Wednesday, May 18, 2011




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



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