Looking for morality in chemical composition of death devices

The debate in Washington is about guilt management, not Syrian lives.

The very public handwringing and teeth-gnashing that is Barack Obama’s decision-making on intervention in Syria is on the surface and according to the protagonists about upholding international humanitarian norms, punishing regimes that transgress them and maintaining US credibility. To do some or all of the above, they argue, the Washington must punishing Syria’s president Bashar Assad and his government for having used chemical weapons against its own civilian population.

Much of this is strange (and strangely doesn’t appear to be strange for many people) because the ‘international community’ seems to be less concerned about dead Syrian civilians as long as they died from chemicals like gunpowder, TNT, RDX or PETN. However if the same dead Syrian civilians had died from other chemicals like Sarin, it is concerned that ‘norms’ have been violated.

No, this is not an argument to give the use of chemical weapons a pass—rather, it is to make the point that such distinctions neither address the humanitarian cause nor lead to clear thinking about what the international community ought to do when civilians are being subjected to mass atrocities.

Making the use of chemical weapons the “red line” is in effect a license to odious regimes to do just what they want with conventional weapons (note the loaded term ‘conventional’ weapons). If the proposed Russian-brokered compromise—where Syria will place its chemical weapons under international supervision—comes to fruition, the international community will be forced to be a wilful bystander as the Assad government and its opponents go about committing atrocities against civilians. The death toll is both a function of the type of weapons used and how long the conflict endures. As we found out in Rwanda, it is possible to kill millions of people in months using such simple mechanical weapons as machetes.

Yet the international community seems not to be interested in finding ways to end the conflict. How can we explain its preparation to use military force without even first making a serious attempt to engage Iran?

Washington’s old dogmas on Iran, war weariness from Iraq and Afghanistan, and new fashions on protecting international norms has clouded the Obama administration’s fundamental reading of the situation. In an shocking display of serpentoleum salesmanship or dangerous naïveté the US secretary of state claimed that military intervention in Syria does not mean going to war. What Washington had in mind was an “unbelievably small, limited” strike that would rap Mr Assad’s knuckles. He didn’t say—and no one bothered to ask—what after that? [See the previous post on why such claims are dubious.]

Mr Kerry’s boss had already passed the buck to the people’s representatives. His reluctance to use force is understandable, but he has to wrap his position in a label that would mean different things to different domestic constituencies. One thing he can’t say though is that what Western governments are concerned about is not upholding moral norms—for if it were so, then the chemical composition of Syrian ordinance wouldn’t have mattered. What they are really concerned about is upholding arbitrary norms of international guilt mitigation.

There’s a certain dishonesty to liberal internationalist claims of international humanitarian norms. The need to cover that dishonesty causes the rather shameful performances that we’re seeing in Washington.

The Syrian question

Obama’s appetite for a fight

David Ignatius has a good article in the Washington Post arguing that US credibility is at stake in Syria, and the consequences of a tattered credibility will hurt US interests in the region and beyond. In articulating what the Obama administration should do, he reflects what many commentators in Washington are saying: carry out a military strike to punish the Bashar Assad regime and deter it from carrying out further atrocities.

The main rationale for military action by the United States and its allies should be restoring deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. The strike should be limited and focused, rather than a roundhouse swing aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. But it should be potent enough to degrade Assad’s command-and-control structure so he can’t conduct similar actions in the future. Officials hope the strike will make a diplomatic settlement more possible; they don’t want a decapitation of the regime that would leave no counter-party for negotiation.[WP]

This prescription should sound reasonable to Barack Obama, a man too liberal to ignore the atrocities in Syria but too prudent to launch into a muscular military interventions abroad. The problem, though, is that while Mr Obama’s stakes are limited to shoring up US credibility, Mr Assad is battling for survival. So there is a good chance that Mr Assad will not be deterred or punished at any level short of being overthrown. Should this happen, Mr Obama will have a choice between a dented credibility (should Mr Assad brazen it out) or a much bigger military operation, that could trigger other conflicts.

