Saturday, January 09, 2016
Saturday, July 02, 2011
COPPING OUT OF AFGHANISTAN
US President Barack Obama’s ‘way forward in Afghanistan’ speech should really have been titled ‘way out of Afghanistan’. Leave aside the elegance of Obama’s oratory and his steely resolve to defeat the Al Qaeda and not allow terrorist safe havens from where attacks can be planned and launched against the US and its allies, his drawdown plan – starting July, the US will pull out 10000 troops by end of the year, another 23000 by September next, and after that a steady withdrawal of troops to complete the transition of handing over security to Afghan forces by 2014 – is, in essence, a plan for an orderly retreat from Afghanistan.
Far from enhancing security in Afghanistan and rest of the world, Obama’s cop out from Afghanistan will effectively reverse the tenuous gains made by the ‘surge’. With the easing of the pressure that was being put on the Al Qaeda/Taliban forces in Afghanistan and their patrons and supporters in Pakistan, there is likely to be yet another resurgence of the Islamists in the Afpak region. What is worse, the resulting rise in Islamist violence will be inversely proportional to the determination of many of their opponents in Afghanistan and Pakistan to stand up and fight against their virulence. This is so not only because some of these purported opponents have always adopted a rather ambivalent attitude towards fighting the Taliban, but also because with the Americans trying to cut deals with the Taliban, it makes a lot more sense to switch loyalties to the perceived winners of the war.
The entire Obama plan is predicated on a few assumptions about how the situation in Afghanistan will evolve over the next couple of years. The first assumption is that after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the ties that bound the Al Qaeda and Taliban have been greatly loosened. Hence, the UN resolution delinking the Taliban from the Al Qaeda, which the Americans believe will help in pushing the ‘reconciliation process’ forward by giving an incentive to the Taliban to sever their links with the Al Qaeda and join the mainstream.
The problem with this assumption is that, one, the Taliban consider themselves as the mainstream; two, with the Americans giving the impression of throwing in the towel, there is greater incentive for the Islamists to go for broke rather than enter into power sharing deals, which in any case will be observed more in their violation; three, if even before 9/11, Mullah Omar felt that he couldn’t move against the Al Qaeda, what are the chances that now, after a decade of fighting together against a common enemy, the Taliban will give up the Al Qaeda? If anything, any move by Mullah Omar to break relations with the Al Qaeda could well end up in his being repudiated by his followers, many of whom are far more radicalised today after over a decade of close contact with the Al Qaeda.
The other faulty assumptions implicit in Obama’s speech are: a) peace in Afghanistan is not possible without a political settlement; b) since the drawdown is taking place from a ‘position of strength’, the security situation in Afghanistan will continuously improve, or at least will remain manageable, and the Afghan National Army (ANA) will be able to take over the responsibilities of the ISAF; c) while the US will withdraw the bulk of its troops, it will still maintain a few bases inside Afghanistan which will provide the necessary back up support to the ANA.
Frankly speaking, the refrain that ‘war is not a solution’ and that ‘talks is the only way out’ is utter nonsense. The fact of the matter is that talks are useful in preventing a war, not in ending a war. Wars are always decided on the battlefield, and in the minds of men. The political settlement reached on the negotiation table reflects nothing but the result achieved on the battlefield, sometimes an outright victory for one side and at other times a stalemate. Of course, there are instances where advantages gained on the battlefield have been lost on the negotiation table – Tashkent 1966 and Shimla 1972 come to mind, where India did not press home the advantage in the fond belief that its magnanimity will make Pakistan give up its compulsive hostility towards India. In the case of Afghanistan, while the war appears to be a stalemate, in reality by suing for peace with the Taliban, the Americans have tacitly conceded defeat, or at least that’s the way the Islamists will see it. Under these circumstances, the chances of any acceptable, much less long lasting, agreement being struck with the Taliban is bit of a pipedream.
The ‘position of strength’ from which the Americans are starting the drawdown is a somewhat half-baked proposition especially since the drawdown isn’t likely to be accompanied with a concomitant improvement in the security situation. On the contrary, as the US troops withdraw, the Taliban are likely to regain effective control over many of the areas which the Americans abandon. The ANA, which is still a work-in-progress, just doesn’t have the capacity to prevent a Taliban comeback. This brings us to the third assumption i.e. the US will maintain a presence – three or four military bases – in Afghanistan. This is clearly an untenable proposition. Unless the US can rid Afghanistan of the malign influence of the Taliban/Al Qaeda, it will not be able to maintain its bases in Afghanistan.
Weighed down by political and economic compulsions, perhaps the war in Afghanistan is no longer sustainable for the US. If so, then why prolong the torture for three years, and spend another $ 300 billion on a lost war? It makes more sense to follow Thomas Friedman’s advice – lose early, lose small – and put in place an alternative plan which is cheaper and more effective in controlling the global and regional fallout of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Taliban ascendancy in Afghanistan will, no doubt, constitute a major setback to India’s quest for a stable and friendly Afghanistan. But India’s fears of Afghanistan once again becoming a base for terror directed against India are misdirected. This is so because any terrorism emanating from Afghanistan can enter India only through Pakistan, as indeed it did before 9/11. In other words, India’s problem is really Pakistan, not Afghanistan. It is, in fact, the malevolent impact that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will have on Pakistan that should worry India more than anything else. Far from providing ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan, Afghanistan will actually become a ‘strategic black hole’ for Pakistan if the Islamists hold sway in that hapless country.
