Premature militarisation

Until we know what the game is about, cyber strategy must be stewarded by the civilian authorities

George F Kennan, whose views shaped US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Second World War had this to say in 1996.

“My thoughts about containment were of course distorted by the people who understood it and pursued it exclusively as a military concept; and I think that that, as much as any other cause, led to [the] 40 years of unnecessary, fearfully expensive and disoriented process of the Cold War. [CNN/John D Clare]

Around the same time, the US Strategic Air Command acquired tremendous influence over nuclear weapons policy, and believing that these new weapons worked the same way as the conventional munitions they were so used to, ultimately ended up building mindnumbingly large arsenals. The Soviets followed suit. If there was ever a risk of total annihilation of the world it was (and still is) due to the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia). It was only in the 1980s that the Cold War superpowers realised that the utility of nuclear weapons lay not in warfighting, but in deterrence. But there was a time when both countries were designing warheads for battlefield use—including, at one point in the form of artillery shells. [See my review of Richard Rhodes’ book in Pragati]

The story of the Cold War and nuclear weapons holds an important lesson for us as we behold the advent of cyberweapons. It is this: do not let the military establishment take control of policy before it is clear what the game is all about. In the case of cyberweapons, as we discussed at yesterday’s Takshashila roundtable, there is a lot that we do not know. Cyber strategy is in its infancy. The conceptual framework is not clear—are cyberweapons similar to conventional weapons, chemical & biological weapons, nuclear weapons or in a class by themselves? What are the moves available to players in the game? Who indeed are the players? Is the concept of cyberwarfare overhyped, as Bruce Schneier argues? As fundamental as the questions are, there are few satisfactory answers.

Handing over cyber strategy to military establishments at this stage is not a good idea. In the United States, the Obama administration risks repeating the mistakes of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. It is all very well to say that the US Cyber Command is responsible only for “dot-mil” domains, but given its budget, clout and operational mandate, the military establishment is quite likely to dominate cyber warfare policy-making. Unfortunately, over in China, the United States’ primary strategic adversary, it is the People’s Liberation Army that is in charge of cyber warfare. That raises the risk of a perhaps avoidable cyber arms race between the two.

There is no doubt that the Indian government must ensure that India’s interests are protected in an age of cyber warfare (See Takshashila’s new discussion document, and Pragati articles by Rohan Joshi and Srijith Nair). This requires the pushing of intellectual boundaries—to develop a new discipline of cyber strategy—as much as it requires instituting competent authorities to develop, implement and oversee policy.

While the Indian armed forces must equip themselves with the knowledge, skills and equipment required to engage in cyber warfare, for the time-being, it is prudent to avoid letting the military establishment dominate policy-making. India did well to prevent the undue militarisation of its nuclear weapons policy. That experience should inform New Delhi’s moves in the domain of cyber strategy.

Chair and peace

Sequels in real life

What a remarkable coincidence. First, Charlie Wilson writes an vitamins-is-good-for-kids type of op-ed in the Washington Post that suggests he’s back in the lobbying business, this time handling Georgia’s brief. Previously, he had formally signed-up as a lobbyist for Pakistan a month after 9/11, but then quit in 2005 due to health reasons.

And then, Sepoy shocks us by publishing an open letter written by some American academics to their bosses at the University of Texas at Austin, protesting against the institution of the “Charlie Wilson Chair in Pakistan Studies.” The Charlie Wilson couch or hot tub would have been the appropriate piece of furniture to endow. Whatever they call it, Sepoy is eminently qualified to occupy it.

Another Cold War?

The West risks causing one

In a recent exchange on on this article, Zorawar Daulet Singh (who had covered this theme in the November 2007 issue of Pragati) had this to say:

It was and is not in Russian interest to start a Cold War. But the facts are pretty clear, the conflict in Caucasus was precipitated by the US who egged on the Georgians. The US completely miscalculated the Russian response, assuming it would bark but not bite (perhaps not an unreasonable assumption given the last 15 years, where Russia was too weak to respond with a credible use of force). But its been increasingly clear over the last two years or so, that the Kremlin has the economic/political/military coherence to respond with multiple instruments on its near abroad. Clearly, the US didnt take any of this seriously, and kept pushing eastwards.

Russia has now demonstrated that US/NATO post-1991 gains in Eastern Europe have reached their territorial limits in terms of new states that can now enter the western alliance, which is why they demonstrated their resolve using Georgia as an example for Russia’s red lines. (For instance, Ukraine could very well be the next battleground.)

But note what Russian President Dimitri Medvedev is saying—Russia does not wish a cold war, but is ready for it if the US wishes to raise the ante. At the same time, Old Europe will need to determine whether rising instability/conflict on their frontiers is more importan than Russian gas.

Bottom line: the Russians didnt start this Cold War, but will respond in kind if US doesn’t back down. Tangentially, US actions might be motivated in part by atleast the ongoing presidential campaign and the prevailing security establishment’s objectives to buttress the probability of a victory for Republican candidate John McCain. (The assumption is a reheating of the Cold War would diminish Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s chances in November).

Remembering the East Pakistan Genocide

Truth and reconciliation elude the victims of the 1971 mass murders

Thirty eight years ago this day, the Pakistani army’s tanks moved in to Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, as part of the General Yahya Khan-led junta’s plan to bring the autonomy-seeking province to heel. “We have to sort them out” said Colonel Naim of the Pakistani army’s 9th division, “to restore the land to the people, and the people to their Faith”. Operation Searchlight officially got underway on March 25th 1971, although in his memoirs, Major General Sujan Singh Uban writes that the Pakistani army had begun repressive measures a few days earlier.

Thus began the genocide.

It was perhaps among the few in recent decades that did not come as a surprise, not least to the victims. It accompanied the birth of a new nation leaving horrible birthmarks that disfigure Bangladeshi society to this day. Bangladesh in 1971 was the site of multiple conflicts: a civil war between the the two wings of Pakistan, communal violence between Bengalis and non-Bengalis, a genocide, an guerrilla war, a conventional war and a counter-genocide. In each of these conflicts perpetrators, victims and onlookers often exchanged roles. Here is my essay (PDF, 200kb) that examines the causes, course and results of one sub-conflict—the genocide against Bengalis by the West Pakistani army—and attempts to explain it through a Realist perspective.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power indicts the realist underpinnings of US foreign policy for its indirect complicity or reluctance to intervene in several 20th century genocides—including those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

While that may indeed be the case, the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. (The essay contains a small section disagreeing with Sarmila Bose’s recent revisionist study that concludes that the term genocide was a product of exaggeration.).

Download the essay here

From the archives: Archer Kent Blood, RIP; Who claimed Bangladeshi independence?; Indira called Nixon a…?; Bangladesh celebrates victory day; Children of a failed theory; Foreign Policy Naifs (Barbara Crossette edition)