Geopolitical notes from India
M D Nalapat
Friday, July 30, 2010 – Although many within the subcontinent point to the simillarities, the reality is that by the dawn of the 21st century, at the least the Indian and Pakistani militaries have developed two very different cultures. Especially from the 1970s, the effort in Rawalpindi has been to look westwards, at the Arab countries, Turkey and Iran to bring together the elements of a Pakistan identity. India and its culture and history have been left behind, even while elements of it – such as Mohenjo Daro and Taxila – show that the land of Pakistan has hosted civilisations that were world leaders two millenia ago. Since the period of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, there has been a steady congruence between the culture of Saudi Arabia and the ethos of the Pakistan army, even though in Pakistan as a whole Sufi remnants remain strong. Even these days,in the local cultures, there is an emphasis on Pirs and Makhdooms, concepts alien to Saudi Wahabbism.
Even had he been denied any assistance from Washington, General Zia would still have sought to help the Afghan mujahideen. Indeed, there is evidence that units of this Pashtun militia were formed in Pakistan soon after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The plan of then US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezesinski to defeat Moscow by the giving of assistance to the mujahideen was based on advice given by GHQ Rawalpindi to contacts in the Pentagon in the beginning of 1980. Of course, Brezezinski may never admit to following any advice not given by his friends from Europe!.
From the British-trained Field Marshal Ayub Khan to the homespun Generals Zia and now Parvez Ashfaq Kayani, the culture shift is obvious. This change within the Pakistan military has distanced it sharply from its counterpart in India, which is still rooted in a mixture of the subcontinent’s syncretic traditions and British-era ritual. However, such a retention of the ethos of the Raj has brought ot closer to other militaries, notably that of the US. Today, while there is a growing camaraderie between elements of the militaries of the US and India, because of common elements in culture such as a multi-ethnic and multi-faith tradition, the easy familiarity between junior levels in the Pakistan army and their US counterparts that was so visible in the days of the Cold War have given way to a more formal approach to each other.These days the ranks of the Pakistan army seem far more comfortable with equivalent ranks in the PLA than with US forces. The Chinese soldiers who participated in last month’s counter-terrorism exercises with their Pakistani allies enjoyed the interaction with the faujis sent by GHQ. Of course, besides the deepening influence of religion ,another factor creating distance from the US and from NATO more genewrally has been resentment at US actions in the Muslim-majority countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. Such anger against US forces is absent within the Indian military, although much of civil society in India has been dismayed at the revelations of the trigger-happy nature of NATO operations in both countries and the near-zero accountabilty that is enforced within that alliance for those who commit such deeds.
The reason why personal contact between individual elements in the US and Indian militaries is still low relative to those between the US side and Pakistan is not simply the five decades when Delhi and Washington were on opposite sides during the Cold War, but the ultra-moralistic approach of India’s defense establishment to such fraternisation. Those within thearmed services who developed close friendships with individual US counterparts often found their careers blighted,with even email exchanges being viewed with suspicion. The Defense Ministry, ensconced in Delhi’s British-era North Block, would like to see its soldiers behave the same way as monks and nuns do, and avoid the natural consequences of close human contact. Of course, this Victorian attitude is changing, but only very slowly, with the realisation that it is normal to form close friendships, even those spanning continents, and that such people are not criminals but remain good soldiers and patriots on both sides, India and the US.
In the case of the Pakistan military, while those at the top have excellent relations with their US allies, lower down soldiers are suspicious of each other. In contrast, in India the Cold War attitudes of the past still affect several military personnel at the top, who – especially in the Air Force and the Navy – still see Moscow rather than Washington as the better ally. Six years ago, when an effort was made to get the US Navy to gift the huge “Kitty Hawk” aircraft carrier to India, this was shot down by opposition from the top levels of the Indian navy,who were apprehensive that the induction of “Kitty Hawk” would result in the cancellation of the order for the Russian carrier,”Admiral Gorshkov”, which is still unable to navigate comfortably at sea, despite costing the Defense Ministry more than $1.6 billion in repairs and refit. There are strategic thinkers in both India and the US who are looking at the experience in 1939-45 Britain,where the US gave dozens of used ships to the Royal Navy. Should the Pentagon and North Block agree to a similar arrangement with India,the Indian navy would increase its capacities manifold, although it would need to function in some congruence with the US navy. However,the strong Moscow lobby within India’s defense establishment has joined hands with the “Pakistan lobby” in the Pentagon to jointly ensure that such a pairing does not take place.
Coming as he does from the Communist-ruled state of Kerala, Union Defense Minister A K Antony is wary of being seen as close to the US, hence the reluctance to agree to the Pentagon’s request that India sign the CISMOA,LSA and BECA accordsthat would significantly strengthen defense ties between Delhi and Washington. Antony’s fear could be that the Communists in Kerala would seek to paint him as a tool of the US were these three accords to be signed, a smear that could have a negative effect in Kerala’s electoral politics. However, despite such caution about ties with the US within India’s defense establishment, North Block has signed a $ 2.1 billion order for P81 Orion surveillance aircraft and is about to sign a $ 3 billion order for ten C17 Globemasters for lift capability in the event of a military or other emergency. Very rapidly, despite the negative signals from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who are both wary of angering Pakistan by coming closer to India), the US and Indian militaries are becoming “inter-operatable”, a trend that is expected to continue.
Should the Manmohan Singh government defy the powerful French and Russian lobbies operating in Delhi and opt for US aircraft (ideally the F18) for the 126 frontline fighter aircraft deal, relations between the Indian and US armed services would develop even faster than at present. Whether it is the UK or the US, Germany or France, the lure of the Indian market has tempered the earlier constant calls by the US and the EU to “settle Kashmir with Pakistan”,thus giving relief to the hawks in India, who are opposed to making any concession demanded by the Pakistan military.
However, it is not just international geo-economics that has ensured that hawks will always carry the day in India. What is the way out of the present impasse? Perhaps there is need not only for Foreign Minister Qureshi and External Affairs Minister Krishna to meet, or even Prime Ministers Gilani and Singh, but for the two Army Chiefs of Staff to meet. The militaries on both sides need to meet and discuss their differences, keeping in view the fact that tensions between India and Pakistan has made both sides the plaything of more powerful countries. The men in green of the Indian army need to meet the men in khaki of the Pakistan army, not in the field of battle, but in a sunlit conference room with plentiful servings of hot chai and samosas.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.