With the US withdrawal, not only will an already tottering and economically bankrupt Pakistan get militarily sucked in to Afghanistan but will also have to bear the economic burden of an economically unviable Afghanistan. To not put too fine a point on it, Pakistan's descent into failure (or if you will, jihadist utopia) will only hasten when the mess left behind by the Americans falls on its head. At the risk of belabouring the point, India’s problems will really start with Pakistan’s failure. The only hope is that Pakistan realises the folly of its ways and moves resolutely and with sincerity against the Islamists. The problem is that it might already be too late for Pakistan to change course. For India, which will find itself on the frontlines of the post-Afghan withdrawal Global War on Terror, the big challenge will be dealing with Pakistan's transformation from a quasi-jihadist state into a fully jihadist state.
<1260 Words> 30th June, 2011
Friday, June 24, 2011
NEEDLESS RANTING OVER RANA
Considering that Tahawwur Rana, a Pakistani-origin, Canadian national could face up to 30 years in prison after a Chicago court found him guilty of having links with the Pakistan-based terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba and plotting a terror attack against a Danish newspaper, the carping noises being heard in India over his acquittal on the charge of facilitating the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai sound somewhat incongruous. Rana being found guilty of involvement in 26/11 would not have made it any easier to punish the real masterminds of that outrage, all of whom are comfortably ensconced in Pakistan, some inside jail from where they are conducting their murderous business and others strutting about freely, making hate speeches against India and praying for the soul of Osama bin Laden in public meetings. Nor for that matter is Rana’s acquittal going to be a setback in bringing to justice those who planned and directed that barbaric attack. To put it quite simply, the Rana trial is not really material to the larger 26/11 case.
Rana was at best a bit player in 26/11 who ostensibly was motivated by two factors: one, he believed that by helping the ISI spy on India he would be able to make amends for his desertion from the Pakistan Army; and second, he probably thought that aiding the LeT in the massacre of kafirs (infidels) would earn him some sawab (rewards in the afterlife). His being indicted for involvement in the 26/11 attacks was more of an afterthought, because originally he was arrested for being part of a terrorist conspiracy to attack the Danish newspaper that had published caricatures of Prophet Mohammad. It was only the confessional statement of David Headley that implicated Rana in the 26/11 conspiracy. But the corroborative evidence that was required to back Headley’s testimony was just not adequate for a jury to pronounce the guilty verdict on Rana.
The reaction in India to Rana’s acquittal in 26/11 case has, however, been quite over the top. Not only does it smack of an utter lack of understanding of law and procedure, it is even devoid of basic common sense. It is one thing for Indian officials to express ‘disappointment’ over the Rana’s acquittal, and quite another for them to contemplate filing a charge-sheet against both Rana and Headley. Leave aside the fact that it will be practically impossible to secure the extradition of these two characters, won’t the principle of ‘double jeopardy’ come into play if these two men are to be tried in India on practically the same charges for which they were tried in the US? But let us, for a moment, assume that India does get hold of these two guys and the issue of ‘double jeopardy’ is not applicable. What, pray, is the new evidence that Indian law enforcement agencies have collected against them (which presumably the American prosecutors did not have) that will stand up in a court of law to convict these people in India?
This is precisely the reason why the reaction of the BJP to Rana’s acquittal sounds silly. In accusing the Manmohan Singh government of not pursuing the case properly in the Chicago court, the BJP seems to have forgotten that Rana and Headley were arrested and prosecuted by the US of its own volition and not because India had pointed these two guys out. India, in fact, became wise to these ‘spotters’ only after the story broke out in the US and information gathered by Indian investigators subsequently about the activities of Rana and Headley contains nothing that adds to the body of evidence collected and presented in court by the US prosecutors.
If truth be told, had Rana and Headley been tried in India, they would have almost certainly got away scot free. Apart from having gained notoriety as being probably the only country in the world where, after a recent Supreme Court ruling, no action can be taken even against a card carrying member of any terrorist organisation, including Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, India is also a country which is trying to fight 21st Century crime with 19th Century laws. No wonder that while Indian investigators have done a fairly good job in collecting intelligence and information about terrorists, they have been unable to translate this into evidence that can stand in a court of law.
Antiquated laws, poorly resourced law enforcement and security agencies and outdated investigation techniques are in large measure responsible for this state of affairs. Forget about the toothless Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, even in the case of ‘tough’ laws like POTA and TADA, the imagination of the Indian lawmaker starts and stops with making confessions before a designated officer admissible as evidence, a rather problematic proposition particularly if a confession cannot be backed by other corroborating evidence. Therefore, instead of cribbing about Rana’s acquittal on one charge, India should be thankful to the US for two things: one, by giving India access to Headley, it has helped Indian investigators fill in some of the blanks regarding the planning of the 26/11 attacks; and two, it has put away for good two flunkies of the ISI and LeT.
India’s real interest in Rana’s trial has less to do with seeking punishment for someone who played only a peripheral role in the entire 26/11 episode and more to do with laying bare in a neutral court of law the ISI’s use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy, particularly against India. This has been achieved despite the not-guilty verdict handed down by the US court. By exposing the ISI-LeT nexus in graphic detail, the Rana trial has been an unqualified success for India in terms of propaganda value. What is more, Headley’s testimony only adds more meat to the sensational report filed shortly after 26/11 by the now slain Pakistani journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, which revealed that the Mumbai terror plot was originally drawn up by the ISI. While Shahzad claimed that the plan was hijacked by the Al Qaeda, Headley’s testimony makes it clear that the plan was not hijacked but outsourced by the ISI to the LeT.
Other than the satisfaction of tarnishing the already terrible image of the Pakistan army and ISI before the international community, there is little that will come out of the Rana trial in terms of bringing the guilty of 26/11 to justice. Most Pakistanis have responded to the Chicago trial by going into paroxysms of denial, disingenuously pointing to the unsavoury past of Headley to question his credibility as a prosecution witness. What the Pakistani defenders of the ISI and LeT seem to gloss over is that only dysfunctional and disreputable characters like Headley would get sucked into the terrorist underworld where drug smuggling, gun-running, money laundering and other such criminal activity gets mixed up with state policy and religion to make an explosive cocktail.
