Why I support official talks with Pakistan

Talks will call the bluffs in Rawalpindi, Islamabad & Washington

The sudden and unexplained manner in which the UPA government offered to resume talks with Pakistan has injected a lot of confusion in the public discourse. The confusion—and the political & strategic costs arising from it—must be blamed on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A move as significant as the restart of official bilateral discussions should have been properly explained to the public by the prime minister. Dr Singh remains silent, as usual, leading a thousand blind men and women to describe the elephant as they sense it. What follows, therefore, is the account of Blind Man of Hindoostan #1001.

Talking to the Pakistani government is unlikely to achieve any substantial progress in bilateral relations. The Zardari-Gilani government is a joke. The military-jihadi complex under General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani does not perceive any accommodation with India as being in its interests. The Pakistani economy and society itself is in a tailspin, perhaps even a terminal decline. Even if India could find a party on the other side of the border with sufficient authority and credibility to engage in serious negotiations, it is unlikely that such a party can strike a deal. And if a deal were to be struck, it is likely to be repudiated by whoever comes next. Therefore, anyone who bases the argument for talks on premises like “Let’s give dialogue a chance” or “Because we must” or any other similar notion cannot be taken seriously.

The biggest threat to international security, not just India’s national security, is Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. Pakistan cannot be at peace with itself, or with its neighbours, or with the world until and unless the military-jihadi complex is contained, dismantled and ultimately destroyed. This grand task is neither India’s alone, nor is India capable of engaging in it all by itself.

If US troops were not engaged in Afghanistan and if US President Barack Obama’s political fortunes did not depend on success in Af-Pak, there would be no reason for India to engage in pointless talks with Pakistan. But the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, and covertly in Pakistan, is an opportunity for India, as Washington faces the unpalatable reality of having to confront the military-jihadi complex. Of course, there is a chance that the Obama administration will chicken out. Even so, it is in India’s interests to deprive Pakistan and the United States of the fig leaves they might want to cover their own escapes. Pakistan cannot blame tensions with India for not fighting the taliban, and the United States cannot use the same excuse in case it fails to compel the Pakistani military establishment to deliver.

So let the foreign secretaries talk. Let them make a list of all issues they want to talk about. And let them then talk about those issues. Just as talks won’t stop terrorism, they need not stop whatever measures India is taking to counter the terrorism.

Honesty demands the risks be stated upfront. One risk is that the United States will lose its nerve, and that New Delhi will fail to compel Washington to act against the military-jihadi complex.

But the bigger risk is that these talks might place the Indian government on a slippery slope of making permanent concessions in return for temporary ones. The desire for a deal, and the place in history that might come with one, will tempt Indian decisionmakers to err on the side of wishfulness. The best way to manage this risk is for the BJP and other parties to remain alert and remain opposed to any concessions, not talks.

The Pakistanis might complain that this is a dialogue of the deaf, and that India is intransigent and that they will not be able to halt terrorism unless India yields to their demands. Let them.

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.

Talk time

Why India’s offer of talks with Pakistan might not be that bad

So India has offered Pakistan “open-ended talks on all outstanding issues affecting peace and security”, emphasising counter-terrorism, at the level of the foreign secretaries. The offer was made two weeks ago and Pakistan is yet to respond. Also, Siddharth Varadarajan reports that “this is the second time in three months that India has proposed an official-level meeting.” For a government that has been incessantly chanting “dialogue must be resumed”, Islamabad seems reluctant to take up the offer. Now that India’s offer is in public, it will be harder for Pakistan to remain reluctant and continue its chanting.

It is not hard to find fault with the UPA government’s decision to resume bilateral negotiations even as Pakistan continues to brazenly avoid taking action against the instigators of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. First, the Zardari-Gilani government will project it as yet another political triumph. This will reinforce the state of denial in Pakistani society. Second, the dialogue process itself is unlikely to yield anything substantial in terms of resolving bilateral disputes. The military-jihadi complex has vested interests in creating new disputes—river water sharing, for instance—not in resolving old ones. It is unlikely that the back channel near-deal on Kashmir discussed during General Musharraf’s final months can be concluded now. Third, it will reinforce the military-jihadi complex’s conviction that India does not have credible instruments of retaliation even in the face of highly provocative acts of terrorism like 26/11. This will raise the risks of more such attacks against India.

