My op-ed in Mint: Why India must pull its troops back from the border

Let’s call Pakistan’s bluff with Operation Markarap

In today’s Mint, Sushant and I argue that moving our troops back will compel the Pakistan army to act against the Taliban; and because it is incapable of doing so, will cause the United States to realise that there is no alternative to dismantling the military-jihadi complex.

Sooner or later, the Obama administration will come to realise that it has no way to make the Pakistani military establishment seriously fight and defeat the jihadi groups, which includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda and outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. When that moment comes, Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat—in the form of acceptance of a radical Islamist state with a well-developed nuclear weapons capability. It is in India’s interests that this point comes sooner rather than later. Needless to say, it is in India’s interests that the United States dismantle the military-jihadi complex. Clearly, this is far more important than merely putting some Lashkar-e-Taiba leader behind bars for carrying out the 26/11 attack on Mumbai.

Already, the Pakistani military establishment is under severe pressure from the United States to stop sponsoring jihadi militant groups on the one hand, and to actually join the fight against them on the other. Now, even in the unlikely event that the ISI decides to dismantle its jihadi connections, the army will still find it impossible to purposefully prosecute a counter-insurgency war against the Taliban. Why? Because the dominant belief among Pakistani military personnel—across the ranks—is that it is the United States that is the real enemy and the Taliban are righteous fighters for the Islamic cause. One only has to imagine what a brigade commander would say to his troops to motivate them to fight their compatriots to realise that the Pakistani army is incapable of fighting the Taliban. In a way, those who argue that the Pakistan army lacks the capacity to fight this war are right: but this is a lack of capacity that no amount of night-vision goggles and helicopter gunships can ameliorate. This unpalatable reality is obfuscated behind the India bogey—the pretence that the Pakistani army could do much better against the Taliban if only it didn’t have to defend itself from its much stronger adversary to its east.

If the ‘India threat’ were to recede, Pakistan—and for that matter the United States—will have no more excuses left to avoid having to do what is necessary. New Delhi should, therefore, call Pakistan’s bluff by mounting what we propose to call Operation Markarap.
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More Pakistani nukes? That’s Washington’s problem

India is already under risk from the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. So what if Pakistan has some more of them?

No, it should not surprise anyone that Pakistan has been cranking up its capacity to produce more nuclear weapons and delivery systems. ISIS analysts David Albright & Paul Brannan recently sounded alarm that two new plutonium reactors in the Khushab complex might be close to being operational. As Mr Albright says, there is not even the pretence that these reactors can be used for generating electrical power. The fact that Pakistan—international migraine, mortal threat, most dangerous place in the world, 60 miles away from being taken over by the Taliban and all that—is expanding its nuclear arsenal at a time when it is pleading for international aid for almost everything has shocked the Western media, and US Congressmen. This is good—especially if it is coupled with the realisation that the fungibility of money (linkthanks Chidanand Rajghatta) renders absurd the Obama administration’s argument that aid to Pakistan will be monitored, benchmarked if not actually made conditional. [Watch this video]

Now, a bigger Pakistani arsenal increases the risk to the United States and the international community in various ways.

And because of this, it undermines Pakistan’s own security. The more fissile material Pakistan has, the higher the risk (to the international community) with regard to its custodial security. The greater the risk the United States faces, the more it will coerce Pakistan. In the ultimate analysis, Pakistan cannot continue cranking up its nuclear weapons factory without running the risk of a direct military intervention by the United States. It is strategic stupidity—a well-known pathology affecting the Pakistani army’s general staff—that causes Islamabad to expand its arsenal beyond what it has.

But it shouldn’t worry India any more than it already does. So Pakistan has not 80, but 100 warheads now. Deterrence still holds.

