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.

Pune and after

And a question for Washington

Pune was attacked today, days after days after a top leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba named Pune as a target city at a public rally the Pakistani authorities permitted him to address (linkthanks @offstumped). (And yet, a significant element of Maharashtra’s law enforcement machinery was not engaged in securing the state against a potential terrorist attack. It was engaged in securing the state against potential hooligan attacks. If there was ever a time to hold the Shiv Sena and its grotesque leadership to account, it is now.)

Despite the Lashkar-e-Taiba threat, it is too early to definitively attribute the attack to the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. But it is clear that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex has every reason to escalate tensions with India through the use of terrorism. Without the excuse of “tensions to the east”, Pakistan would have nothing left to explain to Washington its double-dealing on the taliban.

As an INI co-blogger said, New Delhi should ask the Obama administration just how committed Washington is to targeting the military-jihadi complex, because otherwise, what’s the point of talks and suchlike?

My op-ed in the Indian Express: On going to Afghanistan

In today’s Indian Express, Rohit Pradhan and I renew our call for India to send troops to stabilise Afghanistan. It summarises the arguments we have made in on INI and Pragati and addresses the most popular objections to the proposal.

Excerpts:

Over time, a co-operative arrangement between India, Iran and Russia could form the bedrock of a regional solution to a stable Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the very mention of an overseas military deployment runs into a dogmatic wall of domestic opposition. First, the bad experience of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s is brought up as if that episode should cause India to for forever foreswear the use of its armed forces beyond its borders. Apart from the significant differences in context, the Indian army has accumulated two decades of counter-insurgency experience in Kashmir and elsewhere that makes it a qualitatively different force from what it was before the Sri Lankan intervention.

Second, it is argued that sending Indian troops to Afghanistan will be seen as anti-Muslim. On the contrary, it is ordinary Afghans, a vast majority of who are Muslims, who will be the biggest beneficiaries of an Indian intervention. How can supporting the legitimate government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan be anti-Muslim? The idea that fighting the Taliban is a war against Islam is a misleading canard that only benefits the likes of Osama bin Laden and the Pakistani military-jihadi complex.

Third, it is not true that the Afghan people are uniformly hostile to foreign troops as it is frequently made out to be. Western troops were generally welcomed as deliverers when they expelled the Taliban regime in 2002, and recent surveys indicate that a majority of the Afghan people still support their presence. The notion that Afghans resent all foreigners is borne out of colonial romance and modern ignorance — ground realities suggest that Afghans seek security and good governance, like anyone else in their situation.

But can India afford to station troops abroad? Some critics of the idea estimate that it costs Rs 1 crore a day to maintain a brigade in Afghanistan. Let’s put this in context: last year, the defence ministry returned Rs 7000 crore of its budget due to its inability to spend it—enough for 19 brigades. We cite this to suggest that financial considerations do not rule out the option of foreign troop deployments.

India must continue providing long-term development assistance. India must ramp up training Afghan security forces. But successes from these will be ephemeral unless India deploys combat troops to Afghanistan. As the nuclear deal has shown, the Indian electorate does reward those willing to take risks in pursuit of the national interest. As US troops mobilise for a decisive year in Afghanistan, India has a unique opportunity to shape the future of the Hindu Kush and, in doing so, open the doors to peace in the subcontinent. [IE]

Related Links: Sushant K Singh (August 2008); Rohit Pradhan & I (January 2010) make the case for India to step up its military presence in Afghanistan & an online panel discussion (January 2010) on Offstumped.

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.

Spooked by an unfinished doctrine?

The Pakistani military establishment has its reasons to over-react to General Deepak Kapoor’s remarks

This time, it’s an obscure comment at an internal seminar about a new doctrine that the Indian army is working on. The doctrine is not even ready in draft form. It has not even been endorsed by the Army Headquarters. And, as we know from the story of ‘Cold Start’, the Army’s endorsement doesn’t mean that the other services, the defence ministry or the Cabinet Committee on Security has accepted it. That tells you something about how serious India’s political leadership is about defence strategy. It also tells you how ridiculous the Pakistani establishment looks when it goes into hysteria about a new Indian army doctrine that is still work in progress.

Now the army chief being the army chief merely said that the army will be ready to fight China and Pakistan simultaneously and quickly. This shouldn’t be news to anybody. The fact that both China and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and that this makes large-scale war unlikely, doesn’t mean that the armed forces in those countries don’t prepare for conventional war. In the India-China and the India-Pakistan context, where bilateral relations are hardly like those between the United States and Canada, for instance, the conventional military balance across the border is important, and itself acts as a deterrent to outright conflict.

Furthermore, till the time the Pakistani military-jihadi complex remains intact, it makes abundant sense for India to possess the necessary military capacity to conduct swift, decisive operations across the border. No army wants to go to war, and to some extent, the prospect of having to fight the Indian army will discourage the Pakistani military leadership from using jihadi groups for acts of terrorism.

All this, though, is not some bold new innovation in military strategy. So why is the Pakistani establishment in such a state of excitement?

At one level, given the history, war hysteria is understandable. But it serves two key purposes: first, it rallies the Pakistani people behind the military-jihadi complex. Second, it allows the Pakistani establishment to inflate the ‘Indian threat’ to audiences in the United States, both as an explanation for its reluctance to allocate more resources to the border with Afghanistan, and also to justify its use of US financial assistance to purchase military assets for use against India.

