Pax Indica: Why they killed bin Laden now

The military-jihadi complex is likely to grow stronger

In today’s Pax Indica column on Yahoo, I warn that India has at best two summers before cross-border militancy and terrorism rise again.

You might remember a Shekhar Suman gag on Zee TV’s Movers and Shakers several years ago: An angry George W Bush announces that the United States will bomb the place where Osama bin Laden is found to be hiding.

Hearing this, Vajpayee looks under his bed, pauses, and with a characteristic flick of his wrist says: “Thank God! He isn’t here!”

Over in Rawalpindi, General Musharraf looks under his bed, sighs in relief, and says: “Thank God! He is still here!”

Shekhar Suman, more than most Western analysts, got the plot right. Keeping Osama bin Laden out of Washington’s hands was vital in order to prevent having to publicly deal with revelations of how the Pakistani military-jihadi complex not only was connected with al-Qaeda, but might also have been involved in the conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks. [Read the rest at Yahoo!]

My op-ed in WSJ Asia – Dr Singh’s leap of faith

India’s decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan is a triumph of faith over reason

The following is the original draft of my op-ed that appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal Asia earlier this week:

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waited until public memory of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on 26th November 2008 faded to a level that it was politically feasible for him to resume the composite bilateral dialogue with Pakistan. The attacks had compelled him to reluctantly suspend official talks two years ago. Despite increasingly compelling evidence that the Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out those attacks with the connivance of the Pakistani military establishment, Islamabad has preferred to engage in a dilatory game of dossiers-and-lawsuits to avoid having to take any action against the perpetrators of one of the most provocative acts of terrorism in recent years. Yet, in the absence of the tiniest acts of good faith from his Pakistani counterparts, Prime Minister Singh has dogmatically persisted with his pursuit of dialogue — a policy which last week saw New Delhi effectively yielding to Pakistan’s demand of talks without preconditions.

Dialogue for Mr Singh is neither an eyewash to satisfy the international community nor a pragmatic policy tied to outcomes. It is almost a matter of faith, oblivious to facts or reason. Continue reading “My op-ed in WSJ Asia – Dr Singh’s leap of faith”

Letter to the Jakarta Post

Regarding the situation in Jammu & Kashmir

An edited version of the following letter was published in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post today:

Sir,

I refer to the article by Laura Schuurmans in the Jakarta Post dated 12 August 2010.

Ms Schuurman’s makes a specious argument linking the situation in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir to the spread of extremism across South Asia. The fact of the matter is that Jammu & Kashmir is a victim of Pakistan’s dangerous policy of using radical Islamist militants as a tool of state policy right from 1947. In other words Pakistan’s cynical manipulation of religion predates the Kashmir ‘dispute’. Secondly, as borne out by numerous statements by leaders of Pakistan-based militant organisations like Hafeez Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the extremists’ goal is not limited to the liberation of Kashmir, but extends to the dismemberment of a India, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation which is very similar to Indonesia.

In fact, while Ms Schuurman regurgitates the Goebbelsian language about troop numbers and ‘repression’ of the people in Jammu & Kashmir, she neglects to mention that despite bloodshed of the last two decades, including the ethnic cleansing of the Hindu minorities in 1989-90, the Indian government has respected the special status given to Jammu & Kashmir state. Your readers might be surprised to know that Indian citizens cannot migrate to the state, cannot purchase land and property there and face hurdles in marrying their Kashmiri counterparts. The state not only enjoys greater political and economic freedom than Pakistani administered Kashmir, and indeed Pakistan itself, but is also the second largest recipient of fiscal transfers (per capita) from the federal government.

This is not to deny that proxy war and insurgency has not created an affective divide between Kashmiris and the Indian state. But the idea of India is big enough to bridge this gap, as indeed has been happening since 2002. Chemotherapy is painful and hurts the body, but it is necessary to treat the underlying cancer which is fatal. Despite the Ms Schuurmans’ flawed arguments, I am sure that of all the people in the region, Indonesians will appreciate the challenges of governing a diverse, deeply religious yet plural society.

When BlackBerry went to New Delhi

BlackBerry must comply with Indian law. India needs a new debate on privacy.

Yes, terrorists can use anything to communicate with each other, plan attacks and help carry them out.

