October 28, 2002

De-escalation, But No Thaw Yet

The Indian government has announced the de-escalation and demobilisation – or, as it prefers to call it "re-deployment" – of over half a million troops which it amassed at the border with Pakistan ten months ago. Pakistan has decided to reciprocate this move.

Over the next six weeks or so, this will bring to an end the world's biggest military mobilisation in a half a century, with a dangerous potential for the outbreak of a nuclear conflict. It also terminates India's greatest foray into coercive diplomacy and its attempt at strategic compellence, as well as the sub-continent's second episode of nuclear brinkmanship.

But less happily, this still does not mean that a thaw in India-Pakistan relations, now at their lowest point since Independence in 1947, is imminent.

India's October 16 decision was made under pressure, hesitantly, and with many reservations and caveats. For one, it confines the de-mobilisation to the settled International Border alone, and does not extend it to the ultra-sensitive 740-kilometre-long Line of Control passing through Jammu and Kashmir. For another, it is not part of a larger package or game-plan for normalising relations with Pakistan, including most important, resuming air and surface transportation links and re-establishing ambassador-level diplomatic contacts severed earlier this year.

And for a third, it is not the result of the achievement of most of the stated objectives New Delhi had specified for the huge military build-up after the terrorist attack on its Parliament building on December 13 last.

No wonder the decision has (at least temporarily) widened rifts within New Delhi's ruling coalition, led by the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose right wing loathes it and regards it as India's "capitulation" to, or "appeasement" of Pakistan, the "enemy" state. An embattled Atal Behari Vajpayee now finds he has to struggle to "explain" the demobilisation to his critics from the fanatical Hindu right.

However, this also offers him an opportunity to confront and outmanoeuvre them by firmly pursuing a policy of reconciliation, dialogue and détente with Pakistan, for which there exists a substantial popular constituency in the country. The international public, in particular the peace movement, can significantly contribute to the process.

The Indian decision to demobilise was the result of a complex set of factors, including external pressure, the Indian army's exhaustion with the strategy of compellence (to coerce Pakistan to behave in a particular way), its unwillingness to prolong a state of high alert, and the absence of a clear link between the military action and political objectives.

The Vajpayee government has been under considerable pressure from the major powers, especially the United States, to reduce the troop concentration at the border totalling about 700,000 soldiers. The pressure intensified after the conclusion of the relatively successful and not particularly violent elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly on October 10.

India was apprehensive that Pakistan-backed militants would disrupt the elections, which they, like Islamabad, declared a "sham" and a "farce". But mid-way through the four-phase election process, it became apparent that Islamabad would not encourage the jehadi guerrillas it backs to launch an all-out attack on Indian security forces and election candidates and rallies.

With this, the US stepped up pressure in favour of de-escalation. The American ambassador lobbied a number of BJP leaders, and also members of the National Security Advisory Board, itself linked to the recently formed but functionally ill-defined National Security Council.

India's armed forces have been increasingly unhappy at the disutility of the build-up and the deployment code-named "Operation Parakram", involving the maintenance of large numbers of troops on high alert, often under harsh conditions near the border. This took a toll of the troops' morale – and their lives.

Anything between 300 and 400 soldiers are estimated to have died in accidents such as landmine explosions, and other mishaps. In some instances, soldiers, under extreme psychological stress, went berserk and shot their own colleagues.

The Indian government was always ambivalent about the precise political objective of the build-up. Was it to threaten Islamabad with "retaliation" attack for December 13? Was it to secure the release of the 20 terrorists named in the list handed over to Pakistan in January this year? Was it to extract from it a verifiable commitment to put a "permanent" end to "cross-border" infiltration of terrorists, as was explicitly stated – for example, repeatedly between February and July? Or, more outlandish, was it to "hurt" and "punish" Pakistan so that the costs imposed on it by troop deployment are "many times" higher than those borne by India, as some Indian strategic "experts" suggest?

In the event, none of these goals was achieved. According to Indian official claims, reiterated in the past couple of months with numerical estimates, the level of cross-border infiltration and militant violence in J&K has increased. Pakistan scoffed at the hastily prepared list of 20 (some of whom may no longer be in that country) and has taken no action on them.