So yes, the United States, China and the West need to worry—perhaps even panic—about Pakistan’s expanded nuclear arsenal: what goes around, comes around. The Pakistani government needs to worry about it too. On the other hand, India need not lose additional sleep over it. That’s why calls such as the one by today’s New York Times, which suggests that it is India’s ‘responsibility’ to prevent Pakistan from blowing the beleaguered US taxpayers’ dollars on churning out plutonium for more nuclear weapons, must be ignored. On the contrary, it is for the Obama administration to demonstrate “the kind of regional and global leadership expected of a global power” by ensuring that it doesn’t indulge Pakistan’s dangerously deceitful military-jihadi complex in pursuing its maximalist nuclear ambitions.

What the UPA’s election win means for foreign policy

Regaining lost ground on China, re-engaging the United States

Mint’s Samar Srivastava & Tanmaya Kumar Nanda have an opinion round-up on the prospects for India’s foreign affairs under the second UPA government. They find that the “UPA win (is) good for foreign policy, but (there are) clouds ahead”, and that the biggest of those clouds is China.

Most experts agreed that one of India’s largest challenges would come not from its west but east: China.

“China is recalcitrant. Forget magnanimity, things are becoming frozen. China is signalling its unwillingness to accommodate India, that is more worrying,” said Amitabh Mattoo, professor of International Politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

Kapur added India would have to take steps to increase its bargaining power. “China’s approach is to speak softly but carry a big stick. India’s approach is to speak loudly and carry a small stick…. We haven’t even cultivated Taiwan or backed the Dalai Lama. As a country, we are apprehensive and insecure about China.”

Nitin Pai, editor of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review magazine, agreed, saying India has done the worst in five years with regard to China. “India needs to (sit) bilaterally with key players like Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Vietnam.” [Mint]

The point I made is that while the UPA government did generally well with respect to relations with the United States and was so-so with respect to Pakistan, it lost the plot with respect to China. Whether this was due to the presence of the Leftists or a strategic naivete-cum-pusillanimity within the Congress Party’s own senior leadership, the objective fact is that India failed to even mitigate the rise of Chinese power in East Asia. Such was the neglect that even the band-aid, in the form of approval for infrastructure development along the India-China border, was applied after the elections started. The single biggest task—in the medium term—is to draw out a vision of India’s geopolitical role in the 21st century, and begin to take purposeful steps to get there. (From the way the article is written, it might appear that I agreed with Dr Kapur on Taiwan and the Dalai Lama. I didn’t mention them at all)

The UPA government and the Obama administration will have to work with each other at least for the next four years. Here, far from a sense of defensiveness over Washington’s vaunted/troubled Af-Pak strategy, the UPA government must understand that President Obama’s success or failure in Afghanistan & Pakistan (and second term in office) is to a significant extent contingent on New Delhi’s support. This doesn’t mean grandstanding: quite the opposite, it means a confident and constructive partnership. It means allowing and ensuring that the United States ends up doing the necessary—confronting the Pakistani military-jihadi complex—sooner rather than later.

What about nuclear weapons? It’s good to see President Obama agree with the age-old Indian position that the world ought to be free of nuclear weapons. As K Subrahmanyam—by no means an anti-nuclear weapons ideologue says—the first step is to delegitimise their use: non-use against non-nuclear states, no first use against nuclear states, and, for those with thousands of warheads, a reduction in their number. That said—there will be disagreement on the NPT and CTBT—where a change in the Indian position can only come after a substantial change in the structure of the treaties. Can Dr Singh not persuade Mr Obama that an unprecedented change in US position over nuclear weapons requires jettisoning Cold War era dogmas? Or should the world await a global nuclear crisis—like the economic one—before concluding that the G7 needs to expand into a G20?

None of this is incompatible with retaining a minimum credible deterrent in the meantime. Dr Singh should know better than anyone else that ‘operationalising’ the India-US nuclear deal and the NSG waiver is the key to ensuring that the size of the deterrent is appropriate.

Tall order this, so it’s important to start right: can Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first appoint a good external affairs minister, a good defence minister and a good national security advisor?

Being less of a threat to Pakistan

Shouldn’t India nail that canard?

