South Asia and the Doctrine of Pre-emption

South Asia and the Doctrine of Pre-emption
April 2003

India’s External affairs minister Yashwant Sinha’s comment in the wake of the Nadimarg killings that India has greater reason to strike at Pakistan than the US had against Iraq, has stirred up quite a hornet’s nest. “Every country has the right to pre-emption and the doctrine is not the prerogative of any one nation.” The implication was clear, if acts of militant violence in this country were traced to, or even suspected to originate in, Pakistan and its intelligence agencies the Government has the right to take pre-emptive action. The Minister for Civil Aviation, Shahnawaz Hussain, also said that India reserves the right for pre-emptive strikes if Pakistan continued to abet and sponsor terrorism, also followed this up. He reminded Pakistan not to underestimate the military strength of India and said: “even if Pakistan approaches the U.S. to come to its rescue, we have to think in terms of our own interest and security. The Gulf countries have their compulsions for not opposing U.S. action on Iraq but the same standards do not apply for India.” Given the sensitivity of the issue, New Delhi’s dabbling with the doctrine of pre-emption can only be on the dangerous lines especially as in the India-Pakistan context such tactics make little sense militarily, diplomatically or politically, besides being self-defeating. Ever since the American adoption of pre-emptive strikes as a legitimate method of ‘self-defense’ against perceived enemies, several countries have embraced the idea. Russia was one of the first, warning of a strike against Chechen rebels. India, too, has occasionally voiced similar feelings although, in its case, the concept predates that of the Americans. Not surprisingly, the US has been firmly against any other country indulging in such an adventure. What the US has given itself the right to do is to be denied to all others. It is this specific sentiment, which a US State Department spokesman articulated recently when he rejected that any parallels existed between the conditions in Iraq and in the subcontinent. The snub came for Washington that Kashmir couldn’t be equated with Iraq. Even while recognizing the very serious nature of the situation in Kashmir, the Bush administration said that attempts to draw parallels between Iraq and Kashmir are wrong and overwhelmed by the differences between them; and that the circumstances that made the coalition military action necessary in Iraq did not apply to the sub-continent. “Indian officials have recently speculated that U.S. pre-emptive action in Iraq could be seen as a justification of similar action by India against Pakistan over Kashmir. Any attempts to draw parallels between the Iraq and the Kashmir situations are wrong and overwhelmed by the differences between them.[i] US reaction was not surprising in the context that US has never shied away from applying different standards to itself and the rest of the world. Pakistan has swiftly pointed out that India is not United States, nor the power equation between New Delhi and Islamabad comparable to that between Washington and Baghdad.[ii]

New Delhi was not to be favorably disposed to the perceived differential treatment from Washington. Given its almost opaque stand on Iraq which saw only a call for an immediate end to the war against Iraq and a quick withdrawal of the `coalition’ troops, New Delhi took the opportunity to claim that US contention that there were no similarities between the situation in Iraq and Pakistan was unacceptable to India since available facts contradicted Washington’s position. As Yashwant Sinha put it Pakistan possesses and proliferates weapons of mass destruction. It is also expanding such weapons. It is for this reason that America has banned the Khan Research Laboratory, which is at the centre of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. If America thought Iraq had a dictatorship, then Pakistan had no democracy and was the “epicentre and exporter of terrorism.” Though he refused to commit himself to discuss on any pre-emption option, there were indications that, in the context of regular engagements on the line of control and continuing infiltrations across the border, a new strategy had been discussed during the recent internal security meeting, which was attended among others by Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, to check infiltration and cross-border terrorism. [iii]

As a strategic option, pre-emption just is not always suitable to sub-serve national interest goals. Here the intention needs to be matched with capability and the capability of the adversary need to be taken into consideration. The almost symmetrical capability between India and Pakistan makes this sort of option as nothing more than weapons of mere rhetoric. In fact, there have been references to pre-emptive action, mainly against the terrorist-training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, by people at various levels in Indian politics and the government. However, these have always been at the level of rhetoric and no serious action was ever contemplated. In fact, even during the Kargil conflict, India scrupulously maintained the sanctity of the Line of Control though the temptations for crossing over were overwhelming.[iv] Similarly, during the long mobilization in 2001-02 along the border following the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament, the same restraint was maintained.

In the context of apparent loss to the credibility of the collective security arrangements under the auspices of the United Nations, the debate on the doctrine of pre-emption could have potentially grave implications especially in crisis zones such as in South Asia. The helplessness of the United Nations could easily be exploited by individual nations in their pursuit of narrow national agendas. The implications could also be potentially frightening in view of the failure of other informal institutions such as the Uniting for Peace initiative of the General Assembly. Here the problem has been that, such arrangements lack enforceability. The NAM could provide a convenient umbrella for the purpose without causing political problems to any country, but its profile has been on the decline. Thus without viable collective effort, individual actions can be dangerous and mostly counterproductive.

[i] The Hindu 5 April 2003.

[ii] The Times of India 8 April 2003, The Hindu 7 April 2003

[iii] The Times of India 14 April 2003

[iv] Hindustan Times 8 April 2003
Compiled from media sources


Arabinda Acharya