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Archive | February, 2010

The Kabul Park Residence attacks

India’s short term option — don’t flinch.

Today, six Indians died in suicide attacks perpetrated by the Taliban at the Park Residence and other guesthouses in Kabul, Afghanistan.  This included Indian consulate staff, an ITBP constable and two Indian army officers.  At least five other individuals were injured in the attack, including five Indian army officers.

This blog, along with others, has in the past articulated what India must do in Afghanistan to protect its national interests.  In the August 2008 edition of Pragati, Sushant K Singh argued in favor of a larger Indian military presence in Afghanistan and warned of the long term consequences were India to rely exclusively on “soft power.”  In January 2010’s Pragati, I put forth a case for India to train the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), thereby assisting in raising a credible unit to act as a bulwark against the Taliban and Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex.  Commentators like Harsh Pant have opined that India must stop hedging its bets on the US and must work with other actors like Russia and Iran to engage all sections of Afghan society.

However, despite repeated attacks against Indians and Indian interests in Afghanistan, Manmohan Singh’s government appears disinclined to readjust its Afghanistan strategy.  Today’s attack will not likely force a rethink on how to engage with Afghanistan either.  Given India’s self-imposed shackles and the likelihood of continued attacks against Indian soft targets in the war ravaged nation, India has but one option at its disposal in the short term, and that is to not flinch.

Attacks such as these may lead to calls for India’s level of engagement in Afghanistan to be reconsidered.  However, downgrading Indian presence in Afghanistan is the surest way to convey to the military jihadi complex (MJC) that it can force Indian action through terror.  The MJC feels that it is at an advantageous position:  it has outlasted the Americans,  reinserted itself (and the Taliban) into Afghanistan’s political space and the top leadership of the Quetta Shura — despite the capture of Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mohammed Younis — remains mostly intact. The MJC will enjoy a tremendous psychological boost from the notion that it forced the Americans and the Indians to withdraw from Afghanistan.  It will seek to replicate the model by imposing severe costs on India in Kashmir and the mainland.

It is wrong to suppose that India’s involvement in Afghanistan is merely about power projection and easy access to energy rich Central Asia.  India is facing an existential battle and denying the MJC “strategic depth” in Afghanistan is a critical component to India’s own internal security. Therefore, if India insists in not altering its ill-conceived stance vis-a-vis hard power in Afghanistan, it must at the very least maintain its investment profile in the country, while fully expecting to be targeted repeatedly and frequently by the MJC.  Only the Indian government can explain how this is a better alternative to the introduction of Indian hard power in Afghanistan.

It is significant that India’s reconstruction efforts have earned it tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan.  An opinion poll () conducted in Afghanistan in January 2010 by BBC/ABC/ARD indicated a 71% favorable view of India, as opposed to 15% favorable view of Pakistan.  In the meduim- to long run, India must work with the US, regional actors and Afghans across the political gamut and ensure that an effective and credible counterweight to the MJC and the Taliban is sustained in Afghanistan.

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Pune terror attacks

Challenge the infrastructure where it stands

Nine dead, several injured in an IED triggered explosion in Pune last night.  By Home Secretary Pillai’s account, the IED was placed in an unattended packet, which exploded when a waiter tried to open it. The attacks come just weeks after Lashar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed issued specific threats to the cities of New Delhi, Kanpur and Pune in a February 5, 2010 Yaum-e-Yakjehti Kashmir speech in Lahore.  Indeed, Pune was also one of several Indian cities recceed by David Coleman Headley.

The attacks also come at a time when India and Pakistan are scheduled to begin their first round of talks at the Foreign Secretary level, starting February 25.  The talks were offered by India at the prodding of Washington, which wants to be seen as being sensitive to Pakistan’s India-paranoia, as US begins its largest military operations against the Taliban since 2001 in Marja.

So what must India’s response be?

Much can be done, both as an immediate response to the attacks as well as from the standpoint of expunging the notion that India is incapable of challenging the infrastructure that supports such attacks.  Pragmatic Euphony’s excellent post details how India should lay out short- medium- and long-term goals vis-a-vis Pakistan.  In the here and now, India must mitigate the threat of immediate attacks in other Indian cities and soothe public apprehension and anger. It must also carry out a full investigation of the attack, identify the perpetrators and bring those under its jurisdiction to book.

Equally important, India must also ensure that talks with Pakistan continue as planned.  The idea is one that many will scoff at, but consider this: despite public statements that indicate otherwise, Pakistan is not keen on talks with India.  Talking to India denies Pakistan from invoking the convenient “beast on the east” schpeel that today finds more resonance in the Obama Administration than it ever did during Bush 43’s reign.

Hence the even more vocal “help Pakistan solve Kashmir and it will return the favor in Afghanistan” (or alternatively, “help Pakistan solve Kashmir so that they can dedicate more troops to the Pak-Afghan border“) jabber from the American intelligentsia.  India is vested in a successful US/ISAF operation in Marja and if talking to Pakistan can help tweak perceptions, it must do so.

Moving forward, India must develop the capability to challenge the infrastructure that continues to support attacks on Indian soil.  Today, those who plan, finance and otherwise support terrorism against India are as smug as they are cozy, knowing India is incapable of challenging them in their own backyard — a heavy price the country is now paying for ill-advised policy shifts made by a fractious coalition in 1997. These ill-advised policy changes need to be reversed immediately.  This will only happen if Manmohan Singh’s government stops playing the perennial apologist, provides the funding, training, technology and resources necessary to impose heavy costs on terror infrastructure operating outside Indian territory.