We saw this happen after the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. And we’re seeing it again now.

Destroy Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex

And can we not get distracted please!

At a time when the astute businessmen running the Times of India are exploiting (via Oh, Teri!) the quintessentially Indian tendency to allow hope to triumph over experience, it is all the more important not to lose sight of reality. At the core of one of the most significant threats to India’s national security—and to the security of countries such as the United States—lies Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. In the short term, it must be contained. In the medium-term it must be dismantled. Ultimately, it must destroyed.

‘Peace processes’ that merely rely on ‘people-to-people’ contacts, “cross-border cultural interactions, business seminars, music & literary festivals & citizens meets” are at best ineffective and at worst damaging, to the extent that they divert attention and resources from the necessary project of destroying the military-jihadi complex. (As for Times of India, it must decide whether it is for a newspaper to report facts as they are or introduce saccharine into its Pakistan reportage in pursuit of its objective to manufacture greater ‘understanding’.)

India doesn’t need yet another lofty-softy ‘peace process’. In the military-jihadi complex it faces a strategic adversary that is resolved to destroy India as we know it. You cannot confront, less defeat, such an adversary with clever-sounding slogans. For that, you need unity of purpose. You need a Project to Destroy the Pakistani Military-Jihadi Complex.

Obama’s quasi-ultimatum to Pakistan

Okay, it’s a strong prod

In his opening remarks at the first Takshashila Executive Programme on Strategic Affairs, hosted by the National Maritime Foundation yesterday (wire report) (pic), K Subrahmanyam noted that the India media has ignored reports of how the Obama administration has put the squeeze on Pakistan asking it to jettison its duplicitousness with respect to jihadi groups. He chided Indian strategic analysts for assuming—on the basis of a lack of public statements over what the Obama administration intended to do about Pakistan—that Washington didn’t actually have a well-considered plan.

Today’s report in the New York Times supports Mr Subrahmanyam’s argument.

The Obama administration is turning up the pressure on Pakistan to fight the Taliban inside its borders, warning that if it does not act more aggressively the United States will use considerably more force on the Pakistani side of the border to shut down Taliban attacks on American forces in Afghanistan, American and Pakistani officials said.

The blunt message was delivered in a tense encounter in Pakistan last month, before President Obama announced his new war strategy, when Gen. James L. Jones, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, and John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, met with the heads of Pakistan’s military and its intelligence service.

United States officials said the message did not amount to an ultimatum, but rather it was intended to prod a reluctant Pakistani military to go after Taliban insurgents in Pakistan who are directing attacks in Afghanistan. [NYT]

Well, it looks like the Obama administration’s answer to the question this blog has been asking for the past year is: drone strikes and ground-based covert operations deep inside Pakistani territory.

What’s R&AW doing in the United States?

India must expand its intelligence capacity in Western countries

Until US authorities arrested David Coleman Headley/Dawood Gilani and Tahawwur Hussain Rana no public account of India’s investigations into the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai even mentioned the Chicago connection. It is highly likely that Indian investigators had no clue as to Headley and Rana’s existence, leave alone the extent of their possible involvement in terrorist attacks on Indian soil. The manner in which Rana and a woman believed to be his wife were issued a visa—bypassing standard procedures relating to visa applicants of Pakistani background—suggests that India’s external intelligence machinery was not tracking them.

That raises the big question: why was Indian intelligence unaware of the Chicago jihadi cell?

One explanation is that the R&AW staff in the United States were either incompetent or were outsmarted by Headley and Rana. The other explanation is that R&AW personnel in the United States didn’t even have the job of smelling out potential jihadis in their job scope.

Now, the R&AW doesn’t have the kind of resources to finance a huge intelligence gathering network across the United States. But if you are an intelligence agency with some resources the first thing you would do is develop some assets within the ethnic communities that are of interest to you. For instance, Indian intelligence agencies did have some assets within the North American Sikh community. The Headley-Rana case suggests that R&AW didn’t have a finger on the pulse of the Pakistani diaspora communities in the United States. It should.

Given that both al-Qaeda and the Pakistani jihadi groups are using operatives with passports issued by Western countries, it is incumbent on India to upgrade its capability to gather intelligence among the ‘South Asian’ communities in North America and Europe. This is the baseline requirement.

At a time when the intelligence apparatus failed to even spot Headley & Rana, it would be tall order to argue that India should invest in covert action capacity that can be used to target the likes of the Chicago jihadsters. The US government is more sensitive to the jihadi threat to India now as compared to a decade ago, and there is some co-operation between the two governments in tackling international terrorism, but India must have some independent options. It is possible that marginal jihadis would be deterred from placing that international call to Individual A or Lashkar-e-Taiba Member A if they knew that they might get in the way of a Chicago gangster’s truck…or bullet.

Pakistan pummelled

If Pakistan doesn’t go after the jihadis now…

Any sensible government would respond to the kind of pummelling Pakistan has received at the hands of its jihadis this week by going on an all out campaign to pulverise its attackers. In Pakistan’s case, the sensibility of the government vitally depends on the sensibility of the top leadership of the army.

No, it’s not only about a military offensive in Waziristan, but a real nationwide crackdown against all jihadi groups.

But don’t hold your breath.