Updated: March 3, 2015 5:18:45 am
From the throne he had specially erected on Mount Aigaleo, over the straits of Salamis, Xerxes, the emperor of Persia, prepared to view his greatest triumph. His armies had already overcome the Greek rearguard at Thermopylae. For a century, the Greeks had been spitting at Persian power, backing insurrections and executing the emperor’s ambassadors. Xerxes’ father, Darius, had failed to punish them — but now, imperial retribution was at last at hand.
Instead, the emperor watched a lethal trap close. The emperor and his generals knew the Greeks could defeat the bigger Persian ships in narrow waters. Yet, Xerxes ignored the risk, deceived by Greek double agents who told him his fractious enemies were preparing to flee. The lie succeeded since it preyed on his deepest hopes.
Late tonight, when foreign secretary S. Jaishankar reflects on his day of meetings in Islamabad, he could do worse than consider the three lessons in the poet-warrior Aeschylus’ account of the Salamis battle.
In war, Aeschylus tells us, there is no weapon so sharp as insight into the enemy’s mind. Second, the stronger side does not always win. Third, seeking ambitious solutions is dangerous — had Xerxes not sought to conquor Greece, after all, he may well have secured the individual subjugation of its city-states.
Late in 1947, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru clinically laid out the challenges of having “to deal with a state carrying out an informal war, but nevertheless a war”. From the figures, it might appear that the decades-long informal war has ended. Ever since 2002, when secret diplomacy by the United States forced Pakistan’s military ruler General Pervez Musharraf to cut back on cross-border terrorism and rein in jihadist groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the gains have been significant.
Last year, 32 civilians and 51 security force personnel were killed in combat in Jammu and Kashmir — down from a peak of 1,067 and 590 in 2001. Four Indians died in attacks by Islamist terror groups — a factor of over 1,000 lower than in Pakistan. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the interrogation of alleged top Indian Mujahideen commander Mohammed Ahmed Siddibappa shows, has also kept a tight leash on anti-India jihadists.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Pakistan project isn’t, as his more war-like election-time speeches might suggest, to end Pakistan’s covert war against India. It is to make sure it doesn’t begin again.
The project rests on one central question: Is Pakistan’s military-led state in the process of making a decisive break with its longstanding partner, the jihadists, and their vision of a war-without-end against India? Ever since his first summit meeting with Modi in New York, US President Barack Obama has been making just this argument. Pakistan’s war with the jihadists in its northwest has brought about radical shifts in its national-security thinking, the US argues. General Raheel Sharif, it has been telling New Delhi, is a pragmatist who understands that Pakistan must exorcise its Islamist demons to survive.
From the words of the ISI chief, Lieutenant-General Rizwan Akhtar, it’s clear that at least some in the Pakistan army think it’s time for the country to end the jihad game. In a paper written in 2008 while he was studying at the US Army War College, Akhtar argued that Pakistan needed to shift gears and “aggressively pursue rapprochement with India”.
Indeed, it is plain to many within the army that, as the scholar Robert Johnson has noted, “the ISI has been a singularly unsuccessful organisation”. “It lost control of the Taliban, [the] Haqqanis, and its other Islamist protégés,” Johnson argues, “[and] has courted the most militant Islamist factions, only to see its cities plagued by sectarian violence.”
Yet, there are other, less heartening, signs that show that Pakistan might not yet be done with its jihadist allies. Last month, Pakistan army spokesperson Asim Bajwa claimed that India was funding the terrorist groups that carried out the massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar. Worse, anti-India jihadist groups like the LeT and Jaish-e-Muhammad, as well as anti-Shia terrorists like the Ahl-e-Sunnat wal’Jamaat, continue to operate freely. Mumbai 26/11 perpetrator Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi is in jail but has privileges, including 24-hour guest visits, conjugal rights, a mobile phone and internet access.
It is important to note that we have been here before. In a 2008 paper, the eminent scholar Syed Rifaat Husain noted that terrorist violence had “forced Islamabad to rethink its relationship with militant religious groups”. Less than a year after the paper was written though, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had displaced Musharraf and begun to rebuild the army’s frayed relationship with its jihadist allies.
Like his predecessors, the PM could thus discover that the road to peace has led to a minefield — then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous journey to Lahore, after all, ended in Kargil, while his successor Manmohan Singh’s hopes of an historic Kashmir deal blew up on 26/11. That moment of crisis, when it comes, will define the fate of Modi’s Pakistan project.
From six months of cross-border firing on the Line of Control, the worst since 2002, the dangers of reacting without a clear endgame ought to be evident — barring a flood of refugees, the skirmishes have yielded little for either side. Last year, now-National Security Advisor Ajit Doval warned that Pakistan’s ethnic, economic and sectarian faultlines could constitute points of pressure for India to use if things went wrong — in essence, a prescription for covert war. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, for his part, has also issued something of a war threat — urging Pakistan to beware India’s superior conventional forces.
Yet, as Aeschylus’ second warning tells us to beware, no one knows for certain what a Pakistan further weakened might look like. It could, for example, be unable to rein in jihadists under pressure, leaving India more vulnerable to attack than it is now. Indeed, a Pakistan in meltdown might give birth to myriad border wars, sapping India’s resources and energies.
“Listen up,” wrote Haruki Murakami, “there’s no war to end all wars.” The PM, as he considers the messages the foreign secretary brings back from Islamabad, needs to forge a clear vision of just what can be achieved, rejecting advice that presents war as a deus ex machina. Patient work to secure modest gains may not be the stuff of primetime public relations — but as Xerxes discovered centuries ago, ambition can be a dangerous thing.
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