Here’s a thought: almost everyone in Pakistan, and many thinking people in the United States still believe in that story about why having to face a stronger army on its eastern border makes the Pakistani army less able to throw more resources into the fight against the Taliban (see this post on Pragmatic Euphony).

At one level Pakistan’s insecurity with respect to India is structural. There’s nothing India can do about that (see Dhruva’s post). At another level, the perception of insecurity is purely military in nature. There is something—actually many things—that India could do about that.

Like moving some strike formations and heavy equipment some distance away from the border. Surely, it can’t be that the Pakistanis will take advantage of this and send armoured columns rolling into India across the Indian border? If not Washington’s frown, they surely will fear yet another military defeat at the hands of the Indian army.

Once India gets itself a new cabinet, perhaps the foreign minister or his boss can announce that as long as the Pakistan army is really fighting the Taliban (“the common threat to India, Pakistan and the United States”, as people like to say these days), it need not fear an Indian attack.

Remember, this has little bearing on checking the infiltration of terrorists along the Line of Control, or indeed the international border. Counter-infiltration must continue, and indeed, gear up.

So why not?

The Pakistan that can say No

Actually, the military establishment that can say No

“Pakistan,” Hamid Mir writes, “suffered a loss of more than US$34 billion and received only US$11 billion as aid in the last seven years for participating in the war against terror.” Ahmed Quraishi, another commentator, contends that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud is really a proxy of the CIA (thereby contradicting Graham Usher who gives credence to the allegation that Mr Mehsud is backed by India). And Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen are out to ‘malign the ISI and the Pakistan army’, which, presumably, were hitherto unmaligned. Pakistan, you see, is just an innocent victim of American foreign policy.

During the Holbrooke-Mullen visit, the issue of unpopular drone strikes was made the centrepiece of the “gap” that exists between the US and Pakistani governments [see Chidanand Rajghatta’s report].This allowed the Zardari-Gilani-Kayani government to score some points in the media and among the people. It won’t be long before some commentators will compare it, favourably, to General Musharraf’s famous post-9/11 U-turn when he quickly acceded to US demands.

But the real “gap” is the rather obvious fact that the US government has dropped the pretence of suggesting that the top leaders of the Pakistani army are well-meaning folks doing their best to stamp out the ‘renegade’ and ‘rogue elements’ of the military establishment. The US State Department, Mr Mir reveals, even played an intercepted audio conversation between General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani to journalist Mary Anne Weaver.

Soon after President Barack Obama’s announced his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, this blog argued that the main issue “boils down to this: just how is the United States going to ensure that the Pakistani military establishment plays ball?” There is money, of course, but there is a limit to which the United States can avoid or delay disbursing the financial aid, as the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the collapse of the Pakistani state is imminent. In any case, to the extent that the civilian channeling, extra oversight and ‘benchmarks’ keep the military establishment’s hands out of the cookie jar, it is unlikely to be motivated by the moolah. Pakistan cannot afford to say No. But the military establishment can.

In coming days, expect the military-jihadi complex to ratchet up the tensions with India, in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere. Even the pretence of supporting a freedom struggle in Kashmir will be discarded in favour of justifying the escalation as indicated by ‘legitimate security concerns’ in the face of rising Indian influence in Afghanistan and mischief in Balochistan. The ground for this has already been prepared by the prominence (via Jengnameh, a noteworthy new blog) given to the opinions of Ahmed Rashid, Barnett Rubin and Shuja Nawaz by the Obama administration circles. It will only grow by mindless repetition. Indians should expect a tense summer.

So, regardless of how desperate President Zardari (or any civilian leader) is for foreign aid flows, General Kayani will say No. The good news is that we don’t have to suffer the pretence. The bad news is that because Mr Holbrooke drew those red lines so quickly, he’s trapped in a red circle of his own making. Mr Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen would do well to to back to Washington and address the main issue. The solution does not involve giving Pakistan the drones with which to conduct the strikes. It involves doing something about the red lines.

