The sudden Israeli attack on Lebanon had the world transfixed for all of thirty eight days. It appears to have receded from public memory as swiftly as it appeared. Reflection on its lessons has so far dealt with implications for peace in the region, particularly with regard to terrorism; there has been little thought given to its lessons for other regions. But certainly there are some less obvious lessons for our conflict-prone sub-continent. While 'learning from history' and from others' experiences are well-worn clichés, it would nevertheless be prudent for us to attempt that exercise.
A look at the key ingredients of the pattern of armed conflict of late provides the best entry point into such a search. Three ingredients to the pattern are: one, that self-defense has acquired a wider definition; two, that acceptability of collateral damage is increasing; and, lastly, that the apparently justifiable rationale can be commandeered for self serving power-related ends.
The prevalent international rules regarding the use of force, were developed in the aftermath of the Second World War and explicated in the United Nations Charter. Of interest is Article 51, which legitimises state resort to force only in self-defense against an armed attack. However, the impact of 9/11 has brought in a greater permissibility in the use of force by states. In the context of terrorist attacks taking their toll of innocents by design, this move away from the earlier restrictions on use of force appears defensible. The logic of preemptive war, or of anticipatory self-defense, put out by the USA has persuaded many, and some states are willing to act imitatively. The doctrine has vindicated Israel's historical argument in defense of its earlier military incursions into its neighbours' territories. The argument runs that having been subject to a series of attacks, cumulatively amounting to an 'armed attack', Israel is empowered by the otherwise restrictive principle of self-defense to resort to war under an expansive reading of Article 51.
Any such military reaction would inevitably witness innocent bloodshed under the antiseptic term 'collateral damage'. Earlier norms on restricting attacks to military targets have suffered since the first war of the CNN age, Iraq War I. Indirect assault on enemy morale, resolve and cohesion is conducted through damaging the facilities taken as essential to modern civilised life. The abiding memory of the change of regime effected by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the human cost exacted; incidentally continuing in both places. Likewise the Israeli trans-border actions have accounted for over one thousand lives and destruction of vital civilian infrastructure. Terrorism has equally contributed to the extension in definition of military targets, for it attempts directly what militaries prefer to do indirectly.
Closer home, the ceasefire on the Line of Control (LOC), dating to November 2003, has ended the deliberate artillery duels on villages and villagers along the LOC, such as in the Neelam valley and at Kargil. This hidden war was brought to the world's notice by BBC correspondent, Jason Burke. He touched on this lesser known sidelight of the Jammu and Kashmir issue again in his contribution to the book On the Abyss: Pakistan After the Coup. It can be inferred that the earlier belief of subcontinental conflict being mindful of civilian lives has not withstood the political and social respectability acquired by religious extremists on either side.
Lastly, exploitable hatreds continue to exist; this portends a continuation of the present into the future. The argument of militarily prevailing over a terrorist antagonist will continue to provide an opportunity for expansionism by states. Being subject to terrorism is tragic for victims, but an opportunity for fulfilling security agendas for states. Taking advantage of 9/11, neocon elements in the Bush administration have worked to carve out a New American Century. Israel has exploited the challenge of the Hamas and Hezbollah to extend its security interests. It would therefore be unsurprising if India were to use the terrorism argument to contain Pakistan and augment its own power; both measures contributing to its bid for regional preeminence. Operation Parakram was perhaps premature. A future constellation of circumstances may find India persuaded to court the unintended consequence of its decision.
The little recognized problem lies is in the limitations of the military options. Strategic calculations are quickly rendered problematic in the age of asymmetric warfare. While armies may be easier to gauge, militias and cellular terrorist opponents are much less so. India's eagerness to paint itself into the same corner as the West - as victim of the same transnational Islamist conspiracy they are subject to - makes it susceptible to believing the military option has vitality. Instead, it would do better to tackle societal roots of terror, as also those arising in dysfunctional relations with its most significant neighbour.
There is a constituency for and disposition within India to emulate the power-oriented approach. The good news is that lessons drawn from the direction that armed conflict has taken over the past decade have not been lost on India. But with other nations increasingly willing to embrace a different view of self-defence and acceptable collateral damage, India too may be driven into strategic irrationality, especially if some future events and circumstances were to be misperceived as a strategic opportunity.