On Dec 13, 2001, Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament, which had been in session and had just adjourned a few minutes back. It was reported that more than a hundred Members of Parliament including India’s senior leaders like Shri LK Advani were in the building. If the police and security personnel stationed there had not reacted swiftly and defended the building with their lives, calamity would have befallen India that day. 8 police and 1 staff were killed in the attack, 15 people were injured while the 5 attacking terrorists were also killed. 4 more terrorists were also later arrested.
In a quick investigation, India found irrefutable evidence that the ISI, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad had jointly planned and carried out the attack. It was a challenge to the very core of India’s nationhood. India had to respond, quickly and heavily. It’s reputation on the global stage was at stake. Any hesitation would be perceived by the world and especially by Pakistan as a sign of weakness.
India therefore amassed its troops on its borders threatening to invade Pakistan, which also brought its troops to the border. Both armies stood eyeball to eyeball in an intense and high-tension standoff that lasted more than 6 months. It was the biggest military mobilization for both countries since the 1971 war, which India had won handily, humiliating Pakistan into signing a surrender. In 1999, Pakistan had stabbed India in the back by a cowardly sneak attack on Kargil and India had pushed them out despite having been caught totally unawares. The Kargil attack was an especially sickening betrayal because our Prime Minister, Shri A B Vajpayee had personally gone to Pakistan in a great gesture of friendship and goodwill.
And yet in 2001, when the very foundation of our democracy had been attacked and our global prestige hung in the balance, India did not cross the line. We did nothing. Why? Because 3 years before that, the nuclear tests conducted by both countries had levelled the playing field. Till then, India was always much superior to Pakistan in conventional warfare, but we had given away the advantage in 1998. We could have defeated Pakistan easily even in 2001. But the fear was that the madmen in Pakistan would use the nuclear option rather than surrender like they did in 1971, and knowing fully well that they were no match for India, the crazy leadership in Pakistan had made it known that if push came to shove, they would not hesitate to hit the red button.
Now, for a second, think of what would have been our response if Pakistan had no nuclear weapons. Would we have hesitated? No, we would have rolled across the border, smashed their army to smithereens and barreled our way right into their Parliament building in Islamabad! After all, they had dared to attack our Parliament! It was one the most audacious and alarming attacks ever launched on India. But for some courageous police reaction, it could have been catastrophic for India! I don’t think anybody in their right minds would have objected to India’s crossing the LOC then. What Pakistan had done had no sympathizers anywhere whereas India had every reason, justification and world support! Wars break out for much smaller reasons. But at the same time, the whole world was on edge, waiting with bated breath, fearful that any forceful action on India’s part would trigger a fatal response from Pakistan.
Eventually, the impasse was resolved and the troops withdrew from the border, without anything serious happening. The red button had played its part. The twin principles of nuclear arms as a deterrent and mutually assured destruction were firmly reinforced. But there was another important factor too. India has always been a peaceful nation and has always used war as a last resort. We are not a people given to jumping into wars. Fortunately, irrespective of party, India has also been blessed with sane and unwarlike leaders. Hence, it was that despite all the militant rhetoric and anger in the country at the time, India managed to restrain itself and avoid a potentially disastrous war.
Now, switch to 9/11.
A small-time terrorist group headed by a hitherto hardly known Osama Bin Ladin attacks a giant superpower USA, fells two of its most prestigious and well known buildings, kills over 3000 innocents in probably the worst terror attack in history. America’s Defence HQ, the Pentagon takes a hit and the Capitol building narrowly misses one. President Bush has to go into hiding.
Osama then takes refuge in a teeny weeny, poor, third world non-nuclear country that refuses to hand him over to the US. How do you expect a superpower like the US to react? How do you think China or Russia or even UK and France would have reacted? There was nothing to stop the US and too much to egg them on. There was anger across the country and a clamor for revenge. If they had not gone in, the terrorists would have laughed at them and the world would have called them weak. No superpower will like that. Tiny Afghanistan, ruled by a few thousand ragtag terrorists calling themselves the Taliban, was thumbing their nose at a superpower. They asked for it. That was not all. America had Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, three war mongers and believers in US military invincibility. I think America may have learned a lesson or two in the past twenty years, but the America of 2001 was always gung-ho about war and ready to launch at a moment’s notice. It is also not a country that believes in accepting anything lying down. Its own interest is paramount and if pushed, it will not care about the welfare of the world. It was this absolute hubris in its power and total self-centric view of the world that pushed it into Afghanistan. There was really no reason to hold back and nobody powerful enough to restrain it.
The US had in principle justification for going there. They did everything right in the first few months. They drove the Taliban and Al Queda out in no time and established an elected government in Afghanistan which voted in a free and fair election after 30 years. Political institutions were put in place and good things started happening with schools, education and women. But the US messed it up early into their Afghanistan misadventure.
The US dropped the ball when they decided to invade Iraq in 2003. That was totally unnecessary, immoral, without reason and driven by that same self-defeating hubris. Iraq was not at all involved in 9/11. The US took their eyes off Afghanistan, moved critical resources to Iraq from Afghanistan, leaving the job half done in the latter country. This was the test of their war on two fronts theory which the right-wing war hawks had dreamed up in cahoots with the US military-defense complex. There was no way they could have succeeded. And yet, they went. That was when things started falling apart in Afghanistan.
The mess we are seeing today is the culmination of a downward spiral caused by that mad decision taken in 2003. If only they had stuck to their mission in Afghanistan, even if it had morphed into a major nation-building exercise and completed the destruction of the Taliban and Al Queda, perhaps things may have come to a better pass today. Instead, the Taliban seized on a distracted and divided US and began their fateful advance into the country and by the time, Trump came to power, a war-weary America was just waiting and willing to hand back all the gains to the Taliban as long as they let them end the pointless war and get out peacefully, even if humbled, humiliated and defeated. And that is how America looks to the world today. How the mighty have fallen!