Friday, December 05, 2008

Diplomacy: The New Opium for the Masses

Some of you might have heard of virtual reality software (here is one example) where whoever signs up is given an avatar that does all the things that real people do and much more – buy property, set up businesses, entertain oneself, etc. All with one major difference. There, one can have the perfect fantasy life one aspires for but is unable to achieve in real life. It seems very much like the sort of world many of our news commentators live in today.

Pankaj Mishra, writing in NYT says that the answer is to resolve Kashmir. He appears to have completely missed the fact that Lashkar-e-Taiba has never set its sights as low as the resolution of Kashmir. Not in 1993, not now. He also seems blissfully oblivious of how the current jihadi movement has achieved the level of success that it has, i.e., as a direct fallout of the victory of the insurgency in Afghanistan. If India were to make concessions in response to these attacks, is there any doubt how that will be seen by the LeT and their supporters? When 9/11 happened, no one in the mainstream American media - not even the NYT which published this article - actually said that Al Qaeda and Bin Laden would be pacified by solving the Palestinian question. Yet, we are now being told that the answer to the Mumbai attacks is a resolution of Kashmir.

His advice to Obama: reject military force and embrace political and economic reconstruction. The honorable author should kindly inform us how he will rebuild a country when the schools being constructed are being destroyed, the girls who try to go there are attacked, the roads and bridges being built are blown up, the personnel doing all this reconstruction are being killed and how he will bring around the elements that have no compunctions about engaging in any of this. Why just stop at rejecting force? Why not sing kumbaya?

Amitav Ghosh wrote yesterday why this is not India’s 9/11. The first reason he gives is that this is just one more in a long series of attacks India has faced. True but does that mean the same hand waving that has characterized our previous responses should be repeated again? Apparently so:

“The question now is this: Will the November invasion of Mumbai change this? Although there is no way of knowing the answer, it is certain that if the precedent of 9/11 is taken seriously the outcome will be profoundly counterproductive. As a metaphor “9/11” is invested not just with the memory of what happened in Manhattan and at the Pentagon in 2001, but also with the penumbra of emotions that surround the events: the feeling that “the world will never be the same,” the notion that this was “the day the world woke up” and so on. In this sense 9/11 refers not just to the attacks but also to its aftermath, in particular to an utterly misconceived military and judicial response, one that has had disastrous consequences around the world.

…The Indian government would do better to focus on an international effort to eliminate the terrorists’ hide-outs and safe houses, some of them deep inside Pakistan. India will also need to cooperate with those in the Pakistani government who have come around to a belated recognition of the dangers of terrorism… A buildup would indeed serve no point at all, since this is not the kind of war that can be fought along a border, by conventional armies. The Indian government would do better to focus on an international effort to eliminate the terrorists’ hide-outs and safe houses, some of them deep inside Pakistan. India will also need to cooperate with those in the Pakistani government who have come around to a belated recognition of the dangers of terrorism...It is clear now that Pakistan’s establishment is so deeply divided that it no longer makes sense to treat it as a single entity. ”

Siddharth Varadarajan who normally writes more sensibly seems to have caught the same bug:

“In the quest for a stern and fitting response, all options, including casually-bandied about military ones like ‘surgical strikes,’ flounder on a simple fact: the only force capable of defeating terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the al-Qaeda and the Taliban which operate from Pakistani soil is the Pakistani state itself. And the Pakistani state needs to take up this task urgently if it is to avoid imploding or becoming the next target in Washington’s ongoing ‘war on terror’.

… Rather than threatening a ‘limited war,’ surgical strikes or a suspension of the peace process, the logic of this metastatis is the most compelling argument India can marshal in its quest for the international community to insist that the Pakistani military make a final break with jihadi groups. The war that was launched in Mumbai will only end when the Pakistani military is compelled by the world and its own people to end its war on its own society. India can help this process by finding ways to help tilt the balance of power further in the direction of the civilian government. At the very least, it should do nothing that will tilt things the other way.”

