Colombo is in no mood for lectures

India’s (and the world’s) priority should be to avert a humanitarian disaster

If the fate of the hapless Tamil civilians is the world’s principal consideration with regard to the war in Sri Lanka, then it stands to reason that that war itself must come to an end as soon as possible. It is unrealistic to expect Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to heed calls for pausing the military offensive—at a time when the Sri Lankan army believes it is close to a complete victory against the LTTE, and after the LTTE leadership rejected a call to surrender and decided to fight to the finish. Colombo, as James Traub writes in the New York Times, is in no mood for lectures.

Also, regardless of whether ethnic relations between the Sri Lankan Tamil minority and the Sinhala minority improve or worsen after the current phase of the war, the elimination of the uncompromising LTTE leadership cannot be a bad thing.

There are conflicting reports on how bad a situation the civilians find themselves in: absent independent reports, one has to choose between claims made by the two combatants. Even so, it is clear that Sri Lanka faces a massive humanitarian crisis in the coming days and months. Given the state of ethnic relations, it is reasonable to expect that the displaced Tamils will have misgivings about how they will be treated by the victorious Sri Lankan government in general, and by the Sri Lankan security forces in particular. These misgivings will be shared, perhaps amplified, among the Tamil population in India as indeed among the Tamil diaspora around the world.

The LTTE bears a moral responsibility for bringing the Sri Lankan Tamils into this humanitarian crisis. But only till the point that they come under the custody and protection of the Sri Lankan government. From that point on, the moral responsibility for their security, well-being and human rights rests with the Sri Lankan government. And it is incumbent on the Indian government to hold the Rajapakse government to account on this. One the one hand, India should demand greater transparency and access to the displaced civilian population and a fixed timetable for their return to their original homes. At the same time, India should offer financial, technical, logistical and military assistance to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the humanitarian crisis does not turn into a humanitarian disaster. The immediate task for Indian foreign policy is to ensure that the Rajapakse government delivers on this.

Related Link: Colonel Hariharan’s answers to inconvenient questions.

Surgical is only the beginning

The idea of ‘surgical strikes’ has gained popularity in drawing room and public house conversations after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Srinath Raghavan & Rudra Chaudhuri explain why they are not such a good idea (linkthanks Dhruva).

‘Surgical strikes’, we are told, could go a long way in destroying terrorist camps and infrastructure located in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Precision munitions or ‘smart bombs’ would minimise the collateral damage, so making it clear that these attacks have been designed to target terrorist groups and not the Pakistani state. Surgical strikes are thus presented as a via media between disastrous war and debilitating peace. However, past experiences demonstrate both the conceptual fallacy and the practical problems of this strategy.

Indeed, any Indian attack will draw a proportionate response from Pakistan. The Pakistani army chief has openly stated as much. This would leave India to decide whether it wants to escalate further or pull back with resultant loss of face — both equally unattractive options. The pressure at that point would likely force New Delhi to raise the stakes; Pakistan will respond in kind. Escalation is, therefore, inherent in this situation.
The assumption that a surgical strike will enable India to pressurise Pakistan without risking war is gravely mistaken. John Kennedy’s advisor, McGeorge Bundy, put it well: a surgical strike, like all surgery, will be bloody, messy, and you will have to go back for more. [DNA]

Putting perfume on a skunk

Pakistan’s military mobilisation bogey didn’t work—it only exposed the army’s hand in the Mumbai attacks

It is hard to say whether the good retired brigadier Shaukat Qadir actually believes in his own fairy tale or is merely trying to make the skunk smell good in public. For he argues that “the token withdrawal of troops from our western borders was also an exercise in employing defence to further diplomatic ends and accelerate international efforts to defuse tensions between two nuclear neighbours; and it was successful.”

His first argument about how Pakistan showed tremendous restraint in the face of belligerent words and actions on the ground by India is factually wrong. According to the the same paper that published his analysis, Pakistan threatened to pull back 100,000 troops on 29 November 2008, even as the Mumbai siege was in progress. Far from responding to any hostile action from India, Pakistan’s alacrity in troop movements suggests that this was a pre-planned move, and half of which failed in the end.

And his argument that moving one armoured and one infantry division to a strategic location that would threaten India’s lines of communication is ridiculous. For if all it took to deter India from attacking Pakistan were army divisions at strategic locations, then why did Pakistan ever have to invest in nuclear weapons at such great cost to itself? It is plain and simple that Pakistan is using its nuclear weapons to provide cover and protection to terrorists. That smell won’t go away so quickly.

