By Praveen Swami
Mar 01, 2019
In 415BCE, the high noon of the power of
the greatest empire the world had known, Athens dispatched its massive naval
forces to punish the rebellious citizens of Syracuse. For the next several
years, Thucydides, son of Olorus, owner of gold mines and survivor of the great
plague of Athens, fought weapon in hand for the city he loved—and watched as
its wealth, power and values were slowly extinguished in a relentless march to
annihilation. In exile, he would reflect on the lessons in a work that, today,
ranks among the greatest works of the philosophy of war:
“Think, too, of the great part that is
played by the unpredictable in war,” Thucydides wrote, “and think of it now,
before you are actually committed. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend
to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them; we have to abide
their outcome in the dark.”
“But when people are entering upon a war,
they do things the wrong way around. Action comes first, and it is only when
they have already suffered that they begin to think.”
February’s India-Pakistan crisis has taken
both countries on to pathways littered with minefields and traps. Following
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to strike at terrorists across the Line
of Control in 2016, Pakistan responded with well-tested covert tools—ratcheting
up the levels of violence against Indian forces in Kashmir to levels not seen
in over a decade. The February 26 airstrikes were meant to demonstrate that
India was willing to inflict pain on Pakistan in return—but that country has
demonstrated it is willing to risk all by escalating even further.
Prime Minister Modi has shown an
instinctive grasp of Thucydides’ realism. Holding promises from the
international community that it will now compel Prime Minister Imran Khan to
act against terrorists, he has chosen to step back from the brink.
For both India and Pakistan, though, the
infinite darkness of war still lies ahead. This much is certain: the end of
this crisis does not herald the coming of peace.
Epics do not have neat beginnings: the
story of India-Pakistan war can be traced just as easily to 1971, or 1947, or
even pre-colonial communal hatred. Late one night in the summer of 2009, four
improvised 107-millimetre rockets arced over the Pul Kanjari border outpost,
and exploded in the wheat-fields outside the Punjab village of Attari. For the
first time since the war of 1971, there was an attack across the India-Pakistan
border. In September that year, four more rockets were fired; then, in January
2010, there was a third assault.
For the first time since the war of 1971,
there had been an attack across the India-Pakistan border. The march to the
February 26 airstrikes had, unnoticed by almost anyone, begun.
In 2001, Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee had mobilised the army, threatening war against Pakistan to punish the
Jaish-e-Muhammad’s attack on Parliament. The decision wasn’t a casual one. Even
though India had won the Kargil war in 1999, Pakistan had stepped up covert
warfare in Kashmir. Fatalities of security force personnel, inside Kashmir,
surged from 183 in 1999, to 241 in 2000 and 248 in 2002.
Ten months later, India backed
down—apparently deterred by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
But then, something unexpected happened.
Fatalities of Indian forces in the Kashmir conflict fell every year to 2008,
all the way down to 39 in 2008. Firing on Indian troops on the Line of Control
ceased, making infiltration difficult for terrorists. Pakistan’s military
ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, had turned off the terror tap—despite
apparently winning the showdown.
From his confidante General Moinuddin
Haider, we have the only inside account of why that happened. In an interview
to scholar George Perkovich, General Haider said the long-term costs of
continuing to back jihadists would be higher than the potential losses from
taking them on.
“I was the sole voice initially”, Haider
said, “saying, ‘Mr. President, your economic plan will not work, people will
not invest, if you don’t get rid of extremists.”
From 2007, though, new army chief General
Pervez Ashfaq Kayani turned the screws on India again—a bid to heal the rift
General Musharraf had created between the military and its jihadist allies.
There were 28 ceasefire violations in 2009, 44 in 2010, 60 in 2011—rising to a
staggering 2,936 last year. Even worse, from India’s point of view, terrorist
strikes in Kashmir intensified. Fatalities of Indian forces rose steadily, from
39 in 2008, to 62 in 2009—and on to 136 last year, the worst since 2004.
In a strategic sense, these attacks achieve
little. Tragic as each loss of life is, India’s economic growth, or its
military capabilities, aren’t significantly eroded by terrorism. The question
is: why does the Pakistan army risk war for vanishingly meagre gains?
In 1918, Hungarian-born magician, Erik
Weisz, better known by his stage name Harry Houdini, premiered the
Make-the-Elephant-Vanish Trick. An elephant was shut into a box with raised
wheels, thus ruling out the use of a trapdoor. When the box opened, the
elephant had disappeared. The key to the trick was rediscovered by author and
magician Jim Steinmeyer. The elephant was, in fact concealed behind a
diagonally-placed mirror: what the audience saw as the entire empty box wasn’t
The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate
has mastered the vanishing-elephant trick—and now, as Prime Minister Imran Khan
offers Prime Minister Modi action against terrorists, this is worth
In 2002, as war loomed, General Musharraf
cracked down the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. In 2008, President Asif
Ali Zardari did the same thing. And in 2018, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif again
moved against terrorists. Each time, the Pakistan Army ensured they emerged,
magically, from the box.
