What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

Explica a ABC el analista indio

Quoted in the Spanish

Jaime León, a reporter for the Spanish daily ABC, quotes me in his report on India-China relations. Here’s my opinion in Spanish.

«Los dirigentes chinos están preocupados por la creciente relación entre la India y Estados Unidos. Li Keqiang es el primero en decirlo públicamente», explica a ABC el analista indio Nitin Pai, director del «think tank» La Institución Takshashila. Y es que la desconfianza india hacia china es antigua, profunda y difícil de eliminar. «La guerra de 1962, que los indios piensan que fue una traición, continúa viva en la memoria colectiva en la India», afirma Pai, quien añade que «además, el apoyo de China a los insurgentes del noreste indio y el apoyo nuclear a Pakistán han ayudado a aumentar ese recelo». A su juicio, «es un hecho que China va por delante de la India en muchos aspectos, desde el económico al militar. En la percepción india, China es un adversario estratégico superior con un historial de hostilidad directa e indirecta hacia la India». [ABC]

Leave it at the tactical

Media-fuelled public outrage must not determine New Delhi’s strategy on the tensions along the Line of Control

Success or failure in a contest between two states is not measured by merely by the relative numbers of soldiers killed or bits of territory gained or lost. It is measured by the relative well-being of the people in the states concerned. What is the national interest if not “the well-being, prosperity and happiness of the nation”? The Arthashastra puts this in pithy terms: “The possession of power and happiness in a greater degree makes a king superior to another; in a less degree, inferior”.

Since the nuclear tests of 1998 and the Pakistan’s invasion of Kargil, leading to a brief border war in 1999, there has been a fairly commonplace lament in the popular discourse that India is unable to “do anything” to respond to Pakistani provocations. Let there be no doubt—Pakistani provocations have been many, they have been systematic and they have caused the nation physical, social and psychological harm. Let there be no doubt that India’s responses have been more restrained than they need to be—not least to a predilection among India’s prime ministers to see the need for “a peace process with Pakistan”. Let there also be no doubt: a flawed logic—the presumption that the Pakistan they do the peace process with is the Pakistan that attacks us—informs this policy.

Even so, by most measures, Indians in 2013 are better off than their Pakistani counterparts (see this Gapminder chart). This is despite the UPA squandering a good part of a benign decade and bringing the economy on the verge of a fiscal crisis. This is despite the neglect of governance reforms and bringing the polity into a wrenching political churn. Pakistan, for all its provocations and too-clever-by-half exploitation of its ‘geopolitical positions’ is back into the international doghouse it was in. It is being devoured by its own domestic monsters, without the need for any help from India.

So folks, we are winning this one.

Back in 2003, in a conversation with Sameer Wagle, a friend and intellectual sparring partner, this blogger had argued that the solution to our problems from Pakistan is economic reform. In fact, as argued in this Pragati cover story, Reforms 2.0 is our China policy, our America policy, our Europe policy and every-other-country policy. From this perspective, the UPA government’s abandonment of the reform agenda is its biggest foreign policy failure.

The purpose of national defence is to ensure that India’s growth and development can take place undisturbed. Defence policy is not an end in itself (a point that Pakistan has missed).

The recent escalation of tactical conflict between India and Pakistan at the Line of Control comes at a time when India is in the grip of a grand moral panic and political flux. The media and public discourse tends to rapidly end up in outrage and anger. For this reason, it is all the more important to be more careful and dispassionate and not precipitate actions that might end up being self-defeating.

First, it is important that the Indian side does not give Pakistan an opening to end the ceasefire along the Line of Control. For if the ceasefire goes, the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will rub its hands in glee and attempt its strategy of the 1990s—essentially infiltrate men and war material into Indian territory under the cover of armed conflict. The broader situation is a lot like the 1990s, as ranks of the jihadi alumni from Afghanistan begin to swell in 2014, and though the Indian armed forces are better prepared than two decades ago, who needs the resumption of a proxy war?

Second, it makes sense not to disturb the adversary when he is making a mistake. Pakistan is in deep turmoil. A number of internecine rivalries are tearing the country apart. It will get worse in 2014 when international troops leave neighbouring Afghanistan and the militants no longer have a foreign enemy to fight. It is hard to predict which way Pakistan might go, but it is smart not to give the warring factions a reason to join forces and focus on a common enemy in the shape of us.