No direct military action against Pakistan

And this is not the time for irresponsible talk

Direct military strikes against Pakistan in retaliation for the terrorist attack on Mumbai are not in India’s interests. [See these posts] There is little chance of that happening. So voluble souls like NDTV’s Barkha Dutt must just shut up, to put it politely. The TV media has already displayed its mindlessness and lack of maturity in the irresponsible and insensitive manner in which it covered the anti-terrorist operations.

It risks doing far more damage by giving play to unfounded rumours, which could well be misinterpreted as the Indian government’s intentions. Such reports play into the hands of the Pakistani military establishment that is looking for half-an-excuse to get out of the difficult job of fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda along Pakistan’s Western frontier.

Cornered Tigers and after

Non-interference and its unhappy consequences

It’s not over until it’s over—and there is some fight left in the LTTE yet—but judging from available news reports, it is clear that the Tamil Tigers are cornered in Kilinochchi and a few other towns. The ripples of the situation have crossed the Palk Strait and have already rocked politics in Tamil Nadu state. There is a risk that they will rock the UPA government in New Delhi.

It has come to this pass because the UPA government’s policy paralysis on Sri Lanka. As the The Acorn had warned at that time, the critical moment was in December 2005. Failure to rein in the combatants at that time led to the inevitable war and bloodshed. Failure to coerce the Tamil Tiger leadership to give up its maximalist aims caused it to break the ceasefire. Failure to intervene pushed the Sri Lankan government into the arms of Pakistan, China and Iran for military support. India was too timid to support or oppose any one side. As a result it not only finds itself as little more than a bystander, grasping for ways it could avoid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war from destabilising Tamil Nadu, and indeed, New Delhi.

Let’s be clear about one thing: that the Tamil Tigers (not to mention the Sri Lankan Tamils) find themselves in this situation is due to the fault of their leadership. Velupillai Prabhakaran did not take advantage of the international mediation to transform the rather successful insurgency into a political process towards autonomy within a federal setup, at least as a first step. The LTTE’s sympathisers might argue that it was the Sri Lankan government that upped the ante: even so, Mr Prabhakaran’s failure to reject violence and keep the international peace brokers on his side allowed President Rajapakse to prosecute the war. In the event, rather successfully. And for all the drama in Chennai, the cornered LTTE leadership is yet to directly call for a ceasefire.

Now, as T S Gopi Rethinaraj has argued in the April 2008 issue of Pragati, as also in a recent op-ed in Hindustan Times, the prospect of a military victory for the Sri Lankan government can have negative consequences for India’s geopolitical interests. It is conceivable that a jubilant Sri Lankan government will swing over to its Chinese and Pakistani patrons. It will also not have any reason to deliver on its promises of equal treatment of its Tamil minorities. By this token, the survival of the Tamil Tigers is India’s insurance policy against this eventuality.

In fact, had the Indian government understood the realist logic underpinning Dr Gopi Rethinaraj’s arguments, it would have played a stronger role to freeze the balance of power in Sri Lanka in 2004-2005 and transform it into a political settlement. It didn’t. So it finds itself in an exceedingly satisfactory position now. It can’t close its eyes to the new reality on the ground—one of the Sri Lankan government achieving a victory on its own terms. But it also cannot ignore the reality that the war-ravaged Tamil minority will have to live under the victor’s rules. Despite their promises, it is by no means clear that the Rajapakse government will pursue an enlightened policy towards the Tamils and move towards healing the decades old ethnic conflict that underlies the civil war.

Whether the LTTE is practically wiped out in the coming weeks or manages to turn the tide of the war in its favour, India must set aside its policy of non-intervention into one of engagement. On the one hand, it must try to cobble up a Sri Lankan Tamil political formation that can play the part that the LTTE didn’t. And on the other, it must deepen its engagement with the Sri Lankan government in all spheres, to ensure that it can guarantee that Colombo keeps its word. It’s not going to be easy: there are few Sri Lankan Tamil leaders of the required stature, and elements within the Rajapakse government might well say “no, thank you”. But what alternatives does India have?

An officer and a Taliban leader

Reversing the Kunduz airlift

Those who know the history of the Pakistani army’s battles won’t find this least surprising: very often, “mujahideen leaders” carry documents that identify them as Pakistani military officers.

