September 7, 2011 4:21:18 pm
Just last month, Asif Ali Zardari made a stunning commitment at the HT Summit of a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons against India. Now, this overturned the classical, old and stated Pakistani nuclear doctrine, of using their nukes early — as if war was a Twenty20 match where the power-play overs were to be made to count upfront — on its head. No-first-use was the central pivot of the Indian nuclear doctrine. Did you notice, however, how muted the reaction to it was, not just in South Block but around the world in general? It did not even cause a whimper in non-proliferation circles in Washington, DC.
His speech caused a whoosh of delight among our upper crust and large sections of the intelligentsia. Here was a Pakistani leader willing to put the past behind him, a real change from Musharraf. Today, in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, the same crowd is demanding that we go to war with Pakistan, or at least carry out “surgical” strikes, following the precedent set by the Americans. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now, for the same reason: that Asif Ali Zardari is not what he believes he is, and certainly not what he wants you to believe him to be. Yes, he is the president of Pakistan, but his powers, authority, room for policy manoeuvre are all not merely limited but very well-defined; and nobody, least of all his American allies, has any confusion on this.
Zardari’s government, if anything, is weaker than other elected governments in the past, twice each under his late wife Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif; and there is no question of the army ceding its control of the “strategic assets” to it. Nor the control of Pakistan’s India, Kashmir, Afghanistan, US and China policies. He spoke from the simplicity and inexperience of an accidental head of state and was probably dismissed derisively by the powers that be back home. That is how they would have also reacted to his “offer” of sending the director-general of the ISI to New Delhi. He would have to be delusional to believe that the current political arrangement in Pakistan empowers him to order the head of the ISI around, and he was cured of it soon enough. The global community knows the limitations of his authority well enough, and thus India’s own expectations are realistic.
That is why all talk of military action is not just futile but also counter-productive. First of all, given the history of India-Pakistan relations there will never be such a thing as a limited war or a surgical strike. Just because the Pakistanis routinely take the humiliation of American drone strikes and more should not delude us into believing that a strike from us won’t lead to an immediate escalation. Our actions, therefore, have to make that clear presumption. Then we have to remind ourselves of at least three clear presumptions that the Pakistani army would make. One, that even if an escalation leads to a war it will be short and sharp, with the US and others intervening at once to ensure that India doesn’t get the time to achieve any worthwhile military objectives. Two, that military conflict with India would provide them the perfect justification to pull forces out of their western borders, from the fratricidal, demoralising and debilitating war against their own countrymen in support of the Americans. And three, most importantly, it would restore the prestige and respect which the people of Pakistan have accorded their army, giving it such a special place in their power structure, which has depreciated rapidly in the Musharraf decade and after.
Any action that brings the military to the fore in Pakistan, and gives it the justification to shift its units from the west to the east would be detrimental to the future of democracy in Pakistan, the war against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their more India-centric proliferations and, ultimately, harm India’s interests too. That is why India’s leadership has so carefully eschewed all military provocation, and why all talk of movement of air assets, high alerts, cancellation of military leave and war-like moves is utter rubbish. Of course if provocations go on and other policy instruments fail to work entirely, India’s hand may ultimately be forced. But that, military action in anger, would be more a compulsion than a policy option. Pakistan, particularly in terms of its internal balance of power, is still seen globally as a work in progress. Nobody is delusional about which side will win in the end. But nobody wants to write off the process of “civilianisation” just yet, no matter how slow the progress.
Yet, the threat of military response must never be totally ruled out. If the Vajpayee government described its response to the Parliament attack on December 13, 2001 as “coercive diplomacy”, what is happening right now can be called “coercive diplomacy II” — in this age of sequels. The fundamental difference, however, is that the response in the original was a military mobilisation unprecedented in its scale. The Vajpayee government had never really wanted/intended to go to war. But as Brajesh Mishra once said to me, for coercive diplomacy to work, the threat of war had to be so real even we would believe it. And we did. So we also accepted the risk that, at some point, a grave provocation may indeed leave us no choice other than war. That provocation, as Mishra later admitted to me in a Walk the Talk interview in November 2007, nearly led to war when families of many armymen were killed in a terror attack at a cantonment at Kaluchak near Jammu in May 2002.
This phase of coercive diplomacy does not need that kind of a military build-up, or a stated threat of war. The world has changed since 2001. Howsoever weak it may be, there is an elected government in Pakistan. Because this round of democratisation came through a popular movement it is that much tougher for the army to stage another coup. The Americans have better focus on the region, and see a much greater convergence of strategic interest with India. Most importantly, the seven years since 9/11 have led to a world where even supreme national interests of almost all nations have got globalised. How else is one to explain the ease with which the UN Security Council was able to ban Lashkar and Jamaat-ud-Dawa and put their leaders on international lists of terrorists? The Chinese have obviously not given up their interests in Pakistan. But they cannot buck the global move against terror and be marked out as spoilers.
It is a combination of factors, therefore, that is local (to Pakistani politics) as well as global, which has enabled India to devise this new phase of coercive diplomacy. And while nobody is satisfied with the Pakistani response so far, it has yielded a little bit more than the last one already and, as voices from several world capitals, asking Pakistan to do more, underline, the movement is in the right direction.
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