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Archive | March, 2009

Obama's Af-Pak Strategy

US President Barack Obama revealed the much anticipated “Af-Pak” strategy today in Washington.  The text of the speech is certainly more candid than previous Bush-era speeches.  But how different is this strategy really to what has already been tried and tested?

“So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you.”

Notice how the “clear and focused” goal makes no mention of the Taliban.  The goal now appears to be to aggressively pursue and incapacitate al Qaeda in the region.  On the face of it, rendering al Qaeda inoperable is no different from GWB’s own strategy; the one difference now is that the US has “boots on the ground” and is far less reliant on assistance  from the ISI.  Why wasn’t the Taliban mentioned? Well, because it gives the United States enough wiggle-room to play the “divide and conquer” game that the West has played so well in Asia and Africa:  i.e., play the  “good” Taliban against the “bad” Taliban.  Pit Mullah Omar against Baitullah Mehsud.  And Baitullah Mehsud against Maulana Fazlullah.  This strategy is going to be challenged in the coming weeks, as Mullah Omar and Mehsud appear to have patched up their differences, as reported in The New York Times.

The plan to go after al Qaeda and the “bad” Taliban without prior Pakistani consent was implemented in November 2008 and will continue to be part of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy.  The added goal of holding Pakistan accountable to action reflects Washington’s exasperation with Pakistan’s double handed game, something that India knows all too well. The United States’ strategy towards Pakistan will basically include:

  • Extending non-military aid by way of the Kerry-Lugar bill ($1.5 billion) and through other international fora.  A bad idea, as the lack of transparency in the dissemination of funds invariably results in Pakistan using the money to arm itself against India, or grease politicians’ pockets;
  • Pressuring India to take the initiative in restarting the “peace process” with Pakistan;
  • Working with Gen. Kayani on coordinating attacks in NWFP and Baluchistan, while paying lip-service to the civil government and democracy.

In Afghanistan, Obama will deploy an additional 17,000 troops to counter the insurgency, particularly in Helmand province, where the British have been taking heavy fire.  In addition, there will be another 4,000 troops designated to train Afghani security forces to counter the “uncompromising core of the Taliban”, basically the Taliban who refuse to be bought by the US.

The forging of the “Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan”, whose members include the US, several Arab states, Central Asian republics, Russia, China, Iran and India shows a shift from the NATO/”coalition of the willing” dominated mandate of GWB’s policies.  How effective this new contact group will be will remain to be seen, but there now appears to be a realization in Washington that the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be decided without consensus from regional powers like Iran and India.  In the past, because of Washington’s allergy to Iran, the Islamic republic was never consulted on Afghanistan.  Similarly, because of Pakistan’s objections, India was never consulted on either Pakistan or Afghanistan.  The thinking has clearly changed.

However, the gaping hole in the Af-Pak strategy is the exclusion of Punjabi terror outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayiba.  These groups present a clear and direct threat to Washington’s goal of strengthening civilian government in Pakistan and to security in India.  Whether because they were blind sighted by the situation in NWFP (unlikely) or because of Pakistan’s insistence, these groups were not included as part of the Obama administration’s strategy.  The exclusion of these groups in the US’s Af-Pak strategy is a perpetuation of the fallacies of the Bush era.

Which brings me back to my original question — what is Obama’s real objective in Af-Pak? Is it to keep things relatively quiet in Pakistan for a period of time to allow the US to affect a less than ignominious exit from Afghanistan?  Or is it to comprehensively engage with the Pakistanis to eradicate terrorism from the region and build a credible and stable civilian government?  If it is the latter, it cannot be achieved without Washington’s committment to act against terror groups that operate in heartland Pakistan.  Despite utterances to the contrary, the US’s strategy seems to betray an intention to use and dispose of Pakistan, much like it did after the Soviet-Afghan war.  An “Af-Pak” strategy is fine.  But the question on Indian security analysts’ minds will be: “To what end?”

