Tag Archives | military

What to debate when you are debating in the dark

The General’s birthday lawsuit is a red herring

Much is being said and written, often with great passion, about the controversy over General V K Singh’s age. [See Mint's editorial, Manoj Joshi's article in Mail Today and this report in the New York Times for a background.]

That it has taken the Indian Republic into hitherto uncharted territory is not in doubt. Without real political leadership and competent management of the behemoth called government, it is likely that matters will end up in court. That has happened. If the Supreme Court decides on the issue (or whatever it decides, including referring it to the Armed Forces Tribunal), a legal precedent would be set. Now, both unwritten norms and legal precedents can be decorous and inexpensive ways for organisations to function. But the transition from norms to legal precedents often gets complicated, ugly and dirty. It is a test for the Indian system, and on the face of it, there is no reason to believe that it will fail.

On the public debate itself, the fact is that very little about what happens behind the closed walls of the army headquarters and the defence ministry is in the public domain. Few people outside the defence establishment, and some of those within, know what the real motivations of the various parties involved are. The phrase “those who know, won’t talk; and those who talk don’t know”, is relevant to this case. So we end up with gossip, speculative commentary or an opportunity for people to unleash their own biases and take potshots at their favourite targets.

Does this information asymmetry mean we don’t debate the matter at all? Far from it. It merely means that the issue must be framed in a manner so as to hold to account those in government who ought to know the facts and are accountable to us. In this case, the Defence Minister. What was A K Antony doing all this while and why? That is the governance issue here. The army chief’s age is itself an procedural, administrative or legal matter, but for purposes of overall governance, it is a red herring. The incompetence, inability or unwillingness of the Defence Minister and the Cabinet Committee on Security, and through collective responsibility—the Prime Minister and his Cabinet—to handle this matter before it blew up is the question that we both can and should debate.

Can a government that manages an administrative matter in so cavalier a manner be trusted to manage matters relating to national defence any more effectively?

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Embassy Delhi comes out looking smart

Strategic Assessment: A+

Unlike the current US military leadership, the American embassy in New Delhi comes out to be very astute on the bogey of “Cold Start”. In a February 2010 assessment, Ambassador Timothy Roemer, concludes:

We think that the November 2008 Pakistan-linked terror attack in Mumbai and its immediate aftermath provide insight into Indian and Pakistani thinking on Cold Start. First, the GOI refrained from implementing Cold Start even after an attack as audacious and bloody as the Mumbai attack, which calls into serious question the GOI’s willingness to actually adopt the Cold Start option. Second, the Pakistanis have known about Cold Start since 2004, but this knowledge does not seem to have prompted them to prevent terror attacks against India to extent such attacks could be controlled. This fact calls into question Cold Start’s ability to deter Pakistani mischief inside India. Even more so, it calls into question the degree of sincerity of fear over Cold Start as expressed by Pakistani military leaders to USG officials.

Cold Start is not India’s only or preferred option after a terrorist attack. Depending on the nature, location, lethality, public response, and timing of a terrorist attack, India might not respond at all or could pursue one of several other possible options. Finally, several very high level GOI officials have firmly stated, when asked directly about their support for Cold Start, that they have never endorsed, supported, or advocated for this doctrine.[Wikileaks/The Guardian]

That’s brilliant.

Now, Mr Roemer’s assessment is being projected as an indication of India’s lack of military options in case of further Pakistani provocation. It’s not. Note the key sentence: “India might not respond at all or could pursue one of the several other possible options.”

Strategy is not always about being on the offensive, and aggression need not only be accomplished by action. For instance, reducing—instead of raising—military tensions after 26/11 was good strategy. Look no further than the doghouse the Pakistan and its military-jihadi complex find themselves in today. That said, it’s not as if India lacks options: sending troops to Afghanistan is one such, covert operations is another. On a day of relative calm like today, these options might look untimely, far-fetched or too risky. That’s because they are not meant to be exercised on days of relative calm.