But why blame the Pakistanis when the Indian establishment itself has little interest in pursuing the culprits of 26/11. Sure, there is no dearth of lip-service being paid to bringing the masterminds to justice. Nor is there any slackening of the rhetoric on 26/11. But having resumed the Composite Dialogue process, it is pretty much back to business as usual with Pakistan and all the noise over 26/11 is more the result of political compulsion rather than any conviction on part of the Indian establishment.
<1236 Words> 14th June, 2011
Friday, June 03, 2011
PAKISTAN'S TRAJECTORY: Beginning of the end?
Hardly anyone will dispute that May 2011 has been a mensis horribilus for Pakistan. The events that transpired during the month – the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden and the subsequent pressure on Pakistan to start delivering on its commitments in the war on terror, the massive spike in retaliatory terror attacks that culminated in the fidayeen attack on the naval airbase, PNS Mehran, and the brutal murder – all fingers point to the ISI – of journalist Saleem Shehzad who exposed the infiltration by Al Qaeda into the Pakistani armed forces – have shaken to the core the state and society of Pakistan. More significantly, these developments could force the Pakistani political and military establishment to make some profound choices and take some critical decisions that will determine the future course of the country. The portents and prognosis is, however, not very good because no matter what choices and decisions are made, things are likely to get much worse before they get better, if at all.
The problem for Pakistan today is that it is caught in multiple binds that infinitely complicate the selection of the options before the country. The national economy is on the verge of a meltdown. Running on empty, the economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid, which is either not coming or is trickling in albeit with political riders and economic reform conditionalities which the Pakistani authorities are finding difficult to accept and impossible to reject. There is a deep disconnect between the Islamist inclinations of the people and influential sections of the establishment on the one hand, and the compulsions of the state to be seen to be combating the inroads being made by the Islamists, on the other. Enormous pressure is being mounted on Pakistan from the US to end its double-game in the war on terror and take 'specific actions' and 'decisive steps'. These include launching a military operation in North Waziristan against some of Pakistan's 'strategic assets' like the Haqqani network and assisting the US in apprehending or eliminating four or five of the most wanted Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. At the same time, the state is being challenged as never before by the Islamist terrorists who have mounted spectacular attacks all over the country. There are fears that compliance with US demands could result in ferocious retaliation by the terror networks, who have not only infiltrated the security services but also enjoy sympathy and support from a cross-section of Pakistani society.
The chasm between the effete and inefficient civilian government and the people is increasing. Even as the opposition is growing restive and inching towards forcing the government out of office, public confidence in democracy, parliamentary system, and most of all on the states institutions has plummeted. Unlike the past, when the people looked towards the army as saviours, the Abbotabad operation, the PNS Mehran attack and now the assassination of Saleem Shehzad by ISI thugs have pulled down the army and ISI's stock to an all time low. Worse, the military is no longer the dominant force that it was in the past. The army's dominance is being questioned like never before by the civilians and its armed might is being challenged every day by the Islamist militant groups. Ethnic separatism has reared its head once again in Balochistan and is simmering in Sindh. Sectarian tensions remain high.
Under these circumstances, there are broadly three options before the Pakistani state: one, clean up its act; two, continue to simultaneously ride, for as long as possible, the two boats of fighting terrorism and supporting it at the same time; and three, become a jihadist state. Each of these options will have internal and external repercussions on the Pakistani state.
The first option – comprehensive clean-up – is perhaps the most difficult in the short run, but also the only option that holds any chance for Pakistan eventually emerging as a normal country in the comity of nations. This will involve a complete reversal of all the destructive policies followed by the Pakistani state since it came into existence. In other words, a complete overhaul of social, political, economic, religious and cultural structure that currently exists. Apart from a ruthless purge of the Islamist terror groups of all hues (good and bad jihadists), establishing civilian supremacy over the military will be a sine qua non. All foreign, defence and security policies will have to be determined by the civilian leadership. The detoxification of education system, radical political and economic reforms, massive investment in the social sector (health, education, sanitation etc) institutional reform, including downsizing the military and civilian control over the intelligence agencies, normalisation of relations with India by getting of the Kashmir hobby horse, will have to be undertaken.
No doubt, this is a very tall order which even functional states would find difficult to implement. The capacity of a fragile and dysfunctional state like Pakistan to change course is extremely doubtful. To be sure, this will not be possible without enormous foreign assistance for at least 10-15 years. But even with a Marshall Plan like aid programme of tens of billions of dollars, there are no guarantees if Pakistan will be able to pull through and deliver on all of the above. Despite the difficulties that lie on this path, it offers the Pakistan army a golden opportunity, and perhaps the only opportunity, to prove its patriotism and loyalty to the nation rather than its corporate interests.
Given that the clean-up option sounds like 'mission impossible', there will be a natural temptation to take an easier option, i.e. the two boats option. Essentially, this will involve Pakistan continuing pretty much along the path it has followed for so long viz. play both sides of every game, especially in the war on terror. On the one hand, Pakistan will make efforts to combat jihadists inimical to the interests of the Pakistani state, and make a pretence of fighting jihadists with a global agenda in order to keep on the right side of the West and keep the economic and military aid flowing. On the other hand, it will also keep the jihad infrastructure intact and let the jihad factory function, albeit in a controlled manner, so that it continues to churn out 'strategic assets' which function as instruments of state policy. The advantage of this policy is that it will satisfy the jihadist urgings of the people and establishment, obviate the need for any major structural reform in the political, economic or social sphere (thereby avoiding the turmoil that accompanies such reform), keep alive its USP – nuisance value of being a nuclear-armed 'international migraine' that the international community will be compelled to bail out all the time.
