An act of war

Brahma Chellaney, December 2001

Now that Pakistan-sponsored groups have taken their terror campaign to the heart of Indian democracy, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has to respond to what clearly is an act of war. Vajpayee had on October 1 drawn a clear line in the sand: India’s restraint will go if there was another major attack by such a surrogate group.

In fact, Vajpayee told President Bush in a letter that "Pakistan must understand that there is a limit to the patience of the people of India".

That line in the sand was crossed dramatically with the attack on India’s most important institution, Parliament. The Pakistani military bears full responsibility for the attack because the various terror groups, headquartered in Pakistan, are its front organisations. The trail of culpability leads right up to the terror master now demanding ‘proof’ from India — commando-turned-dictator Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistani military’s ISI agency nurtures, staffs and directs these groups as part of the proxy war against India, with each group put under a different religious school.

But for the exemplary bravery of security personnel who foiled the terrorists’ attempt to storm into Parliament, the world would have witnessed the spectacle of India’s garrulous, querulous and gutless politicians being brutalised and butchered by Pakistani gunmen. Although not a single terrorist could force his way into the Parliament building, fear was writ large on the faces of the MPs.

Now a different kind of fear is being sought to be instilled to paralyse politicians into inaction. This is the fear of the unknown. What if Pakistan hits back and escalates the conflict to a full-fledged war? What if Armageddon results from Pakistan’s nuclear use?

Logic and objectivity are needed. First, India will be not initiating, but responding to aggression by the other side. Just because India has stoically suffered cross-border terrorism for years is no reason for it to put up with the first-ever attack on its Parliament. Second, a lack of response will damage India’s interests more than a measured response because it will send the message that the terrorists and their backers can get away with the most audacious attack.

Third, only the uninformed or those seeking to disinform will argue that India lacks the capability to inflict proportionate or calculated pain on Pakistan or to manage and defeat escalation at any level. Any escalation of hostilities to a higher level by Pakistan will mean an escalation in the punishment wreaked on it.

Fourth, Pakistan’s geography and narrow strategic waistline render its nuclear weapons useless for anything other than blackmail. The Pakistani military knows it, and the Pentagon war games have underlined it, that a nuclear first strike by Pakistan would mean national suicide.

Fifth, by any measure, India is not the weaker State. So there is no reason for it to behave as the more vulnerable, powerless State that can be terrorised by bully Pakistan. The Pakistani military generals flaunt their bravado off the battlefield and cravenly prefer covert rather than overt aggression. The Pakistani military’s record speaks volumes. Despite repeatedly initiating aggression, it has not won a single war or accomplished a single clandestine operation.

The fire-spewing Musharraf, who periodically threatens to "teach India a lesson" and who warned New Delhi to "lay off", compliantly fell in line behind Washington like a tail-wagging puppy in response to just one telephone call. If one call from Colin Powell could make this military adventurist abandon the Taliban, imagine what a few White House calls could make him do. Or how an Indira Gandhi could help cure his Kashmir neurosis and end his undeclared war against India.

At the root of India’s terrorism scourge is not the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Mohammed or another name-changing group but their common father — the Pakistani military. The latter’s alliance with narco-terrorism has criminalised even its top echelons, blurring the line between the civilian and military terrorists cloaked as jehadis. Without reform of the Pakistani military, there can be no regional peace, or an end to transnational terrorism, or nation-building (or even democracy) in Pakistan.

India and the US share the goal to moderate the Pakistani State, where fundamentalism and militarism feed on each other. Pakistan, however, has been an ally of the US only under military rule, with its brief periods of democratic governance coinciding with a cooling of relations with Washington.

Today, Musharraf needs America far more than America needs him. While not yet ready to abandon him, Washington is exercising some of its tremendous leverage over Musharraf to begin a clean-up process. The Americans, however, recognise that Musharraf is too wily to be reliable and that recalcitrant elements in the Pakistani military are too powerful to be tamed merely through a reshuffle of generals. They also know that when it comes to India, the Pakistani military has no moderates.

In effect, India has to defend its interests, just as the US is taking care of its interests. Otherwise, India runs the risk of turning its Kashmir into a refuge for terrorists left over from the global anti-terror campaign.

If India imposes no costs on the Pakistani military, how does it discourage further export of terror? India has a host of diplomatic, political, economic, military and intelligence options, although only one choice (hot pursuit across the Line of Control) is publicly discussed.

The options fall in three categories: risk-free measures; low- to moderate-risk steps; and high-risk moves. Although no option should be ruled out to keep the aggressor on tenterhooks, a quick beginning should be made with some steps, however modest, to paint Pakistan as a terrorist State and build international pressure and space for tougher actions.

The steps include:

Parliament treating the attack on it as an act of war and proclaiming that India is now in a state of war with Pakistan. While this does not entail immediate combat operations, it vitally provides the legal basis to treat Pakistan as an enemy State.

Slashing the bloated staff strength of the Pakistani high commission — a veritable nest of ISI agents operating against India from Indian soil — to a reasonable number of 10 or less. Expelling Pakistan’s high commissioner and simultaneously recalling India’s from Islamabad.

Following Indira Gandhi’s 1971 example to ban PIA overflights — an action that will disrupt the ISI’s operations against India from Bangladesh and Nepal. Islamabad’s retaliatory ban will minimally affect Air-India flights.

Withdrawing all one-sided privileges granted by India to Pakistan, including most-favoured nation treatment.

Suspending the Samjhauta Express, which instead of samjhauta (accord) has brought an uncontrolled flow of counterfeit Rs 500 notes and narcotics.

Employing water as a political weapon to fight terrorism, as done by Turkey and Israel. Using the example just set by the US on the ABM Treaty — that a nation has the right to withdraw from a treaty whenever politically convenient — and citing Pakistan’s non-compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1373 on denial of terrorist sanctuaries and support, India should announce its intent to withdraw from the Indus River Water Treaty. Nothing will hurt Pakistan more than the collapse of this treaty weighted in its favour. The resultant water crisis will help foment internal disturbances and contribute to Pakistan’s self-destruction.

India has leverage over Pakistan it has not sought to exploit. Moreover, the present international setting could not be more propitious for Indian counteraction. Nothing will harm India more than inaction, given that such a favourable opportunity may not come again. While action entails costs (which any self-respecting nation should be able to bear to defeat aggression), let us not forget that India’s costs of inaction are higher — and mounting — with fidayeen attacks getting worse.

This is Vajpayee’s most crucial leadership test, and almost certainly his last chance to redeem his image. His task essentially is to use December 13 to shape India’s response to terrorism in the same unmistakable way that September 11 has defined America’s.

Through calibrated, judicious use of available options, Vajpayee has to compel the Pakistani military to take its US-forced, 90-degree turn (the desertion of the Taliban) into a full 180-degree turn, by giving up on its terror-for-export groups.