An exchange at Five Rupees

A conversation with a Pakistani foreign affairs scholar

Ahsan Butt, at Five Rupees, proposed a public conversation on India-Pakistan relations after the Nov 26th terrorist attack on Mumbai. He has posted our email exchange on his blog.

You should see it, and perhaps add your thoughtful two cents worth.

26 thoughts on “An exchange at Five Rupees

  1. Found the Ahsan chappie remarkably sanguine about his side’s use of jihadist terror and the killing of innocents. Collateral damage, perhaps? Another true student of the realist school of phoren policy, seems like.

    Also, doesn’t escape notice that such terror-as-policy-instrument arguement is Ahsan tried coyly to brush under the convenient carpet of ‘India is no stranger to political violence’==> ‘India can’t have its 9/11’ Etc.

    I wish your ‘public conversation’ project well, Nitin. Good luck, not that you need luck to poke holes in a sieve.

  2. Hah, if the Pak Army goes after Lashkar, it will be like when the Lebanese Army went after Hezbollah. In other words, it would be such a disaster that they won’t dare do it.

  3. Good luck with the conversation Nitin. I’m hoping at least some significant section of Pakistani civil society mobilizes actively in support of the crackdown they are conducting now, rather than the cool armchair analysis offered by Ahsan.

    It would be terrific (and right now sounds like a drugged hallucination) if this thing actually blew back on the militants and they lost base on their home ground, but I hope desperately for some such outcome.

    (Like many Indians I guess) I suspect these ops are being conducted after the key players have been given enough time to get away… but it was heartening to see news that they captured the top guy named by Kasab.

    “Raids on other centers are being planned soon” went an announcement. This looks like a dead giveaway but I cant help thinking of Indian police in some similar situations holding press conferences about future steps/ raids. Maybe the cops just share the same level of incompetence and hunger for publicity.


  4. It’s a strange conversion – a typical 5-star hotel type from Ahsan. One wonders, does he even know Pakistan!

    Because Mushie can play the media game better than Zardari, Mushie should have been in charge. Apparently containing Islamic jihadi terrorism is about managing world media (not that the global media is not helping them in that endeavor)!! Is he so out of touch with the Islamic terror going on India for the past three years (if not the past decade). It’s also laughable that he says he doesn’t understand why the latest LeT massacre of innocent people occurred. Hmmm…why indeed!

    There is an alternative of covert operations to bring the land of pure to its knees – with the mix of Islamic jihadis of all types in that country that shouldn’t be too difficult.

    At the least he could have condemned the attacks. Apparently there is nothing to condemn because Narendra Modi didn’t stop rioting in Gujarat that ended up killing 1000 people (but 100% death inflation makes a good story), 250 of them Hindus – such competent conspirator in charge!

    Nitin, I am glad you take him seriously….sigh…..

  5. Listen to this drivel from UK’s Channel 4:


    As if using the word Hindustan is a sign that one is a fundamentalist!

  6. Hello acorn readers,

    Thanks for your comments, even if I disagree with some of your thoughts and think you misread/misunderstood some of mine. Let me go commenter by commenter.


    I really wish you wouldn’t use terms like “his side”. It is terribly juvenile because it reduces complex questions of international politics to schoolyard bruising. Be that as it may, I would say the following: I don’t understand what is so controversial about the idea that terrorism is a tactic (or in your words, a policy). You will find no serious student of international affairs who disagrees with that claim. This stance says nothing about the morals of political violence, which are questions I like to stay out of because discussing morality is not my job. You are free to take from that what you will.


    Indeed, that is one of the central issues facing Pakistani decision makers today. Over the last five or six years, Pakistan has waged a war on its western border against militant groups it formerly sponsored. Just taking these groups on is proving an incredibly challenging task, made no easier by the occasional American drone attack in the region. If/when the state turns its attention to the groups settled in the east/northeast/Punjab, there is a great danger that they join forces with the groups already at war with Pakistan. It is a difficult position to be in, to put it lightly.


