Dec 27, 2008

India - Why war isn't an option

Barkha Dutt

I just got an email from a friend in Pakistan. He had written just five words: do something; stop this war. War? I wrote back arguing that there was no war to run scared from and that the illusion of an imminent catastrophe had been manufactured on the other side. Our dialogue collapsed in a dead-end, which may work well for TV talk but not in real life. Most Pakistanis I have been speaking to in the last one month are convinced that the

Indians are coming. And most Indians, with the inarticulateness that comes with rage, want the government to “do something”. We just aren’t sure what that “something” can or should be.

We are frustrated and angry that even a month after the Bombay attacks, there is no tangible shift in the way Islamabad is respo-nding. If anything, things have only got worse. Even the UN-pushed crackdown on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the ideolo-gical launchpad and political front of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba) has turned out to be cosmetic. And Masood Azhar — the terrorist who walked free in exchange for the safety of the IC-814 passengers — has vanished, after being declared under house arrest. The flip-flops are brazen enough to destroy diplomacy.

And yet, the truth — painful as it may be to families who have suffered directly in the Bombay attacks — is this: war is not an option; it is neither practical nor desirable. First, there are the commonsensical reasons to rule it out. A military conflict will not manage to eliminate the seeds of terrorism that are sown deep into the subsoil of Pakistan’s strategic architecture. Washington cannot be treated as the automatic deterrent to nuclear conflict; the stakes are too high, the game too risky. A civilian establishment that does not trust its own institutions to investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (the centrepiece of the PPP’s election campaign was the promise of a UN probe) will hardly be able to control rogue players with a mind of their own, in case of a war. Even surgical strikes (bound to escalate into a full-blown conflict) don’t have ready targets to plan with. Terror camps can be swiftly dismantled and resurrected at new locations once the conflict is over. A military conflict does not even guarantee that the Indian forces can come home with Dawood Ibrahim, Hafiz Saeed or Masood Azhar. So, what would we really achieve by risking the lives of our soldiers?

But for those who dismiss all this as arguments made by the fainthearted, there’s a more compelling reason not to consider war: India would be playing straight into the hands of Pakistan’s military regime. Talk to Pakistani commentators and they agree that a war with India strengthens the Pakistan army like nothing else has or could in the past year. Some even suggest that precision air strikes by India will present a near-perfect scenario for the Pakistan military. Islamabad will retaliate without immediately risking the fatalities of on-ground conflict; Washington will jump in within days and the military will be back in the centrestage of public approval. This, in a country, where just a few months ago, General Pervez Musharraf was pushed out unceremoniously and the army was blamed for everything from the rise of the Taliban to the price of onions.

Bhutto’s tragic assassination (blamed by her own people on elements in the security establishment) was meant to usher in a political revolution. Exactly a year back, in December, I remember sitting in the Bhutto House at Larkana, and feeling goosebumps when Bilawal Bhutto announced in a trembling voice that that “democracy” would be the “best revenge” for his mother’s murder. But we have seen that democracy being whittled down systematically. Many in Pakistan believe that sections of the ISI and the Army have moved in with quiet, but brutal aggression because President Asif Ali Zardari was moving too quickly in peace talks with India. The offer of a no-first use of N-weapons; the consent to start border trade across the line of control, the attempts to reign in the ISI and the willingness (at least on paper) to investigate its role in the Kabul bombings — none of this made Zardari popular with his own security establishment. And frankly, in the last month it has become clear that neither Zardari nor Nawaz Sharif is the author of this script any longer. The refusal to send the ISI chief to India, pushing Sharif to retract his statement on Pakistani involvement in the Bombay attacks, and now the artificial war hysteria created by moving troops and flying air force jets over residential areas — all have the imprint of a larger plan — one that goes well beyond the terrorist strikes in Bombay.

By whipping up the impression of imminent war, Islamabad’s security establishment is hoping to catapult itself back into the role of saviour. It isn’t my argument that India should be overly concerned about the inner failings of Pakistan’s experiment with democracy. Our decisions should be guided by self-interest. And so we must ask, does India want to strengthen the very section of the Pakistani power structure that it sees as innately hostile to us?

Yes, the domestic mood remains one of “enough is enough.” And contrary to the rather over-imaginative understanding of some TV-bashers that this was an exhortation to war, it’s a simple, effective phrase (first used passionately by Shobhaa De) to capture the mood of a country that is no longer willing to accept a system that lets us down and fails to protect us. But before we demand quick-fix solutions on moving against Pakistan, let us ask ourselves this: are we helping India? India must now look for an unconventional solution that lies somewhere between war and peace.

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