The utility of staying on at Siachen

Staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves extreme hardship and cost for a mere barren block of ice.

An avalanche buried 124 people, mostly soldiers but also some civilians at a Pakistani army camp at Gyari near Siachen. Even if the missing and the dead are soldiers who are lingering manifestations of an original invasion, repeated aggression and an long-drawn but still ongoing war against India, our humanity makes many of us lament the human toll.

The tragedy has triggered two understandable but misguided reactions among the public and in the media. The first blames the tragedy (and by extension, the costs, the injuries and loss of lives) on the rivalry between Pakistan and India, contending that both sides could avoid wasting blood and treasure if they were to avoid such futile confrontations, if not solve their all differences. The logical implication is that India is partly responsible for the loss at Gyari. Reasonable as it may appear to be, it is untenable. The Pakistani soldiers were deployed at Gyari on the orders of their military and government leaders. If the Pakistani leadership prized the lives of these soldiers than whatever they have at stake at Siachen then they could have ended the deployment. They can do so even today.

There is nothing to stop either side from unilaterally pulling their troops out of the ‘world’s highest battleground’. Ergo, the moral responsibility for whatever happens to their troops lies solely with the leadership that sent them there. This applies as much to India as it does to Pakistan.

The second reaction laments an expensive confrontation over a remote, barren and uninhabitable region and sees it as useless and futile. But staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves avoidable expense and extreme hardship for a huge block of ice. It essentially tells the other side “if we can go to such lengths to keep a big, useless block of ice, imagine what lengths we’d go to keep something more valuable.” Again, this applies to both sides. Both India and Pakistan signal their commitment by staying in the region. (For more details, see this post from April 2006.) The difference is that Pakistan is signalling its strategic commitment to an invasion it started in 1947 and India is signalling its strategic commitment to defending against the same.

This difference makes all the difference. It is morally perverse to preach the “futility of war” to the side that has been invaded. In fact, if potential aggressors do not believe your commitment to defend your territory as credible, they are less likely to accept the futility of war. They might calculate that the benefits of aggression will outweigh the costs—and like General Musharraf in 1999—decide to try their luck. After the Kargil war, Indian troops are stationed in the Dras area, in conditions similar or worse than those at Siachen. The expense of defending the Line of Control in winter and the hardship Indian soldiers go through deters another Kargil-like war.

So, showing commitment to defend is one of the best ways of persuading potential aggressors of the “futility of war”. Yes, this causes others to suspect aggressive intent and act in ways that would further appear threatening to us, causing us to strengthen our commitment and so on. This “security dilemma” sets off arms races that raise the proportion of national income allocated to defence. Unfortunately, it cannot be wished away. It must be managed.

None of this is to say that demilitarisation of the Siachen area is a bad idea. Rather, it is to debunk the notion that India is engaged in a unnecessary, wasteful or futile exercise over the glacier. If the conditions on the ground change such that it is no longer necessary to show this commitment, then the Indian army can descend to warmer climes. The real question everyone ought to ask is what might those conditions be.

Dear Yusuf Raza Gilani

Regarding freezing defence expenditure

Your decision to freeze Pakistan’s defence expenditure as “a show of its desire for peace with neighbours” is welcome. We even hope that you will someday be able to control that budgetary head.

You also hoped “to see a reciprocal gesture from our neighbour for the sake of peace and prosperity of the region”, which we are told is an “obvious reference to India.” While your sentiments remain worthy of praise you should have also asked your neighbours to the North and to the West to reciprocate too. It’s a pity you didn’t.

My op-ed in Mail Today: Free speech checks intolerance

Mr Thackeray’s actions are an opportunity to understand how competitive intolerance might be defeated

Excerpts from my op-ed piece in today’s Mail Today:

The state itself —and increasingly under the UPA government — has, in addition to caving in to intolerance, frequently indulged in unnecessary conscience-keeping that is at once laughable and abominable.