Third, let the armed forces sort out the tactical game along the Line of Control away from the media glare. The Indian Army has been engaged in this conflict for decades and is well-aware, well-trained and well-equipped to handle the matters. General Bikram Singh’s statements make this amply clear. The army “reserves the right to retaliate at a time and place of its choosing”. This is as it should be. It is imprudent, risky and counter-productive for media-fuelled public outrage to force the army’s professional assessment.

None of this is an argument for the manufactured and contrived ‘peace process’ activities. Rather, that New Delhi must use the detente to its strategic advantage. What the public debate ought to be about is not how New Delhi plans to react to a tactical attack but to chart out how it will exploit the detente to strengthen India’s strategic advantage.

Finally, one of India’s strategic projects has to be the systematic containment and eventual dismantling of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. So much of New Delhi’s policy is short-term, the here and the now. Worse, India’s public discourse is even shorter—momentary surges of awareness and emotion on one issue that quickly lapse and move on to the next one. All the more important then, for thinking Indians, to never forget that the military-jihadi complex must be destroyed.

The misleading presumption of a coup

We lose the middle when we debate the extremes

Here’s an excerpt from a report in The Hindu filed by its New Delhi bureau.

Precisely why the government ought to have been alarmed by the presence of two additional formations on New Delhi’s outskirts, when tens of thousands of soldiers are stationed in and around the city, also remains unclear.

Intelligence sources told The Hindu that the political apprehensions might have emanated from assessments given to the government as its conflict with the Army Chief on the age issue escalated in early January. Tens of thousands of soldiers were arriving in Delhi for the Republic Day parade, even as Gen. Singh was preparing to move the Supreme Court, and the Intelligence Bureau feared the inflamed public discourse on his date of birth might spark an embarrassing incident.

The movement of the two units was noted with concern in this context, a senior Intelligence Bureau official admitted to The Hindu, but insisted that “at no stage was the possibility of a coup, or any attempt to overawe the government, ever discussed. We worried about indiscipline, or a show of support by some elements — and it’s our job to consider those possibilities.”

Though the Intelligence Bureau routinely monitors troop movements in sensitive areas across India, the sources said, it had not been conducting surveillance operations seeking signs of threatening military movements. It was only after the 50 Brigade or 33 Armoured Division’s detachments were noticed on the capital’s outskirts that the government was notified of their presence. [The Hindu]

In yesterday’s blog post and tweets, I had warned that the presumption that the Indian Express report only indicated a coup would close our minds to other “in-between” possibilities.

Note what the senior IB official says—it was not a coup they feared, but rather ‘indiscipline or a show of support by some elements.’ Street protests have become increasing common over the last few years not least because the UPA government has succumbed to political negotiations conducted by such means. As the officer said, it’s the Intelligence Bureau’s job to consider those possibilities. The atmosphere of mistrust would have played on those risk assessments and set off the chain of events.

What is of public interest, then, is what caused civil-military trust to break down? What mistakes did the civilian establishment make in the days and hours leading up to January 16/17? What mistakes did the army make? These questions need to be examined dispassionately in order for us to be able to attempt to restore that trust. [Troop movements of the curious kind]

A breach in the defence ministry?

It is too early to point fingers (especially without evidence)

Last year there was an eavesdropping controversy supposedly targeting the finance minister and his aides. It has now been reported—and denied—that the defence minister’s office might have been bugged. If it is indeed true that A K Antony’s conversations were being overhead, this is not a trifling matter. We still do not know what became of Pranab Mukherjee’s case. That obfuscation might have good reasons (in the public interest) and bad ones (in the partisan political interest). So it becomes all the more troubling to know that yet another important cabinet minister might have been targeted for eavesdropping.

While good journalism would investigate the matter, making allegations without evidence is dangerous. Most media reports somehow find it relevant to mention the recent controversy over the army chief’s date of birth in a report of suspected bugs in Mr Antony’s office. They insinuate a connection without any evidence.

