On the government’s decision to block some social media content

On free speech and extraordinary circumstances

Here’s a segment from yesterday’s NDTV’s Nine ‘o Clock News

You can catch the entire programme here. For more details and an analysis of the blocked sites, see Pranesh Prakash’s post at CIS.

The utility of staying on at Siachen

Staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves extreme hardship and cost for a mere barren block of ice.

An avalanche buried 124 people, mostly soldiers but also some civilians at a Pakistani army camp at Gyari near Siachen. Even if the missing and the dead are soldiers who are lingering manifestations of an original invasion, repeated aggression and an long-drawn but still ongoing war against India, our humanity makes many of us lament the human toll.

The tragedy has triggered two understandable but misguided reactions among the public and in the media. The first blames the tragedy (and by extension, the costs, the injuries and loss of lives) on the rivalry between Pakistan and India, contending that both sides could avoid wasting blood and treasure if they were to avoid such futile confrontations, if not solve their all differences. The logical implication is that India is partly responsible for the loss at Gyari. Reasonable as it may appear to be, it is untenable. The Pakistani soldiers were deployed at Gyari on the orders of their military and government leaders. If the Pakistani leadership prized the lives of these soldiers than whatever they have at stake at Siachen then they could have ended the deployment. They can do so even today.

There is nothing to stop either side from unilaterally pulling their troops out of the ‘world’s highest battleground’. Ergo, the moral responsibility for whatever happens to their troops lies solely with the leadership that sent them there. This applies as much to India as it does to Pakistan.

The second reaction laments an expensive confrontation over a remote, barren and uninhabitable region and sees it as useless and futile. But staying put on Siachen makes sense precisely because it involves avoidable expense and extreme hardship for a huge block of ice. It essentially tells the other side “if we can go to such lengths to keep a big, useless block of ice, imagine what lengths we’d go to keep something more valuable.” Again, this applies to both sides. Both India and Pakistan signal their commitment by staying in the region. (For more details, see this post from April 2006.) The difference is that Pakistan is signalling its strategic commitment to an invasion it started in 1947 and India is signalling its strategic commitment to defending against the same.

This difference makes all the difference. It is morally perverse to preach the “futility of war” to the side that has been invaded. In fact, if potential aggressors do not believe your commitment to defend your territory as credible, they are less likely to accept the futility of war. They might calculate that the benefits of aggression will outweigh the costs—and like General Musharraf in 1999—decide to try their luck. After the Kargil war, Indian troops are stationed in the Dras area, in conditions similar or worse than those at Siachen. The expense of defending the Line of Control in winter and the hardship Indian soldiers go through deters another Kargil-like war.

So, showing commitment to defend is one of the best ways of persuading potential aggressors of the “futility of war”. Yes, this causes others to suspect aggressive intent and act in ways that would further appear threatening to us, causing us to strengthen our commitment and so on. This “security dilemma” sets off arms races that raise the proportion of national income allocated to defence. Unfortunately, it cannot be wished away. It must be managed.

None of this is to say that demilitarisation of the Siachen area is a bad idea. Rather, it is to debunk the notion that India is engaged in a unnecessary, wasteful or futile exercise over the glacier. If the conditions on the ground change such that it is no longer necessary to show this commitment, then the Indian army can descend to warmer climes. The real question everyone ought to ask is what might those conditions be.

Insuring your policy

Defence expenditure is the premium paid to insure against the failure of foreign policy

A good defence strategy is one that manages the risks of foreign policy going wrong for one reason or the other. It might turn out that foreign policy was based on the wrong presumptions, or unexpected events might upset the geopolitical balance and so on. In these circumstances, a state should have the military capacity to ensure that its interests are protected. In other words, work for the best, but prepare for scenarios where the best doesn’t happen.

It follows that there is a good reason to keep the foreign & defence policy establishments at a sufficient distance in order to prevent confusion on their respective objectives. They must co-operate and co-ordinate at some levels, but it must be recognised that defence expenditure is essentially premium paid to insure against the failure of foreign policy.

There are two mistakes states can make: subordinating defence strategy to foreign policy and vice versa.

Nehru’s policy of non-alignment (as distinct from participation in the Non Aligned Movement) in the years following independence was infused with realism. But he failed to (and indeed refused to) invest in building the necessary military capacity to hedge against the chance that non-alignment might fail. In the event, he had to seek urgent military assistance from the United States in 1962 after the Chinese invasion.

Pakistan is an example of the other mistake. Its foreign policy is completely subordinate to its military strategy. It is eminently sensible for Pakistan to develop military capacity to defend itself against India. But it is high folly to then pursue a foreign policy of relentless hostility and antagonism towards its eastern neighbour.

The takeaway from this little post is that an essential question that foreign policy analysts must ask is—are the goods sufficiently insured?

Tightening the screws on Pakistan

Four immediate steps

The Pakistani military-jihadi complex has, as expected, gone on a war footing. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has pledged a “matching response” to Indian surgical strikes, “in no time”. The Pakistan Air Force was scrambled to fly sorties over major cities, scaring ordinary people. And the Jamaat-ud-Dawa organised a major pow-wow of religious parties—which included Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf—and issued a ten-point charter, which among other things called for India to be declared an enemy, and US & NATO’s supply route to be closed. As the Economist put it, it’s a heartwarming show of unity.

