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Causes and consequences

January 01, 2012

ONE could imagine the Pakistan’s military’s motto being ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’ — the idea being that if you’re heavily armed and ready to fight, you are (probably) less likely to be attacked.

This is also the idea behind the equally contested notion of the efficacy of nuclear deterrence.

Pakistan, for reasons fathomable and not, has over the course of its history often found itself at the brink of, or at, various sorts of war. These include actual or seemingly imminent battles with Indian forces, the military’s involvement at varying levels in Afghanistan or Kashmir and, as in recent years, the ‘war on terror’ and the growing militant-radical threat from within the country’s own borders.

The different aspects to these conflicts, the political and other imperatives and dimensions, are reasonably well documented by writers and researchers in Pakistan and elsewhere. Nevertheless, one would forgive a person who confessed to being at a loss to actually understand why a country as impoverished, economically weak and underdeveloped as Pakistan should persist in believing, as it appears from the outside, that its future lies in military strength.

Does the country actually believe this? That is a moot point, especially now when in the wake of a number of disasters — particularly from the point of view of the public discourse surrounding the effectiveness of our military forces — people are beginning to ask questions that were simply not part of the agenda just months ago.

Events such as the attack on PNS Mehran and the finding of Osama bin Laden, amongst a host of others, have dented what in earlier times seemed like Pakistanis’ unshakeable and reactionary nationalism and their defensiveness in terms of the army and its subsidiaries.

History is replete with examples, though, that countries or people that wish to engage in war can often make do with an excuse as a reason. The weapons of mass destruction that were never found in Iraq, for example, were merely the excuse the US used to launch aggression.

For countries that are ready, willing and to whatever extent, able, to fight, the smallest or most seemingly remote event can become a flashpoint that leads to a very real and bloody conflict. A number of intertwined factors, political, historical and sometimes cultural as well, can coalesce around what can appear as a relatively minor point, making the real-time cause seem quite bizarre.

In terms of bizarre reasons to bring two countries to the brink of war, an error by Google Maps has to top the list, a little over a year ago when Costa Rica found itself having been invaded by Nicaragua. In November 2010, Nicaraguan troops briefly set up camp on Costa Rica’s Calero Island and replaced the flag.

To understand the import of this — and the point about being prepared for war — consider the disparity between the two countries.

Post-revolution Nicaragua is impoverished and underdeveloped in terms of infrastructure, having experienced periods of dictatorship and US military intervention (although in 1990 it became the first country in Latin America to elect a female head of state). It is also heavily armed and reliant on revolutionary fervour as a unifying force.

Costa Rica, by contrast, is Central America’s oldest democracy with a prosperous market economy. It does not have a standing army, but has a well-armed police force.

Calero Island lies on the San Juan river that divides the two countries in the vicinity of the Caribbean coast. Costa Rica and Nicaragua fiercely contested this border area for nearly two centuries until 1858, when a treaty brokered by US president Grover Cleveland led to a detailed demarcation in 1897 under which both countries recognised Calero Island as part of Costa Rican territory.

That day in November, though, former Sandinista commander Eden Pastora occupied the island and hoisted the Nicaraguan flag. Asked why by a stunned Costa Rican government, he implied that as far as he was concerned, he had liberated the island:

“See the satellite photo on Google and there you see the border,” he told a Costa Rican newspaper.

War was averted after mediation by the Organisation of American States and Google Maps, explaining that the error had been based on faulty data obtained from the US State Department, apologised.

In an acidic comment, though, a spokesperson pointed out that Mr Pastora would have been better advised to have consulted a military map because while Google strives to ensure the accuracy of its maps, “by no means should they be used as a reference to decide military actions between two countries”.

Humour aside, it is sobering that in situations where two sides — or even just one, for it does not take two to cause a war — are prepared to fight, the smallest grievance can snowball into a raging battle.

Public emotion, supported in the modern world by a jingoistic media, can lead to a state being encouraged towards aggression, which is why fomenting hatred of the other — as has been the case in Pakistan against India, for example — is a dangerous idea. It can create a certain sort of nationalism that could, for a time, be useful, but the costs in potentia can be fearsome.

In the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai tragedy, public opinion reflected and fanned by the news media on both sides, which contributed to the stirring up of tensions and in many cases drew unwarranted conclusions, presented the two countries as being on the brink of war — something that many at the time feared was a real possibility.

It is also worth pondering how Pakistan’s current predicament in terms of public opinion about groups such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which use religion as their rallying cry, has been affected by state-sponsored efforts over decades to indoctrinate the citizenry towards the right.

We are where we are, now, but it is worth considering how far the extremists’ ideology would have found traction within public imagination had the project to ‘Islamise’ the state of Pakistan not been undertaken. It is not a matter of crying over spilt milk, so to speak, but of learning not to spill it habitually.

The writer is a member of staff.