Tailpiece: The Wikileaks cables reveal that sections of the US policy establishment—for instance, Anne Paterson, former ambassador to Pakistan—realise that the Pakistani military establishment won’t give up its anti-India agenda at any level of aid. She believes that addressing the Kashmir issue will. This wishful line of reasoning is less based on objective analysis and more due to a resignation. Because “giving away” Kashmir doesn’t cost the United States a thing, don’t expect this type of thinking to disappear anytime soon.

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What are they smoking in the Pentagon?

The things Mullen & Petraeus will believe

Bob Woodward’s book casts the top uniformed leadership of the US armed forces in very poor light. Going by this report in the New York Times today, you’ll have to agree that Mr Woodward was not far off the mark.

Consider these two consecutive sentences:

For now, there are no signs that Cold Start is more than a theory, and analysts say there is no significant shift of new troops or equipment to the border.

But American military officials and diplomats worry that even the existence of the strategy in any form could encourage Pakistan to make rapid improvements in its nuclear arsenal. [NYT]

Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus (and their civilian colleague, Richard Holbrooke) want to warn the Indian government against committing thoughtcrime. They offer the incredible argument that the very notion that India will respond to Pakistani terrorism with a military attack scares the Pakistani army and hence must not even be thought of.

These gentlemen can’t be serious.

Little wonder then that President Obama is unlikely to bring this up during his India trip. That it was previously discussed—with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying unambiguously such a doctrine is not government policy—is in itself a sign of the credulity and, yes, incompetence currently reigning at the top levels of the US armed forces.

Sushant & I have previously argued that India should do an Operation Markarap to scotch one excuse the Pakistani army has offered to the United States to obfuscate the real reasons for its foot-dragging. But if some US officials believe that India must be persuaded to stop thinking about its defence strategies, then there are few polite ways to tell them what to do.

Related Links: Polaris explains the Cold Start thing and Walter Ladwig has a good academic paper on the topic.

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The politics of drones

A political weapon sought and granted

A brief word on the the drones that Robert Gates offered Pakistan during his recent—perhaps worst—trip to Islamabad. The offer was more political theatre than it was of military significance.

Why? Because—as this old post argues—Pakistan does not need armed drones to conduct counter-insurgency operations within its own territory. It has enough numbers of competent ground forces, if not teams of special forces, to conduct the kind of decapitation strikes against top jihadi leaders, if its military establishment wants to. And if they do want drones, Pakistan has some reasonably good home-made ones. China’s hand, in any case, will continue to be of the helping kind.

The whole demand for drones—volubly made by the Zardari-Gilani government—is political. It allows Messrs Zardari & Gilani to be seen, by the Pakistani people, as demanding something from the United States. It also allows them to be seen, by the American people, as demanding the kind of things they need to fight the jihadis and the Taliban. It works even if, and especially if, the demand were not granted.

If the Pakistanis are a sharp bunch, so is Mr Gates. “You want drones? Here, take these drones.” Few people in Pakistan or the United States are likely to read beyond the headline, and realise that the drones he offered are not quite the drones knocking out the taliban-types in Waziristan. Surely, didn’t the United States give the Pakistanis the tools they need to fight those violent extremists (as they are now called)?

Mr Zardari might have even declared victory. Unfortunately for him, the military establishment is not likely to allow that.

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Sunday Levity: Babes, do your patriotic duty

What attracts women?

INI’s resident military affairs expert (no, no pun intended) sends in an article with the following bit highlighted:

Young women who don’t join the army have another important role to play. They may opt to marry army officers and encourage their female friends to follow suit. If pretty young women in large numbers come forward to marry army officers, the stock of army officers in social circles goes up. This in turn provides indirect motivation to other young men to join the corps of officers and serve the nation. [Chitranjan Sawant/Merinews]

Now, Mr Sawant—like the Ukrainian army recruitment department—is not entirely wrong: if army officers get all the babes, then more young men will want to be army officers. But it is wrong to presume that getting women to marry army officers—out of a sense of patriotic duty—will lengthen the list of applicants to military academies.

That’s because of the OMIPP, the Oldest Mistake In Public Policy, which mistakes correlation for causation. In this case, attractive young women of marriageable age might be attracted to young men from a certain industry for the same reason as other young men want to get into that industry. Maybe because that industry pays well, offers a relatively better quality of life, a higher social status or all of the above.