India Today’s, Sandeep Unnithan goes a step further. “The needle of suspicion,” he writes using the passive voice, “has been pointed at the army. Sources say it is possible that the MI (military intelligence) team stumbled upon the bug planted by another team”. We do not know who these ‘sources’ are? We do not know why they think the MI team should ‘stumble’ upon a bug instead of ‘finding’ it as part of their professional routine?

He then says “Defence Ministry officials believe that the Army was snooping on phone conversations around South Block.” This is better. We know that it is defence ministry officials who are making these allegations, although we do not know if it is a gossiping clerk or a top official leaking information to the media in the public interest. It could be anyone.

Mr Unnithan then goes on to provide evidence that the Army has equipment that can listen in to phone conversations. But there’s a, well, bug in his story. If the Army has “off-the-air” interceptors and “passive cellular surveillance systems” why would it need to plant a bug in Mr Antony’s office? Intercepting cellphones does not require planting of bugs in the defence minister’s office. If we presume that the Army already has the ability to tap fixed line telephones, then why would they need plant a bug at all? Also it’s not only the Army that has these devices. There were at least 73,000 such passive interception devices in government and private hands last year.

The bug might have been placed to eavesdrop into offline conversations. In which case, the whole story of the Army’s surveillance equipment and ‘shadowy’ military intelligence divisions is as irrelevant or relevant as any other explanation. The needle of suspicion has many directions to point at. At this point we just do not know.

There is no doubt that recent events have increased mutual mistrust and antagonism between the civilian and uniformed defence officials. So suspicions and conspiracy theories are to be expected. Journalists have an important responsibility to ensure that these are not unduly stoked by the manner of their reportage.

On bloggingheads – India, US, China and Af-Pak

The geopolitics of hope?

Here’s a diavlog with Robert Wright, editor-in-chief of bloggingheads.tv on what they’ve titled as the geopolitics of hope. The conversation ranges from India-US relations, US-China relations, Af-Pak and even legitimacy of governments.

So sit back relax, spill your coffee or Fall Off Your Chair™

Jump to segments:
When American jobs go to India and elsewhere (06:21)
Is China malicious or just coolly self-interested? (08:08)
What India gets out of the AfPak mess (05:14)
Pakistan’s “Military-Jihadi complex” (06:11)
Do the terrorists win when we withdraw troops? (08:29)
India’s expanding beat as global cop (05:10)

David Petraeus is in da house

And is making the Pakistani military establishment squirm

Abdul Qadeer Khan wrote a 11-page confession in 2004. He also wrote and spirited out of Pakistan copies of another letter in 2003 to buy him protection from the Pakistani military-jihadi complex.

Simon Henderson, a former British journalist, acquired a copy of the letter in 2007, by his own admission. He wrote about its contents in the London Times in September 2009. Then almost half-a-year later, in March 2010, the Washington Post published an article, covering similar ground, pitched as if it were revealing Iran’s attempts to purchase “atomic bombs” from Pakistan in the late-1980s.

Today, the Washington Post has another report, based on the same source material (which it obtained in March 2010, if not earlier), alleging two top Pakistani generals, General Jehangir Karamat and Lt Gen Zulfiqar Khan, received $3 million and three diamond and ruby sets from the North Korean regime in return for nuclear technology. It also suggests that the money which might have gone into ‘secret funds’, which might have been used to fund militants fighting in Kashmir.

Other than fingering Generals Karamat and Khan, today’s report doesn’t tell us anything substantially new—Mr Henderson’s 2009 report mentions $3 million being paid to Pakistani generals.

So why is the Washington Post publishing reports based on information it is likely to have received more than a year ago, if not even earlier? If news is something to be broken as soon as it is reliably verified, why take six months to do it? And why do it again 15 months later?

One reason to explain the Post’s curious behaviour is that its editors had been persuaded not to publish certain details by the US government. Going by this explanation, the US government must have withdrawn parts of that request in March 2010 and now.

Earlier this week, the New York Times, citing newly classified information, alleged that the ISI ordered the killing of Syed Saleem Shehzad. No, not ‘rogue elements’ or other fig leaves, but senior officials of the ISI were held responsible.

And today, the Washington Post released a letter naming Pakistan’s army chief and another senior general, both of who were in service when the North Korean deal took place.