But where’s the meat?

The United States’ Af-Pak strategy is silent on the most important challenge

The main issue in President Barack Obama’s just-announced strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan boils down to this: just how is the United States going to ensure that the Pakistani military establishment plays ball?

As this blog has pointed out before, to win in Afghanistan the United States will need to get the Pakistani military to turn its guns on its own proxies, “strategic assets”, countrymen and co-religionists. This the Pakistani military leadership is reluctant, unwilling or unable to do, depending on how charitable a view you have of them. It was in anticipation of the Obama administration’s strategic review that the Pakistani leadership raked up tensions with India—hoping that a war-like situation on its eastern borders will provide it with a plausible alibi. India foiled that attempt by refusing to even mildly ratchet up military escalation.

That only left the Pakistanis to demand a vague reduction in tensions, a resolution of the Kashmir dispute and unconvincingly insinuate Indian involvement in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. This did not go completely waste—for there are people in the Obama administration who are sympathetic to this line—but it is unlikely to provide the Pakistani military establishment with the way out of having to do what the United States wants it to do.

So, what does the United States do now? As many analysts point out—and Richard Holbrooke himself admitted—no one knows. Mr Holbrooke reiterated that US troops will not cross over into Pakistan *, while Bruce Riedel, the man behind the review only said that he hoped that “aggressive military operations on the Afghan side, and working energetically with the Pakistani government” will shut down these safe havens. Setting benchmarks and making financial assistance conditional on performance sounds like just what the management consultant would advise, but Washington is remarkably susceptible to the Pakistan-will-turn-into-a-nuclear-failed-state-unless… line. The Pakistanis know that and won’t shy from exploiting it.

Expect a train of high-level envoys to visit New Delhi in the coming weeks. Chief among their aims, we are informed, “will be to try to get Pakistani and Indian officials, in particular, to turn down the volume in their never-ending conflict, in the hopes that the Pakistani military can turn its attention to the fight against insurgents in border regions, and away from fighting India.” As patronising as that sounds, it will remain for the Indian government officials to explain to them that they can even have the “never-ending conflict” arises from the same problem that the US is trying to solve. Get the Pakistani government to dismantle the military-jihadi complex and the volume will not only be turned down, it can be turned off.

Mr Obama’s first strategic review skirts around the heart of the matter, perhaps due to its acceptance of red lines. We might have to wait for the next one before he gets it right.

Update: More analysis on this here on INI: on Pragmatic Euphony and Polaris.

Related Links: Leslie Gelb at the Daily Beast has a good critique of those benchmarks. Filter Coffee remarks that the US has ignored Punjabi jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. And Spencer Ackerman has the money quote.

Obama now owns the Af-Pak war

The focus is on Pakistan

“And after years of mixed results,” President Obama announced, the United States “will not, and cannot, provide a blank check” to Pakistan.

The most likely reaction in the Pakistani establishment is likely to be “we’ll see about that.” It is all very well that the United States wants to strengthen the Pakistani civilian government, improve governance and all that. But the strings that the Obama administration ties to the aid it gives Pakistan won’t last beyond the next crisis that the latter perpetrates. Let’s hope Mr Obama succeeds where others have failed. But don’t hold your breath.

Let them have…cake

Those “informed sources” in Islamabad…what would the world be without them?

Barack Obama, as usual, raises expectations, this time among “informed sources” in Pakistan.

An informed source while quoting an Islamabad-based diplomat, who is said to be aware of the details of what he called the Obama Plan, said that a long-term solution to the problems associated with the Gwadar Port vis-a-vis the divergent strategic interests of US and China would also be explored in regional context, and in this regard all the concerned parties will be taken into confidence for seriously considering the following options. Regarding Pak-India relations, the proxy war between the two are being checked and controlled completely.