The downside of the 'two boats' option is that it might well have run its course and cannot be played for much longer now because the inherent conflicts and contradictions that it entails have started coming to the fore. Simply put, this option will do nothing to arrest Pakistan's inexorable slide towards the abyss – the economy will remain in an ICU, the polity will remain unstable, the society will continue to be radicalised, the haemorrhaging of the states vitality won't stop, the power and influence of the Islamist terror groups will continue to rise while that of the state will decline. This option will only delay state failure, but not for very long. If anything, it will make the state so vulnerable that it won't be able to withstand any major shock and will collapse like a house of cards. A historical parallel is the fall of the Mughal empire to the Sikh armies which took over Lahore without firing a single shot. In the current case, it will be the Islamists who are the most likely candidates to play the role that the Sikhs played in the 18th Century.
The third option is a fast-forwarded version of the 'two-boats' option i.e. the Pakistani state decides to become a jihadist state by design rather than by default. Instead of risking a civil war by confronting the jihadists or undergoing the slow and torturous process of losing control to the jihadists, the Pakistani establishment could well decide to defy the Americans and close ranks with their Islamist brethren for the 'glory of Islam'. This means that the Pakistanis will end cooperation in the war on terror, block the supply routes of ISAF forces in Afghanistan, forbid all drone strikes and other offensive actions by the Americans inside Pakistan, openly lend support to the Taliban in Afghanistan and enter into some sort of power sharing arrangement with the Pakistani Taliban groups that for some time at least keeps the Pakistan army in the driving seat. The fiction of democracy, civilian supremacy, rule of law and other such highfaluting concepts will end. Shariah law, as defined by the most reactionary mullahs, will be imposed. Shias and other sectarian groups will be declared non-Muslim. Women will be confined to homes. In short, an Islamic Emirate of Pakistan, which will be a clone of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, will replace the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
There will of course be severe repercussions of this because defying the Americans and the West is the easier part; it is the day after which is the difficult part, because that is when Pakistanis will realise the difference between smoking grass (which probably has induced the nationwide hallucination of being a destroyer of great empires) and eating grass (a taste for which the Pakistani palate has still to cultivate). Defiance of the West is predicated on support from China and the 'brotherly' Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran etc. But this could well be a pipedream because neither China nor the Muslim world can really replace the West. Nor are they likely to back Pakistan if it means jeopardising their ties with the West.
Once the initial euphoria of having taken on the Americans and defying them is over, the existential crises will have to be handled especially since there is a strong possibility of global sanctions being imposed on Pakistan, isolating it completely. If this happens, the economy will collapse. Trade, investment, and business will come to a grinding halt. There will be massive shortages of fuel, energy and food. The only thing in surplus will be the pride of having reclaimed sovereignty and finally having achieved a truly Islamic dispensation. It is of course another matter that there will be far greater violence, destruction and devastation that will result from the jihadi option as compared to the clean-up option. But that will be in the future, something that is always at a discount in Pakistan where policies and strategies are made from the perspective of tiding over today's problems rather than anticipating the effects of wrong policies in the months and years ahead.
Except for the 'clean-up' option, the collapse of the Pakistani state as currently constituted is inevitable. While it is impossible to predict how the Pakistani cookie will crumble – will it split along ethnic lines, will it implode, will it give way to warlordism, will the Al Qaeda/Taliban takeover, or will it be a combination of all of these – one thing is certain: when it comes, the collapse will be sudden, practically overnight. What will be the trigger is again not clear. It could be a split in the army with a couple of Corps Commanders or senior generals deciding to take over power or challenge the GHQ; it could be an ordinary Tunisia-type incident that sets into motion a domino that brings down the edifice of the state; it could be a natural calamity; it could be another Abbotabad type unilateral action by the US either to snatch and kill another high-value target or to retaliate against a terror attack on US soil by terror groups based in Pakistan; it could be a US withdrawal from the region which emboldens the Islamists to try and capture power in Pakistan; it could be the devastating effect of another global economic meltdown; in short, it could pretty much be anything.
While India needs to prepare to handle the fallout of a 'failed' Pakistan, even before such a cataclysmic development occurs, there will be serious threats to India's security. The more conditions in Pakistan deteriorate, the more the Pakistani military and political establishment sees power slip out of its hands and the more the Pakistan army loses the confidence and trust of the people, the greater the temptation to indulge in adventurism against India to make the people close ranks behind the military in Pakistan. The adventurism could be another Kargil, another Mumbai, another Parliament-type attack, or even a new and even horrific terror attack ('dirty bomb'?). India also needs to be alive to the perverse mindset in large sections of the elite and establishment of Pakistan that has resolved to take down India if Pakistan is going down the tube. To be able to guard against any such eventuality, India needs to put in place systems to minimise, if not prevent, the damage that is likely to be caused. What is more, India needs to work out its counter-responses, political, economic, military and diplomatic. This should have been done yesterday. But even if it is done today, it should be okay. One thing India doesn't have is the luxury of time because tomorrow might be too late.
<2240 Words> 3rd June, 2011
Friday, May 27, 2011
PAKISTAN IN A FREE FALL, ALBEIT IN SLOW MOTION
For a people who consider themselves as the true legatees of the Mughal empire, the only apt historical parallel to describe the state of Pakistan today is the atrophying Mughal empire after the death of Pakistan's favourite Great Mughal, Aurangzeb. Just as Aurangzeb sought to cement the empire by using fundamentalist Islam, but ended up spawning a million mutinies which sapped the vitality of the realm and ultimately destroyed the empire, so too in the case of Pakistan which promoted a virulent version of Islam to fuse the nation but which is now threatening to devour the Pakistani state.
