Everyone is Debating Knowns, Unknowns and the Evidence of Absence at the LAC

The contradictory claims and counter-claims being made within government, and within the media, bring to mind former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quip about Iraq.

The complex standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh is further confounded by a lack of accurate information from either side, bringing to mind US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous 2002 quip.

When asked at a US Defence Department briefing on the lack of evidence linking the Iraqi government with possession of weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld bafflingly but compellingly declared:

“There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld. Photo: R.D. Ward, United States Department of Defense, public domain

Presciently, the former US defence secretary’s senseless outburst described the prevailing impasse 18 years later between the Indian Army and the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) along the LAC, particularly in the strategic Galwan Valley Area and the nearby Dapsang Plains.

In pursuit of classic Rumsfeldian logic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too, in his statement at the June 19 all-party meet with opposition leaders, issued an equally befuddling message on the PLA’s positioning on the LAC, and the circumstances surrounding the death of 20 Indian Army soldiers in a violent clash.

The PM’s account was further compounded by contradictory statements from the foreign office in New Delhi and more recently by India’s ambassador to Beijing Vikram Misri regarding the operational, military and above all territorial control of parts of the LAC. All these were also in the Rumsfeldian mould.

Further confounding matters is the slew of retired army officers, many of whom had served on and around the 3,488km-long LAC aeons ago, in their nightly rants on television news channels aimed ostensibly at providing ‘clarity’ on the military situation at these forbidding heights.

Regrettably, these armchair gladiators, long past their prime, tend to tilt Rumsfeld-wards in analysing the LAC crisis that oscillates between military commotion and ambiguity in the plethora of competing accounts.

Also Read: Modi and the Illusion of Chinese Intrusions at Ladakh

Ideally, the clincher would have been the abundance of commercial satellite imagery.

But this too is being interpreted by various television news organisations to suit their respective subjective outlooks depending on their political predilections.

One set of images is interpreted as the PLA’s withdrawal, whilst the same set denotes further PLA ingress for another channel. A third for some nationalistic channels, amazingly, depicts the Indian Army re-claiming LAC control.

Satellite image of bend in the Galwan river where Chinese and Indian troops clashed on June 15. Photo: Twitter

Returning in conclusion to Rumsfeld, we can safely state in his inimitable words that “it sounds like a riddle. It isn’t a riddle. It is a very serious, important matter”.

Furthermore, he stated at a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels in mid-2000, that there is another way to phrase what he was trying to say: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way.”

“Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists, does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist. And yet almost always, when we make our threat assessments, when we look at the world, we end up basing it on the first two pieces of that puzzle, rather than all three,” Rumsfeld added.

Looked at through the Rumsfeld prism, is not the situation on the LAC crystal clear now?