October 31, 2002


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

The cost of a war that wasn't

India's decision on October 16 to withdraw troops from the international border without meeting the central aim of ending cross-border terrorism and stopping infiltration amounts to a failure of its strategy to raise the cost for Pakistan for waging a jihad.

Also abandoned is the Doctrine of Containment. Military experts had argued that keeping forces along the IB would impose much heavier costs and attrition on the weaker Pakistan economy and keep the Pakistan military contained in a defensive mode.

That has apparently not happened. Defence Minister George Fernandes gave the game away by declaring that troops would remain in position till the elections in J&K.

The rest is making history.

It was former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and later UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said that diplomacy works best when backed by force. Former foreign minister Jaswant Singh made this the core of coercive diplomacy while responding to Pakistan's cross-border jihad and the attack on Parliament on December 13.

It led to Operation Parakram (valour), India's biggest and longest ever mobilisation of the armed forces, beginning December 16 last year. The US was the assumed hidden player, orchestrating its own war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda while dovetailing India's stated objective --- of ending cross-border terrorism. This did not happen.

The Indian experience shows that there are limits to coercive diplomacy --- in which the military is only one part --- when the hidden player is required to bat for both sides. By counting on the US to help pull its chestnuts out of the fire and dithering when this was not happening, India was forced to make the most of an unfavourable situation.

Winning the war without fighting it, ie, the threat of use of force, after a point betrayed the unwillingness to use it despite the repeated warlike utterances of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And yet, despite this perceived play-acting, India came within a whisker of war twice: in January and June this year. But at the end of it all, without even a shot being fired in anger, troops were withdrawn minus any fanfare following "signal service in the highest tradition of the Indian Army".

At least the language of return to barracks could have been embellished. The army did what it was ordered to do. The strategy of coercion was sound, only its implementation was flawed. As imponderables had not been factored in, contingencies were unavailable. The critique that total deployment --- as against graduated escalation --- achieved the last step first, is misplaced.

For Parakram to have been credible, deployment had to be rapid and total. It resulted in Musharraf's speech on January 12, conceding in words if not in action most of what India had demanded. India had to test on the ground after the snows melted in May-June that infiltration had indeed been ordered stopped.

But then came Kaluchak, another flurry of diplomacy and threat of war. Musharraf was back on May 27, repeating his pledge to end cross-border terrorism. And this time, it was backed by assurances by the US at the highest level that Musharraf had told 'us [the US] that he intends to end it permanently'.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell added that it had to be irreversible, visible, and to the satisfaction of India, though the US refused to act as a guarantor.

Infiltration declined first by 30 per cent and later 50 per cent in June-July --- not so much due to Musharraf as by the tight counter-infiltration grid of the army --- but somehow picked up again in August-September as a prelude to the J&K elections, which were the bloodiest anytime anywhere.

It was clear that Pakistan had failed the litmus test and that it had no intention of terminating or even suspending infiltration. Coercive diplomacy lost some of its spin due to two other events: the change of guard at the ministry of external affairs following a Cabinet reshuffle and the inferno of violence in the Middle East.

The strategy for compellence went on autopilot. The US failed to make Musharraf convert his words into deeds. But long before this, in mid-June, the second window for war had closed. The next opening would be in October. The reality was that India could not go to an all-out war due to the nuclear factor and the presence of US troops in Pakistan.

In hindsight, one could say that India could have called the January 12 speech a victory and pulled back its troops from the IB. Or after Musharraf's repeat performance on May 27, following the Kaluchak massacre. The time lag between decisive action and languorous inaction was to allow the US to exert pressure on Musharraf to yield.

In the bargain India missed the opportunity to quell doubts about weak nerves and knees. Instead, India was heaped with dubious accolades of incredible self-restraint. Vajpayee's reference to the West's double standards was an expression of despair.

The election in J&K with a headcount of 850 killed was hailed as a victory for India and democracy and attributed to the deployment. During Kargil, it is worth noting, half this number was lost displaying military grit and acting decisively.

After Vajpayee had disclosed in July that war was no longer an option, it is arguable if the troops deployed along the IB were serving any purpose. To have kept them till the middle of October, when troops in J&K were sufficient for the task of "securing the environment for the elections", is a small folly compared to the larger mistake of keeping them on high alert for 10 months, when after July there were no tasks for them.

The strategy of coercion was only partially successful. Operation Parakram will go down in Indian military history as the first time a grand deployment ended in a mere redeployment, a la withdrawal. In 1965, 1971, and 1999, when troops were mobilised they went to war. But this is also the first time India has received a lesson in coercive diplomacy.

Pakistan has already hailed India's climbdown as a moral victory. It is said troops were not pulled back earlier from the IB not just as abundant precaution for the election in J&K, but also to prevent Pakistan from creating a military diversion in the event Musharraf was unable or unwilling to hold elections. The exercise of coercive diplomacy got mixed results. It focussed Pakistan's role in aiding and abetting terrorism, which was first noticed by the international community during Kargil. Further, India secured from Musharraf pledges disavowing terrorism.

But the deployment incurred strategic, physical, and psychological costs. It questioned the country's autonomy in being able to wage war, besides putting to serious doubt the feasibility and willingness for use of force.

The physical cost will cross Rs 5,000 crore, which excludes the nearly 300 one-way mobilisation-related casualties, besides the enormous turbulence caused to service life. But it is the psychological cost that should be worrying. While fighting for Kargil, crossing the Line of Control was taboo. This time around the Indian soldier was first told he would fight aar paar (the final battle). Later the prime minister regretted not having gone to war after the December 13 incident. Later still, at Almaty in June 2002, Vajpayee said there would be no war with Pakistan.

The one thing the military needs most is clarity of mission. This was missing in Parakram. The ordinary soldier has therefore good reason to be confused, but mercifully much less than the political leadership of this country.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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