During the last days of the Mughal empire, court intrigues to become emperor or wazir or a noble were the order of the day, and this despite the fact that the empire, or what was left of it, was surviving on the sufferance of either adventurers or emerging powers like the Marathas and the Afghans. Just as the last Mughals used to depend on external intervention to secure their positions in the court, Pakistani leaders today are more than willing to invite intervention by outside powers – USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, China – for gaining or retaining political power. Even when hostile armies were on the borders and the very survival of the throne and empire was at stake, the later Mughals made no effort to forge unity to confront the invaders and marauders. Instead, all energy was focused on the getting one up on rivals. No one was willing to give any quarter to his rivals, or desist from brinkmanship, or even put one's own self-interest on the back-burner until the peril of invasion was tackled and the authority of the empire re-established. So it is in today's Pakistan.
There is a very serious danger of the state falling under the influence of the Taliban. Large swathes of territory are either not under the control of the state or under only a very fragile and nominal control of the state. Even the so-called safe areas are extremely vulnerable and have frequently come under attack. The law enforcement agencies, when not trying to protect themselves from being attacked by the forces of Jihad, are busy in either protecting the privileged or indulging in rapine and loot. Hardly anyone, including the Pakistan army, really wants to confront the Taliban. Instead of forging a strategy to effectively combat the onslaught of the Islamists, the military top brass is concentrating more on protecting its privileges and its properties and hobbling, if not ensnaring, civilian governments to snuff out any possible challenge to their political dominance. And this in spite of the fact that a couple of thousand soldiers have already lost their lives in the full-blown Islamist insurgency and terrorism that has been wrecking havoc in the country.
Even as the conflagration in the Pashtun belt is flaring out of control, the province of Balochistan is spiralling out of control. Baloch nationalism has taken a violent form and targeted killings of security force officials and pro-government people, ambushes of military convoys, blowing up of economic infrastructure (gas pipelines, electricity pylons, telephone exchanges, railway tracks etc.) has become the order of the day. The government's brutal crackdown against political activists associated with the Baloch nationalist movement has only added to the already overflowing reservoir of alienation among the ordinary Baloch. If anything, today the political face of Baloch nationalism (who only demanded autonomy within Pakistan) has receded into the background and the extremists (who wish to carve out an independent Balochistan) are calling the shots.
With both Balochistan and the Pashtun areas in flames, the Pakistani state has all but lost control over more than half of the country's territory. The situation in the remaining part is hardly anything to write home about. Sindh is seething with resentment and anti-Punjab feelings. Karachi, which is in the throes of an ethnic civil war in which hundreds of people have been killed in politically motivated target killings, is a powder keg waiting to explode. In Punjab, the southern part has already fallen under the influence of the 'Punjabi Taliban'. Important cities in Central and North Punjab like Faisalabad, Chakwal and Gujranwala, to name a just a few, have a strong presence of Islamic terror groups.
The economy meanwhile is in a tailspin and shows no sign of coming out of the ICU. For now, the drip of foreign assistance is keeping it alive. But even the aid infusion won't be enough unless the 'white cells' (or if you will the good guys) start the fight back to bring the body back to health. Unfortunately, the white cell count is so precariously low that the disease of Islamism is consuming the body politic and with it the economy at an alarmingly fast rate.
Under these circumstances, it would normally be expected that the people who have the most to lose from the deteriorating situation – the educated and elite classes, the military-bureaucratic establishment, the judiciary and civil society, the political class, the traders and industrialists – would put their heads together to forge some sort of a consensus on how to combat the dangers that confront their own interests. But no, nothing of the sort is happening. Instead those who have the most to lose are busy trading blame as to who and what is responsible for the abysmal state of affairs. What is worse, there is both a denial of the seriousness of the problems that face the country as well as an attitude of nonchalance as though what is happening is of no concern to them and is someone else's problem.
The public debate and discourse in Pakistan is so partisan, distorted and also so far removed from the ground reality, that there is now a total disconnect between the crises that confront Pakistan and the reasons and solutions that even ostensible sober and sensible people give for these crises. It is almost as though the Pakistani intelligentsia has lost the ability to think things through. For instance, a standard formulation in Pakistan today is that the war being waged in the Pashtun tribal belt between the Pakistan army and the radical Islamists (read Taliban and al Qaeda) is a mercenary war, a war that Pakistan is waging not for itself but for America. Hence, the solution that is forwarded is equally nonsensical: the authorities should engage the Taliban in a dialogue or that the Pakistani army should simply walk out of the tribal areas. The logic is that if Pakistan does not act against the Islamic radicals, they too will not retaliate against the Pakistani army. In other words, "leave them alone and they will not bother us" is the solution! None of the proponents of this solution are able to even comprehend that unless the Taliban threat is ruthlessly eliminated, it will only grow and will spread like wild-fire in rest of Pakistan, ultimately taking over the Pakistani state. They are also in denial about the intentions and objectives of the radical Islamists, which is to talibanise Pakistan by imposing their version of puritanical Islam in the country.
The inability of the Pakistani people to distinguish friend from foe stems from a totally warped national mindset which revels in bizarre conspiracy theories and suffers from paranoia of imagined enemies lurking everywhere out to destroy the country or at the very least deprive it of its 'strategic assets'. In a sense, the term 'strategic' is probably the biggest bane of Pakistan. Take for instance, the famed 'strategic assets' a.k.a. nuclear weapons. Today, it is not the nukes that protect Pakistan but Pakistan that protects its nukes! Then there are the other 'strategic assets' a.k.a. 'good Taliban' which Pakistan wants to retain to gain 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan to confront the 'strategic enemy' a.k.a. India and which makes it imperative for the Pakistani establishment to get into the mode of 'strategic defiance' of the US. That this sort of 'strategic vision' (purblindness, really) has pushed Pakistan over the brink has of course never really been part of the 'strategic calculus' of the Pakistan's real rulers – the Pakistan army.
