Saturday, December 27, 2008

Pakistan May Want A War With India, But India Has To Avoid It At All Costs

Its been over four weeks since the Mumbai attacks, and news reports indicate that India and Pakistan may be slowly edging towards a war. War is expensive and not something either countries can afford. But while Pakistan may want a war, India must do everything to avoid it and find other ways of addressing its current fight against Islamists.

From India's stand point, the attack on Mumbai's landmark hotels was a signal that the divisive Islamic forces based in Pakistan have gained strength and are now capable of. The electorate has been shocked at the brazen attack and the inability of their government to prevent it from happening. Recent demonstrations on the Indian streets indicates that the Indian public is fed up with the string of attacks in major cities going on over last two years, and the government is under incredible pressure to do something - and do it quickly.

Even highest ranking politicians have voiced their concern that doing nothing sends a bad signal to the terrorists - that India is spineless, weak, soft target that can be attacked at will without impunity. Rahul Gandhi, a politician with clout within the current administration, is reported to have equated the attacks to someone coming into your home, slapping you and getting away with it. For Indian Government, responding to this attack has become an issue of survival. Manmohan Singh, Indias pragmatic Prime Minister knows it in his heart that unless he produces some evidence of action against terrorists responsible for the attack, the government stands to loose all credibility.

On the other hand, not withstanding its own nuclear capabilities, India does not have the political and military will to attack Pakistan. With a war, there is no concrete political objective to be gained. Quite the contrary, a war with Pakistan would be extremely counterproductive to India's long term political goal of reaching a rapprochement with the Pak civilian leadership and de-fanging the Islamists forces that are the cause of much of its trouble in Kashmir and other parts. India knows that take unilateral action against Pakistan would invite world wide criticism, and put its relationship with United States in jeopardy. Starting a war, India would loose the moral high ground it has occupied since the Mumbai attacks. More importantly, a war would scare away foreign investors and negatively impact the economic growth - some thing India cannot afford in the current recessionary environment.

Another reason is, even if India wins the war, a military victory would be counter productive to its political goals. Recent performance of Pakistani military on the eastern front indicates that Pak military morale is low and it is in very bad shape. But to vanquish the Pakistani military would leave a huge power vacuum, a vacuum that would be quickly filled by the ISI and the mullahs of Taleban. Militarily, a war with Pakistan would only serve as another rallying point for the Islamists and Pak military to cause more trouble for India in future, albeit from behind the new Indo-Pak boundary.

On Pakistan's side, the Pakistani military is chafing under the new civilian democratic administration of President Zardari. Under US and Zardari's has pressure, the Pak military has been forced to fight a war against its own protagonists, the Taleban, a war that has gone rather badly for the military and a war that has little popular support in Pakistan. On top of this, to the dismay of Pakistani military, the new civilian government of Zardari has demonstrated enough courage to try to forge a dialog with India. The recent events where Zardari informally offered a no first strike nuclear pact and made statements designed to patch up relationship with India, has Pakistani military up in arms. To have a rapprochement with India is to go against decades of old Islamic doctrine and to acquiesce to the shame of having lost four major wars with India. The military would rather fight an ideological war against India, for which it would have a ground swell of popular support. It would also take the pressure off the Taleban who have been very useful to the military to its objectives of a greater Pakistan including parts of Indian Kashmir, and parts of Afghanistan beyond the Durand line.

Pakistani military, for all the patina of military discipline and institutional history, is run by mid level ideological hotheads who, given the right circumstances, would pounce at the idea of fighting a war with India. A war against India would help them in more than one way. First, it takes the pressure off them to act on the western front against their protagonists in the Taleban. Keeping Taleban alive is important to the military ideology of a greater Pakistan capable of standing up to India and a war with India would serve as the right pretext to go against the dictat of the current Zardari administration and the US administration. Second, because the Pakistani soldier is likely to fight with greater determination against a foreign enemy vs the internal enemy, a war against India would help them restore the luster of military invincibility lost in the current battles against the local insurgents. So Pak generals will slowly but surely edge Pakistan towards a war with India.

You can see this already playing out in Pakistan. A mood of hysteria is being built with dire pronouncements from the military leaders. Rather than trying to work with the Americans and Indians to address their concerns, Pakistan is acting as it war is imminent. Recent troop movements to Rajasthan border, and scrambling of Airforce planes over Pakistani cities indicates that Pakistani military is in complete control of power in Pakistan. Even the political leadership, including President Zardari and foreign minister Quereshi are succumbing to pressure and beginning to sound paranoid.

So, while Pak military is getting ready for a war and the Indian electorate is demanding quick action, Indian leadership must do everything to avoid the war, and be prepared to defend the country should a war be foisted upon them. Indian gain is in rallying US and world opinion against Pakistan so that the real power center in Pakistan - the military - recognizes that it is in its best interest to surrender the perpetrators of Mumbai attack to Indian judicial system.

On the other hand, India cannot afford another Mumbai. India needs to do more to protect its people against such attacks through improved intelligence, strengthening of border security and challenging its military doctrine to include a preemptive strike response to corroborated intelligence even in foreign country which is incapable of or unwilling to take actions against forces targeting India. India needs to develop capabilities to conduct surgical strikes into hostile territory designed to take out specific training camps and other installations where militants are being trained. Pakistan has made Indian Kashmir a front in this war, so its completely fair for India to take the war to them into Pak occupied Kashmir. As long as India restricts its theater of activities to Pak occupied Kashmir, India would face little criticism from its friends in the West. As for Pak military, its important to send a signal that India is not interested in fighting a war with Pakistan on Pakistani soil, except in Kashmir.

Simultaneously, with the help of its US friends, Indian government should continue the diplomatic effort to contain this scourge of terrorism through improved relationship with the new civilian government. To that end, hawks like Chidambaram need to be asked to control their rhetoric.