One of the more interesting and revealing comments about the Osama killing this week came from a gushing academic at the French Institute of Foreign Relations who took the debate into the realms of psychology and gender impulses.
What was great about the raid on Abbotabad for American voters, in this view, was that it was done “in the most classical, manly way… It wasn’t a drone, it wasn’t technology, it was man vs. man.’’
There has long been a tradition of macho-ness in American politics and on the macho-ness meter, Operation Neptune Spear in Abbottabad was the stuff of adolescent wet dreams: you dare mess with me, I’ll come and get you. Mano-a-mano. It’s a narrative straight out of Hollywood’s playbook, from John Wayne’s eternal Cowboy to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando.
The erotic manly nationalism that this kind of imagery embodies is precisely why it appeals so much to influential sections of the BJP, television anchors and large swathes of our middle classes who are now calling for a similar Indian raid on Pakistan.
Notions of aggressive manliness have always been at the heart of Hindutva and its appeal to the middle classes from the time of Hegdewar. Advani’s BJP became a political force from the 1980s on the back of exactly this kind of muscular Rambo-like Hindu-ness. In fact, terms like ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘hot pursuit’ were once the staple diet in the party’s political lexicon, before it wrested power in Delhi and promptly forgot all about them.
There can be no question about the Pakistani military’s duplicity but the return of an aggressive, unthinking military rhetoric in India deserves serious debate, not reflexive grandstanding.
There are important reasons why it is irresponsible for politicians to talk at this time of an Indian version of an Osama-like raid to get say Dawood or other terrorists who have sanctuary in Pakistan.
One, the heat is so much on Pakistan right now that we would do ourselves a great disservice by shifting focus to the possibility of an Indo-Pakistan conflagration at this juncture.
In fact, it would play straight into the Pakistan Army’s hands, which is using the India bogey to deflect stringent internal criticism and has used it as a ruse for years with the Americans to keep away demands for tougher action on terrorism. In diplomatic terms, this is the time for India to say ‘I told you so’ and hem in Islamabad, not get caught in self-defeating machismo.
Two, an American raid on Pakistan is very different from an Indian one. Pakistan and the US are still non-NATO allies in military terms.
American forces are based all over Pakistan, their planes fly over its airspace all the time and the Americans essentially pay for propping up the Pakistani economy to keep it from collapse. India is an adversary.
The bulk of the Pakistani military is deployed for an aggressive posture against our borders and the reaction to an Indian raid, whether successful or not, is not likely to be dissimilar to how we reacted on Kargil.
Pakistan may be a failing, toxic state but it is controlled by a robust military-intelligence complex whose entire existence itself is predicated on the notion of an Indian threat, not to mention its ultimate fallback position of nuclear blackmail.
Three, our self-image may now be uber-confident but military operations don’t work by Hollywood rules as Jimmy Carter learnt when he lost his presidency with the failure of a similar helicopter raid to rescue hostages in Teheran.
The Obama success is the culmination of a serious overhaul of American counter-terrorism capability that he ordered two years ago. The raid itself was in the planning for months, it wasn’t simply a reflexive, emotive Wild-West manoeuvre.
In our case, Indian special forces measure up man-to-man with the best in the business but most impartial experts agree that our strategic management needs a serious overhaul.
For instance, there is still no unified Special Forces Command. What we have is a number of specialised commando forces, run by different arms of the security establishment, with little centralised coordination and minimal upgradation of equipment in recent years, as we saw so painfully in 26/11.
Even so, there are now a few accounts in the public domain to show that Indian forces have in the past carried out successful covert strikes across the border. But they were never officially publicised and never against high profile targets precisely because the costs of doing so publicly may be too high.
The Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz was on to something when he argued that war is only politics by another means.
The point of every military action must always be what it can ultimately yield. By that analysis, the current political debate about military action is misleading and linked more to the exigencies of electoral politics rather than any serious strategic thought.