Pakistan is not so much a victim of terrorism as it is a victim of the stupendous success of the demonical indoctrination programme which has replaced the innate pragmatism of the people with insane Islamism that doubles up as Islamic nationalism (an oxymoron, if ever there was one) and validates substantially, if not entirely, with the concept of Islamofascism. It is this phenomenon that leads a newspaper owner who is an ideal candidate for a lunatic asylum but in today's Pakistan is a leading flag bearer of the 'ideology of Pakistan' to demand a nuclear strike on India because after a nuclear exchange Pakistan will be able to progress like Japan did after Hiroshima! It is this thinking that leads a top general under Musharraf, and a man who at one point of time was touted as a possible successor to Musharraf to advocate firing "a nuclear warning shot in the Bay of Bengal, across India, demonstrating our circular range capacity" in order to send the message that "you don't mess with a nuclear power and get away with it". It is this thinking that makes a former information minister declare that "Pakistan has made nuclear weapons not to keep them in the cupboard but to use them against its enemies (read India and now more than ever the Western world, particularly USA)." It is this mindset that makes the so-called 'civil society' – news anchors, lawyers, activists – defend the action of the assassin of the former Punjab governor, Salman Taseer. And it is precisely this mindset that prevents the Pakistan army (its ranks filled with that other oxymoron, 'moderate Taliban') from ending its double-game in the war on terror.
This then is the terrible reality of Pakistan. Unfortunately, just as the Pakistanis are in denial, so too are the Indians, or at least the Indian establishment, about the ground reality in Pakistan. India's Pakistan policy (if at all there is such a thing) is predicated on interactions with what is a fringe group of liberal, moderate, modern, and sensible Pakistanis who are excellent advocates of their country but whose words don't count for anything in terms of setting their country's policy or direction. This is a class which doesn't number more than a couple of thousand and probably qualifies to be registered as an endangered species under the UN Biodiversity Convention.
Despite the tendency for many in India to take vicarious pleasure over Pakistan's impending implosion, the fact is that Pakistan's collapse will be an unmitigated disaster for India, not only because it is utterly unprepared to handle the cataclysmic fallout of a 'failed' Pakistan but also because no matter what preparations it makes, there is no way India can insulate itself completely from the great tumult that will result when a country of 180 million people either descends into chaos or goes belly up on India's border. Forget about the nukes, they are the least of India's worries. The bigger danger is that the entire Partition arrangement that gave India relative peace for over 60 years will be blown to smithereens when millions of people start streaming into India either as refugees or as jihadists.
<1885 Words> 25th May, 2011
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
PROFITING FROM TRADE
Eating grass and denying people prosperity for the sake of national dignity and honour is the prerogative not of the elite who make these statements but of the ordinary people who suffer the consequences of the bloody minded policies of the ruling class which never ever gets to eat grass and is always prosperous. It is precisely this attitude that has denied the people of India and Pakistan the fruits of mutually beneficial trade and closer economic cooperation. Cutting your nose to spite your neighbours face seems to be a congenital problem in the ruling classes of South Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan. While most other countries of South Asia have understood the benefit of regional trade and transit agreements – Bangladesh's pitch for becoming the transit hub for India, Nepal and Bhutan is a shining example of the changing attitude in other countries of the region – a sort of beggar-thy-neighbour policy continues to dictate the economic relationship between the two largest countries in South Asia.
It was no surprise then that despite the buzz surrounding the latest meeting between the commerce secretaries of India and Pakistan, there was no real breakthrough in promoting trade and economic interaction between the two countries. All that was achieved was some incremental progress and a lot of assurances that will probably never be fulfilled because of the greatest non-tariff barrier (NTB) – troubled political relations. In a sense, this NTB is a bit of a chicken-and-egg sort of conundrum: will improved political relations pave the way for trade between India and Pakistan or will lifting the trade barriers create a constituency for peace that will help in settling the political ties between them.
Clearly, trade and politics don't make for a good cocktail. But the problem is that it is not easy to separate trade and politics. Ideally, trade should not be seen as a political concession, much less a pressure point for achieving political objectives. Trade has its own intrinsic value and should be left to businessmen, who will trade not out of altruism but because there is profit to be made. And profit is generally a two way street, or to put it differently, mutually beneficial. Otherwise there is no incentive to trade. This truism is however often lost on bureaucrats, and even more on generals. In the statist model of trade, babus and not businessmen decide what trade is profitable and what is prohibited, which is why we have a positive list of tradable items. What instead needs to be done is to create an enabling environment in which businessmen of the two countries can decide what they want to buy and sell to each other.
The scepticism among many bureaucrats, and even some economists, on the potential of trade between India and Pakistan because many of the product lines of both countries are quite similar, doesn't really stand to scrutiny when we look at examples from other parts of the world. Take for instance the EU. Most European countries manufacture similar products and yet intra-EU trade outscores EU's trade with its other trading partners. Why can't the same happen in South Asia? If barriers to trade are lifted, comparative and competitive advantage will determine the direction and composition of trade and not some SRO or administrative fiat. What is more, the lifting of trade barriers will enable cheaper sourcing of raw material from the natural hinterlands that were rent asunder in 1947. Add to it the availability of markets and the benefits of trade are an absolute no-brainer.
To be sure, there is a need to harmonise tariffs, rules and regulations and standards in South Asia. This lack of harmonisation is often considered (one daresay wrongly) as a major non-tariff barrier. When goods manufactured in one country do not conform to standards laid down in another country, trade will obviously not be possible. But before such differential standards are called NTB's two things need to be checked: one, are these standards country specific or are they applied to all countries equally; and two, are not similar standards also imposed in other countries. For instance, how is it that the same standard when imposed in the US or EU is not considered a NTB but becomes a NTB when imposed by India?