    Again, I really can’t see what’s wrong with cool rational analysis. I prefer to let my emotions exist on a separate plane from my thoughts. Perhaps this is a failing, perhaps it is not. But I would encourage you to read the blog further in your free time to really gauge how I feel about these militant groups. Let’s put it this way: they threaten Pakistan a lot more than they threaten India, and I have made that abundantly clear in my writings over the last 2-3 years.


    Not everyone gets my sense of humor, so no worries. The Mush line was a dig at (a) the lawyers, and (b) Zardari. And the relevant fact is: image and PR *does* matter. It always has in international politics. There is a reason Georgia can be the aggressor in a conflict and yet have the blame in the court of world public opinion fall to Russia. And to emphasize, image/PR are the least of my concerns with Zardari. My biggest concern is him saying/doing something really stupid when talking to India/U.S. that pushes everyone into a corner.

    As for condemning the attacks, again, to reiterate something I said earlier, I am not interested in the morality of political violence. Perhaps this is a function of what I read everyday as a Poli Sci student, where violence is simply something to be explained/analyzed. You may find this stance repugnant, and that is your right, by all means.

    Finally, my raising the Modi/Gujarat point was only to say that certain types of political violence clearly affect national Indian civil society than others. Surely you cannot disagree with that claim.

    All in all, I enjoyed the commentary and look forward to another round.

  7. A little OT: Kasab cries for his momma!


    This guy per reports lay down with a hidden gun and was directly responsible for killing Ombale, his sneakiness cost us our only death in the capture of the Skoda. and now hes a little boy “misled” into the big bad woods, and our cops are actually looking into the request.


  8. By the way Nitin, I’ve never been referred to as a “foreign affairs scholar” before. I’m clearly moving up in the world; you should read the comments to some of my more controversial posts to see what I’m usually called.

  9. Now I feel bad for calling you merely a “blogger” on Rs. 5. I think I’ll change it to “writer and analyst”.

    By the way, I’m always amazed at the amount of flak I get for being non-emotional. It genuinely surprises me. I don’t know if you read my post on earthquake survivors and tea (I opined they shouldn’t get any) or a discussion I had with a commenter who lost his shit when I said a Palestinian child’s life isn’t really worth Pakistan’s national interest, but I’m always getting criticized for it. I don’t understand…in a world full of overly-emotional nonsense, aren’t people always asking for dispassionate analysis? Should I pretend to be emotional just to obviate this line of criticism? I really don’t know.

  10. Jai,

    Mohd Ajmal Amir Iman ‘Kasab’ is a well-trained covert operative. His love for meat, Bachchan flicks and mommy is quite likely part of his training. The less attention he gets from the media, the better. The more attention he gets from Mumbai Police and its cousins the better.

  11. two rupees then.

    Things that Ahsan knows:

    1.Asif Zardari in a crisis – From an Indian perspective, Zardari sounded much better though.He may have been lampooned for that incident with Sarah Palin, but in terms of saying the right things, and sounding credible, he was doing alright, till the Pakistani hawks stepped in.And lets face it, whether he really obtained the buy-in from Pakistan’s Strategic Operations (nuclear policy definition and control) before making the ‘no first use’ statement is not the question here.From whatever angle one looks at it, it is a responsible policy to have, and has helped Zardari score some much needed brownie points.Give the bloke a chance.

    2.India’s options – Nitin has already mentioned a few short term options.India has a few short, medium and long term options.If Ahsan and his fellow-students are not able to identify those options, it means they need to understand Pakistan and India better. In short, India may be a soft target for terror strikes by state-less actors in Pakistan.But Pakistan’s very existence as a sovereign, democratic nation is under peril.India has the option to catalyse things in such a way that a nuclear confrontation will be avoided and at the same time, Pakistan ceases to exist in its current form.