Raj Thackeray obviously knows this. His recent invective against “North Indians” living in Maharashtra is only the latest escalation in a grand arms race being played out across the length and breadth of the country. If the political system rewards those who mobilise people along parochial lines, the popular media obfuscates divide-and-rule politics by wrapping it in the language of vote-banks, secularism and social justice. So the juggernaut of competitive intolerance rolls on, unchecked.

So doesn’t this mean that we need curbs on freedom of speech? Couldn’t much of the violence been prevented if Raj Thackeray’s party magazine had simply been banned and television news channels censored?

Not quite. Newspaper reports and incessant coverage by television channels only brought the drama into our drawing rooms. But the banning of its house publication would not have deterred Mr Thackeray’s sena in its mission, for the action channel for political mobilisation and street violence works independently.

On the contrary, laws abridging freedom of speech have created incentives for the political use of intolerance.

Faced with a choice between taking “action” against an offending writer or facing down a mob of rioters, it is likely that a rational government official — from district magistrate to home minister — will choose the former. It works this way because the government official has the choice.

This choice offers those charged with maintaining law and order a convenient escape route. The Maharashtra state government, for instance, could pretend to be taking “action” by arresting Mr Thackeray and Abu Azmi for their incendiary speeches, after the damage had been done.

The only way to maintain law and order is to bring the violent to justice. But after the drama of Mr Thackeray’s arrest, the Maharashtra state government is unlikely to pursue the task of going after the thugs and their local leaders with any seriousness.

The upshot is that doing away with restraints to freedom of expression is not merely a matter of principle. Because those restraints often come at the cost of leaving criminals unpunished, getting rid of them is a practical necessity. [Mail Today JPG]

Update: Download the original essay in PDF form

Why the US paid big money to Pakistan

The US government’s complicity is not without reason. Although the reasons wouldn’t be the ones it can put in front of Congressional auditors. That’s because the money that the US was paying the Musharraf regime was the only way—short of messy, and far more expensive, military methods—it could retain a hold over its actions.

American dollars were not “wasted”, even if they won’t please prissy auditors

So the New York Times reports that all that money that the United States is giving to the Pakistani military establishment is being “wasted”. Musharraf’s regime is not only overcharging the United States, siphoning off much of it and not spending the money on fighting terrorism, as it should. One European diplomat is quoted as saying that the Americans are being taken for a ride.

Yet none of this is the least bit surprising. The US government knew before and during the entire period that the Pakistani establishment would behave exactly as it is behaving. The lessons of the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s in Afghanistan point to that. Musharraf’s contemporary shopping list—F-16 fighter aircraft, P3-C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and anti-ship missiles—was not exactly secret either. The smart people in Washington won’t be unaware of the principle of fungibility of money, as also the fungibility (to a large extent) of military hardware and training. The European diplomat is either being charitable or being naive. The US government is not a victim of the Pakistani military establishment: it is a willing accomplice.

But its complicity is not without reason. Although the reasons wouldn’t be the ones it can put in front of Congressional auditors. That’s because the money that the US was paying the Musharraf regime was the only way—short of messy, and far more expensive, military methods—it could retain a hold over its actions. The US essentially bought the co-operation of the Pakistani military establishment. The itemised billing was for show. Indeed, this strategy required the US to allow its money to be used, abused, siphoned and spirited away by the Musharraf regime. The idea was not to insist on transparency and accountability on how the funds were spent. Rather, it was to hold Musharraf accountable for the results. The pertinent question that needs to be asked—and criticism leveled against the Bush administration—is how far it pursued the latter. It is also reasonable to ask, in the interests of good governance design, how far the former affected the latter.

Let’s not forget externalities. Supplementing Pakistan’s military budget allowed the Musharraf regime to purchase more weapons than it could otherwise have changing the military balance with respect to India. And the US stands to benefit (via Atanu Dey, who has a lucid explanation of dollar auctions and deadly games) from the inevitable Indian response. If there is a victim in this story, it is the poor Indian taxpayer.