As for the costs, General Pervez Musharraf has himself boasted that these were much lower for Pakistan (300,000 troops in the build-up) than for India (700,000). Besides, there were "credible" reports, according to a former senior Indian diplomat, that "Washington was reimbursing the cost of mobilisation to Pakistan".

And India's plans to launch surgical strikes and wage "limited war" had to be abandoned when Washington actively intervened between January and June, through repeated visits of Colin Powell and Richard Armitage to New Delhi and Islamabad.

The only tangible gains for India in the past 10 months have been diplomatic – Musharraf's January 12 promise to put down religious extremism and terrorism, including the type masquerading as "freedom struggle" (in Kashmir) and his promise at the end of May to put a "permanent" and "verifiable" end to cross-border infiltration.

Even these were achieved through US mediation and pressure. It is open to question if non-military means, including multilateral ones, such as involving the UN Security Council, could not have been more productive, and far less expensive and risky.

The official statement puts a gloss on all this and declares: "The Cabinet Committee on Security after deliberation upon and examination of all aspects of the continued deployment of our forces along the border, has decided that as the Armed Forces have, with great distinction, achieved the objectives assigned to them, thus upholding all the traditions of the Indian military, they now be asked to redeploy from positions on the international border with Pakistan "

Defence minister George Fernandes also stated: "The successful conclusion of the elections in Jammu and Kashmir was one of the objectives" of the deployment. However, completing the J&K elections was never declared to be an "objective" of Operation Parakram. On the contrary, the government repeatedly said the elections and the troop deployment were "separate issues".

The Vajpayee cabinet made this move with the utmost awkwardness, and only after going through the motions of convening meetings of the National Security Advisory Board and the National Security Council – on the same day as the cabinet decision. The NSAB was duly "prepared" for the outcome through briefings by officials and others.

The NSAB, which has non-official "expert" representation on it, has proved itself to be a virtual rubber-stamp for the government. Its earlier avatar too was no better. Its sole contribution was the production of India's "Draft Nuclear Doctrine" in August 1999. The government promised to have this debated in Parliament and to adopt it after due consideration and modification. The US was annoyed with the DND's extremely ambitious and aggressive character. It has been put in cold storage ever since.

The Indian government has no obligation to accept, adopt or reject any recommendations of any "advisory" body. In the fashion characteristic of the colonial state, it maintains total opacity about its policy decisions and their rationale.

At any rate, the demobilisation will soon be completed – at an enormous cost to the Indian public. Given official secrecy, there are no hard numbers of Operation Parakram's financial costs. But two estimates are doing the rounds. One is that it cost anything between Rs. 2,000 and 4,000 crores (US$400 and 800 million) just to put the troops in place in late December/early January. Since then, the costs of maintaining them on high alert have been of the order of Rs. 200 to 300 crores a month – which adds up to another $2 to 3 billion.

The Indian government has thus probably blown up about $3 billion, perhaps even $4 billion, or about a quarter of its annual military budget on Operation Parakram. This might not seem huge by international or US standards, but it is large by South Asia's and India's own yardsticks.

The expenditure exceeds all federal spending on elementary education and represents more than one-half of the entire country's total expenditure on higher education. This is a terrible indulgence by any standards!

In South Asia, such indulgences inevitably involve cuts in social sector spending. Over the past five years, India's spending on health, education, food security and social welfare has declined. However, military spending has doubled over the same period – the highest such increase in any five-year period since Independence.

Military spending will rise sharply as India proceeds to build a nuclear arsenal to match not Pakistan, but China's capacity. That spells grave trouble for India's impoverished population.

– Praful Bidwai

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Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.

Archived Columns by Praful Bidwai

De-escalation, But No Thaw Yet

Missile Tests Foment New Rivalries

India In a Trap on Iraq

Portents From the Kashmir Polls

A Mysterious Attack Across the LoC

Hiroshima Under the Shadow of 9/11

Reducing the Nuclear Danger

Did India Cry Wolf to Secure US Intervention?

'Missile Man' as India's President

The Relevance of Détente

Building On The Indo-Pak Thaw

Military Force is No Solution

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