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The war with Pakistan that began in earnest 50 years ago today is remembered as a desultory affair that ultimately led to a stalemate on both sides. Pakistan could not attain its objective of seizing Kashmir; India’s counter assault—aimed at seizing Lahore—was stopped in its tracks. The importance of the event does not lie in battles won and lost or territory gained and ceded but in something else. The period that began with the aborted attempt to foment a rebellion in Kashmir—beginning 5 August 1965—and ended at the culmination of the Kargil War—July 1999—was one long interval of a peculiar kind of thinking among Pakistan’s generals.

The genesis of the war lay in two developments: the modernization and re-equipping of India’s armed forces after the disastrous war with China in 1962 and the warming of relations between New Delhi and Washington. Both were viewed with alarm by Ayub Khan, the country’s military ruler, and by late 1964, there was a “now or never" air in Pakistan. Viewed from his perspective, the situation was increasingly bad. On the one hand, India was rearming itself and in some years would be unbeatable, and on the other hand, the Kashmir issue was losing its importance internationally. The “window of opportunity" in which the situation could be changed was narrowing. Ayub’s solution was a war.

This “windows" thinking did not cease after that stalemate. It remained in vogue for a long time and a very different general, Pervez Musharraf, displayed it again more than 30 years later. In the course of a briefing given to then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Musharraf used reasoning almost identical to the one employed by Ayub. His logic was simple: “I told her that the time window for the resolution of Kashmir dispute is short. Because with the passage of time, the India-Pakistan equation, military equation and economic equation is going against us…I told her that with time, the differential is increasing and the window will close. Therefore, if at all, we have to do anything, we should be planning to do it in a short while." (Quoted by Shuja Nawaz in Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within, 2009, page 511).

Were it not for their fateful consequences, these army commanders were behaving like admirable economics undergraduates engaged in an expected utility maximization problem. The “windows" attitude is a very good example of evaluating what economists call lotteries. Suppose you are sitting in a college café and you have two choices: you can get a cake slice with probability ½ now and the same slice of cake with probability ¼ tomorrow. It goes without saying that you will grab the first option. If you are a Pakistani general and your cake is Kashmir, you will try and seize it when the probability of success is higher. If in your assessment that probability will reduce over time, you will not waste your “window of opportunity".

From Ayub to Musharraf, this kind of thinking has remained dominant in Rawalpindi. One would want to cite army chiefs such as Asif Nawaz Janjua or even a Jehangir Karamat as honourable exceptions, but in a system so attuned to the kind of thinking initiated by Ayub Khan, one is forced to rethink.

There is nothing wrong in thinking about situations this way. The trouble is that it is not the generals but elected leaders who should be taking such decisions. This is not because there is something morally superior about an elected leader solving this sort of problem but because they are better able to evaluate these chances. For example, Bhutto, for all her shortcomings, knew what would be the consequences of attempting to seize Kashmir by force. Across the border, in India, an Atal Bihar Vajpayee clearly appreciated the risks of war and halted in his tracks after having mobilized the army for an assault on Pakistan in 2002. Earlier, in 1999, his government gave an injunction to the armed forces not to cross the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir during the Kargil war. Politicians may not be adept at manipulating Von Neumann-Morgenstern utility functions but their heuristic sense is much stronger than that of generals who think in terms of “windows".

What is interesting about the 1965 war is that it marked the start of this sort of thinking. By 1958, Ayub had no master and became a “general with initiative". It took another seven years before he took the fateful step of launching a war based on a probabilistic understanding of what was going on. In those seven years, there was no check—internationally and domestically—that could have made him change his thinking. What is painful for Pakistan is that this became a way of thinking for its generals. Its end-products were dismemberment and a toxic, radicalized, environment.

Have matters changed since 1999? The absence of open conflict since then may make one think that the probability of seizing Kashmir successfully by force has fallen below an acceptable threshold. The international system, too, will not tolerate this kind of adventurism anymore, unless a Great Power encourages this kind of thinking again. There is, of course, a candidate in sight.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist takes stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist

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