So was India’s decision foolish? Was it a result of “US pressure”? While the case against resuming the dialogue with Pakistan is solid, there is also a case for it. Why? Because Pakistan has been offering bilateral tensions with India as the excuse for not fighting the taliban in its own territory. The excuse is ridiculous in the presence of nuclear deterrence, but when has logical inconsistency and factual inaccuracy stopped Pakistan? The Obama administration is not without its own sad combination of inexperience and opinionatedness, resulting in some of its quarters taking Pakistani protestations at face value.

It will be much harder for Pakistan to use the excuse if, hey, “open-ended talks on all outstanding issues” are in progress.

There is, however, a caveat. This policy of destroying Pakistan’s excuses—and acting as an anvil—makes sense only if the UPA government has the intention, capacity and will to compel the United States to hammer the military-jihadi complex. If it doesn’t, then, like similar events in history, India’s decision will be nothing other than folly.

Related Post: Operation Markarap

The Constitution and the national interest

Where we stand

In a land of over a billion minorities, the Indian republic—which owes its existence to the loftiest moral struggle in modern times—presents the best hope for the well-being and development of all its citizens. The survival, security and strengthening of the Indian nation and its institutions, therefore, is not only a matter of supreme moral consequence, but of immense human importance.

Frequently imperfect application, repeated attempts at its perversion and creeping cynicism about its effectiveness must not prevent us from recognising that the Constitution of India offers an enlightened way for us to organise our society and ensure the greatest welfare of all citizens. Surely this is something worth defending. We at The Indian National Interest community strongly believe so.

The above lines are from the inaugural editorial of Pragati. Today is a good day to renew our commitment.

How India might ‘lose’ Afghanistan

Would you co-operate with a mere regional power if you feel you have beaten two superpowers?

Kanti Bajpai is one of India’s best academic experts on international relations—and one who this blog holds in high regard. His op-ed in the Times of India today (linkthanks Raja Karthikeya Gundu), however, overlooks something big.

Arguing that India must stop relying on the United States to stabilise Afghanistan and “discipline Pakistan” he calls for “Indian policy on Afghanistan must move towards a regional understanding that includes in the first instance Pakistan and perhaps Iran.”

The fundamental compact between India and Pakistan must be of a simple, robust nature: that both countries have legitimate interests in Afghanistan. India has an interest in overall stability and the protection of northern, non-Pashtun Afghans as well as various other minorities including Sikhs and Hindus. Pakistan also has an interest in the country’s stability and in the Pashtuns finding their rightful place in any future government of Afghanistan. India and Pakistan could agree therefore that India will continue to provide developmental aid and that Pakistan will have influence on political developments, the goal of both countries being to help evolve a lasting, just and inclusive political system…In addition, India must resume talks with Pakistan. [TOI]

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that either the Pakistani military-jihadi establishment will either play along or that it will cease to exist. And that is a big assumption. Moreover, the assumption is all the more unlikely to hold specifically in the event Dr Bajpai’s prediction of a US pullout by 2012 comes about.

Why so? First, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will perceive a US withdrawal as its second victory over a superpower. This will strengthen its hand in Pakistan’s domestic politics and further encourage it to escalate the proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir. Indeed, triumph in Afghanistan will make the military-jihadi complex less likely to engage in meaningful dialogue with India over bilateral issues.

Second, once Western troops leave, and a pro-Pakistan regime gains control, why would the Pakistani military establishment want to permit Indian developmental aid? Isn’t it far more likely that it will approach China and Saudi Arabia for financial assistance, which the latter would readily provide?

If the Indian government goes ahead with Dr Bajpai’s recommendations before dismantling the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, it is likely to ‘lose’ Afghanistan to Pakistan & China.

The idea of India attempting to reach a regional understanding with Pakistan and Iran is a good one. It is exactly what the Indian government ought to do—right after the military-jihadi complex has been destroyed.

Update: Dr Bajpai responds:

Thank you for your thoughts on my piece.

I think Churchill said that democracy was the worst system except for all the others. A regional compact on Afghanistan is the worst alternative except for all the others.

The Vietnamese beat two superpowers as well—the French and the US. But it has not exactly got them very far.

The real issue is: what is most likely to give us a shot at stability and a long-term solution? The US cannot be part of a long-term solution because it is not in the region.

The reason that Pakistan might come to terms with India on it is that New Delhi is not likely this time to just pull out of Afghanistan in terms of its diplomatic and developmental presence. Pakistan cannot therefore count on having its way in Afghanistan. Also, a new Afghanistan, at some point, even if it dominated by the Taliban, will be a problem for Islamabad—on territory, on Islam.

