Finally it is out in the open. The Indian defence minister, A K Antony, has said that war with Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack is not an option. And once again we find ourselves trapped in a dead end.
No one wants a war, especially a war where objectives are unclear and prospects uncertain. We should have learnt this lesson after we lined up our troops along the border like NCC cadets during Operation Parakram, which took place following the attack on the Indian parliament by terrorists Decemeber 13, 2001. In the end we were both unwilling and unable to cross the Rubicon. After posturing impotently we withdrew.
It is said that wise men keep the threat of an arrow leashed in the quiver, because once you've released it the arrow's potential as a threat is over. But this is exactly what we did when we called our own bluff during Operation Parakram. Now we don't even have a bluff in our quiver.
One wonders therefore what the recent hullabaloo was about. Even as the terrorists were engaged in mayhem in Mumbai, the prime minister addressed the nation and said: "We will go after the individuals and organisations and make sure that every perpetrator, organiser and supporter of terror, whatever his affiliation or religion may be, pays a heavy price".
Since Pakistan will not extract that heavy price, it may be reasonable to assume that India may have had under consideration the option of direct action. Such an action, in the unlikely event that it actually happened, would have been violative of the sovereignty of another country leading possibly to a war.
So, in effect, what we are witnessing now is the formal withdrawal of our notice to make the terrorists pay a heavy price for having killed around 170 people between November 26 and 29.
Sadly, when the history of mayhem in Mumbai is written our inaction might be projected as vacillation and a sign that we did not have the stomach for confrontation. Second, as any mafia don would advise, you must not permit what can only be called 'successful defiance'.
Unfortunately our inertia may be interpreted by the terrorists and their masters as confirmation that we are incapable of retaliation, emboldening them to greater dramatic action.
There was some hope that it might be different this time, that for once we will not be found running where we started from. But we were quick to expose all our cards, a daily flurry of bellicose statements and threatening rhetoric followed. But throughout, there was no sign of any concrete action against the perpetrators of terror or their masters, none at all. It will be hard to find an example elsewhere in the world where after such a wounding strike the nation remains frozen in inaction.
Instead, there were ponderous debates about the degree of instability of the civilian government of Pakistan. Sadly, we ignore the reality of politics in Pakistan. Rarely has any government there been powerful enough to stand up to the army. As Benazir Bhutto was fond of asserting, there are only two political parties in Pakistan - the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) and the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movemment) ; all the rest are the army's creation. What remained unsaid was that even the PPP ended up compromising with the army. The Zardari government is no different, nor any weaker than its predecessors. We will therefore do well by not indulging in worried star gazing on his government's behalf.
In so far as the army is concerned I am reminded of an incident in Karachi. Once at a dinner a young man was introduced to me. He said he had graduated from the Pakistan Naval Academy earlier that day. After I congratulated him, he asked me when the bilateral tensions would cease. I gave him the sunny side response, at which he looked surprised and said, "What will happen to our pledge then?"
It was an inadvertent slip of tongue by a young man and he moved away quickly. Later I gathered that the pledge he was referring to is taken by every Pakistani military officer on graduation, and it is to avenge the 1971 war leading to the formation of Bangladesh.
With such mental conditioning it will be naÃ¯ve to expect a change of heart. This should also explain the practised ease with which Pakistan played its cards following the terror strike. As long as the world was watching the horror unfold on TV screens, Pakistan played the role of an anguished neighbour.
Meanwhile it gained time to let global tempers cool. Later when the world leaders came calling, as they did during Operation Parakram, it had its agenda clearly chalked out. It was a mixture of threats and demands as usual.
First it declared that it might withdraw its forces from the Afghan border to its eastern frontier, conveying thereby that NATO action against the Taliban could become that much more difficult. A few days later there were attacks, conveniently spread over two days, on a NATO storage depot near Peshawar which destroyed over 200 vehicles.
Meanwhile its propaganda machinery was in an overdrive drumming up the threat of war. First there was a hoax call from our foreign minister to President Zardari. Then, allegations about air incursions by the IAF (Indian Air Force) followed. All these were conveniently timed before or during a visit by Western leaders.
Once again Pakistan has succeeded in temporizing. It is unlikely that it will take any action. And it will be futile to hope that good sense will prevail.
But the fault is ours. After every terror strike Pakistan insists on receiving evidence from India. Each time we fall into the trap. Should it be our responsibility to provide evidence, when all the proof is available in Pakistan? Moreover evidence is never provided to the perpetrators of a crime.
Unfortunately, like a bad rash terrorism will not go away. But the next time we should not wait till we dig up the absolute truth. Broad facts are sufficient in this global age where the focus on an event lasts till the next breaking news. And we shouldn't expect the US to wield the sword on our behalf. The US supports a country only as long as it suits its economic and strategic objectives. Pakistan still scores higher there.
Essentially, we are alone in this battle. The world may sympathize, it may nod in approval if we take action, but it will not come forward to help if we falter. Therefore, let us not engage in knee-jerk rhetoric that takes us to the edge of the abyss. Like dead-ends, they too are dangerous.