…Regarding long-term solution to the problems associated with the Gwadar Port and the divergent strategic interests of the US and China related thereto, it is said, would be explored in regional context, and in this regard all the concerned parties will be taken into confidence for seriously considering the following options: Let Pakistan declare the Gwadar Sea Port as an international open port; Let both the USA and China jointly invest into developing the Gwadar Port as a Deep Sea Port of international standards; Let the USA build a land route and oil/gas pipelines from the Gwadar Deep Sea Port to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) of Central Asia through Afghanistan; Let China construct a land route and railways (if feasible) from the Gwadar Deep Sea Port to its Khunjerab Pass and onward through Balochistan, NWFP and Northern Areas; Let India construct a motorway from New Delhi to Lahore and then Pakistan constructs a motorway and railways (if feasible) from Peshawar to Jalalabad, city of Afghanistan, and at the same time, Afghanistan constructs a motorway and railways (if feasible) from Jalalabad to the American-sponsored land route extending to the CIS thereby providing India and Pakistan a joint access to Afghanistan and to the Central Asian States; Let Iran construct a motorway and railways (if feasible) to the American-sponsored land route in Afghanistan extending to the central Asian CIS member states thereby providing Iran a land access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian States, and also to China through Pakistan or through the CIS; and Let India, Pakistan and Iran jointly build a gas pipeline from Paras Gas Field of Iran to India through Pakistan for meeting the growing energy needs of both India and Pakistan.

The above solution, the source said, will provide a way forward to all the concerned countries thereby transforming into an economic inter-dependent region of peace and mutual cooperation to their respective benefits and prosperity. [The News]

Messy problems can be solved—you have only to Let them.

My op-ed in Mint: Who wants to be good Taliban?

US counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, Pakistan army’s choices and implications for India

In today’s Mint. Sushant & I argue that General Kayani’s political decisions will depend on the course and outcomes of US negotiations with ‘moderate’ Taliban. We suggest that while moderate Taliban is an oxymoron it is also “a label of convenience, using moral connotations to render realpolitik-driven compromises acceptable” and will be applied to whoever the US negotiates with. Excerpts:

So who might end up as the ‘good’ Taliban in the coming months? Mid-level commanders of the militias fighting Western forces are one likely set of contenders—a combination of political accommodation, financial rewards and astute exploitation of inter-tribal rivalries might help distance them from their top leaders. Another set of contenders are the warlords (now called Taliban commanders) who might not share deep loyalties to the al-Qaeda leadership and the Pakistani establishment. How all this will fare is difficult to say, though the cards are heavily stacked against its success. Nevertheless, its course and outcome will determine General Kayani’s political moves in Pakistan.

If the United States decides to engage the type of individuals and groups that are backed by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, General Kayani is likely to want to quickly arrest Pakistan’s political unravelling. The army can then expand its own bargains with the Pakistan Taliban, and relieved of pressure, go back to being its usual self: wielding power, cornering economic opportunities and fighting India.

If, on the other hand, the designation of ‘good’ Taliban does not square with the interests of the military-jihadi complex, then General Kayani has every reason to wait and allow matters to worsen. For the ‘bad’ Taliban will continue to hurt US forces in Afghanistan until Washington folds or quits. Pakistan’s military leadership very likely believes that the United States cannot simultaneously accept the failure of a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the triumph of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

What does this mean for India? There is an urgent need for India to protect itself from the fallout of Pakistan’s Talibanisation. This involves, first, ensuring that the Omar Abdullah government succeeds in ending the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. The new central government will have to imaginatively wind down the visible security presence in Kashmiri towns and villages even as it strengthens vigilance along the LoC and within the state. Second, the internal security lessons of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai must be learnt. And finally, India simply cannot continue the unserious approach to political violence: there must be zero tolerance of vandals, rioters, “sainiks” of one form or another and terrorists.