    3.India’s 9/11 – There is no dichotomy in the different levels of reaction to any of India’s internal issues (Naxal violence, Gujarat communal riots etc) and the terror attacks of 26/11.The Indian public knows where the real blame lies in any internal law&order issue, and exercises its vote accordingly. The Mumbai terror attacks are being seen as the last straw on the camel’s back because the Indian public sees it as an act of war by Pakistani-sponsored jihadi elements, and they are tired of the mistrust such acts create among Indians of various communities.It is a stretch to call it India’s 9/11, but seen from the near unanimous condemnation of terror angle, these attacks have brought the Indian public together.Ultimately, it is not an important or interesting question to discuss whether this should be called as India’s 9/11.You can, if you want to.And some people want to.

    Things Ahsan doesn’t know for sure:

    1. Motives for the attack – Didn’t you ask your undergrad students this question, Ahsan bhai?’s the list of motives:

    LeT – Emerge as a global jihadi player by making use of the current situation in Pakistan;continue their jihad to establish an islamic state in India.
    Al Quaeda – more strategic – create some tensions on the border and hope for disruption in the GWOT on Afghan border- also demonstrate their reach as the umbreall Jihadi org
    ISI and Pak Army – The rogue elements (is the entire ISI and Pak Army, rogue entities themselves) need to show the civilian govt who the bosses are – again, take the focus away from Afghan border

    2.Congress/BJP – Indian Parliament elections

    It does not matter which political formation comes to power now.The expectations are set – act tough on terror, and increase internal security.BJP won’t be able to come to power on terror plank alone because: 1.Terror plank is now seen as non-partisan issue 2.Indian electorate ( as seen the semi-finals yesterday) are mature and know which issues matter.

    Things that Ahsan is completely lost on:

    1.Priority of Pakistani security establishment – Their priority should be the survival and growth of Pakistan as a nation state, under relatively peaceful circumstances. To that end, if they are really patriotic, (a) they would secure the nuclear arsenal against possible theft by rogue elements (b)support the civilian govt in rooting out terror camps (c) Strive for peace with India. But going by history, it is a tall order to expect Pakistani elite (army, intelligence agencies, high level bureaucrats etc) to have humanitarian and patriotic concerns for their own citizens. And finally, they need to face reality and become more professional , i.e., stop the islamisation of the armed forces and security apparatus.

    2.Barry-O’s thoughts:

    Elementary, dear Ahsan 🙂

    1.Success in Afghanistan – eliminate Taliban and involve Indian forces in maintaining peace.Manage China’s concerns at the same time.
    2.Exit options in Iraq
    3.Leverage India’s troubles with terror, and Pakistan’s inherent instability to hammer out a solution for Kashmir

    He is still nopt in office.He is allowed to dream now.Till Jan 20 at least.

  12. Ahsan,

    You do manage to get a little emotional in other contexts:
    “An argument for secularism” (very well written post BTW)

    referring to IJT violence on campus:
    “…I really cannot put into words how much these people piss me off. I mean, I can, but it would involve a lot of cursing,…”

    Would you allow yourself to be at least equally pissed off with these attacks? And does it hurt the realism to say that, in so many words.


  13. Joint commissioner of police (crime) Rakesh Maria said, “We are legally examining whether he should be granted permission. He told us that he wanted to convince his old parents about how he was misled by the LeT.”

    That would be a very smart thing to do, would it not? It would establish beyond any realm of doubt that he is a Pakistani among sections of Pakistan society which still lives in a state of denial.

  14. Ahsan,

    A conversation is between (at least) two sides. One side is Nitin’s (also mine and India’s) and the other side, sir, is ‘your’ side. Your ‘wishing’ I didn;t refer to your side as your side while betraying emotion on one hand also tellingly uncovers your apparent unwillingness to identify, identify with, explain and defend Pak’s interests (IOW, take Pakistan’s side).

