Why India can't go to war with Pakistan

by Rajeev Sharma

Indian political leadership’s upping of ante on Tuesday vis a vis Pakistan is not unlike the famous single-liner of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark: “Words, words, words.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid used strong words against Pakistan and both said that it can’t be “business as usual” with Pakistan after the neighbour’s brutal act in the Medhar sector of the Line of Control (LoC) last week. But they both stopped at that and declined to spell out what concrete steps they would be taking against the recalcitrant neighbour. Words, words, words!

BJP leader and former External Affairs Minister went a step ahead and demanded “controlled military response” against Pakistan. Well, being in the opposition, Sinha can say that, though neither he nor any BJP leader can explain what concrete deliverables resulted from Operation Parakram when the then NDA government had mobilized troops along the Pakistan border in the wake of December 2001 terror attack on Indian Parliament. Sinha also could not explain his idea of “controlled military response” further. Words, words, words!

Let’s chuck the political grandstanding in the ongoing India-Pakistan theater of the absurd and focus on how India-Pakistan relations may play out in the coming weeks in the current geopolitical matrix. There are three issues.

The most important question is whether Pakistan army personnel’s barbaric act of mutilating the bodies of two Indian jawans they killed on 6 January (which is nothing short of a war crime) needs to be given a military response – controlled or full blast?

War's that way: What can India do to retaliate? PTI

The UPA government is clearly not thinking on these lines. The war drums are not beating; not yet. One may ask: if not now, then when? But then matters of statecraft are not that simple. More so, when the habitual offender neighbour happens to be a nuclear weapon power! But then does it mean that big power like India should allow itself to be bullied by a fast failing state just because it is a nuclear weapon state?

Far from it! The beheading of the Indian soldier by the Pakistani regulars was a covert operation and covert operations need not trigger an overt response. India has the option of beating Pakistan in its own game without even giving a semblance of mobilizing its war machinery. India can also put itself on a denial mode just as Pakistan has been for its sins of omission and commission in violating the ceasefire repeatedly over the past ten days.

In all probability this is what the chiefs of Indian Army and the Indian Air Force had in mind when they separately fired warning shots at Pakistan a few days ago. The LoC would unlikely remain a Line of Control in the coming weeks. It will be a live wire. The Indian Army will do well to deploy its best commandos in the vulnerable sectors of the LoC with a single-point brief: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

This is what Pakistan did on 6 January that has brought the Indo-Pak relations on the brink. The medieval age barbarism was perpetrated by Pakistan army’s Special Service Group (SSG) commandos.

After the Pakistani provocation, the Indian army should have its tail up and give a “measured” and “proportionate” response, to borrow words from the Indian political leadership’s recent lexicon. The likely scenario, therefore, would be that the Indian response to subsequent Pakistani provocations would be sector-specific and event-specific without enlarging the sweepstakes.

This is possibly what the chiefs of Indian Army and Indian Air Force indicated and this is probably what BJP leaders like Yashwant Sinha and Sushma Swaraj meant when they made those hawkish statements. Pakistan Army would be mis-adventurous if they were to mistake India’s continued recourse to the laid down diplomatic means as cowardice and carry on with their business as usual.

Two, this is not the right time for an overt response from India given the chaotic situation in Pakistan. Nobody knows who the boss in Pakistan is today. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari has become a rootless wonder. The Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruption charges. Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani remains as indecisive and a passive onlooker as he has been for years. Gen Kayani’s perceived best bets, Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri, are busily pursuing their own independent personal agendas, the former all to set to carry out a “tsunami march” while the latter a “million man march”.

Pakistan’s slide to anarchy is being hastened with each passing day. The Indian government would only be displaying knee-jerk reactions by beating the war drums. Why declare war with a state which is at war with itself? India won’t be wrong is playing the waiting game with a neighbour which has its fingers on the self-destruct button. Declaring war on Pakistan at this stage would be no less than a favour to Islamabad.

Third, and perhaps the most important factor, is the United States. The Obama administration’s major foreign policy imperative at this moment is to get out of Afghanistan. At the same time, the Americans cannot afford to exit Afghanistan today only to re-enter tomorrow. The Americans’ exit policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan has to be executed in such a manner that they do not have to stage a hasty come-back.

Washington’s Afghanistan strategic imperatives won’t allow any escalation in India-Pakistan conflict. The Americans don’t want to get bogged down to South Asia as their priority has shifted to the South China Sea region. The Americans won’t like to see even controlled aggression by India against Pakistan which may have the potential of getting out of hand.

However, the Americans are also deeply aware that New Delhi has its own political compulsions. The question is not whether Pakistan would have the gall to repeat the 6 January barbarity against India. The question is what will be the US policy if India were to have a “controlled military response” (to borrow Yashwant Sinha’s words) to play to its domestic constituency to salvage its pride?

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com)

Updated Date: Jan 16, 2013 11:50 AM

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