Hafiz Mohammed Saeed can write letters, in code, and send it by post to his sleeper agents in India. He probably does that. But not all means of communications are alike in their ability to help terrorists carry out attacks. A terrorist with a satellite phone with real-time voice and data connection is far more dangerous than a terrorist who carries letters in his pocket. So the argument that terrorists can use anything to communicate is not a valid counter to the argument that government agencies can prevent, investigate and prosecute terrorists better if they are capable of intercepting or blocking real-time communications.

For instance, there is a reasonable argument that the damage to life and property in Mumbai during the 26/11 attacks might have been lower if the terrorists had been denied access to real-time communications, from satellite phones, to cellular phones to broadcast television. There is also a reasonable argument that the ability to intercept the phone calls made by the terrorists plays an important role in prosecuting them in courts of law and in courts of public opinion. India’s law enforcement agencies have had the ability to tap your phone for ages, but apart from the odd political scandal, it is difficult to build a case that this has somehow led to the infringements of the rights of ordinary citizens.

The current debate over Blackberry’s messaging system must be placed in this context. The ongoing discussion between the Indian government and Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that provides BlackBerry services, involves two inter-related issues.

First, whatever might be RIM’s values, business practices and corporate policies, its business in India is governed by Indian law. The contention that “no one else has a problem with our service” is no defence—India has security considerations that might be peculiar to it, and as long as the requirements are constitutionally legitimate, RIM must comply. It is disingenuous to conflate the legitimate authority of a constitutional democracy—imperfect as India’s is—with that of the demands made by totalitarian or authoritarian states. The two are morally and practically different. [See this editorial in the Globe and Mail].

RIM could insist—as it has just done—that it is not treated any differently from others in the field, but it cannot get away with the excuse that its corporate policy overrides the rule of law in India.

Second and the more important issue is for India to establish due processes to determine just who, under what circumstances and under what checks and balances gets to actually block or intercept communications. A national debate over digital privacy, powers of government and mechanisms for redressal is now urgent, as the Indian economy and society become ever more reliant on communications networks.

It is clear that citizens need greater, more credible safeguards. It is also clear that the government needs to be more capable of addressing threats that arise from advances in communications technology. What is not clear is whether the political establishment sees these as priorities worthy of wider public deliberation. The usual practice of passing legislation without adequate parliamentary debate is neither likely to reassure citizens of their rights nor offer new ideas to law-enforcement agencies.

This blog has consistently argued against blunt measures like banning telecommunication services, even and especially in insurgent & terrorist affected areas. Governments must learn how to operate in an information-rich, networked world. Therefore, to the extent that the Indian government’s threat to block BlackBerry services is a device to press RIM to better co-operate with the law-enforcement agencies, it is tolerable. Such a threat is credible only if it can hurt both the government itself and RIM. This appears to be the case.

However, it would be a serious mistake if the government were to make such a ban permanent. Not because India needs the BlackBerry, but because the underlying rationale is self-defeating.

What we learn from our COIN campaigns

…is that we don’t learn from them

Here’s a passage from my review of India & Counterinsurgency: Lessons Learned, a volume of case studies and analyses edited by Sumit Ganguly & David Fidler.

A recurring theme in the book is that lessons that were to be learnt in one counter-insurgency campaign were not learnt, and mistakes repeated over and over again. That is as much a damning indictment of the Indian armed forces—particularly the army—as it is of a political class that treats political violence as within the ambit of legitimate politics. But while the failings of political leaders are well-known and roundly condemned, the lapses of the security forces are masked by information asymmetries.

Shouldn’t a counter-insurgency doctrine help prevent mistakes from being repeated? Comparing the counter-insurgency doctrines of the United States and India, Dr Fidler writes that the exercise of developing the Indian Doctrine for Sub-Conventional Operations (DSCO) was “mainly one of codification—collecting in one document guidance accumulated over the course of more than fifty years. The objective was not to revolutionise how the Indian Army or government thought about how to fight insurgencies.” That sounds quintessentially Indian and evokes images of the Vedas, which were codified into written form after centuries of existence as oral tradition. It will be a challenge to translate this kind of a document into a strategy for current and future conflicts.