    Could it be because you disapprove of Pak’s jihadist terror based tactics (clearly that is not the case, as you readily admit), or that doing so might actually be hard to defend/justify in civil discourse (more likely, IMO)? But I do notice you make a beginning in this direction by forcefully discounting (indeed discarding) the utility of any sort of ‘moral’ compass in international relations.

    Can’t help but notice you fling terms around like ‘juvenile’, ‘schoolyard bullying’ etc as a substitute for (or perhaps as a diversion from) the issue at hand – the use of planned, calibrated murder and terror against civilians in a neighbouring country emnating from the state of Pakistan.

    Well, be that as it may, your belief that the lack of morals is a virtue – in the particular of thoughtful, reasoned and sound analysis on any subject is telling indeed.

    /Have a nice day.

  15. IMHO the geo-politics of India and Pakisthan is the most intriguing part of history of the world. The unity of India is guaranteed by the existence of Pakisthan as a theocratic state. As long as Pakisthan remains as it is today and there is a sizeable Muslim population in India the unity of India is guaranteed. Whenever there is a trouble created in India by some force in Pakisthan (whether state or non-state), the nationhood and its identity gets manifested. The nationhood will be challenged from within if Pakisthan loses its identity and the sizeable Muslim population is not seen as a threat. This is a reality however we try to couch by Political correctness.

  16. Sud:

    I am not representing anyone but myself, certainly not “my side”. And – this is tangential to your point – Nitin himself noted how there really isn’t one “side” in Pakistan today on these issues.

    I will encourage you to read our blog further before (a) commenting on my views on these militant groups and (b) commenting on my normative views of Pakistan’s relationship with India. If you have the time – which you may or may not depending on your career/family/other commitments – please browse our archives and get a handle on what I think. I will leave it at that for now.

    I have enjoyed this discussion. Hopefully we can do it again in a week or two with the next round of emails between Nitin and myself. Until then, take care all.

  17. “I guess this is what it would feel like if Brad Pitt went over to Jennifer Aniston’s parents’ house during Thanksgiving, only if Pitt and Aniston both had nuclear weapons.”

    I don’t get it, and who is Jennifer Aniston?

  18. Ahsan/Nitin: I thought it was an excellent exchange for many reasons, but want to take issue with the point that Ahsan brought up early on: that the U.S. was “not used to political violence. Of any kind.” That is absolutely untrue. Four U.S. presidents have been assassinated, not to mention several others lower down in the political system. The 1960s witnessed widespread and shockingly regular race riots, each resulting in looting, arson and scores of deaths. That was the unseemly side of the civil rights movement, one that is not often remembered today, but which was captured in dramatic documentary footage from that time.

    I would agree that this is not India’s September 11: I hope that one never takes place. While horrible and dramatic, the Mumbai attacks did not match the scale of the September 11 attacks in terms of casualties or material destruction; that doesn’t make the Mumbai assault any less heinous. However, your premise that the high level of political violence in India diminishes the impact of Mumbai to India as compared to September 11 on the United States is faulty.

  19. Geopolitical and strategy analysts are suffering from a major hangover from the cold-war era. As they continue analyzing the present through a historical lens, they are in the danger of rapidly becoming outdated.

    The first thing both Nitin and Ahasan fail to note is how close we are to actually utilizing the nuclear option. It sounds completely outrageous (as spelled by mutually assured destruction) but it is not so.

    Both USA and Soviet Union were built on strong dreams towards the future. They both badly wanted to survive. For USA, its survival was essential to safeguard the ideas of liberty. For Soviet Union, its survival was essential to safeguard socialism. In a sense, both the nations viewed themselves as symbols for ideas which stretch far beyond their own borders.

    Neither India nor Pakistan has such a vision towards the future. Essentially, both the countries are mired in a long and violent history, and their national identities are defined through these historical lessons So it is the past, and not the future, which defines their behavior.