The United States is threatening to push the Pakistani military establishment into the doghouse. It looks like General Petraeus (“Mr” Petraeus in Rawalpindi), now in charge of the CIA, is signaling how he intends to play the game.

Sunday Levity: Paid views

The Sicilian women who offered this blogger $150m to oppose Anna Hazare

An excerpt of my short article in OPEN magazine on the wages of making unpopular points:

If the political establishment didn’t know how to respond to Anna Hazare, the mindless thousands who supported him—largely from in front of their television and computer screens— were clueless how to handle criticism of their ephemeral hero.

Now, one of the ordinary joys of non-partisanship is being called a ‘Congress hack’ or a ‘Hindutva-type’ from time to time. It gets even better when you manage being both at the same time on the same issue. Political debate in India is about labels attacking other labels, personalities attacking other personalities and parties attacking other parties. Watch a news debate on mute, and you still won’t miss anything.

But Hazare’s hazaars were extraordinary. Righteous outrage, sanctimony, the free period between two cricket tournaments and the predilection for online rudeness came together and pummelled anyone who dared point out that maybe the boon that Hazare was asking for was really more of a curse. [Read the rest at OPEN]

From the archive: August 2005 – The Best Brickbats

Takshashila launches the B Raman Fellowship for Geopolitical Analysis

Encouraging popular, high-quality discourse on international relations

The Takshashila Institution, an networked, independent non-partisan think tank, Sunday March 6th 2011, announced the institution of the B Raman Fellowship for Geopolitical Analysis—to encourage, recognise and reward exemplary individuals who raise the quality of the discourse on international relations using the internet and new media.

Eligibility and Expectation
The Fellowship will be awarded to Indian nationals, from any discipline, educational background or occupation, who demonstrate the potential to analyse geopolitical events on an ongoing basis and explain them to the the public at large. The Fellow is required to publish articles regularly, online and in the mainstream media.

The Fellowship is awarded for the period of one year and will only be awarded to an extraordinary candidate. Fellows may pursue other full-time or part-time occupations during their tenure. The Fellowship carries a total stipend of Rs 100,000 for the year.

Selection
Nominations can be made on an ongoing basis through Members, Fellows or Councillors of the Takshashila Institution. These will be evaluated by an anonymous evaluation panel and tabled for approval by Takshashila’s Fellowship Committee.

For more information, contact Takshashila.

Quoted

(…in the Aman ki Asha newspapers)

Chidanand Rajghatta’s report in the Times of India on the Pakistan’s fast growing nuclear arsenal quotes me:

Some analysts scoffed at reports of expanding Pakistani nuclear arsenal, which has been making the rounds since Lavoie’s assertion, suggesting it was aimed at extracting a nuclear deal for Pakistan similar to the one India has arrived at with the U.S and the international nuclear club.

“If Pakistan is stockpiling nukes, it’s the west that needs to be scared. India cannot be scared more than it has been since 1985 (when Pakistan first weaponized),” said Nitin Pai, who edits Pragati, the Indian National Interest Review, and is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution. “We stopped counting after Pakistan’s first one.” Most Indian analysts believe Washington has generally winked at Pakistan’s egregious nuclear build-up because of other strategic concerns.

The United States, which according to these critics indirectly funds and underwrites Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program (because the country generates no revenues beyond its bare survival) continues to be blasé in public about Islamabad’s growing arsenal, even though it is coming at the expense of a proposed international treaty to stop production of fissile material. Pakistan has blocked progress on the so-called Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in Geneva and remains the lone hold-out, despite living on American hand-outs, as it accelerates expansion of its arsenal. [TOI]

Here is a previous post that explains why Pakistan is running an arms race, but a Middle Eastern one.

On a different note, Rizwan Asghar cites my post on Robert Blackwill’s proposal to partition Afghanistan, in Pakistan’s The News.

Afghan literature has always expressed love for all communities – i.e., Pakhtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks alike. If Iraq, with equally distinct and strong linguistic and sectarian divisions, could not be divided, Afghanistan is least expected to go that way. Indian journalist Nitin Pai has recently said that “despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So, while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.” [The News]