I wonder where either of these authors has been all these years when attempts have been made to do just that, i.e., get Pakistan to shut down the terrorist infrastructure in their territory. It has not succeeded before and the summary rejection of India’s demands for handing over any of the men on the list of 20 suggests a replay of the very same events. Today’s NYT quotes an Indian official saying why even the composite dialogue has not helped this process at all: every time a lead is handed over to Pakistan, it is simply returned with the stock reply that it did not check out (B.Raman, without saying in so many words also asserts that this counter-terror mechanism is a farce). So, what is the solution if all this pressure does not succeed as Ajai Sahni predicts (and is widely expected)? More hand wringing? More demarches/protests? More debates/ resolutions by the diplomatic genteel in air-conditioned chambers?

Yet, we are told, a 9/11 type of response is not the answer. Apparently, the fact that a number of Al Qaeda leaders have been caught or killed including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 does not matter. Nor does the fact that the organization has since been denied the benefits of a regime and a country that aided its efforts or that no further attacks have taken place on American soil. No, we are asked to follow the example of Spain which incidentally faces a threat nowhere near that of India. We are nevertheless supposed to keep up the talking perhaps in the fond hopes of exhausting our enemies through sheer verbosity!

Another argument is that we can no longer treat Pakistan as a single entity but must acknowledge that there are multiple centers of power. Unfortunately, the jihadi groups have no diplomatic corps of their own that we can talk to. Nor for that matter does the ISI or rogue factions in the army which have allowed them to operate freely. We talk to the same folks we have always been interacting with and only come to know of the outcome when we are informed about it. Their internal power dynamics being largely beyond our control, what difference does it make how many centers exist so long as those in office cannot offer us anything worthwhile or keep their word when they do so? Is it any more comforting to know that President Zardari is unable, not unwilling, to act against these outfits? In fact, if the problem comes from a part of their governmental apparatus that is not open to public scrutiny, that is all the more reason for outside intervention.

Another brilliant analysis and suggestion comes from Sitaram Yechury (incidentally seconded by The Hindu and partly by John Cherian in Frontline) who blames the nuclear deal for our tragedy. How convenient. Never mind that these attacks have grown in intensity and their focus has expanded well beyond the borders of Kashmir long before the deal was even conceived – the attack on Parliament is a case in point.

And his answer? Approach the UN Security Council. Mr.Yechury ought to let us know how this UN committee will magically enforce what none of the big powers has so far been able to do. Barring the US, other powers are not even willing to try. There has been enough grumbling from the European members of NATO to contribute troops for combat even in Afghanistan, let alone extend the mandate to Pakistan. As Ajai Sahni wrote, Pakistan has weathered many such storms and can be expected to do so this time as well. If there is a better way to give the terrorists a free pass, I could not conceive of it. Is it any surprise then that Hamid Gul, the foremost defender of jihad, has embraced our communists?

The EPW published an editorial on the Mumbai attacks that contains not a single word on what needs to be done, only on the things we have to avoid. If repeated horrific attacks orchestrated from outside only make our leading commentators respond with stoicism, sullen acceptance and self-incrimination of this sort, it signifies pathology more ominous than the pathetic weakness that is already evident.

We have long been advised by these and other worthies that all terrorism is dastardly and our answer, apart from verbally condemning it, should be to maintain harmony and stand firm. Right through this latest attack, our society has managed to do just that. Yet, not only have the attacks not stopped but have accelerated in frequency, enhanced in potency and enlarged in scope over the years. When the effect of this old mantra started to wane, we were told that aggressive diplomacy to build international pressure would have greater success. Following several anti-terrorism resolutions as well as a ban on the LeT (in 2001), the country has been made painfully aware of the lie this always was.

Now the same medicine is being administered once again this time in combination with an opioid to calm our nerves by weaving a new fantasy that claims that Pakistan itself will implode or become Washington’s next target should it fail to act. For one thing, we are unable to convince those who are killing us (or aiding the exercise) of this logic. Nor do they seem to care what excuse we make up for our own inaction (perhaps it reinforces their prior perceptions of Hindu weakness; after all much of their literature extols the achievements of Ghauri and Ghazni in that light). Secondly, if only a small number of committed and focused attackers who are not expected to survive the operation are provided the sort of specialized training that was on display here, their handlers have little to fear from random actions or of misdirected effects.

