In Other Words

India Gets Defensive

India Gets Defensive

Force, February 2005, New Delhi

The war on terror is not panning out as India had hoped. As allies frantically repositioned themselves following the terrorist attacks on the United States, and the Bush administration’s subsequent declaration of war on terrorists, India anticipated that its good standing with America would only rise. At the very least, so the thinking went, Pakistan’s fortunes would fall, as it had been an early and consistent backer of the Taliban, now America’s enemy No. 1. Surely, many Indians thought, these events would finally reveal Pakistan — India’s longtime rival — for the regional threat to stability that it is.

Of course, that isn’t how things worked out. Instead, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf became a key U.S. ally in America’s campaign because of his strategic value to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. For many Indians, American tolerance of Pakistan went from misguided to maddening. The country’s patience was pushed to the limit when, after Pakistani-backed terrorists attacked India’s parliament in December 2001, Washington urged New Delhi to show restraint. Not long after, I overheard one man in a New Delhi train station say, "If the Pakistanis had attacked the U.S. Capitol, the Americans would have been in Islamabad by now."

That sentiment is exhibited in a 24-page editorial special on the war on terror in the February issue of Force, an Indian magazine devoted to national security. The package is authored primarily by Force editors Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab, two former defense correspondents who seem engrossed in the minutiae of their beat and on the lookout for Indian setbacks. The essays lament the steady stream of U.S. aid and weaponry into Pakistan, worrying that U.S. policy neglects India’s own battle with Islamist terrorists in Kashmir, and decrying Washington’s failure to punish Islamabad for its support of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation network.

Launched two years ago, Force reflects the national security debate’s movement beyond the elite circles of New Delhi and Calcutta, especially following India’s 1998 nuclear tests. Packaged as a full-color consumer magazine, the publication demonstrates how foreign-policy and security concerns are becoming more mainstream topics of discussion. For example, Force‘s second issue reported on how the 1999 war with Pakistan in the Kargil region of Kashmir inspired a spate of Bollywood films on the military and India-Pakistan wars. Other pieces have noted the rise of new security think tanks and the expansion of defense-related news coverage in national newspapers, as well as less traditional security issues such as poppy cultivation in Afghanistan and the incidence of AIDS in the armed forces. At slightly more than a dollar per issue, Force costs roughly half of what Time and Newsweek charge on Indian newsstands. And judging by how national newsweeklies are mirroring their coverage, it’s clearly an area of growing reader interest.

More analysis, however, doesn’t always translate into better analysis: The Indian media persists in its myopic perception of every Pakistani gain as an Indian loss. For example, the Bush administration’s declaration of Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally in March 2004 spurred much hand-wringing in the Indian media, even though the implications of the decision were unclear. More recently, the March announcement that the United States would sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan sparked another round of alarmist commentary. Demonstrating an openness atypical among Indian publications, Force editors included three distinct perspectives on the F-16 announcement in their April issue: One takes a pessimistic view of the F-16 sale, another fully endorses the U.S. offer of an F-18 package to India, and a third calls the deal a "double-edged sword" for Pakistan that paves the way for Washington to sell high–tech arms to India without spoiling its relationship with Islamabad.

But the despondency about India’s relationship with Washington reflected in Force‘s pages is overplayed. The observation by a former Indian general in the February issue that India’s terrorism fight "will for some time yet have to be undertaken by [India] alone" is actually good news for New Delhi. Sawhney and Wahab argue that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, was the epicenter of the terrorist threat, and that the United States should have recognized it as such. Yet a combative stance toward Pakistan and a full, public embrace of India could have been a policy disaster for the United States — and for India too. An uncooperative Pakistan would make counterterrorism operations and support for Afghanistan far more difficult and costly for the United States, and Indian efforts to combat militancy in Kashmir would be saddled with America’s image problem.

Force‘s broad approach to security is an improvement on the alarmist tone often struck in India’s newspapers and magazines. It’s clear, however, that its editors are still inclined to reinforce India’s persecution complex. That’s an urge they should resist because, in truth, things are rarely that bad, even for India.