Early in 1939, on the eve of the Great War
that would lead on to the death of the British empire and the birth of his
homeland, the politician and religious ideologue, Abdul Ala Maududi, delivered
a lecture that has become a foundational text for South Asia Islamism. Faith,
Maududi insisted, was more than a “hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals.”
Islam was, in fact, “a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social
order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and
Pakistan’s 1956 constitution declared the
country an Islamic republic—a notion unknown to classical theology—and mandated
that no laws repugnant to the Koran be passed. General Ayub Khan appointed a
council of clerics to guide the state. The hard-drinking General Yahya Khan
allied with Islamists in Bangladesh and Kashmir. General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq,
profoundly influenced by Maududi, rebuilt the state on the foundations of his
The Pakistan Army’s Jihadism, diplomat and
scholar Husain Haqqani has argued, was “not just the inadvertent outcome of
decisions by some governments.” Instead, the Pakistani state’s use of Islam
“gradually evolved into a strategic commitment to jihadi ideology.”
In The Green Books, classified internal
volumes where Pakistan army officers are invited to discuss strategy and
geopolitics, the influence of the Islamist world-view is evident. Brigadier
Saifi Ahmad Naqvi, writing in the 1994 Green Book, argued “Pakistan is an
ideological state, based on the ideology of Islam.” In his view, the Army is
“responsible for the defence of the country, to safeguard [its] integrity [and]
territorial boundaries, and the ideological frontiers to which the country owes
Fighting against India, thus, isn’t just a
tactical imperative for Pakistan’s army; it’s a core ideological value.The
Generals aren’t about to give up the belief-system that sustains their primacy
And that has profound implications for what
comes in the next India-Pakistan crisis, whenever it breaks out.
“The most fantastic war-game the world can
ever have seen,” an excited magazine called it. In the summer of 1955, the
Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, along with the United States’ Sixth Fleet and
49th Air Division, hurled itself at Belgian, British and Dutch forces,
supported by the Second Tactical Air Force. Exercise Carte Blanche was the
first effort to simulate what would happen when NATO used its new tactical
nuclear weapons to beat back Soviet armour driving towards the heart of Europe.
In less than a week, the answers were in:
1.7 million dead, 3.5 million injured, large swathes of Europe levelled by 335
Four years ago, after terrorists struck in
Gurdaspur, the United States held out a stark message to Pakistan’s visiting
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Prime Minister Modi, he was warned, was almost
certain to authorise strikes against jihadist infrastructure inside Pakistan in
the event of a mass-casualty terrorist strike. The Generals didn’t listen:
Pulwama followed Pathankot, in grim succession.
Prime Minister Modi’s 2016 cross-Line of
Control strikes were premised on the belief small air strikes or shallow
infantry actions would not give Pakistan enough reason to escalate a conflict,
mired as it is in economic meltdown and internal crisis.
Last week, Pakistan demonstrated that
assumption was misplaced. From private messages sent by Lieutenant-General
Tariq Khan, former commander of the Mangla-based I Corps, we know what the
Generals were thinking. “Each Indian cross-border strike, General Khan argued
in notes obtained by Firstpost “erodes our position of deterring war through
our nuclear capability.” General Khan argued that meant “we become more and
more vulnerable to an asymmetric conventional threat”—in other words, to future
“Deterrence,” General Khan argued, “is a
mindset and never a tangible posture, It is an outcome of a possibility”
[emphasis added]. Islamabad, General Khan went on, needed to ensure that this
possibility remained on Indian minds—and for that,“our response should be to
escalate and push the envelope of hostilities so that nuclear war is a likely
Through their own cross-Line of Control
strikes on February 27, Pakistan’s military planners have done just that: India
knows that, unlike in 2016, the Generals are now willing to raise the stakes.
The thing is, no one knows how far they’ll go.
For demagogues in India, there’s an easy
answer: call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. But Prime Ministers and Generals, unlike
Twitter’s armchair brigades, have responsibility for the consequences of their
There are obvious lessons for India from
how the February crisis has played out, key among them that the goddess of the
battlefield is fickle with her favours. “If the military art could be reduced
to arithmetic,” Soviet nuclear theoretician General Andrian Danilevich observed,
“we would not need any wars.” “You could simply look at the correlation of
forces, make some calculations, and tell your opponent, ‘we outnumber you 2:1,
victory is ours, please surrender.’”
But Pakistan, too, needs to ask hard
questions. Faced with enough provocation, Indian leaders may take their
chances, and risk escalation. Although cultivating ties with anti-India
jihadists may seem attractive to a military establishment whose legitimacy is
under challenge from hostile Islamists, it is a high-risk strategy.
From February’s crisis, both countries
ought to learn the walk from the status quo to the apocalypse isn’t as long as
we imagine. Islamabad needs to ask if forcing India to walk that road is truly
in its interest.