While these so-called NTB's which include trading facilities or the lack of them on the borders are more easily tackled, there are some real barriers to trade which are again more a function of the state of bilateral relationship than anything else. For example, the difficulties faced by businessmen in obtaining visas. In the current climate of distrust, visas are a major problem area. But to use this as an excuse to not move forward with trade is silly because this can be easily worked around by meeting in third countries. Yes, this increases the cost of doing business but if routing goods through a third country is profitable with all the additional expenses it entails, then surely business meetings won't add so much to the transaction cost as to make trade unprofitable. Of course, this is not an ideal situation, but it is better than not doing any business. A similar tactic can be followed on issues of goods inspection. Third party inspectors can be hired in each country to inspect the goods before they are despatched. In fact many western companies are already hiring such third party inspectors to do this sort of work. The point is that many of the imagined barriers can be easily worked around if there is no major penalty imposed on direct buying or selling between the two countries. And if relations improve, then many of these barriers will automatically get lifted. In the meantime, the business can continue to profit themselves, their consumers and their country.
Alongside trade, there is enormous potential for opening up investment and tourism travel between the two countries. It might be a controversial thing to say, but Pakistan stands to gain far more than India if it were to open itself to Indian investments, tourism and allow India transit rights to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The spin-offs of these three things for the Pakistani economy will be quite impressive and will allow Pakistan to cash in on its strategic location as a bridge between South Asia and Central Asia. But guess what, since we revel in cutting our noses to spite the other person, the protectors of sovereignty and ideological frontiers will never allow this to happen. After all, isn't honour and dignity more important than prosperity especially when you are not the one paying the price. But a more fundamental question is whether there honour and dignity in mutually beneficial trade (even if it is with an adversary) or is it in the begging bowl (even if it is spread before a friend)?
<1150 Words> 12th May, 2011
A GAME CHANGER
Just as 9/11 changed the world, the elimination of Osama bin Laden (OBL) is going to be another game changer in the war on terror. While the Afpak region will bear the brunt of the strategic decisions made by the major players in the post OBL era, India will not be left untouched by the tumult that is likely to unfold in its neighbourhood. Unfortunately, instead of engaging in some serious analysis and scenario building on the likely changes in the regional strategic calculus of the major players, India is engrossed in a rather facile debate on whether or not it should emulate the US in taking out terrorist targets in Pakistan, conveniently ignoring the fact that India is nowhere close to America in terms of military superiority, economic clout and diplomatic influence.
For India to take vicarious pleasure from Pakistan's predicament is entirely understandable. But this cannot be a substitute for a well-thought out policy to handle the post OBL situation, especially since the US hasn't quite given up on Pakistan just yet and has left some wriggle room for the Pakistani establishment to rehabilitate itself. That Pakistan is going to come under enormous pressure to clean up its act and end its double-game in the war on terror by severing all links with Islamist terror groups is a bit of a no-brainer. But what is not clear is how Pakistan will respond to this pressure. Will it play ball or will it dig in its heels and adopt the course of 'strategic defiance'? To a great extent, Pakistan's response will be a function of the domestic political repercussions of Operation Geronimo and how these are balanced with the international compulsions confronting the country.
With Pakistan's public demanding answers, it will be interesting to see who carries the can for the national humiliation caused by US choppers breaching Pakistani defences and putting boots on ground right under the noses of the much vaunted 'defenders of territorial and ideological frontiers of Pakistan' i.e. Pakistan Army. Making the weak and discredited civilian government the fall guy is easy but will be a big mistake because next time there won't be any civilian buffer to bail out the army from charges of either complicity or incompetence. Therefore, unless the pressure for heads to roll becomes unbearable, chances are that the politicians and the military will stick together to ride out the storm.
The problem for Pakistan is that regardless of whether it now complies with US diktats or defies them, it will be confronted with a lot of turmoil. Towing the American line will mean having to move against Islamists all over the country – from Waziristan to Muridke. Not only will this be an unpopular thing to do, it will almost certainly lead to a backlash by terror organisations which will create a civil war like situation inside the country. On the other hand, 'strategic defiance' holds the prospect of international isolation, economic bankruptcy and the terrible unrest that will result from economic deprivation. Worse, once the gloves come off, then the possibility of international powers supporting freedom movements inside Pakistan – Sindh, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan – cannot be ruled out.
There are dangers for India in both these cases. In the former case, while there is little chance of another 26/11 attack (the first one could have never taken place without the active support of the Pakistani state and we are assuming that post OBL a reformed Pakistani state will desist from sponsoring another such attack), there is nevertheless a very high possibility of the unrest in Pakistan spilling over into India. In the latter case, a disintegrating Pakistan could be tempted to take India down with it. The former army chief of Pakistan, Mirza Aslam Beg, is on record that it is the policy of the Pakistan army that even if Pakistan comes under attack from a third country, it will launch a nuclear strike on India. Even if nothing so drastic happens, India must still factor in the possibility of the Pakistani military establishment ratcheting up tension with India to rally it supporters. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what this will do to the half-baked and ill-conceived Indo-Pak 'peace process'.
There are two other possibilities that India needs to ponder over. The first is that having got OBL, the Americans could be tempted to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan. With the OBL obstacle out of the way, the path to 'reconciliation' with the Taliban in Afghanistan has cleared, or so the Americans, and more than them the Pakistanis, will think. But to be able to bring the Taliban on the table, the US will need Pakistan to make the Islamist combatants more amenable to a political settlement. While this will give Pakistan a pivotal role in the deciding the future dispensation in Afghanistan (which by definition will have deep antipathy for India), the Americans will be able to extricate themselves from the Afghan quagmire leaving India out in the cold.