So whether you are recruiting for the army or for the public sanitation department, you are better off making the job profile more attractive. The babes will follow.

Related post: If you don’t think such a grave issue as shortage of army officers ought to be treated with such levity, you can read what we think is the real solution to the problem.

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The coming fratricidal war among Pakistan’s jihadis

And the battle for supremacy within the military-jihadi complex

Yesterday, it was Peshawar again. Not a day passes without a major terrorist attack in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of these attacks are attributed to the “Taliban” as if it were a monolithic entity, clouding our understanding as to who might have carried out the attacks and why.

As The Acorn has previously argued, the radical Islamist faction within the Pakistani military establishment gained critical mass around April 2007. It has only strengthened since then. (See these posts)

It is inevitable that this should happen, given that both the officer corps and the rank-and-file of the post-Ziaul Haq Pakistan army have been raised on a diet of Islamic fundamentalism. Pressed by the United States after 9/11, Generals Pervez Musharraf and Ashfaq Pervez Kayani could well remove some, sideline others from the radical faction, but given their numbers and the popularity of their cause, but couldn’t completely purge them from the army. Yet given the international environment, the radical faction—that we like to call Gul & Co—cannot take over.

Now, Kayani & Co who wield power at the GHQ are hardly the sort who will pull the shutters on the use of cross-border terrorism to pursue their interests in Afghanistan and India. But given the choice, they are unlikely to want to impose a Taliban-like regime over Pakistan. They depend on the US largesse, which is available to them only when they play along with Washington’s demands. They also must continue to demonstrate that they—and not any other political actor—are the United States’ ‘indispensable allies’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So, on the one hand, General Kayani has every reason to use his proxies in Afghanistan—the taliban of the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s Quetta shura—to destabilise that country until the United States hands Kabul over to them. It is this faction that is fighting the US-led international forces in Afghanistan. (Similarly, Kayani & Co use the Lashkar-e-Taiba to carry out attacks against India).

On the other hand Gul & Co—General Kayani’s doppelgänger—won’t stop attacks on the Pakistan army until the latter stops doing Washington’s bidding. This faction uses the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other Punjabi jihadi groups to carry out attacks within Pakistan, and on the Pakistan army. Kayani & Co are retaliating against these attacks through Operation Rah-i-Nijat in South Waziristan by selectively targeting the taliban belonging to the Hakeemullah Mehsud group. Like all operations against jihadis, the Pakistan army will find it impossible to sustain such operations for too long—eventually soldiers will begin to ask why they are fighting their ‘innocent’ co-religionists and compatriots.

Despite their principals in the military establishment being at loggerheads, the proxies themselves have so far not attacked each other. Shared ideology, old boy networks and management by the ISI on the one hand and by the al-Qaeda leadership on the other have prevented a large scale fratricidal war among the jihadis. While a hot conflict between the jihadi proxies of the GHQ and Gul & Co factions is unlikely, it is not impossible. If the management mechanisms come under stress, the jihadis could train their guns against each other.

The longer Pakistan army proceeds on its current course—appeasing Washington without eliminating the jihadi element—the greater the chance that this will happen. Pakistan is no stranger to wars between sectarian-political militias. If the security situation continues to worsen—as it will unless the military establishment decides to co-operate with the civilian internal security machinery—Kayani & Co might well decide use their jihadi proxies to target their adversaries. Indeed, the popular agitation that ejected General Musharraf from power is still fresh in people’s minds, making the imposition of martial law (less a military coup) less likely. Thus, for Kayani & Co, the jihadi proxy becomes relatively more attractive as an option.

If the United States bails out of Afghanistan, it is possible that Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis and other Gul & Co proxies will all make a play for power in Kabul. The power struggle there will have repercussions in Pakistan. Even in this case, Kayani & Co might have to employ their own proxies, in Pakistan, to fight for their interests.

In recent weeks, a sustained terrorist campaign has thrown Pakistan into turmoil and enveloped its citizens in an atmosphere of fear. The situation could get much worse if jihadi groups start targeting each other. Given its weakness, it is unlikely that civil society—as Pakistani optimists argue—will be able to forestall a fratricidal jihadi civil war.