Also, if the international intervention is ‘limited and focused’, the risk to civilian lives does not disappear. If the Assad regime continues, we can expect more bloodbath. If the Assad regime collapses, we can expect more bloodbath. It is not as if Mr Assad’s adversaries are liberal democrats who will spare the lives of members of the Assad regime or the sectarian/ethnic communities that are aligned to it.

There is enough happening in Syria for the United Nations to invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm. It is quite unlikely that the dynamics of the UN Security Council will allow it. Even if there is an international intervention now, the expectation that it will be limited, focused, inexpensive or quick is likely to be unfounded. Protecting lives in Syria requires the United States to have the appetite for a big fight, and the tenacity to embroil itself into a longish peace-enforcing mission. If this is not forthcoming, it may perhaps be better to let events take their course and deal with the consequences.

From India’s perspective, any steps that heighten the risk of a conflict that raises oil prices and might cause supply disruptions will be undesirable. The domestic economic situation—and the current account deficit—looms larger on the minds of India’s political leaders than events in Syria. Expect Indian diplomacy to reflect this concern.

Bruce Riedel says appeasement doesn’t work

Aid is the enemy of clear thinking

Back in March 2009, when the Obama administration unveiled its Af-Pak strategy (in the formulation of which Bruce Riedel played an important part), this blog wrote:

The main issue in President Barack Obama’s just-announced strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan boils down to this: just how is the United States going to ensure that the Pakistani military establishment plays ball? [But where’s the meat?]

Mr Riedel’s subsequent book also did not offer answers to the question.

In an op-ed in the New York Times today, he argues that the approach now needs, err, “reshaping”:

It is time to move to a policy of containment, which would mean a more hostile relationship. But it should be a focused hostility, aimed not at hurting Pakistan’s people but at holding its army and intelligence branches accountable. When we learn that an officer from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, is aiding terrorism, whether in Afghanistan or India, we should put him on wanted lists, sanction him at the United Nations and, if he is dangerous enough, track him down. Putting sanctions on organizations in Pakistan has not worked in the past, but sanctioning individuals has — as the nuclear proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan could attest.

Offering Pakistan more trade while reducing aid makes sense. When we extend traditional aid, media outlets with ties to the ISI cite the aid to weave conspiracy theories that alienate Pakistanis from us. Mr. Obama should instead announce that he is cutting tariffs on Pakistani textiles to or below the level that India and China enjoy; that would strengthen entrepreneurs and women, two groups who are outside the army’s control and who are interested in peace.

Military assistance to Pakistan should be cut deeply. Regular contacts between our officers and theirs can continue, but under no delusion that we are allies.[NYT]

He’s got it right this time. The Pakistani military-jihadi complex must be contained (before it is dismantled). His prescription though, is not going lead to containment. Why? Because money is fungible.

Even if aid is specifically earmarked for the average Pakistani, money is fungible. As long as the military establishment is in effective control of the administrative spigots, it can divert flows from other domestic revenue sources.

More aid will then only strengthen the army and its nexus with militants. It is not a coincidence that even as the U.S. has spent $20 billion in overt assistance to Pakistan since 2002, there has been both an increase in the size of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and more antipathy toward the U.S. among the population—polls demonstrate this. Both protect the military-jihadi complex from external threats. [WSJ]

To contain the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, it is necessary to cut Pakistan loose. Should we wait for a few more years before Washington’s strategists get this point?

The beans that will spill in Chicago

Regarding Tahawwur Rana’s trial in Chicago

Here are some comments I made in response to questions asked by a British journalist regarding the the trial of a Chicago businessman of Pakistani origin, on charges related to the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

Q: How important is this trial for those who watch the India-Pak relationship. Are we really going to learn something new?

While it’s unlikely that the trial will reveal anything that’ll add to what we already know about the big picture, some details might emerge as to the exact pathways in which the military-jihadi complex operates.