Dr Fidler also points out that India’s counter-insurgency doctrine “has not involved the civilian government agencies affected, such as the state and central police forces.” This is perhaps its biggest weakness—by its very nature, counter-insurgency is a problem of (re-)establishing governance. The Indian pattern has been one where, even after a successful campaign by security forces, the civilian government is somehow expected to miraculously appear and resume administration. Unfortunately, this does not usually happen, setting the state for the insurgency to resume. It is unclear if this broad point has registered at the highest levels of the Indian government. [Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review]

Pune and after (2)

The implications of terror-on-tap

A few remarks on yesterday’s terrorist attack on Pune (and an attempt to summarise the discussions over email, twitter & telephone).

There were two bombs. The one that went off was an improvised explosive device (IED) likely to be using ammonium-nitrate fuel oil (ANFO) with an RDX booster. The other was a bag containing 7kg of explosives found inside an auto-rickshaw. The use of these relatively simple explosives, set to explode when a victim handled them, suggest that this was an “instant noodles” type of attack.

It is likely that the attacks were carefully calibrated and deliberately dialed to a relatively limited level. It is big enough to upset India, but not big enough to get the world’s capitals too concerned. In other words, the international pressure on Pakistan would not be significant, even as the Indian government will be compelled to react.

It is clear that the military-jihadi complex has acquired the capability to mount terrorist attacks against India at several levels of escalation. That is the most disturbing aspect of the Pune attack—not only can the military-jihadi complex use terrorist attacks for political purposes, it has the ability to both pick targets and the level of violence. India does not have a matching response to Pakistan’s strategic use of terrorism.

What would a matching response look like? There are two broad directions: one, develop the ability to respond in a tit-for-tat fashion, across the levels of escalation. Two, get to the root of the problem by destroying the military-jihadi complex. There is, of course, the suffer-in-silence approach which, as much as it is likely, will be increasingly counter-productive.

German Bakery in Pune has been called a ‘soft target’. But a target is ‘soft’ merely because the ordinary people in and around it are unaware, unconcerned or incompetent. As much as there is a need for the Indian government to improve its strategic responses, there is a greater need for ordinary citizens to be alert, prepared, responsible without being spooked out. It is about a kind of balance that government, media and civil society are simply incapable of.

Related Links: On INI, Pragmatic Euphony and The Filter Coffee on how India should respond.

Three thoughts for the Republic

On putting people first; on fixing drains; and on expanding geopolitical horizons

For reflection on Republic Day—why territory is not a big deal; why fixing drains will help counter terrorism and on the need to see beyond the subcontinent.

Also, don’t miss the brilliant editorial at Mint—that points out that “while we have protected the process of democracy, we have deeply violated its spirit.”

From the archive: Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and Independence Day 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

Terrorism for the cameras

On this week’s terrorist attack on Srinagar

“Barring that it took place around the corner from the offices of Srinagar-based television stations,” writes The Hindu in today’s editorial, “there was little to distinguish the incident from dozens of similar fire engagements that regularly take place in the State.”

During the course of the attack, the Pakistani handler instructed the terrorists to prolong the attack for as long as they could, to conserve ammunition by carefully firing single or two-round bursts. “You must make every effort,” said the handler “to stretch this through the night and the whole day tomorrow.”

As good an example as you can get, to demonstrate that terrorism is theatre. As Bruce Schneier wrote:

The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act. [Bruce Schneier]

This was not a brainless 3act of terrorism involving indiscriminate attacks aimed at creating mass casualty. This was a clever attempt to achieve the same effect but with the limited resources at their disposal. The terrorists counted on the television media to act as the force multiplier. They didn’t entirely fail, as Pragmatic Euphony points out.

But when Indian intelligence authorities released intercepts of conversations between the terrorists and their handlers, the tables were turned. It is unclear if jihadi organisations fire (pun unintended) their handlers, but Junaid presents a fit case for dismissal. If your strategic intent is to prove that the violent ‘freedom struggle’ in Kashmir is not dead, it is not too clever to give the game away by using a phrase like “breathe life into a dead horse.”

(Of course, it is possible, though unlikely, that the intercepts that were released were false or doctored. That still doesn’t change the final score.)