British officials covered up evidence that a Taliban commander killed by special forces in Helmand last year was in fact a Pakistani military officer, according to highly placed Afghan officials.

The commander, targeted in a compound in the Sangin valley, was one of six killed in the past year by SAS and SBS forces. When the British soldiers entered the compound they discovered a Pakistani military ID on the body. [Times Online]

It is hard to say which is worse: whether this deputation was on official orders, or whether it was purely voluntary.

The myth of the unbeatable Pashtun

A question of superior force, superior tactics and resolve

Sushant Sareen’s piece on the psy-war in Afghanistan makes an important point:

Even more galling is the nonsense being peddled that this war is not winnable and that the Pashtun lands are the graveyards of empires past and present. Not only is this historically incorrect, it is also a self-created, self-serving and self perpetuated myth.

The fact is that the Pashtuns are eminently beatable and have been beaten plenty of times in the past. Alexander, Timur, Nadir Shah, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the British, all have beaten the Pashtuns and established order in the Pashtun lands. Lest it be forgotten, the Sikhs followed by the British had defeated the Pashtuns so comprehensively that for almost 150 years now, relative peace and order has prevailed in the Pashtun lands.

True, the British suffered the occasional setback but they eventually managed to subdue the Pashtun tribes. Had the British wanted they would have also continued to rule Afghanistan, only they didn’t find it worth their while and preferred to let it remain a buffer between India and Russia. The Russians too would never have been defeated had the Soviet economy not collapsed (and it didn’t collapse because of the war in Afghanistan) and had the Americans not pumped in weapons and money to back the so-called Mujahideen.

No doubt the Pashtuns are a very turbulent race. Not only have they crafted treachery into a fine art form, they have also used it to great effect in the way they fight against their rivals. But while they are terrific warriors for whom warfare is a way of life, they have always succumbed to superior force and superior tactics, not to mention the lure of money. The Pashtuns have never been known to stand against a well-disciplined, well-equipped, motivated, and equally ruthless force.

But a set-piece army is only partially useful against the Pashtuns; it must be backed by highly mobile troops who can chase the guerrillas and hunt them down. [Rediff]

Shoot the invaders

Pakistani troops fire at US helicopters

Bruce Loudon might have gotten it right. Because wire services are reporting that Pakistani troops fired at a heliborne US raiding party near Angoor Adda, South Waziristan (or, if you prefer the ISPR spin, the Pakistani soldiers sounded their bugles to alert the tribesmen who then fired at the Americans). (linkthanks Swami Iyer)

What should you make of this? Well, since no one actually got hurt, it is hard to completely dismiss the possibility that this is the action sequence in a drama, the kind the local audience love. But then again, other audiences might not love it all that much.

But if it is for real—and the bugle and tribesman story suggests that it might be—then we are living in interesting times.

Update: The Pentagon denies that there was even such a raid, less that it was fired upon.

Reading the Arthashastra: War by diplomacy

Here’s an interesting paper by Roger Boesche on the Kautilyan doctrine of war and diplomacy:

Whereas Carl von Clausewitz said that war is just an extension of domestic politics, Kautilya argued that diplomacy is really a subtle act of war, a series of actions taken to weaken an enemy and gain advantages for oneself, all with an eye toward eventual conquest. In Kautilya’s foreign policy, even during a time of diplomacy and negotiated peace, a king should still be “striking again and again” in secrecy.

Because a king abides by a treaty only for so long as it is advantageous, Kautilya regarded all allies as future conquests when the time is ripe.


(A couple of years ago, Sunil Laxman had introduced Professor Boesche’s The First Great Political Realist—a slim, readable introduction to the Arthashastra.)

On the topic of agreements, Kautilya declares:

When the profit accruing to kings under an agreement, whether they be of equal, inferior, or superior power, is equal to all, that agreement is termed peace (sandhi); when unequal, it is termed defeat (vikrama). Such is the nature of peace and war. [Arthashastra VII:8]

There are two aspects to the assessment of benefits from an agreement: relative gains and the time dimension. An agreement is desirable when the gains from it outweigh the gains the enemy makes from it. Also, “whoever thinks that in the course of time his loss will be less than his acquisition as contrasted with that of his enemy, may neglect his temporary deterioration.” Simple as it seems, since an agreement between two states affects all others in the raja mandala, the actual business of calculating relative gains and summing them up is necessarily a complex exercise.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.