On the external front, the only way to save Pakistan is to put it under international management. The United States, to paraphrase old Winston, can be trusted to do the right thing after it has exhausted all other options. It is in India’s interests to see that it exhausts them fast enough. [Mint]

Read the rest at LiveMint. (Thanks to Swami Iyer for asking the right question)

The reality of radical Islam

…is that it doesn’t accept compromises

It is one thing for the United States to attempt to recycle a strategy that worked in Iraq and consider applying it in Afghanistan. As Joshua Foust argued in the July 2008 issue of Pragati, that model is unlikely to yield comparable results in Afghanistan because of differences in socio-economic structure, historical paths and geo-political neighbourhoods. While we hope that it listens to good sense, you can’t deny the Obama administration a chance to learn by making big mistakes.

But it is entirely another thing to provide a kind of intellectual cover for what is essentially an exercise in wishful pragmatism by advancing an argument—as Fareed Zakaria has done—that the world should learn to live with radical Islam, because “not all (radical Islamists) advocate global jihad, host terrorists or launch operations against the outside world—in fact, most do not.” Actually, this argument is invalidated by his very next sentence—when Mr Zakaria argues that “no Afghan Taliban has participated at any significant level in a global terrorist attack over the past 10 years—including 9/11.” It is breathtaking to see a person of Mr Zakaria’s intelligence engage in such poor sophistry: by his logic, even Osama bin Laden has not participated in any significant terrorist attack over the last decade either.

The fundamental mistake Mr Zakaria makes is to conflate Islam and radical Islam. He is right when he argues that emphasising “the variety of groups, movements and motives within (the Muslim) world strengthens the case that this is not a battle between Islam and the West.” But the sentence is illogical—for if there are a variety of groups, movements and motives then there can be a battle between the West and some of them. And there is. It exists regardless of whether the West wants it or not—because radical Islam defines itself by that battle. How then can the rest—and this includes moderate Muslim societies—learn to live with it?

Mr Zakaria points to the fact that radical Islamic parties are currently on the wane in Nigeria—one solitary example that is an exception to the norm—to build a case that this will invariably be the case elsewhere in the world. It’s hard to believe that radical Islamic parties (as opposed to moderate Islamic parties operating in institutional democracies) will relinquish power once they are voted out of office. To believe this would be to ignore the observed fact that radical Islamists define political success in being able to set-up a revolutionary state like Iran, the Mullah Omar-led Afghanistan or Pakistan’s Swat. It’s almost always a one-way street. What about Nigeria? Well, it isn’t over and time will tell.

That’s not all. Mr Zakaria suggests that the world can live with most radical Islamists as the latter do not pose an external threat to their neighbours and to the West. Well a case can be made that what radical Islamists do within their borders—in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Sudan (a word missing from Mr Zakaria’s essay)—is itself a threat to international security. But it is hard to find a radical Islamist state that does not have an external agenda. So what caused Mullah Omar’s Taliban to host al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups? Why does Iran support Hizbollah? Why did Pashtuns and Pakistani Punjabis fight the jihad in India, Iraq and elsewhere?

Pick a radical Islamist organisation. It is likely to have one or both goals—territorial and religious-ideological. It is the mixing of the two that makes compromise impossible.

Mr Zakaria’s arguments are dangerous because they undermine the very internal opposition to radical Islam within the Muslim world that he claims the West should work with. Once the United States begins to negotiate with the ‘good’ Taliban, the moderate Afghans will be done for. So why is it that the surviving moderate Awami National Party (ANP) leaders can’t venture out of their homes in Swat? Because the Pakistani government struck a deal with the Taliban. Those who are opposed to the radical Islamist agenda should do the opposite. It is understandable why the Pakistani government won’t do the correct thing, but why should the United States bolster its strategic adversary?

The truth is that you can’t stop worrying and learn to live with radical Islam. It has to be countered and contained, and ultimately defeated. The tactical exigencies of the war in Af-Pak, important as they are, should not be allowed to cloud our understanding of the big picture. While it is important to prove Mr bin Laden wrong when he “constantly argues that all these different groups are part of the same global movement”, it is important to do so without doing Mr bin Laden’s job for him.

Related Post: Why India must export its Islam