Why fixing drains will help counter terrorism

India cannot be competent in internal security without being competent in overall governance

“If 26/11 is not to become another one in an endless series of fatalities,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes “we need to keep asking the question: how can a people who have much to be proud of, be endowed with a state that has much to be embarrassed about?” The answer is in a guest post I wrote on Dilip D’Souza’s blog last year. Here is the post, in full:

Since those Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai in the last week of November, I received innumerable emails and phone calls from nice people expressing righteous anger against two targets: the incorrigible Pakistan and our own arrogant, self-serving and incompetent politicians. Shouldn’t we just bomb that place Muridke, where the ISI trains jihadis? Shouldn’t we punish politicians and bureaucrats who failed to prevent these attacks from happening? It was difficult to reason with them: no, we can’t just bomb Muridke, because, you know, that would start a war with a wretched, broken country that has nothing to lose. And besides, that’s exactly what the Pakistani military-jihadi complex wants us to do. Now, I didn’t think that I would have to defend myself against the charge of being a “dove”. But let that be for now.

What about our politicians and our security agencies? Shouldn’t they be punished for ignoring the terrorist threat until it was too late? Sure. But first, let’s ask when was it that we gave them a credible signal that we think this was important. And let’s ask ourselves why it should be surprising that our intelligence and security apparatus failed to prevent a sophisticated amphibious assault mounted by both the might of a powerful intelligence agency and a well-organised organised crime network.

South Mumbai is one of India’s richest constituencies. It also has the lowest voter turnouts. The Maharashtra state government routinely fails to protect its citizens from the ravages of the monsoon. Mumbai didn’t complain. The Maharashtra government failed to put uppity political goondas in their place. Mumbai didn’t complain. The state government shelved plans to invest Rs 2000 billion to modernise the city. Mumbai didn’t complain. Plans to transform it into an international financial centre disappeared into another black hole. Mumbai didn’t complain. The good citizens of India in general, and Mumbai in particular had seceded from the nation—choosing to provide for themselves the basic public goods that the government ought to have.

It is unreasonable to expect competent policemen and intelligence agencies when the public works, healthcare, education and environment departments are characterised by non-performance, corruption and worse. Unless the overall quality of governance improves, one cannot expect India to battle terrorism and other lesser threats to human security. And you can’t expect law enforcement to comply to the civilised norms we expect. In this context, it is just as unreasonable to expect the Indian state to be effective against terrorism as it is to expect it to show regard for human rights of suspects. The upshot is that overall governance must improve. How?

By voting. By giving money, legitimately, to politicians to support their election campaigns. And by holding them to account. I’m stopped at this point by people who say it won’t work, and we need to do something “stronger” to change politics. I find this amazing. Because despite being one of the simplest instruments available to Indians, it is dismissed as being ineffective by people who have not even tried it. If the vote is empowering the historically downtrodden segments of the Indian population, won’t it empower the middle class too? No, it’s not a quick fix, but our politicians are a smart lot—they are bound to notice a bank of votes and notes when they see one.

It doesn’t matter if the choice on the ballot is between a criminal and a person who has broken the law, between a former and current member of the same party, between a candidate of this party or that. Voting is the most credible signal we can send to our politicians—both to fix the drains and to secure us from terrorists. It’s time we send it loud and clear, above all the noise we make.

Why study 26/11 when it’s easier to bury it?

Democracy cannot operate without sunlight

Y P Rajesh in the Indian Express on Mumbai’s unanswered questions:

26/11 deserved an inquiry commission on the lines of the US commission that probed 9/11 and went on to blame the FBI and the CIA for intelligence failures. Particularly since the failures in India involved central and state, civilian and military agencies. But all that Mumbai got was a state-level exploratory trip by two retired officials who had to rely on police officers volunteering information, and even those findings were buried. [IE]

Now, inquiry commissions, in the India context are more often used to put an issue with explosive political implications first into suspended animation and then into deep freeze. They are also used as political trump cards whenever the ruling party badly needs one.

But not constituting one, or creating one flippantly, ensures that even the small chance that policy lessons will be learnt disappears. It is bad governance—there is no systematic study of what went wrong and what went right, citizens do not know what to demand of their politicians (even if the citizens of South Bombay cared about such things) and culprits at all levels of government do not even get called out. Shame.

This is not to say that 26/11 didn’t compel the Indian government to get a lot more serious about internal security than on 25th November 2008. Appointing P Chidambaram as home minister was the first such move. He has injected a degree of purposefulness in the government’s security apparatus. The home ministry might have drawn some lessons from 26/11. But we are none the wiser.

The least the UPA government can do on the first anniversary of one of the worst terrorist attacks on India is to offer an honest appraisal of the entire episode.