The Islamic-jehadi complex in Pakistan has to be wrestled to the ground by the Pakistanis. The US will not be able to degrade it. As long as the Americans are in Afghanistan, there is not much chance that more moderate Pakistanis–in the ISI, in the rest of the Army, in civil society, in the political parties–will be able to root out the jehadis.

The Chinese are going to muscle in on Afghanistan sooner or later anyway. They are already putting in money. The Chinese are the next superpower, and they certainly cannot be kept out of Afghanistan if they don’t want to stay out. This is something we in India will have to accept. The Chinese are going to be everywhere—from Bhutan and Nepal to Bangladesh and Burma, from the Maldives to Sri Lanka. Their power is going to outstrip ours by some degrees for the next 35 years. They will find Afghanistan a difficult place to operate but given their fears about Xinjiang they will keep their involvement fairly limited, hoping that Pakistan will do the job.

Crossette & cliché

A fisking of Barbara Crossette’s piece in Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy‘s online editors invited me to rebut Barbara Crossette’s piece on India being the baddest boy of global governance. You can see the published version on their website. This is the original draft.

Making room for India
Contrary to Barbara Crossette, India does the global governance thing

According to Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway, “Elephant in the Room” was the most popular cliché to appear in major newspapers and journals in 2009. It is perhaps appropriate then, that Barbara Crossette’s latest diatribe against India appeared in Foreign Policy under that headline. While it claims to show that it is India that causes the most “the most global consternation” and “gives global governance the biggest headache” it is merely a series of rants and newsroom clichés selected entirely arbitrarily in order to support the author’s prejudice.

It is unfathomable how Ms Crossette can declare that it is India that causes the most consternation and the biggest headache—among Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Pakistan and China—merely by listing its alleged failings. Without an attempt to compare the failings across countries—and why only these countries, why leave out the West and the rest?—it is logically impossible to arrive at a conclusion that one of them is the biggest culprit. But once you trade logic for hyperbole, you can fit just about any animal you like into that room. For Ms Crossette’s, it is the pachyderm.
Continue reading Crossette & cliché

Where are our defence economists?

Defence budgeting would do well with more economic reasoning

One of the topics discussed at the Takshashila Executive Programme on Strategic Affairs in New Delhi earlier this month was the issue of defence budgeting. Mukul Asher and Sushant K Singh have an op-ed in DNA today that covers one aspect of it—the need to have competent defence economists in New Delhi’s policy & budget planning establishment.

Here’s an extended excerpt:

The current focus in defence sector budget formulation, in parliamentary approval process, and in post-budget assessment is almost solely on accounting procedures and practices. Even these are outdated as neither outcome nor accrual budgeting, which permits both income-expenditure flows and balance sheet assets and liabilities to be formulated, are utilised. The capital component of the defence budget involves multi-year expenditures and planning, which annual budget cycles are unable to accommodate effectively.

The current defence budget formulation largely involves incremental budgeting (e.g. 10% increase in nominal terms over the previous period), with usually no separation between inflation-induced and real increase in expenditure. No groups at the planning or strategic levels, whether at the Planning Commission or at the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Committee appears to be analysing the defence budget from forward strategic planning perspective incorporating current and prospective threat perceptions. The budget proposals are also not subjected to analysis from the perspective of defence economics as a distinct sub-discipline and profession.

This is a serious gap, which needs to be urgently addressed in an era when geo-politics and geo-economics are increasingly inter-related. While this is recognised by other major powers, particularly China, India has been relatively slow in integrating the two to enhance its economic and security space and leverage.

An important step towards integration of the two would be to give greater prominence to the role of defence economists at every level of the defence sector, and encourage their coordination with economists in other sectors.

There are three critical aspects of defence economics: projecting national resources available now and in the future; working out the proportion of these resources which should be allocated for internal and external security and division of resources within each of the two areas; and tracking the efficiency with which the resources so allocated are used.

The above requires developing a competent group of analysts specialising in defence economics. Currently, no university in India, to our knowledge, offers such specialisation at any level. The need is particularly acute at the post-graduate levels. The absence of such expertise in defence related think tanks is also striking. The media and professional military and economic journals have also not promoted this branch of economics.

In the short run, such specialists would need to be trained (or recruited from) abroad; particularly in the US where defence economics is a thriving discipline. But there is no substitute for developing indigenous capacity to train its own defence economists and analysts.

