acquired an urgency of its own after Musharraf's latest address. However, it's a safe bet that the pre-dawn foray will not come about at least until Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has finished smoking his peace pipe in Islamabad and New Delhi.

Any military option, to be effective, has to be carried out when and where it is least expected, without pre-publicity of any kind, and has to have clear-cut objectives. The current maneuver fails on both the counts. With one million troops being amassed along the borders with Pakistan for six over months, the element of surprise has evaporated. The hiatus between intent and actual action has also given the adversary enough time to mobilise his own troops.

Worse, the military objective behind striking Pakistan remains nebulous. What exactly does India hope to achieve by a military operation? End cross border terrorism? Seize PoK? Decimate Pakistan? In the absence of clarity on how any or all of these goals will be achieved by going to war, any operation will only condemn soldiers to certain death, the nation not gaining anything from their sacrifice.

While the benefits from military operation thus remain unclear, the cost of mounting an ill-judged operation are humongous. Proponents of military action -- and their number includes confirmed doves -- expect Pakistan to roll over and play dead when the Indians pull up in their tanks, and seem to consider the possibility of the conflict escalating into a nuclear one rather fanciful.

They maybe partly right. Perhaps the Pakistani leadership is capable of more restraint than those of us to the east of Radcliffe Line believe. Perhaps their talk of first-use is just bluster, as so much emanating from across the LoC seems to be. But what if it is not? Is the nation willing to gamble away millions of civilian lives in return for peace that will reflect the quiet of the graveyard?

This is the question that policy-makers, and ultimately the prime minister, will have to wrest with before taking what would be a momentous step, for this will be the first time that India will have initiated open warfare. If the compulsions and the objectives behind the military move are not laid threadbare before the nation, the conclusion is inescapable -- that the threat of war, on both sides of the border, is merely a smokescreen to divert public dissatisfaction.

Postscript: Haven't you noticed how Gujarat has yielded space to war on the frontpage of newspapers? The BJP/NDA government's biggest, and most serious, embarrassment in the two and a half years it has been in power has now been relegated to the inner recesses of public consciousness. Across the border, too, Gen Musharraf has burnished his image that was sullied by a referendum whose conduct compares with the electoral affairs of Kashmir.

Terrorism in J&K

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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