The trial is important because it involves the third and remaining judicial branch of the US government into US-Pakistan relations. It will be increasingly difficult for administration officials to obfuscate the involvement of Pakistani military & government officials in conniving in or abetting terrorism & insurgency. Congress is already reflecting massive public outrage against Pakistan for having allowed Osama bin Laden to stay out of US hands for so long. The trial will add other source of pressure on the Obama administration.

Q: Manmohan Singh has gone out of his way to reach out to the Pakistanis; do you believe those efforts could be undermined by any revelations from the trial?

Hard to say, but unlikely in my opinion. His initiatives have been taking place despite Kasab’s capture and confession, despite the broadcast of intercepts of chilling conversations between the 26/11 terrorists and their handlers, despite Headley’s confession, despite stonewalling and brazenness from senior Pakistani officials. I’m not sure what new information can emerge that’ll undermine his outreach, which I think is dogged and dogmatic.

Having said that, the one way it can cause New Delhi to jam the brakes if the revelations come in sync with a new development on the ground that raise tensions. I’ve previously argued that another terrorist attack in an Indian city that can be traced back to Pakistan will put his continuance in office in jeopardy.

How possible is it for there to be good relations between India and Pakistan while the military continues to back militant groups?

As long as Pakistan continues to use terrorism as an instrument of policy, it cannot have good relations with any country, leave alone India. An increasing number of people in Pakistan have received this message. To the extent that editorials and op-ed pieces in Pakistani English dailies reflect a section of public opinion, there is a huge change compared to ten years ago. The Urdu press is a different story.

New Delhi’s policy does not show any sign of trying to overcome this fundamental problem, by making the containment and dismantling of the military-jihadi complex a central policy objective. Instead, the Singh government seems only to want to buy time. It’s unclear what it intends to do with the time, because it has done nothing to spur India’s long-term economic growth.

Pax Indica: Obama and the “K” word

Mubarack O!

Barack Obama has come a long way over Kashmir from his interview to TIME’s Joe Klein to his press conference with Manmohan Singh in New Delhi yesterday. This is the topic of today’s Pax Indica column:


In his informative little book (“The South Asia Story: The first sixty years of US relations with India and Pakistan”, Sage Publications) Harold Gould writes that in addition to the underlying geopolitics, the personalities, levels of awareness and intellectual capacities of US presidents determined their policy positions over Kashmir. The hopes Mr Obama raised in Islamabad, in parts of the Kashmir Valley and indeed in Washington, were not unfounded. So it will be interesting to know what caused him to change his position: was it merely an acknowledgement of the limits of US influence or does he now have a better appreciation of the subject two years after coming to office?

Mr Obama’s thinking on the Kashmir issue matters, because if he sticks to his dogmatic insistence on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the middle of next year, he will face internal pressures to buy a face-saving exit from the war. Unless there is a dramatic change on the ground, the United States depends upon the Pakistani military-jihadi complex to prevent a bloodbath once US troops leave.

General Ashfaq Kayani will not oblige without extracting a price. It’s hard to say what Pakistan won’t ask for. But its top three demands are likely to include: the handing over of the keys to Kabul to its Taliban proxies; legitimacy for its nuclear weapons in the form of a nuclear deal; and, of course, a “settlement of the Kashmir issue”. [Yahoo!]

Related Post: Mubarack O?

Op-ed in The National: The Obama celebrations

Don’t underestimate the importance of the atmosphere

Here’s the original draft of an op-ed that appears in UAE’s The National daily today. It emphasises the importance of the popular basis of the India-US relationship.

Barack Obama will have a grand, memorable and successful visit to India merely by turning up.

Despite sinking approval ratings at home and misgivings among sections of New Delhi’s strategic establishment, he is remains immensely popular in India. Many are inspired by his life story, and many more are impressed by his style, personality and oratory. So expect a groundswell of welcome, warmth and good wishes for him when he arrives in Mumbai next week. In addition to stately official functions, India’s raucous clamour of billboards, sand sculptures, T-shirts and the quintessential Amul butter advertisement will celebrate the occasion. It is easy to get caught up in geopolitical, economic and commercial issues and understate the importance of “atmospherics”. To do so would be to miss the point.