    If there is a strong acknowledgement either in Pakistan or in India that the only way to right the wrongs that are suffered throughout history is by an all-out war, then nuclear option will be the first thing that will be considered. Because any form of direct mobilization of the army will signal an escalation of hostilities, which will eventually result in the nuclear option anyways.

    For this reason, we should re-evaluate the geopolitical game in this region. Unlike USA & Soviet Union, both India and Pakistan share a long border and a common past. Any turbulance that originates in India (for example and independence to Kashmir) will make it felt in Pakistan (demands for Pashtunistan). And the vice-versa is equally true.

    And no form of breaking-up Pakistan / India, will put a cessation to these kind of terrorist attacks, because each of the pieces will be equally hostile to India / Pakistan.

    This makes it imperative for both India and Pakistan to actually “strengthen” each other’s federal governments, with a demand for accountability on every action that originates from within their borders.

    The logical conclusion of such an arrangement will be the modeling of a South Asian Union on the lines of the European Union, but we have a long distance to go before realizing anything close to that.

  20. Nitin-

    I think, overall, your response seemed a bit inadequate considering how much Ahsan wrote in his initial post. If you would, please reply to the following questions:

    1) What is your take on the American perspective? You say at the beginning of your response that we should look at an Indian/Pakistan perspective, but seeing as the US has a great stake in this game, perhaps it would be best to try and foresee what Obama will do?

    His focus on Afghanistan will surely change the way policy is done in that region.

    2)What do you believe the motives for Mumbai attack were?

    3) Ahsan randomly brings in the BJP vs Congress debate. Why is Congress any better for India (in terms of tackling terrorism) than the BJP?

    4) A commentator on the blog “Ray Lightning” puts the theory that a solid Pakitan (in leiu of post-WWII Germany) strengthened by India is better for both India and Pakistan. Do you believe this?

    5) You mentioned at the end that policymakers and politicians have come around to dealing terrorism in earnest. What positive changes have you seen?


  21. Vakibs,

    That kind of patronising talk is best left to forums where they think indulging in it is a substitute for strategic analysis. Many of us who were schoolkids during the Cold War thought that the US and USSR are a bunch of nutcases determined to take us down along with them. Visions of the future apart, it takes an enormous amount of “strong dreams of the future” to put 10,000 nuclear weapons on hairtrigger alert.

    The absurd idea of a South Asian Union is another attempt to fit a lesson that the West learnt onto a entirely different context. In a few decades, with some luck, the European Union might perhaps match the Indian Union in its ability to handle diversity. Perhaps. The South Asian Union exists…it’s called India, and those who decided to secede from it in 1947 did it for good (from their perspective) reason.

  22. Keshav,

    Of the questions you ask, only one point is germane to the core of the issue: what were the motives?

    One problem with answering the question is that motives are either a Rorshach test or a case of the blind men and the elephant.

    We’ve had explanations ranging from jealousy to undermining India’s economy, to killing kaffirs to avenging atrocities against Muslims, to providing an excuse for the Pak army to get out of the war on the Durand line, to undermining the Zardari government, to trying to bring about a collapse of the Indian state, to trying to bring about a collapse of the Pakistani state.

    See, each of these is plausible, and perhaps a motivating factor. Perhaps some evil genius added them all up and ordered the attacks. At this point, I personally do not have enough information to arrive at a conclusion on what exactly motivated the terrorists.

  23. @Nitin

    I didn’t see your response earlier.

    The main reason for the formation of EU is to avoid a future war between France and Germany. The Europeans learnt their lesson after a major catastrophe, namely the 2nd world war. The charter of the EU explicitly banishes war from its borders.

    This is again the principal reason why we should have a South Asian union. Neither Pakistan nor India can risk a cold-war scenario. It is simply untenable and will definitely explode into direct confrontation, and I repeat, nuclear weapons WILL be used in the case of such a battle.

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