The other possibility holds more promise. The manner in which the US eliminated OBL could end up demoralising and disheartening large sections of the jihadists. The disillusionment that is likely to set in will open a window of opportunity to counter the attraction of jihadist ideology among young Muslims, including in India. Of course, a new idiom and narrative will have to be devised to wean away people inspired by the Islamist propaganda. The absence of such a counter narrative has been one of the biggest failings in the war on terror and OBL's despatch to hell would have been in vain if it cannot be effectively exploited to convince people of the hopelessness of the jihadist cause. But is anyone in India even thinking about this?
<962 Words> 7th May, 2011
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
BACK CHANNEL WITH PAKISTAN ARMY: A GAMBIT WORTH TRYING
The denial by both the Prime Minister's Office in India and by the military spokesman in Pakistan of the story in The Times of an 'unofficial back channel' that had opened with the de facto ruler of Pakistan, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, isn't entirely unexpected. If indeed there was such a back channel then it is best kept under the wraps, not so much because it would make public what was being discussed or even negotiated – the details of the 'official' back channel negotiations during the Musharraf era are still secret even though the main protagonists claim to have nearly reached a deal – but more because it would be premature to admit the existence of such a back-channel until it had become a regular feature instead of a one-off contact. On the other hand, if there was no such back-channel contact, then the denials are perfectly in order and would end needless speculation on the nature of contact established between the Indian and Pakistani establishments.
Quite aside the fact that the denials would have come as a dampener for those who believe that there is a dire need for putting in place a channel of communication and dialogue between the establishments of the two countries, the very nature of the contact claimed by The Times – 'unofficial' – raises serious doubts over the efficacy of the so-called back-channel. It is of course entirely possible that some sort of contact, albeit 'unofficial' and perhaps even unauthorised, was made. After all, there are enough busybodies on both sides of the Radcliffe line who use their access to top policy making circles on either side to assume the role of self-appointed messengers. While generally the messages these people carry are either ignored or suffered in silence by the powers that be, there have been rare occasions when these messengers have helped in breaking the ice. Whether or not this is true in the current case is not entirely clear.
Even so, there is still a strong case for some sort of contact – in the preliminary stage perhaps only a military-to-military exchange between the NDC in India and NDU in Pakistan – being made with Pakistan's military establishment and exploring this track to see if a more sustained engagement is possible with the real rulers of Pakistan as opposed to the civilian show-boys that India has been so comfortable in dealing with.
The aversion in India to dealing directly with Pakistan's military establishment is entirely understandable but is also unreal given the power dynamics of Pakistani politics. Pakistan is, in a sense, a schizophrenic society. At one level, there is deep distrust and suspicion of the establishment and a tendency to attribute not only the most bizarre conspiracy theories to it but also hold it capable of, if not responsible for, the most horrible crimes. But at another level, there is an innate, almost blind, trust and faith in ability and capacity of the military establishment to protect the country and put things right. Most Pakistanis are quick to follow the lead of the army on issues of national security, especially when it comes to relations with India. As a result, when the army allows it, people gladly reach out to India (the 2004-2008 period bears witness to this) and when the army shuns it, the very same people pull back on all contact with India.
This remarkable ability and agility of the military establishment in Pakistan to manipulate public opinion must to be taken into account by the Indian establishment before it takes any initiative on mending ties with Pakistan. The bottom line is that while India can have as many 'uninterrupted and uninterruptible' dialogues with the civilians in Pakistan as it wants, unless it manages at least a modus Vivendi with the all-powerful Pakistan army, none of these dialogues will lead to anything at all. Without getting the Pakistan army on board, any dialogue with Pakistan will either be a dialogue of the deaf or one with the meek and powerless, who one daresay are unlikely to inherit Pakistan.
There are essentially two ways that India can approach Pakistan. The first is to engage Pakistani politicians and civil society, promote people-to-people exchanges, trade and what have you, in the hope of creating a constituency of peace that will force the hand of the military establishment to normalise relations with India. But quite frankly, for this strategy to work, India will have to wait till the cows come home. An alternative strategy is to continue with the above strategy but simultaneously open a sustained channel of communication and engagement – to start with, an 'official and empowered' back-channel – with Pakistan's military establishment.
Needless to say, given the power structure realities of the establishments of the two countries, the back channel contact will have to be handled with great care. In a democratic country like India, a back channel naturally tends to evoke suspicion. One way to counter this is to set up a multi-track back-channel – between intelligence agencies to discuss issues like terrorism etc., between the militaries where they discuss purely military matters, and a track in which both top civilian and military officials discuss security and doctrinal issues
If this 'composite' (given the diplomatic and political sensitivities of the Indian government, perhaps the word 'comprehensive' is more appropriate) back-channel shows promise, and in the course of discussing professional matters, creates an opening for discussing the strategic dimensions of the bilateral relationship, the two sides could consider bringing it on the front channel. In other words, they could make the transition to a 'strategic dialogue' in which a working group comprising designated civilian and military officials led by either the National Security Advisor or the External Affairs Minister discuss matters of higher state policy and the future trajectory of bilateral relations.
But even if the back-channel contact remains a desultory track, there is still something to be said for continuing to engage an adversary but without the hype and hoopla that normally accompanies any India-Pakistan engagement. If anything, the one thing that the two countries need to avoid is hyping up the expectations of a breakthrough by indulging in high profile jamborees – Mohali comes to mind. Quiet, serious and sustained diplomacy is perhaps the only way forward, even if this takes a long time and denies the politicians the legacy that they so desperately crave to leave behind.
<975 Words> 25th April, 2011