The mutual popularity of the two countries forms the bedrock of the India-US relationship: and because both countries are democracies, this creates powerful political constituencies pressing the two governments towards each other. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, two out of three Indians polled have a favourable opinion of the United States. In fact, 73% of the Indians surveyed said that they have confidence in Obama, compared to only 65% of the Americans. Americans return the favour. A recent Gallup poll reveals two in three Americans have a positive opinion of India, with younger people even more favourably disposed. Pro-India lobbies in Washington and pro-America lobbies in India are set to grow stronger and more numerous with time.

This doesn’t translate into New Delhi and Washington taking identical positions on all issues, but is a powerful driver towards their convergence. It also allows policy disagreements between the two governments to be placed within an overall positive context, and permits both to say “No!” to each other without the fear of jeopardising the relationship. So, just like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to Washington last year, President Obama’s trip to India next week should be seen as both acknowledging and reinforcing the bottom-up basis of the relationship at the very highest level.

In the pre-trip press gaggle, White House officials were at great pains to project the visit as focussed on Mr Obama’s domestic agenda of creating jobs. They pointed out that India is the second fastest growing foreign investor in the United States (after the UAE) and Indian companies support over 57,000 jobs in the country. The US-India Business Council estimates that deals signed during the trip could create or sustain as many as 100,000 jobs in the United States. While they got that part of the messaging right ahead of the mid-term Congressional elections, the Obama administration’s defensiveness over the issue of outsourcing reflects its inability to appreciate that it ultimately benefits US consumers, especially during hard times. This remains a concern for India’s highly competitive services industry.

Indian analysts, however, are aware that creating jobs in the United States is important to India. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran suggests, India should not make too much noise about short-term protests against outsourcing and “buy more stuff from the US which it is still good at making.”

If the hot-button political issue in Washington is unemployment, in New Delhi it is terrorism. US authorities have extended genuine co-operation — albeit not to the extent that their Indian counterparts desire — over the investigations into David Headley’s involvement in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. With Headley’s confessions — in the presence of US officials — squarely implicating the Pakistan’s ISI agency, it is no longer possible for Washington to plausibly pretend that terrorism has no official sanction from Pakistani state institutions. Now, by deciding to stay at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and meet victims of the terrorist attack, Mr Obama has done well to signal his commiseration, if not solidarity, with the Indian people. However, he will not be spared tough questions on his administration’s equivocal attitude towards the source of that terrorism.

In two years, Mr Obama has traveled the distance to reach the same point over Pakistan as when he took over — that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will not yield to US demands beyond a point. In two years, he has traveled from believing the notion that the United States and China can co-operate in a “G-2” to recognising that a strong partnership with India is critical to US interests in Asia. So when he travels to India next week, both Washington and New Delhi share a common understanding of the problems they face. Where they differ is on what the solutions ought to be.

That, however, won’t spoil the party.

It’s not transactional, stupid!

Obama’s visit to India is a sign of the symbolism that characterises a strategic relationship

People are missing the point.

It doesn’t require the US president to come all the way to India to sell military equipment, make a case for reforming the UN security council, remove hurdles for high-technology co-operation, or indeed, as White House officials tried to project last week, encourage Indian companies to create jobs in the United States.

Such issues are negotiated by the minions, need bureaucratic and political consensus on both sides and are settled at their own pace. Official visits and summits between heads of state at best impose artificial deadlines and can be used to inject urgency into the negotiating machines. We saw it a few years ago when the India-US nuclear deal was pushed through in time for a Bush-Manmohan Singh summit.