While all this might have whipped up passions among the Pakistani people (and distracted them from the economic crisis) , it must be frustrating for General Kayani to observe that no one outside Pakistan is quite taking the threat of an India-Pakistan war seriously. That’s because Indian strategists have realised that denying the Pakistani military-jihadi complex the war they desire is triumph by default. The Pakistani armed forces should be most welcome to burn what little fuel reserves they have (linkthanks RKG), or can afford, flying pointless sorties over their cities, moving tanks and heavy artillery around the country and suchlike. There are two risks: first, where General Kayani’s ability to control the proceedings falls short of the passion of his uniformed and non-uniformed troops. Second, where the frustrated Pakistani military leadership starts the war itself. These risks itself indicate that General Kayani’s moves are devoid of strategic wisdom. In either case, it is India that will have control over the escalation.

Yet, there are people and organisations in Pakistan—suddenly oblivious to the wretch their country has become—who believe that getting away with a terrorist attack without punishment demonstrates an “upper hand”. Since the support for jihadi terrorism comes from these sorts, it is necessary to disabuse them of this notion. For that reason, India must act, visibly and forcefully.

First, India must ensure that the Pakistan remains in the international doghouse until it does what is immediately necessary—the arrest and expatriation of jihadi leaders and the complete shutdown of the jihadi organisations. How? Well, it must use its “restraint” to get the United States and Pakistan’s international donors to hold back aid tranches until Pakistan produces the necessary results.

Second, India should use the opportunity to abandon some silly projects that were pursued in the name of the ‘peace process’—for instance, the Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline. One this simian is off its back, India should pursue a deal to purchase the gas in the form of LNG. It should be easier to seal this agreement now that energy prices have fallen from their historic highs.

Third, international arms suppliers and their governments must be warned that selling arms to Pakistan will make it more difficult for them to penetrate the Indian market.

And finally, as we have been long arguing, India must engage the jihadi enemy not along its own frontiers, but in Afghanistan. India must support the military “surge” in Afghanistan that the US has planned. It could, for instance, arrange and secure the alternative supply route through the Iranian ports of Chahbahar and Bandar Abbas, and overland into Afghanistan. That’ll give the Americans the flexibility they need to secure co-operation from General Kayani.

Lotus Message

Taken by surprise

Vijay Vikram writes in to inform that the June 2008 issue of Kamal Sandesh, the BJP’s house magazine has reprinted the op-ed that I wrote for Mail Today (based on this post).

While it is good to know that Kamal Sandesh‘s editors found the article worthy of dissemination, it must be put on record that this was done without asking for or receiving my consent. (Content on this blog is published under Creative Commons Attribution license, so prior permission is not required. Also, they might have an arrangement with Mail Today.)

Right said Bidwai

What is bad for Bidwai is good for India: the rule always applies

Praful Bidwai offers honest, rational arguments against the India-US nuclear deal.

Many of the deal’s opponents are also mistaken in arguing that it’ll reduce/cap India’s nuclear arsenal/fissile material production. India will only subject 14 of its 22 operating/planned power reactors to inspections. The rest can annually yield 200kg of plutonium—enough for 40 bombs, in addition to the existing 100-150, and way beyond the professed “minimum deterrent”.

India can also stockpile unlimited amounts of weapons-grade material in its military-nuclear and other unsafeguarded facilities, including the “Dhruva” and prototype fast-breeder reactors. Besides, India can dedicate scarce domestic uranium exclusively to weapons. Again, India can live with the Hyde Act’s constraints. They’re a small price to pay if you want your weapons normalized and expanded, while resuming global nuclear commerce.

The honest, rational, argument against the deal is that it legitimizes nuclear weapons (India’s and the US’), weakens the global non-proliferation norm, unfairly favours India because it’s Washington’s friend, consolidates an unhealthy, unequal India-US relationship, and promotes the wrong kind of energy.

The deal will admit India into the global nuclear club—on the side of those who run a system that India long condemned as atomic apartheid. Once it joins the club, India will bid goodbye to its commitment, reiterated in the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme, to fight for global nuclear disarmament. You don’t join an exclusive club, and then demand its dissolution! The deal will detract from a principled commitment to a peaceful, equitable world order free of the scourge of nuclear weapons. [Mint]

Those who feel that a deal that favours India—fairly or otherwise—is good for India should therefore rally in support of the deal. The time-tested dictum that India’s national interest is the opposite of what Mr Bidwai advocates holds true.

Mr Bidwai is not the only anti-nuclear activist arriving at the conclusion that the deal allows India to hone its nuclear deterrent and expand nuclear power. Here’s M V Ramana in IEEE Spectrum:

What’s more, the agreement is likely to increase—not decrease—India’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons and material. By importing uranium, India will be able to channel its native supply toward military purposes.