Thirdly, the heightened domestic violence has if anything only undermined the authority of their civilian government which is thought to have little control or say in any of this. So who stands to gain from an atrophied civilian apparatus unable to meet popular expectations? Surely it is the unaccountable branches of government and their supporters outside. The emergence of the Pakistani army as an independent state-within-a-state has not been an overnight transformation but a gradual one aided by the repeated failures of civilian leadership. The enormous success of LeT’s parental organization, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa in raising funds, building schools, colleges and hospitals can likewise be equally attributed to the failure of their state to provide these services. If the religious proselytization and terrorist training can hasten the transformation of their state along fundamentalist lines governed by an emasculated civilian authority, so much the better for their own future. Why would such a governing structure that benefits so much from such a coalition want to voluntarily forego it all suddenly by succumbing to international pressure? More importantly, is there even a semblance of a basis to the fond but deluded hope of such a radical shift from within? Yes, the government may ban the organization and arrest its top leaders temporarily but do we seriously expect it to muster the will to shut it down entirely and choke its finances? That is quite a tall order given the extensive network they have built over the years and the goodwill they have accrued through their charitable activities.

Lost amidst all these prevarications is how the jihadi groups and their supporters in government perceive our non-response. Following the success of the parliament attacks and the withdrawal of our army from the border, Masood Azhar emerged a hero to the far right. If the storm abates again this time with our retribution restricted to diplomatic chambers, we can expect Hafiz Saeed to be feted as a glorious warrior in the most hallowed Islamic traditions who has stood up to the great tyrant, India. Not only does this bode ill for any government looking to tamp down on his activity, it will only serve to strengthen his organization in one form or the other (assuming the current avatar is banned) and augment its capacity for future mayhem.

The last argument for inaction is that it will unite all the jihadi groups with the Pakistani army against the common foe, India. This view has gained some ground following a preliminary effort at rapprochement between the two sides. If we buy into this argument, we must be under no illusion about the costs. The status quo would prevail indefinitely into the future (the war against the Taliban is nowhere near conclusion) in which case, India will continue to hemorrhage without end. If things take a turn for the worse with a weakened civilian dispensation, that will be no less dangerous to us. The example of piracy emanating from anarchic Somalia is right before our eyes. Finally, if and when the time indeed arrives when we decide to confront the menace, for the reasons mentioned above, we will likely face a foe with more resources and a reach greater than what it currently has.

That our domestic surveillance and intelligence apparatus needs to improve is not in doubt. I would also second the idea of an inquiry commission on the lines of the 9/11 commission set up in the US to apportion responsibility and make recommendations. But given the nature of the attacks we have faced in recent times, it is clear that virtually anyone can be hit anywhere and with relative ease. Markets, hotels and even a scientific institution have been attacked. Corporate offices have been reportedly targeted. That takes care of pretty much any one working in any building leaving only urban residential areas. We do not know when apartment complexes may be hit but it is not beyond the range of comprehension. It is a humongous and perhaps ultimately futile task to equip all of these places even to face bombs let alone be battle ready at all times to deal with fidayeen strikes. An attack on any of these places will guarantee a minimum number of deaths and destruction that may be considered adequate pay off for the investment made by the individual or organization planning it. Even if the individuals come from outside the country, a success rate of one in ten that achieves a spectacular display of carnage could be deemed sufficient to justify the effort. All this is apart from the fact that it will take years to reform our security organizations to live up to this task. The notion that we can somehow protect ourselves from this growing menace without being able to get to its source is an delusion of gigantic proportions that we can ill afford.

The PM’s idea of an investigative agency may have its advantages but is relatively worthless from the standpoint of either prevention or diplomatic persuasion. Those willing to believe our claims have already come around to our view point while those who refuse to be convinced show no sign of changing their position. Besides, the foot soldiers involved here are ready to die during the operation and their masters are beyond our reach. With an enduring supply of cadre at their disposal, they can afford to use a fresh group for every attack. That means convicting those found this time is of no help to prevent the next outrage. Why this has suddenly become an urgent priority is therefore not clear.

To paraphrase Churchill, we have repeatedly chosen dishonor over war. War has therefore now been thrust upon us. It is time to strike back.

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