Those who measure the significance and success of Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India through the prism of deals signed and statements made miss the fact that the India-US relationship is strategic, not transactional. Ironically, the strategic nature of the relationship was sealed by a transaction—the nuclear deal—leading many to expect more of the same. Now, there are good reasons for the Indian government to purchase US military aircraft, but not doing so isn’t about to wreck the bilateral relationship. Similarly, there are good reasons for Mr Obama to declare support for India’s place in a reformed UN Security Council, but other than disappointing his hosts, he won’t do much damage if he skips this topic.

For the first time in more than 50 years, the interests of the United States and India are converging geopolitically, geo-economically and, to coin a phrase, geo-democratically. As K Subrahmanyam points out succinctly, the United States needs India to counter China’s rising power. Likewise, India needs a strong United States, not to ally with, but for its own reasons of swing. This is as true from the economic perspective as it is from a political one. [Also see this CNAS report] Most importantly, India and the United States are mutually popular—the bottom-up factor is a powerful driver of closer bilateral relations.

It’s very hard to measure the extent of strategic relationships. Signing of business or arms deals are poor proxies. That’s where symbolism comes in. Obama has no real business to do in India. Yet he is coming. Sure, he’ll do some business when he’s here, but none that absolutely requires his presence. It’s symbolic and it counts.

For that reason Barack Obama will have a very successful trip to India next week. He just has to turn up.

Related Links: Articles in Pragati: Partnerships are made by bureaucracies – by Nicholas Gvosdev; and What’s the big idea? by Dhruva Jaishankar.

Hanging around the Y-junction

The United States can only delay making the real strategic decision

It was interesting to see, towards the end of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, members of the Obama administration realise that the United States is in the same place today as it was in early 2009. Recent events validate that assessment. Frustrated with the Pakistani army’s refusal to shut down taliban safe havens, the US-led forces attacked across the border killing Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani military retaliated by shutting down the supply route, letting taliban militants destroy some trucks and show that it has the ability to inflict some pain. This was roughly the state of affairs when Barack Obama took over as president.

This is exactly what we had argued:

Sooner or later, the Obama administration will come to realise that it has no way to make the Pakistani military establishment seriously fight and defeat the jihadi groups, which includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda and outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. When that moment comes, Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat. [Operation Markarap]

What now? It is unlikely that President Obama would choose “direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex” just yet. The race to find options short of that is almost certainly on, and a “throw them a bone” alternative will be sought. There are three possible bones. First, to accept a pro-Pakistani political dispensation in Afghanistan. Second, to accept the “legitimacy of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”. Third, to press India to compromise on Kashmir.

The first option doesn’t appeal to General Ashfaq Kayani at this stage because he believes he can get there without the United States. The second option is a status symbol they can do without, not least because China continues to support the expansion of the Pakistani arsenal. The third option might just do the trick, because which Pakistani general is immune to the potential glory of being the one who won Kashmir?

So expect Washington to exert pressure on India over Kashmir. Expect pressure to restart the composite dialogue and suchlike. It’ll take the Obama administration a year or so to realise that this is a dead-end. General Kayani will probably realise it a little before Washington does. And then what?

Well, we told you already. Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat.

Strategic trust-building follies

Washington should not undermine the sanctity of the Indus Waters Treaty

The formidable Richard Holbrooke and his talented team could have been more effective in their Af-Pak brief if they had a better grip on reality. They can achieve a whole lot more if thety were to solicit and receive genuine co-operation and support from New Delhi. Unfortunately, their thinking appears to be in the direction of reinforcing failure.

See what Steve Clemons says (via @vali_nasr). Writing about US efforts to help Pakistan raise funds after the flood disaster, he says, “…even with Clinton and Holbrooke on board, the US government is still not doing as much as it should in terms of contributing at a systemic level to helping the Pakistanis and Indians turn this nightmare into a strategically significant trust-building event.”