There is also the possibility that those nuclear reactors not subject to IAEA inspection will be converted to military ends. Any power reactor not under safeguards can be used to make weapons-grade plutonium by limiting the time the fuel is irradiated. This prevents the build-up of higher isotopes of plutonium, which are undesirable in a weapon. When a typical heavy-water reactor is operated normally, fuel remains inside the reactor seven times as long as when it is producing weapons-grade plutonium. Heavy-water reactors are particularly suited to making bomb-grade material, because new fuel is continuously added (and old fuel continuously removed); this type of reactor could produce the same amount of electricity every year but would use seven times as much fuel to do so. In theory, a 220-MW heavy-water reactor, run at 60 to 80 percent capacity, could produce 150 to 200 kg per year of weapons-grade plutonium. [IEEE Spectrum]

Elements of the BJP who continue to reflexively oppose the India-US nuclear deal need to explain the public why they are on the same side as the likes of Mr Bidwai.

(Mr Bidwai’s piece, by the way, contains many of the usual canards. He’s entitled to them)

Offence is the best defence

But who says Americans can’t learn about nuclear security from the Pakistanis?

The Pakistani Army’s Brigadier Atta M. Iqhman and Colonel Bom Zhalot are not the ones to take questions from uppity Western journalists lying down. In the Bulletin Online, Hugh Gusterson reports that they were concerned about the custodial security of nuclear weapons. America’s.

“The United States needs to develop new protocols for storing and loading nuclear weapons, and it needs to do a better job of recruiting and training the personnel who handle them,” Iqhman said.

Iqhman added the Pakistani government would be willing to offer technical advice and assistance to the United States on improving its nuclear weapons handling procedures. Speaking anonymously because of the issue’s sensitivity, senior Pentagon officials said it is Washington’s role to give, not receive, advice on nuclear weapons safety and surety issues.

(Col Zhalot said), “We also worry that the U.S. commander-in-chief has confessed to having been an alcoholic. Here in Pakistan, alcohol is ‘haram,’ so this isn’t a problem for us. Studies have also found that one-fifth of U.S. military personnel are heavy drinkers. How many of those have responsibility for nuclear weapons?”[Bulletin Online]

The good reader (“BOK”) who drew attention to this suggested that it is good material for the Sunday Levity series. That it is.

But isn’t it rather rich of those anonymous Pentagon officials to declare that their role is only to give advice. Scary.

Concerns about the crown jewels

Regarding custodial security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons

In the wake of international concerns over the safety of its nuclear weapons (not least during Pervez Musharraf’s trip to Europe), the Pakistani army went out of its way to brief journalists and diplomats on their security arrangements. Gordon Corera writes:

Pakistan has begun to reveal some of the measures it takes:
* The weapons are kept in parts, with the fissile material and the delivery system (the missile) separate from the rest of the weapon
* The exact location of those facilities is kept secret and they are well guarded by a Strategic Forces Command consisting of thousands of soldiers
* The weapons themselves can only be launched by someone who has access to electronic codes

These codes are a Pakistani version of Permissive Action Links (PALs), used by the US and other countries.

“Pakistan has developed its own PAL systems which obviously ensures that even if an unauthorised person gets hold of a weapon he cannot activate it unless he also has access to electronic codes,” explains retired Brig Gen Naeem Salid. [‘BBC’]

As Mr Corera’s article goes on to show, not everyone is reassured by this. But there is a degree of inconsistency even among these three measures: that’s because keeping weapons in a de-mated state, and using PALs to prevent unauthorised use are usually mutually exclusive.

The logic of using PALs is that the entire weapon becomes unusable (or even destroyed) if a wrong password is keyed in. A system safeguarded by PALs requires warhead and the delivery system to be mated. Proponents of PALs argue that such a system is more secure compared to simply keeping the pieces separate. Now, Pakistan may well have developed its own PAL systems (they’ve got to say this, because the arms control regime does not allow the United States to share this technology with Pakistan) but claiming that its nuclear weapons are both de-mated and secured with PALs raises some questions on the security framework used.

It may well be that this is a deliberate obfuscation aimed at impressing the general public. But it is also possible that some weapons are kept in a de-mated state (eg aircraft-mountable ones) and others are secured by PALs (missile-mounted ones). In fact, we should expect this to be the case: for the Pakistanis are unlikely to completely trust the United States enough to completely allow a piece of American technology to govern their trigger. This also means that there are at least some warheads that are at a greater risk of unauthorised use, even if they are locked up in secret solid steel cupboards the keys to which are locked in other secret solid steel cupboards. The risk remains.

Look East, and frown at Malaysia

Malaysia has the right to decide its own immigration policy. And India has the right to react

Update: Malaysia clarifies that there is no ban on Indian workers

It is laughable. A day after the Indian defence minister completes his trip to Malaysia, that country announces a ban on the intake of workers from India. Existing workers will be asked to return to India after their work permits expire. The Malaysian government took this decision—it claims—in late December 2007. It probably held back the announcement to ensure A K Antony’s visit took place. Yet, the timing of the announcement—a day after India agreed to train Malaysian air force pilots, among other things—should be embarassing for Mr Antony. Continue reading “Look East, and frown at Malaysia”