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Peace is the only option

by Seema Mustafa, 30 December 2008

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India and Pakistan have stepped up the rhetoric to a point where the terrorists have been given the key to conflict between the two nations. One act of terror now will leave the UPA government with no option but to declare war, with Pakistan having already taken itself into battle mould with fighter jets flying over key cities and the army amassing at the borders with India.

There seems to be little concern in either capital about the consequences of the war rhetoric. Senior leaders in Delhi are heard saying that it will not come to a war, “because the Americans do not want a war as it does not suit their interests.” The question that then does not get an answer is, “have we lost the ability to think and act for ourselves?” And is it in India’s strategic interests to go in for a war with Pakistan, or is now our policy determined just by US interests?

The confusion in the Congress camp is evident. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently spoke of war not being an option, but this is not ruled out by the Congress whose spokesperson virtually contradicted Singh the very next day by declaring that all options were on the table. Minister of external affairs Pranab Mukherjee is also currently of this last point of view, with the fast approaching general elections determining the tone and tenor of his rhetoric. He is clearly happy that the Congress has, for the moment, stolen the thunder from the BJP and is determined to cash this to the utmost.

The Pakistan establishment is also making the most of the situation. After the initial hesitation by President Asif Ali Zardari, Islamabad realized that war talk was the best way to unite a fractured nation. And has done so in a manner that today the army is back in the lead with the quiet General Kayani leading the “we will hit back” sentiment while the politicians and civil society quietly fall in line.

The Pakistan army, under attack from its own citizens for its aggressive role in the US-led war on terror, is suddenly finding itself with support again. It has also realized that it can use the threat of war from India to move operations from the Afghan border to the Indian border, and thereby regain some of the lost popularity with its people. Its basic constituency that includes the jihadi groups and the Taliban were fast becoming its enemies, and the army clearly hopes to stem this tide by awakening the borders with India. Given the Pakistan army’s traditional links, the statement by Baitullah Mehsood that he and his men will fight alongside the Pakistan army against India is no doubt being seen as a major step forward.

For the past couple of years the attention of Pakistan had shifted from Kashmir and India, to Afghanistan and the US. The strong anti-US sentiment that had virtually engulfed that country was evident during the February elections when the people voted Musharraf out with a vengeance. Not because he was an army general, though that was part of the campaign of the political parties, but because he was seen as a US stooge who had forsaken Pakistan. The army was virtually put in the dock with Kayani issuing instructions to pull back officers from civilian positions. The terror attack in Mumbai and the strong response from Delhi has been strategised into a real war threat in Pakistan, with the country uniting in the process. Experts who had told this correspondent that Pakistan was facing a real threat of disintegration are now wondering at an Indian strategy where even the Balochis, almost at war with Islamabad, have expressed their support for the Pakistan government and army.

The US is worried but is hoping to make use of this opportunity to bring in a new cooperation - preferably military - between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although there is no indication of this in American journals at the moment, there will also be a sense of some relief that the Pakistan anger has been diverted to India, that the army which is an extremely important tool for the US is regaining some of its lost lustre, and short of a war the crisis can be converted into an opportunity. Needless to say the Americans have started looking at the crisis afresh, and this is evident in some of the recent statements that have emerged out of Washington. For instance, the US joint chief of staffs Navy Adm Mike Mullen told reporters after a key meeting in Islamabad that the long-term answer is a regional strategy that includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and other Central Asian nations. The nations must improve relations among one another so attacks like the one in Mumbai don’t escalate closer to conflict. He was of the view that military to military contacts can help lessen tensions among the countries of the region and put in place a structure for resolving problems.

So clearly both Pakistan and the US are strategizing the fallout of the Mumbai attack in what each perceive to be their own national interests. What about India? What is the strategy here? If it is war, how does it help India short of demonstrating a macho ability that has not gone well for even the US in Iraq and Afghanistan? If India attacks, Pakistan will certainly retaliate. What then? Will we wait for the US to separate us, or go into a full escalation? If the first, what will be the terms and conditions that India will have to agree to in return for peace? If the latter, what happens if some moron in Pakistan decides to go nuclear? Strategically, neither of these two options can benefit India and will actually have disastrous results.

Peace is the only option. As it gives governments the space required to develop and implement a strategy that protects Indian interests. The UPA government could have opted for hard diplomacy as one had suggested earlier in these columns. It could have used its international clout this time to ensure the economic and political isolation of Pakistan. This time several foreigners have been killed, and the world capitals have realized that the terror attack was as much on their citizens as on the Indians. The pressure could have been revved up to a point where Islamabad would have had to take action against the terrorists. The threat of war has instead united Pakistan, and silenced even those who had been writing and campaigning against the terror industry being nurtured by the Pakistan establishment. Well thought-out diplomacy with a step by step approach would have paid India rich dividends but the opportunity has not been seized by politicians who cannot see beyond their nose.

There are some who have been vociferously arguing for war, maintaining that this option requires ‘courage.’ How is it courageous to go in for the military option without any regard of the consequences? That is what Bush did when all the embedded journalists hailed him as the new hero and now shoes are being thrown at him physically by the brave journalist in Iraq and verbally by the world. The global war on terror has not ended terrorism, just strengthened it.