Why India Cannot Afford A Preemptive Strike on Pakistan

Indian Express, April 10, 2003

The pre-emptive US war in Iraq is not yet over but its international fallout has already begun. A spat has started between India and Pakistan over whether the doctrine of pre-emption can be extended to South Asia.

First came the assertion by India’s Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha that India had ‘‘a much better case to go for pre-emptive action against Pakistan than the US has in Iraq’’. As if to clarify that pre-emption is not a universal doctrine but merely a tool of policy available to the US, the Bush administration was quick to state that India must not use the pre-emptive war against Iraq as a pretext for an attack on Pakistan.

State Department spokeswoman Joanne Prokopowicz clarified, ‘‘Any attempts to draw parallels between the Iraq and Kashmir situations are wrong and are overwhelmed by the differences between them.’’ This led Sinha to imply that he was not talking so much about an Indian pre-emptive strike against Pakistan as suggesting that the US deal with Pakistan.

He said Pakistan was ‘‘a fit case’’ for US military action, because it had weapons of mass destruction and terrorists.

For its part, Pakistan dismissed the Indian suggestion, telling India to listen to the US and to examine its own violations of UN resolutions. ‘‘India has breached UN Security Council resolutions,’’ said the Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman, referring to resolutions from 1948 to 1957 calling for a plebiscite among Kashmiris to choose accession to India or Pakistan.

Indian and Pakistani foreign offices routinely engage each other in wars of words and this could be a routine exchange, were it not for the major changes occurring in the global system. Until the US and Britain decided to launch their invasion of Iraq, the international system worked on the premise of national sovereignty.

Since World War II, punitive or enforcement military action has usually been sanctioned by the UN except when a great power veto forced the majority of nations to bypass the UN. In such cases, a defined cause for war existed or the existence of aggression and genocide necessitated it.

In Iraq, however, not only was the UN bypassed but the need for demonstrating an existing threat was also dispensed with. The US and Britain went to war to change a bad regime. Until now, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq though the Anglo-American forces claim to have virtually taken over the entire country. A precedent has been set for external military intervention for regime change, based on unproven or perceived threats.

But, as the State Department response to Sinha’s first statement affirms, the US considers the doctrine of pre-emption exclusive to its status as a global hyperpower. India can try to please its own people or embarrass Pakistan in that segment of the global media that has time to pay attention to it. But it cannot realistically expect international support for a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan.

America’s ability to do as it pleased in Iraq was largely a function of the tremendous asymmetry in military power between the US and Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric notwithstanding, Iraq never had a chance of fighting a US invasion. Irregular Iraqi forces can still make a prolonged occupation difficult but US technological superiority seems to have won the first phase.

In the case of India and Pakistan, the military asymmetry is nowhere comparable to that between the US-British forces and the Iraqis. Pakistan can fight India to a draw despite India’s military modernisation, even if one were to ignore the nuclear aspect. The UN and other international players did not have the opportunity to intervene against a US pre-emptive strike. But an Indian pre-emptive strike will most likely be subject to international condemnation and intervention.

The US can absorb the costs of war and reconstruction in Iraq. The Indian economy is in a take-off stage and is growing at a healthy rate. A simple cost-benefit analysis would make it obvious that it is not in India’s interest to jeopardise its overall stability and well-being to pursue a misadventure against Pakistan.

Sinha’s statements should be seen not merely as threats but as part of India’s effort to continuously increase its international leverage. Pakistan can hold its own militarily against India but it does not like to have to stare down frequent US pressure. Since the Kargil war, India’s ability to secure international support has been its persistent advantage. From India’s point of view, General Pervez Musharraf’s speech of January 12, 2002 outlining a vision of Pakistan without jehadi activism was a triumph of sorts. It amounted to an admission that the acceptable course for Pakistan was different than the one pursued in the past.

With each round of brinkmanship, India seeks more concessions and greater implementation along the lines of Musharraf’s speech.

It would be a terrible mistake on the part of India’s leaders to consider extending the notion of pre-emption to South Asia without recognising the limits . The US would most likely be able to shrug off the embarrassment that might result if it is unable to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But India’s prestige would take a major battering if it fails to find the terrorist camps that it claims to eliminate. And the US can pull out of Iraq, back to the security of its homeland, if popular resentment makes life difficult for its troops but India cannot move out of Pakistan’s neighbourhood in case of prolonged sub-conventional resistance.

Instead of continuing the game of brinkmanship that has characterised India-Pakistan relations over the last several years, it would make more sense for both to acknowledge what it is that bothers the other.

New Delhi is clearly frustrated by what it sees as Pakistan’s failure to deliver on promises such as those made by Musharraf soon after his policy speech of January 12 last year. Pakistan, on the other hand, refuses to be treated with contempt manifested in comparisons with much smaller and weaker military powers.

Both also see the Jammu and Kashmir issue from totally divergent perspectives. If the leadership in both countries was less obsessed with rhetoric, there could be scope for a comprehensive peace process addressing these issues.