As India revamps its higher education sector, and Knowledge Commission advances the scope for applying knowledge and technology to a wide variety of sectors to bring about greater economic efficiency, the need to subject the defence sector to greater economic reasoning and analysis should receive deserved consideration.[Asher & Singh/DNA]

Why India should send troops to Afghanistan

It’s about strategy, not popularity

There is often a negative correlation between popularity and good policy: what is popular is often not good policy, and vice versa. This is especially true when it comes to foreign policy. For instance, the Times of India thinks nothing of publishing an op-ed article titled “Call Pakistan’s bluff”, in other words, “Let’s attack them and see if they respond with nuclear weapons”. It seems unimportant to consider the question of “what if they press the red button first”.

Since no political leader will accept such a policy recommendation, perhaps writing and publishing it just serves the purpose of playing to the galleries. (Forget newspaper columns, even the FICCI task force report on national security & terrorism identifies surgical strikes, all-out war and ‘leveraging the water issue’ as among the hard options for the Indian government’s consideration.)

Now there is every reason for India to invest in capabilities to carry out a number of military missions across its borders, including for conventional warfare under the shadow of nuclear weapons. But any recommendation that India ought to carry out a direct military retaliation in response to a future terrorist attack is not only so irresponsible as to make it a non-serious option. It is also strategically unsound, because nothing serves the interests of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex more than an old-fashioned war with India.

Despite all its shortcomings, the “let’s strike Pakistan” option is popular, at least among some pundits, in college canteens and in most middle-class drawing rooms. But you have only to mention the idea of sending Indian troops to Afghanistan that suddenly you end up on the other end of the popularity-policy correlation. You begin to hear “What if the Pakistanis retaliate with more terror attacks?”, “What will the ‘Muslim world’ say?”, “It won’t be popular with Indian Muslims”, “Remember IPKF!” and “Why should we become footsoldiers of the Americans?”. [Some of which were reflected in the very interesting open discussion thread on this blog last week]

The proposal to deploy Indian troops in Afghanistan is based on the simple logic of force fungibility. That since it is not feasible for Indian troops to directly attack Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex, India should ensure that US troops do so. Since it is in India’s interests that as many US soldiers are committed to operations ‘along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border’, it is sensible to relieve US troops of duties in areas where they are not actually fighting the taliban—especially in Western and Northern Afghanistan.

India has the capacity to equip, station and supply several divisions of its troops in Afghanistan. Many Afghan political leaders—from President Hamid Karzai to the Northern Alliance—are highly likely to welcome India’s decision. Neighbouring countries, including Iran and Tajikistan, will support an Indian military presence in Afghanistan provided their interests are taken into account. And not least, the United States will welcome it—for even if Indian troops do not eventually deploy, the very possibility of their deployment will change Washington’s bargaining terms with Kayani & Co.

What if the Pakistanis retaliate with more terror attacks? This is the most serious question. It is highly likely that the military-jihadi complex will escalate the proxy war against India. While the impact of this escalation is less significant compared to what the Pakistani army might do in response to a ‘surgical strike’ it is must be accepted as the cost of the option. The cost can be mitigated—but not eliminated totally—through better intelligence co-operation with the United States and intensification of the internal security mechanisms put in place after 26/11.

But let’s not forget that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex might escalate the proxy war against India even if India doesn’t send troops to Afghanistan. If you think otherwise, you haven’t been reading the news since the 1980s. (You should make up for it by reading Praveen Swami’s book).

In fact, ensuring that the United States stays committed to the objectives outlined by President Barack Obama is ultimately in India’s interests—for the US cannot succeed in that mission unless it transforms the Pakistani state. Now, it can be argued that the US will pack up and leave if the situation gets too hairy, but if India doesn’t do anything to keep the US focused, such arguments are gratuitous, sanctimonious and ultimately, self-fulfilling.

The real options are to do nothing, and allow the United States and Pakistan to work out a solution and hope that the outcome of that bargaining will secure India’s interests. Or to eschew both pusillanimity and grandstanding and indirectly crush the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. As for popularity, it’s a question of timing. If the Indian government had announced that “we will go to Afghanistan” on November 28th, 2008, few would have raised their hands in objection. For that reason, it is imperative that India’s military planners develop and have on the ready a comprehensive, well-thought out policy option involving the stationing of Indian troops in Afghanistan.

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.