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A fiasco in the making

June 25, 1999

WITH each passing day, it should be becoming clearer even to the benighted that in Kashmir we are allowing ourselves to get caught in a bind. While the ultimate objective of the venture under way remains shrouded in a mist of confusion and conflicting statements, the western powers, whose opinion matters to us because they are our creditors, are not buying the line that the Pakistan army has nothing to do with the occupation of the Kargil heights and the fighting which this has sparked.

However hopeful and desperate a spin the foreign office may try to put on this situation, it is Pakistan and not India which is under pressure to restore the status quo ante along the Line of Control. This is not a failure of diplomacy as many pundits are screaming. It is a political failure inasmuch as Pakistan's stance, whatever we may think of it, is hard to sustain before the world's eyes. Nor do we seem very clear in our minds about what we want, which is adding to the confusion.

Through the Kargil operation are we trying to acquire bargaining chips for a trade-off on Siachen? Do we want to pose a permanent threat to India's lines of communications further to the north? Do we want to bring India to the negotiating table? Is this the first step in the liberation of Kashmir? If one or more of these objectives were behind this operation, did the Pakistan high command really calculate that if a few bold thrusts (by the mujahideen or whatever) were made across the Line of Control the Indian response would remain localized and India would not make too great a noise about such a move? There is nothing more foolish in war than to substitute wishfulness for a realistic appreciation of the situation but we seem to be doing this all the time.

To make matters worse, there is no shortage of drum-beaters in the national press who are crying that we have the Indians where we want them and that it is an historic opportunity to press home our advantage. General Hamid Gul of course is in a class of his own. He says nothing should deter us, not even the threat of nuclear war, to take the fight to the enemy. But if this class of super-patriots were to give some thought to the matter they might see that it is Pakistan which has painted itself into a corner.

What are our options? The Hamid Guls notwithstanding, we are in no position to expand the Kargil fighting, our strength being insufficient for the purpose. Nor would the international community stand for it, a matter of no small moment for us since our begging bowl is as strong as our pretensions. All we can hope for is that India will not raise the ante, that it will not escalate the situation or that it will not go against the formidable package of wishes which constitutes our strategic planning. In other words, that India will oblige us by consulting our convenience.

If our options are limited, India's are not. If retaking the Kargil heights becomes a longish affair, it can cross the Line of Control in a bid to interdict the supply routes of the fighting force occupying the peaks. The Indian army can strike elsewhere along the Line of Control or it can test Pakistan's defences at points of its choosing along the international frontier. With each passing day the threat of a conflict is growing, not receding, with influential voices in India swelling to a chorus in demanding a wider settling of accounts with Pakistan.

Against the backdrop of this worsening situation it is not enough for Pakistan to say, as its politico-military leaders are increasingly doing, that the country is prepared for all eventualities and that it will give a befitting response to Indian aggression. It is of course the duty of the armed forces to defend the nation's frontiers and if war is imposed by India the people and the armed forces will be one in fighting the aggressor. It is, however, scarcely the height of wisdom to acquiesce (to put it no stronger than this) in a situation which leads to war and then to think of giving one's adversary a bloody nose.

A defensive war, one imposed from outside, is of course a necessity and should be fought to the death. But it is folly of the highest kind to start hostilities, or initiate a process which leads to hostilities, if the objective is less than clear or is not worth the fighting. This is not defeatism but simple common sense. That our soldiers are brave and our people capable of responding to any challenge, no matter how severe, are given things which in a discussion of this sort should be taken for granted. At issue is a different question altogether.

Have we carefully considered the possible consequences of the Kargil operation? Even if there is a minuscule chance of it leading to war, have we taken this into account? Or, on the contrary, are we being sucked into a conflict not of our choosing simply because we have lost control over the situation?

It would be tragic if the last were to be true for it would show a singular and recurring inability to learn from our own history. As in 1965 and 1971, we are allowing ourselves to become prisoners of an unfavourable situation. On display is the same thumping, chest-beating rhetoric and the same contempt for reality. And the same desire, befitting more a child than mature nation, that the outside world should come to our rescue and turn a developing fiasco into a face-saving diplomatic solution.

It is of interest to dwell on those distant triumphs. No sooner had the '65 war started than Ayub Khan realized his blunder and began looking for any half-decent way to end the conflict. "They've got you by the throat, Mr President," (or words to that effect) is what the American ambassador reportedly told the Field Marshal and there was nothing that the Field Marshal could say in reply. In '71 Yahya Khan and General Niazi expected Chinese and American apparitions to come to Pakistan's rescue.

Pakistan is not a nation of nincompoops or morons. Its people (common people, that is) are talented, hard-working and brave. Trapped in a cruel destiny, they may not have much of a choice when it comes to mediocre or second-rate leadership. But they certainly deserve better than to be led once again into a conflict with no clear objectives. If national survival is at stake, the people of Pakistan can turn the entire country into a battlefield. But between this vision of Armageddon and the unthinking slide to war we are seeing there is a world of difference.

What makes the present situation all the more alarming is the growing feeling that there is no firm hand on the tiller. Who is in charge? Who has thought up this operation which in the space of a few weeks has taken the nation to the brink of war? There is certainly no Churchillian ring to the heavy mandate which instead looks slightly rattled as if what is happening was not part of anyone's game-plan. As for the army chief, he has lately begun looking very grim.

Nothing is lost, however. It should not take an American Centcom commander to tell us what is in our best interests or what we should do. If we can sustain the Kargil build-up and thrust, fine. Let us not in that case be deterred by the US or any other power. But if politically our position is ill-judged and therefore untenable, we could do worse than to remember the military maxim which advises against reinforcing a failure.