While that statement sounds logical, and more importantly, nice, it is largely bereft of the former. India has been making strategically significant trust-building events since Atal Bihari Vajpayee took that bus to Lahore in 1999. These were all perceived as weaknesses and exploited by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex to attack India. Other than Operation Parakram—which was itself carried out after grave provocation—India’s policy can be described as strategic reassurance. Satyabrata Pal, India’s former high commissioner to Pakistan, strongly argues that New Delhi must continue along this direction. It appears that the likes of Mr Clemons weren’t paying attention when Manmohan Singh responded to the Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attack, and its brazen refusal to act against the perpetrators, by…delivering sweet lollipops to the Pakistani prime minister.

Yes, there is a need for a strategically significant trust-building event. It has to come from Pakistan. Getting the Pakistani government to obtain a guilty verdict against the Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders fingered in the 26/11 conspiracy would be a good start. But Team Holbrooke isn’t concerned with trust-building in India.

Mr Clemons refers to David Rothkopf’s post on what this trust-building event might be. Apart from using tired and absurd cliches like “few relationships on the planet are as important or as potentially dangerous as that between India and Pakistan” he suggests the Mr Obama must propose a “a massive, multilateral Indus River Valley Development Initiative” on his trip to India.

The problem with Mr Rothkopf’s proposal—of massive technical and financial assistance to improve river water management—is that India doesn’t need that help. Pakistan does. So President Obama should be announcing this if and when he goes to Islamabad.

Actually, there is something Mr Obama can do before, during or after his trip to India with regard to Indus waters. And that is to say that “both sides must abide by the treaties they have signed”. The Indus Waters Treaty is a strategic trust-building device. Undermining its legitimacy by pointing to its being “strained by dam projects and shifting demand” is counterproductive to stability because it allows Pakistan to opens up another unbounded dispute with India.

Related Link: See Dhruva Jaishankar’s post on Indus river water issues.

Obama’s insensitivity to India’s interests

…must be appropriately addressed

“[Can] Mr Obama really allow US-India relations to backslide into the mutual neglect last seen during the Cold War?” Sumit Ganguly wrote in the Wall Street Journal three weeks ago, “We may be about to find out.” Dr Ganguly warned the Obama administration that insensitivity to India’s interests will allow other powers to “step into the breach”. He repeated the warning in Newsweek, adding that India is annoyed by Obama.

Today the WSJ reports:

President Barack Obama issued a secret directive in December to intensify American diplomacy aimed at easing tensions between India and Pakistan, asserting that without détente between the two rivals, the administration’s efforts to win Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan would suffer.

The directive concluded that India must make resolving its tensions with Pakistan a priority for progress to be made on U.S. goals in the region, according to people familiar with its contents.[WSJ]

The most polite thing that can be said is that Mr Obama made a stupid mistake. He appears to have learnt nothing from the unfortunate situation Richard Holbrooke, his special representative to the Af-Pak region, finds himself in.

While Mr Obama’s decision might well have been due to the political resultant of the interests of the various arms of the US government, it is consistent with his approach of demonstrating insensitivity to the interests of existing and potential allies in order to appease adversaries. This will be costly. President Hamid Karzai is providing the first taste of the consequences of such an approach. More will follow. (See, for instance, Jennifer Rubin’s post at Commentary magazine’s blog)

Mr Obama has put Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a political difficult position. The news of the White House “directive” making it into the public domain will, paradoxically, severely damage any prospect of New Delhi making things easier for the United States, even when such actions might be in India’s own interests. Who can say that Mr Obama doesn’t deserve to solely rely on partners such as the Pakistani army to help him win what is already called “Obama’s War”? Even Mr Karzai is returning favour by putting distance between himself and the United States.

So far, India’s signals of displeasure and annoyance have been quiet and behind the scenes. It is time to raise the temperature. Given that the UPA government in introducing some very important legislation in the current session of parliament, Dr Singh would do well to stay in New Delhi to see it through, leaving it to the foreign minister to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, on his behalf. And since the bilateral relationship is mature and everything, New Delhi could let it be known that there’s no real hurry for Mr Obama to visit India.