Unless Kayani & Co eliminate both Gul & Co and their own jihadi proxies this is the way things will go. General Musharraf blew his chance in 2002 when he could have acted against Gul & Co and the jihadi groups when they were relatively weak in number. He chose not to. It’s much harder now. Just how does General Kayani demobilise several tens of thousands of functionally illiterate, combat-hardened, thoroughly radicalised men? That’s not all, these fighters are backed by hundreds of thousands of supporters and millions of sympathisers. This is one of the most important policy challenges for international security in the first half of this century.

Tailpiece: It is time to stop referring to the “Taliban” with a capital “t”. That term correctly refers to Mullah Omar’s regime, remnants of which are currently hosted by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex at Quetta. The groups that refer to themselves by that names are largely inspired clones and copycats. It is more informative to refer to them as jihadis or “taliban” (with a lower-case “t”) in general and cite the specific group they belong to. For instance: the Haqqani taliban, the Hakeemullah Mehsud taliban etc.

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649 – The year China first invaded India

The geopolitical implications of Xuanzang’s round-trip

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India and back is well-known (see Samanth Subramanian’s review of Mishi Saran’s book in Pragati). What is not so well-known is that his trip led, unintentionally, to a diplomatic spat between the China and India that ultimately resulted in the first Chinese military expedition to ‘punish’ the Indians.

Harsha-vardhana of India had earlier sent emissaries to Chang’an and in 643, around the time of Xuanzang’s departure from India, a Tang mission under a military official called Wang Xuance had repaid the compliment. Five years later, in 648, Wang Xuance was back in India at the head of a more impressive embassy that was doubtless influenced by Xuanzang’s reports on Harsha.

But this time ambassador Wang Xuanxe received a very different reception. Harsha had died the previous year, his empire was already crumbling, and a Brahminical reaction had set in against the Buddhist community. Evidently, Xuanzang’s long sojourn and his influence on Harsha had encouraged the idea that Chinese support was enabling Indian Buddhists to subvert the political primacy claimed by India’s priestly caste. Wang Xuance’s 648 mission was therefore waylaid. Its valuables were stolen, its personnel detained and Wang Xuance himself barely escaped with his life. He escaped to Tibet.

There he took advantage of a rare moment of amity in Sino-Tibetan relations. In the 630s the great Srong-brtsan-sgam-po [Songtsen Gampo] had been engaged in sporadic warfare with Tang forces in both Sichuan and Qinghai. Unusually the Tibetans fought not to keep the Chinese out of Tibet but to secure closer relations with them, or rather, to secure parity of treatment with that extended by Chang’an to their local rivals…(In 641) with a view to ending their raids, Tang Taizong had granted the Tibetans what was in effect a ‘peace-through-kinship’ treaty. It was sealed as usual with the dispatch of an imperial princess. Further exchanges followed, the Tibetans regarding them as evidence of Tang vassalage and the Tang as evidence of Tibetan vassalage.

Into this happy state of mutual misunderstanding straggled Wang Xuance on his way back from his rebuff in India. The rout of an embassy from the Son of Heaven, not to mention the Heavenly Qaghan, could not go unavenged. Wang Xuance demanded troops for a retaliatory attack on India and the Tibetans obliged. It was thus a joint Sino-Tibetan force that in 649, probably by way of the Chumbi pass between Sikkim and Nepal, crossed the Great Himalaya and inflicted heavy defeat on Harsha’s successors. ‘Thereupon’, says the standard Tang history, ‘India was overawed.’

