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Drift prevails a year after 26/11

November 26, 2009 23:26 IST
One year after the dastardly terrorist attacks on Mumbai, the enduring image of India is of a State that is intent on signalling to its adversaries: Come what may, we will not fight, writes Harsh V Pant.

It was John Stuart Mill who said: 'War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth fighting for is much worse.'

One year after the dastardly terrorist attacks on Mumbai, the enduring image of India is of a State that is intent on signalling to its adversaries: Come what may, we will not fight. You can attack our Parliament, our cities, our symbols of prestige and grandeur, you can enter our territory with impunity and kill our citizens, yet we won't resort to the use of force.

It's a dangerous trap India has set up for itself. India's adversaries have systematically and incrementally probed its defences and have found them wanting. They have crossed the Line of Control and occupied strategic mountain tops, they have penetrated the security ring around Parliament, they have found Indian cities and major institutions vulnerable.

Make no mistake, they are learning their lessons. One just has to see the increasing Chinese intrusions into Indian territory and the never ending assaults on Indians by insurgents of various hues.

Everyone knows that large scale conventional wars are not possible in a nuclearised environment. But that doesn't imply that the use of force is out of the question. It is the job of Indian military planners to give Indian policy makers some options, allowing greater flexibility to Indian diplomatic moves. And it is the job of the policy makers to assess these options on their merits rather than merely creating false dichotomy between war and no war.

It is no one's contention that India should have gone to war with Pakistan over the Mumbai carnage or even that India should have gone ahead and bombed terrorist camps in Pakistan. The regional context in which India is operating today is being shaped by the presence of American and Western forces in Afghanistan.

India can and should try to use diplomatic pressure to achieve its strategic end-state. But it's a sorry state of affairs indeed when just a year after the Indian prime minister boldly declared that India 'will go after these individuals and organisations and make sure that every perpetrator, organiser and supporter of terror, whatever his affiliation or religion may be, pays a heavy price,' the Indian government has nothing substantive to show to its populace.

The masterminds of 26/11 are enjoying their lives across the border as if nothing ever happened. And the Indian response has been relegated to issuing statements that the terrorists be apprehended. When such statements are ignored, the government gets aggressive and lo and behold, issues another statement!

It is important to recognise that the strategic end-state that India seeks is rather different from the one that the US or the West at large is seeking. For the US, the priority is preventing an India-Pakistan conflagration so that the war in Afghanistan can go unhindered.

A narrative has emerged in the West which India should promptly take note of because it is being appropriated by large sections of the Indian media and elites.

It goes something like this: The terror groups in Pakistan have attacked India primarily to divert the Pakistan government's attention and resources away from the western frontier. If only the Indian government could resist domestic pressure to pressurise Pakistan and start engaging with the Pakistani government, the situation on the ground could be prevented from becoming worse.

And so India has been told that the US is putting pressure on Pakistan to cooperate with India in shutting down Lashkar-e-Tayiba camps and capturing some important figures. Indians are being told that action started in Pakistan with the arrest of Lashkar operational commander Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, and the head of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, though, of course, the Pakistani government would not hand over any terror suspect to India.

There is little reason to doubt the sincerity of the US in forcing Pakistan to address Indian concerns but it is also important to acknowledge that the US is primarily interested in preventing any further ratcheting up of tensions between India and Pakistan. At a time when the Obama administration is finding it difficult to carve an effective policy response to the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, it is unreasonable to expect it to pull India's chestnuts out of the fire.

We have witnessed a repeat of what had happened after the terrorists struck Parliament in 2001 and how the Indian government declared its coercive diplomacy a major triumph after Musharraf made some perfunctory pronouncements. Some seven years down the line, we are back to square one. No substantive change in Pakistan's policy has occurred.

It is apparent that only a fundamental restructuring of Pakistan's military and intelligence apparatus that allows it to move away from a jihadist foreign policy is the one durable solution. But who can accomplish that feat?

It is most certainly beyond the capacity of the Americans at the moment. Moreover, they are just interested in declaring some sort of victory in Afghanistan and going back.

But India cannot change its geographical coordinates and has to find a long-term sustainable strategy to deal with the mess in its neighbourhood. India can marshal all the world opinion and elicit all the international sympathy it can muster, but ultimately the problem is for India to resolve. The fact that more than six decades later Pakistan continues to be India's biggest strategic challenge shows the profound failure that Indian statecraft has been.

History for India has not been one damn thing after another but the same damn thing again and again.

Unless it comes up with a war-fighting doctrine that allows it to impose substantive costs on Pakistan for its irresponsible behaviour, it will continue to be a victim of the terrorist menace largely perpetrated from the territory of its neighbour. The Indian Army did try to come up with a 'Cold Start' doctrine in the aftermath of Operation Parakram (launched in the aftermath of the attack on Parliament) but in the absence of any interest from the government and dissonance within the three services, the doctrine has failed to evolve.

The result is a strange paradox: One of the most powerful militaries in the world has nothing to offer to the policy-makers in this time of crisis. The Indian military will have to find ways and means to launch a flexible, controlled and discriminating military response to counter the challenges to Indian security interests. And it would involve shedding the largely defensive military strategy that India has been accustomed to.

A start could be made by exercising the option of covert action, something that the Indian government has inexplicably discarded since the late 1990s. Diplomacy not backed by the potential use of force is impotent and this poses enormous challenges to Indian foreign and security policy.

Our enemies can run rings around India because half of Indian political leadership has lost its intelligence and the other half has lost its nerve. The Indian government told us that the use of force was not an option in 2001, it told us the very same thing again after 26/11. But it must recognise that it is also telling this to the nation's adversaries. And they are listening and observing carefully and learning.

So, brace yourself for other attacks and don't be surprised if it's a biological or chemical weapon sometime soon.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London, and is presently a visiting professor at IIM-Bangalore.

Harsh V Pant