The alternative to this is to continue to absorb ceaseless body blows and mutter away about surgical strikes and our patience not being inexhaustible.  So what will it be?

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Pakistan’s Mojo

Counting your chickens before they hatch

Pakistan is awash with renewed optimism in being able to favorably influence political and structural rearrangements in Afghanistan.  Along with “brother countries” Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan was able to both craft a proposition at the Istanbul Summit that called for negotiations and eventual reintegration of the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political foray, and also successfully lobbied to keep India out of the summit itself.  The icing on the cake for Islamabad was the broad endorsement of Pakistan’s plan at the London Conference, the following week.

Pakistan’s self-belief in its own indispensability and leverage over a resolution to the Afghanistan quagmire is mirrored in both official pronouncements from leaders of its armed forces and in its press corps.  At the NATO Commanders’ Conference, COAS Kayani enunciated his country’s need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, while raising concerns about India’s influence in Afghanistan.  Indeed, a Jang editorial one day before the London Conference called for all preparations to be made for dialog with the Taliban.

Pakistan’s army has also candidly put forth its position to the Obama Administration that India’s role in Afghanistan cannot go beyond development and infrastructural work.  Pakistan has also volunteered to train the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) to counter what many believe is a role best suited for the Indian Army.  In short, Pakistan apparently successfully executed a prima facie diplomatic coup-de-etat, while India played the proverbial “deer caught in the headlights” on the world stage.

Without a doubt, India’s position on the Taliban has always been untenable.  A blanket rejection of an ambiguous collection of disparate groups seemed convenient and excused our leadership from having to go through the exercise of evaluating the various equations at play in Afghanistan.  Over the course of the years, this stance by India has seen it wholeheartedly back the Karzai regime while not wanting to have anything to do with any Pashtun elements that it suspected of being engaged (at whatever level) with the ISI.  Rightly, India’s over-simplistic, “with us or against us” approach was rejected by the international community at large.

But Pakistan’s own influence in matters relating to Afghanistan has been overstated.  Indeed, going by recent pronouncements, Pakistan is counting its chickens before they are hatched and the mirage of indispensability will unravel sooner than later.  Not being able to dictate the modularities of counter-insurgency operations within its own sovereign territory, it is unlikely that it can wield the magnitude of power it believes it enjoys in relation to India in Afghanistan.

So what must India do? The London Conference has already invalidated India’s over-simplistic approach to the Taliban, so the first course of action is apparent.  India must begin to engage with those Pashtun elements who seek reintegration into the existing political foray in Afghanistan.  In actuality, there isn’t a significant divergence of opinion between the United States and India on the issue.

India’s real apprehensions are centered around the possible reintegration of  Mullah Omar’s group — the so-called Quetta Shurah.  This is entirely consistent with the US’s own position.  India’s apprehensions on al-Qaeda elements and Haqqani network are also shared by the US.  This essentially leaves a rag-tag group of warlords who are all too small anyway to individually impact power dynamics in Afghanistan. India can begin by opening up communication channels with these groups.

India must also work with other important regional powers who share similar apprehensions versus the core Taliban group.  Indeed, the alliance of yore between Iran and India, who share common concerns of the spread of wahabbism in the region, and Russia must be resurrected.  Russia has articulated its clearest position to date on its willingness to “help rebuild” Afghanistan and Iran has shared India’s concerns about the spread of radical Sunni Islam in the wider region.

Over the last nine years, India has very naively bought into the argument that the dramatically altered equation post US’s invasion of Afghanistan was permanent, and that its reliance on “soft power” alone could very safely ensure maximized gains in Afghanistan without having to actually assume an overt presence in Afghanistan.

The situation in Afghanistan today, with Western forces working towards a withdrawal deadline, and Pakistan growing increasingly assertive, demands that India adopt a more proactive role, working in concert with the US and regional powers to ensure that the power equations that eventually shape up are largely in India’s favor. The question is, what is Manmohan Sigh’s government planning to do about it?

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Introducing The Filter Coffee

The Filter Coffee is a new blog on The Indian National Interest (INI) focusing on Indian foreign policy, strategic affairs, defense and governance.  The blog, in its previous incarnation on WordPress.com, has existed for over a year and a half.  This move to INI is part of a progression which allows for a collaboration and exchange of ideas with like-minded bloggers via a common platform.

In an October, 2009 blogpost, I wrote:

The Filter Coffee has long held the position that discussion on the defense of India needs to move away from think tanks and into our living rooms. It is only then that true accountability can be demanded, both from the system, riddled as it is with bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, and from the media, who today get a free pass on peddling half-truths and sweeping generalizations on an unsuspecting public.

Indeed, the focus of this blog shall remain dedicated to raising awareness of issues relating to foreign policy, defense, strategic affairs and governance so that India’s citizens can demand the accountability they deserve from their elected representatives on the pursuit of India’s national interests.

Navigating the intricacies and nuances of issues of such complexity is an education by itself.  I am delighted to welcome readers, old and new, to share this educational experience with me and with all those who share similar interests.

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