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In a false quarrel, there is no true valor

The “Long March” is at an end.  A banner in the The Dawn proclaims “Mission Accomplished“, in Bush 43-esque vein.  The International Herald Tribune announces a victory to “Justice”.  “It’s a people’s victory”, The Nation declares. People blogged about it on the internet.  Protesters tweeted live as  they marched towards Islamabad.  Others like Tahira Abdullah wept on national television, imploring the (former) Minister for Information to “Save Pakistan”.  On the other side of the Wagah, journalists were at their ignorant, amateur best.  The Hindustan Times called the PML-N leader “Sure shot Sharif”.  Barkah Dutt exalted him as the “Sher-e-Punjab”.

Thankfully, not everyone drank the Rooh Afzah.

This was no battle for democracy.  This was a protest launched by a shrewd politician who saw an opportunity to capitalize on the misdeeds of a bumbling President.  Nawaz Sharif doesn’t care about democracy any more than did Stalin.  Those who took to the streets and endured police assaults only succeeded in supplanting one set of cronies with another.  This should become painfully obvious to the delirious intelligentsia fairly soon.  The issue isn’t whether Sharif can do a better job than Zardari.  Or if Iftikar Chaudhry can bring back the rule of law in Pakistan.  There is something rotten in the State.  Politicians in Pakistan have proven that they are incapable of governance.  Or maybe they just don’t care.  The sense of elation from yesterday’s “victory” is similar to popular sentiments that prevailed when Benazir returned to Pakistan in 2007, and when Musharraf was given his marching orders last year.  However, so monumental was the task of rebuilding the country, and so incompetent were its politicians, that the jubilation quickly turned into despair.  This time will be no different.

Political inertia is already crippling Pakistan socially and economically.  Inflation is close to 20%.  Throw in a projected GDP growth of 3% and the math doesn’t add up.  The issue that should be patently obvious is that at this precarious point in Pakistan’s history, the quarrel shouldn’t be about which Chief Justice serves party interests better or how to settle personal vendettas by launching impromptu uprisings that cripple the state.  Instead, Pakistani politicians should be working to reconstruct the parameters of engagement within the nation in a manner that will allow them to effectively govern, if and when elected.  In addition to common maladies such as poverty, illiteracy and unemployment that plague the subcontinent, Pakistan has to contend with two serious challenges to the writ of State — Talibanization of the frontier provinces and the scourge of terrorism in the heartland.   Nawaz Sharif has already proven, on two separate occasions, that he is incapable of  governing the country.  Zardari and Gilani have done little over the past few months to prove that they are any better.  Unless citizens are able to hold politicians’ feet to the fire and make them accountable for the larger issues of the state, this farce will continue.

Barely a day the “Long March” concluded, a suicide bomber attacked a crowded bus stand in Rawalpindi, killing 15 and injuring several more.  Unless the gravity of the situation in Pakistan is comprehended by politicians and citizens alike, very little will change.

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The Show Must Go On…

The Indian Premier League must be held as planned

The Indian Premier League (IPL) must be held as planned

Home Minister P. Chidambaram has urged that the second edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) be postponed, due to conflicts with the Indian general elections in April — May, 2009.  He argues that law enforcement forces in India will be unable to provide sufficient security cover during the games due to election commitments.  This blogger feels that the Home Minister is attempting to play it safe during election season and not be drawn into a scenario that provides a damning indictment of his party’s mismanagement of India’s internal security apparatus, should something, God forbid, happen during the event.  The Lahore terror attack on the Sri Lankan team gave Mr. Chidambaram a convenient out, before a security assessment on the matter was even conducted.   Outside the Subcontinent, there appears to be an attempt to paint India and Pakistan with the same broad brush, in terms of threat potential.  Various quarters in India have also been playing up this hyphenation.

Let’s get real.  Pakistan is a smoldering pot of jihadi fanaticism where the writ of government is undermined every hour of every day as a matter of common practice.   Extremist forces in Pakistan operate with impunity both inside and outside the federal framework.  The Pakistani establishment brought this upon itself and is now overwhelmed and unable to deal with this Frankenstein.  To compare this to the state of affairs in a country that is about to hold the world’s largest exercise in universal suffrage (the 15th such installment, since independence) is laughable.

