October 26, 2002


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Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

A cup half full

As could have been predicted, the Indian government has announced the gradual withdrawal of troops from the border. It was always understood that once the election in Jammu & Kashmir was over, the next step would be the dispatch of the units to their peacetime locations. The whole exercise is expected to take about a month and a majority of jawans will be able to spend the forthcoming Diwali festival with their families.

Now that the whole episode is nearing completion it is time to take a dispassionate look at the deployment and make an assessment of its success or failure.

The decision to deploy the army at the border was taken in the aftermath of the brazen militant attack on the Houses of Parliament on December 13, 2001. The decision was no doubt taken as a reaction to that attack and the need to do something to show our indignation and resolve to take terrorism seriously. It was meant to send a signal to our neighbour, Pakistan, to stop cross-border terrorism or else....

Exactly what that "else" was, was never spelt out. Our deployment forced Pakistan to deploy its own forces and for over 10 months both sides have been sitting across the border in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

Simultaneously, we mounted a diplomatic offensive with the help of the United States to send a clear message to General Musharraf that he better do something more positive about curbing cross-border terrorism. For a while this worked. Under US pressure the general made the right noises and a show of coming down hard on militant organisations at home. Some of the leaders were rounded up and some organisations were even banned.

But as expected, the militants were too strong for the general. Ever so quietly the leaders were released one by one and the organisations re-emerged, sometimes under a different name.

Cross-border terrorism may have subsided for a while after the troop deployment, but by all accounts it has resumed all its activities after the first few months. In fact, the attack on the Akshardham temple in Gujarat indicates that the militants have successfully spread their activities beyond Kashmir.

Although it might not have been the aim at the time of initial deployment, the election in Jammu & Kashmir may have been the cause for its perpetuation for over 10 months. The fact that the election was successfully completed despite every effort made to disrupt it is indeed creditable and part of the credit must go to the army for the part it played in restoring confidence in the once terrorised population.

Finally, the deployment proved to be a tonic for a population that was in danger of being demoralised by the ability of terrorists to strike at will, at any target of their choice. The general feeling that the government was too mild to take any action, come what may, has largely been replaced by a growing confidence in its ability to tackle terrorism. The government deployed the troops, but it did not fall into the trap of crossing the border or pandering to the rhetoric of the jingoists.

So much for the plus side. What have been the costs? Obviously, nothing can be gained unless one is willing to pay for it. India too has had to pay in financial, material, and human terms for its massive exercise in coercive diplomacy. Accounts vary but financially the induction, deployment for over 10 months, and de-induction may have cost the exchequer more than Rs 6,000 crore [approximately US$1.24 billion].

Materially too, the ten-month deployment in the forward areas, subject to the vagaries of weather and minimal maintenance, must have taken its toll on the equipment. Morale is another factor. Nearly a year away from families and living in harsh conditions of terrain and weather would no doubt have affected the morale of the men.

But our small gains should not blind us to what we did not achieve by this attempt at coercive diplomacy. Indians have short memories, but remember what we demanded when we deployed the troops last year? We had asked Pakistan to hand over 20 of the most wanted terrorists in India, including Dawood Ibrahim. We had also demanded a complete halt to cross-border terrorism and the dismantling of training camps. We had also wanted Pakistan to stop assisting the terrorists financially and materially. In fact, as late as four months ago, Prime Minister Vajpayee reiterated that there was no question of the troops being sent back to the barracks until cross-border terrorism stopped completely.

Not a single one of these demands has been met. Cross-border terrorism continues and Dawood Ibrahim continues openly to live a life of luxury in Karachi. To put it bluntly, General Musharraf has called our bluff. Whatever gloss the government's spin doctors put on it, our first efforts at gunboat diplomacy have failed.

For a time, some in the West thought we were serious about our intentions. When earlier this year a confrontation between the two countries appeared inevitable, a flurry of world officials descended upon the country and we were elated. A few sops were offered to the country, Pakistan went through the motions of a crackdown on militants, and things went back to normal after that.

Whatever little sympathy and attention we got from other nations was dissipated after Gujarat. Narendra Modi saw to that. The West and the US have more or less ignored India after that.

Our first major attempt at coercive diplomacy has not been a resounding success. It is like a glass half full. Its success or failure depends on how you look at it.

One major drawback of the recent deployment will be felt in the future. Mobilisation or massive army deployment is a one-time ploy. Like Indra's Vajra, it can be used only once. It must be used as a weapon of last resort and once used must not be withdrawn until the objective is achieved. By using it too soon and that too ineffectively, we have lost credibility and may not be able to use it again for some time.

The correct use of force is an art. It requires both experience and expertise. India is a young nation and fairly new to the game. Other nations have been practising the art since the eighteenth century. We have a fairly large National Security Advisory Board. What a pity that we do not have a Bismarck or a Metternich amongst the lot.

He who never dares is timid. But one who does not learn lessons from a failure is a fool. We have many lessons to learn from our ten-month deployment of the forces. Lessons in diplomacy, in timing, in both the application and limitation of force.

Many years ago, the Indian Navy had a wise and able commander-in-chief. Nothing upset him. Even when things did not turn out as expected, he would say, "Well, let us chalk it to experience."

So let's chalk our ten-month exercise to experience.

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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