Elsewhere it is recorded that Wang Xuance brought back as prisoner to Chang’an the man who had supposedly usurped Harsha’s throne. A statue of ‘this contumacious Indian’ was erected among the many in front of Tang Taizong’s tomb and ‘so [the Indian] found lasting fame—but as a trophy and an emblem’. Needless to say, Indian tradition is blissfully ignorant of all this. The Sino-Tibetan incursion probably affected only a corner of Bengal and had no known repercussions. Though a Chinese assault on Indian territory had been shown to be feasible, it would not be repeated until the 1960s. [John Keay/China - A History pp243-244]

Another account offers more and slightly different details:

With the growth of close relations between Nepal and Tibet, Nepal became well known to China as well. In 648-49, during the reign of Narendradeva, son of Udayadeva II, who is believed to have succeeded his father to the kingship in 643, with the help of Tibet, the Nepalese and Tibetan forces combined to avenge an insult offered by a chief of Tirhut (Tirabhukti) to an embassy from China, led by [Wang Xuance] and proceeding to Harsha’s court. This chief of Tirhut is described incorrectly in Chinese accounts as the usurper of Harsha’s throne. [Ram Rahul/Making of Modern Nepal International Studies 16:1]

Someone, Ambassador Wang perhaps, might have inflated the status of the captive to impress the emperor.

Also, given that there is no concept of sovereign equality in the Chinese system of international relations, it is reasonable to speculate whether the Wang’s embassy itself might have been, much like what led to the ‘mutual misunderstanding’ with the Tibetans, a suggestion of paramountcy. Within the context of a backlash against Buddhist political influence, such a suggestion could well have provoked the treatment that Wang received. Not unlike the treatment the Manchu emperor meted out to the papal missionaries a millennium later.

Related Posts: On the New Himalayas and on India’s omphaloskepsis

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The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

As K M Panikkar noted, while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Arrian, the ancient Greek writer, contended that Indian kings refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent because it might have even been seen as morally incorrect. Thus, while the classical Indian tradition of realist statecraft leaves us with the assessment that in the raja-mandala the immediate neighbour is an adversary and the state beyond it an ally, in practice, this is tempered by the fact that this applied to subcontinental affairs only.

China, on the other hand, sees the world divided between the civilised world centred around itself, the Middle Kingdom, on the one hand and the world of uncivilised barbarians on the other. At the periphery of the Middle Kingdom (and still within the civilised world) lay the states who paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and professed to be in awe of its great civilisation. What this meant in practice was that the Han Chinese Middle Kingdom expected its neighbours to be tributaries—the concept of a sovereign equal simply didn’t exist.

These two disparate frameworks of international relations co-existed next to each other for the most part of human history because of the unique geography—the Himalayas acted as the strategic barrier between India and China and made large scale movement of people and goods impossible. Armies couldn’t cross the mountains and the disparity in their international relations frameworks didn’t actually clash. The Himalayas kept the peace between the two civilisations.

Until the twentieth century, when the advances in technology made it possible, for the first time in human history, to breach the Himalayan barrier (in a strict sense, the Himalayas had been breached once before in 649 CE). And when in 1950 Communist China annexed Tibet—as opposed to treating it as a tributary—India and China became neighbours. For India, this meant, in the Kautilyan sense, that China was now the ‘enemy’. For China, India was now a state on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom, and therefore a ‘tributary’. The Himalayan barrier fell, and placed two conflicting worldviews in direct confrontation. It is no coincidence that this led to military conflict in 1962 and 1967.

But if technology broke one strategic barrier it also helped raise a new one. Starting from 1974 and especially after 1998 nuclear weapons replaced the Himalayan mountain range as the factor that deterred war. The new strategic barrier will improve as India’s missile capability improves and brings key Chinese cities within range making a direct military conflict between the two very unlikely.

However, this does not mean that the underlying conflict has gone away. It has, on the contrary, intensified as today both China and India have regional and global strategic imprints. The Middle Kingdom is much bigger, forced to work within a system of sovereign states that is alien to it, even as its tradition would cause it to expect ‘tribute’ from its much larger strategic periphery. India is more comfortable among sovereign states and is beginning to work off a global raja-mandala.

The New Himalayas might keep the peace along the old ones, but they won’t stop the wider geopolitical contest that will take place in the coming decades. It is therefore important for the Indian mindset move beyond the five decades of the second half of the twentieth-century when the old barriers were down and the new ones hadn’t come up yet. The game has changed (See what the astute admiral said). To bring the global raja-mandala into balance, India must seek allies that lie beyond China.

