Donald Rumsfeld, who was America’s defence secretary during the Iraq war, pointed out that you fight with the army you have rather than the one you want. This truism underscores the basic responsibility of a defence minister: to maintain and hone during periods of peace the army that will be needed during times of conflict.

Every war is different. Armies train to fight the next battles rather than repeat previous ones. The set-piece formations of military engagement now seem what they are, history. The enemy no longer necessarily wears a uniform, creating a dysfunctional battlefield. It fights as a disparate militia, in bands that slip through populations like Mao Zedong’s famous fish in water. But Mao’s guerrilla fish were all red, and obeyed the command structure of a Communist party. These bands answer to just their frenzied imaginations.

The fighting units of a loose trans-national conglomeration like Taliban and its partners hit when they can, and rest when they cannot. It is a war of attrition. They do not have artillery or an air force, but they have numbers, motivation, firepower, objectives and that invaluable resource called time. These methods have seen off the Soviet Union as well as America-led Nato from Afghanistan, which is a significant military achievement. Politically, they are leading the crusade to turn Afghanistan and Pakistan into a theocracy that will spread out and engulf adjacent regions where Muslims live, like Kashmir in India, Xinjiang in China and of course the many “stans” of Central Asia which still believe in a non-theocratic state.

It is easy to be gulled by seeming contradictions. Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba might, in their confrontation with India, serve as terrorist ancillaries of a larger and older war, even as they pursue their dream of changing the nature of the Pak and Afghan state. But for them these are two sides of the same ideological coin. They have the freedom to expand strategies with impunity.

Newspapers are already giving us a glimpse of what the withdrawal of Nato from south and central Asia will mean. There is a visible sense of triumph as theocratic forces pause and regroup in their long march towards the “liberation” of “Muslim lands”. They do not accept the concept of a secular state; for them Muslims, whether in India or Pakistan or China, who believe in secular societies are enemies twice over.

The question before Delhi is simple: are we prepared for a multi-dimensional conflict where the struggle against terrorists could conflate with conventional war if provocation multiplies?

We know only too well how difficult it was for the Indian Army to restore peace in Kashmir after the onslaught that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan two decades ago. Today, China is also on their radar, as are southern Russia and Central Asia.

Just a few days ago, China was shocked by an unprecedented terrorist attack, when men dressed in black and armed with knives suddenly descended on commuters at a railway station, spreading mayhem.

Terrorism has escalated sharply in China’s only Muslim-majority province, Xinjiang. Beijing prefers to mask its worries, but this mask has begun to peel. At some point, China will have to reassess the cost-benefit ratio of its relations with Islamabad if terrorists continue to use Pakistan as their fortress.

The question before Delhi is simple: are we prepared for a multi-dimensional conflict where the struggle against terrorists could conflate with conventional war if provocation multiplies?

The answer is pessimistic. One of the great casualties of indecisive government in the last five years has been India’s defence preparedness. Under the inert, comatose and debilitating leadership of Defence Minister A.K. Antony, India’s security capability has weakened, even while tensions have risen. Our equipment is degraded; essential purchases have been neglected. The collapse of morale in our Navy is only one symptom of a prevailing disease that is gradually immobilising the nerve centres of our defence. There has been no political accountability. The enemy is at the door, and Antony is in a stupor.

If nothing else, at least the coming elections will ensure that India has a new defence minister by June. But the amount of repair and reconstruction needed is enormous, and time is very short. The scenario in the region is changing rapidly, and not for the better. We are facing a decade of high risk. This will demand a new approach in our foreign policy as well. An enemy’s enemy does not automatically become a friend, but he can become an associate on the battlefield. India and China may need each other more than they suspect. Russia will not need persuasion for it understands the danger to Central Asia. Ideally, Pakistan should be equally wary of gun-toting theocrats, but perhaps it will take a deeper crisis to bring such clarity.

What China and Pakistan do is for them to decide. India must fight its own battles. But battles are fought by armies. Do we still have the one we need?

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