So go ahead, Mr. Home Minister, do your security assessment.  Keep in mind, however, that your inability to provide security cover will be a condemnation of the security apparatus that you and your predecessor oversaw for five long years.   B. Raman believes that only a pragmatic security assessment should dictate whether the IPL should be allowed to go ahead as planned.  He suggests:

The national debate on this question is sought to be influenced more by commercial considerations arising from the profit-making urge of the corporate entities owning the participating teams and the money-making urge of different sections of the media and the advertising community than by security considerations…

The importance of ensuring the security of the life and property of the common citizens is sought to be subordinated to catering to the money-making urge of these sections with a vested interest in seeing that the IPL tournament goes ahead as scheduled.

I have nothing but the highest regard for Raman, but my beef with this article is the notion that just because this is a commercial venture (or a “money-making urge” as Raman puts it) that it should be brushed aside. No one in their right mind would assign anything but top priority to security during national elections, but private enterprise is an integral part of urban, middle class India, and has been for some time.  It isn’t a “money making urge”, like some sly, underhand, nefarious charade, it is the engine that is driving India’s economy.

If the Home Minister is telling me that he can’t protect private enterprise in the country, our law enforcement agencies, along with the Home Minister can just pack up and move along because they are of no use whatsoever.  Our law enforcement agencies have done little else in recent memory than raid rave parties in Mumbai and Bangalore. What message is Chidambaram trying to convey to India and to the rest of the world?  That we are incapable of holding a sports tournament and national elections at the same time in India?  Pragmatic Euphony echoes similar thoughts on The Indian National Interest:

[I]t should worry the nation that the Indian state seems incapable of holding a sporting event along with the general elections. The UPA government has done little to build these capabilities during its tenure and is intent on using Mumbai or Lahore as an excuse for its failure.

[T]he greater impact is in the signalling value of the decision taken.  It impacts the international standing of the country not only for the tourists, but more importantly, for financial, commercial and business interests, as the security advisories get revised in corporate headquarters and government departments the world over.

The show must go on.  Not for “national pride”, or for corporations’ “money-making urge”, but for the Indian government to show its people and countries outside that the fallacious hyphenation of India and Pakistan is absurd, and that it is capable of maintaining law and order it the country after the aberrations of the recent past.

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Attack on Sri Lankan Cricket Team in Lahore

News is just trickling in that Sri Lanka’s cricketers, who are on tour in Pakistan, were attacked in Lahore. The cricketers were en route to Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium where they were to face the Pakistani cricket team on day three of the second test match.  Preliminary reports indicate that several cricketers, including heir apparent Kumara Sangakkara, were injured during the attack.

It is always a bit of a challenge to glean any information from channels like NDTV or Times Now during an ongoing incident, because their “journalists” and “news reporters” neither know how to construct a coherent sentence in English, nor have gumption to present a half decent analysis of the said incident.  The Times of India is now running a news item that screams: “Terrorists” behind attack on Lanka cricketers. Really?  Did you piece that together yourself, Einstein?  I’m sure the art of stating the bleeding obvious isn’t mastered overnight.

Images flashed on the TV screen showed terrorists brandishing what appeared to be rocket launchers and AK-47s.  There is no word on whether the terrorists were captured, killed, or if they have even been identified.   The real issue that should continue to concern anyone following Pakistan is that the breakdown of law and order is spreading eastward at an astonishing rate.  Despite assurances of security cover to visiting teams, this attack reinstates the notion to this blogger that the civilian government (whether federal or state) is in no position whatsoever to be making such guarantees.   The political machinations of the civilian and military leadership of Pakistan will try to lump this in with the Mumbai attack to reinforce to the West that they are victims of the same terrorism that India and the rest of the world are subject to.

It is not beyond doubt that Punjabi terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) or Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) could be responsible for the attack.  The establishment may also choose to quickly transfer blame to the “bad” Taliban (as opposed to Maulana Fazlullah’s “good” Taliban) or to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).  Who orchestrated the attack is not as important as recognizing the obvious malaise that is devouring the legitamacy of the Pakistani state.  I have previously made the case that Pakistan today consists essentially only of Punjab and Sindh.  Various sections of NWFP and Balochistan have already been bequeathed/abandoned/surrendered.  Despite every assurance of security, a dastardly attack was perpetrated against high profile, soft targets in the heart of a major Pakistani city that lies 45 kilometers from the International Border (IB) with India.  How safe are our borders?

PS — Raman’s Q&A on the Lahore attack (March 4, 2009)

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