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The roots of Obama’s Af-Pak predicament

US power is bound to decline if it continues to rely on a trans-Atlantic alliance

Henry Kissinger injects a strong dose of strategic wisdom into the squabbly-wobble that is being passed off as an Afghanistan policy review on by the Obama adminstration.

Concurrently, a serious diplomatic effort is needed to address the major anomaly of the Afghan war. In all previous American ground-combat efforts, once the decision was taken, there was no alternative to America’s leading the effort; no other country had the combination of resources or national interest required. The special aspect of Afghanistan is that it has powerful neighbors or near neighbors—Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran. Each is threatened in one way or another and, in many respects, more than we are by the emergence of a base for international terrorism…Each has substantial capacities for defending its interests. Each has chosen, so far, to stand more or less aloof.

The summit of neighboring (or near-neighboring) countries proposed by the secretary of state could, together with NATO allies, begin to deal with this anomaly. It should seek an international commitment to an enforced nonterrorist Afghanistan, much as countries were neutralized by international agreement when Europe dominated world affairs…If cooperation cannot be achieved, the United States may have no choice but to reconsider its options and to gear its role in Afghanistan to goals directly relevant to threats to American security. In that eventuality, it will do so not as an abdication but as a strategic judgment. But it is premature to reach such a conclusion on present evidence. [Newsweek, emphasis added]

Dr Kissinger highlights one manifestation of the broader issue: across the world, the United States is attempting to solve twenty-first century problems relying on a twentieth-century alliance of nineteenth-century powers.

The Atlantic alliance—between the United States and Western Europe—might have been useful (see tailpiece) to deal with the mainly Europe-centric conflicts (the two ‘world wars’ and the Cold War) of the last century, but it has proved to be rather useless in addressing the emerging security challenges of this century: the rise of China, the growth of international jihadi terrorism, nuclear proliferation and environmental/natural disasters.

Accusations of an arrogant Washington apart, it is also true that the European states were more interested in showing their flag in Afghanistan than to actually do the fighting. Unwilling to take casualties towards a cause they see as remote, Europe has been looking for a flight out of Afghanistan for a good part of the last eight years. Moreover European states have a vastly different strategic perspective as far as jihadi terrorism goes—they have the luxury of believing that by appeasing them at home, they can escape being targeted.

The Obama administration would do well to heed Dr Kissinger’s advice. One reason Washington’s Af-Pak strategy is in such a rut is because it has neglected exploring options that would leverage the interests of Afghanistan-Pakistan’s neighbours. As long as it tries what is effectively a unilateral route (the European & international component of the coalition being negligible) the United States will find its policy options restricted to withdrawal, attrition or escalation. A new partnership—that weaves regional powers into a co-operative framework—would change the rules of the game. If it is an extraordinary challenge, then in Richard Holbrooke, Mr Obama has the extraordinary man to handle it.

Tailpiece: The much celebrated Anglo-American alliance that won the Second World War had as many as 2.5 million Indian troops fighting on its side.

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Sunday Levity: But Foster, Gurkhas aren’t Pakistanis

Why Uncle Sam needs Pakistan (“Because of the Gurkhas” edition)

“Ignorance about India”, Narendra Singh Sarila writes, “was the reason why the Americans came to rely on British advice on questions concerning the subcontinent after its independence.” He quotes an anecdote to illustrate this:

In those days, the Americans’ understanding of India was extremely limited. To take an extreme example, John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, had to be disabused by Walter Lippmann during a conversation on SEATO as late as in 1955, that Gurkha troops were not Pakistanis.

‘Look Walter’, Dulles said, ‘I’ve got to get some real fighting men in the south of Asia. The only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis. That’s why we need them in the Alliance. We could never get along without the Gurkhas.’ ‘But Foster’, Lippmann replied, ‘the Gurkhas aren’t Pakistanis, they’re Indians’. (Actually, Gurkhas are of Nepalese origin.) ‘Well’, responded Dulles, ‘they may not be Pakistanis but they’re Moslems.’ ‘No I’m afraid they’re not Moslems either; they’re Hindus’, Lippmann pointed out. [Dennis Kux, Disenchanted Allies pp72, quoted by Narendra Singh Sarila, The Shadow of the Great Game pp216]

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