Monday, 23 February 2015

Book Review

A Bleak Century Ahead?

Ali Ahmed 

By Taj Hashmi 
Sage Publications, Delhi, 2014, pp. 322, Rs. 995.00

Taj Hashmi evidently utilized his four year stint at the US Department of Defence, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, very well. He mentions conversations with student practitioners with service in theatres of the myriad and ongoing American wars. This lends a degree of authenticity to the book; in particular, its vehement critique of the manner the US has conducted its wars. While not being an apologist for the ‘enemy’, the Jihadists of various hues, the author’s thesis is that these wars have fuelled their own counter in the form of Jihad. This explains his pessimistic title about a world already in a hundred-year war.
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Hashmi brings to bear his considerable knowledge of Islam, languages including Arabic, and South Asia to forcefully argue that there are no ‘good guys’ in this war. Just as there is no ‘good Taliban’, there are no ‘good Marines’ either. He does justice to the inspiration of the book, the victims of ‘unjust wars and terrorism’, writing with passion against both: unjust wars waged by the US and its many coalitions of the willing and terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists. While he outlines the problem many have suspected all along, he runs out of space to dwell on remedies, preventive measures that could potentially transform the bleak century ahead.
There are two villains in his book: the US and the Jihadists. He presents the US as a political system that feeds on violence. After being born in violence and expanding to its current borders by violence, it set the standards of modern wars with its civil war. Its political economy is one impelled by the military-industrial complex. Its capitalist oil guzzling economy ties it in an imperial embrace to the Middle East. The system of lobbies that runs Capitol Hill, and the salience of the Jewish lobby in American politics, ensures that US actions belie its professions of benign intent. American ‘exceptionalism’, to Hashmi, is a myth amounting to a propaganda tool. Even if Obama seeks to disengage, the ISIS led spike in the conflict in the Levant indicates that the flotsam and jetsam of the Bush years will continue to create geopolitical eddies into the future.
This creates the context that sustains and empowers the Jihadists. Whereas the ideological currents in Islam would have inevitably played out with the onset of modernity in postcolonial Arab and Muslim lands, their violent turn owes largely to geostrategic reasons. This was at two levels: one at the global level in which the Americans laid out the ‘bear trap’ in Afghanistan, and the second is in the Arab-Iranian—in its current avatar, Sunni-Shia—rivalry. The latter too is partially the outcome of US tutelage in that to contain a post-revolution Iran, the Shiekhdoms proved handy. This brings the story, simply told, up until the Iraq Wars. It has since gotten more complex with people power on display in the Arab Spring, that the US has taken care to undercut in Egypt, upturn in Libya and pre-empt in the Gulf. Whereas this is the visible strategic tip, the center of gravity of the iceberg is subsurface where intra-Islamic ideological wars unfold. Here, Hashmi provides some historical background that can help understand, what to him appears as, a date between the US’s Titanic and the Islamist iceberg.
Hashmi discerns two eyes to the unfolding and oncoming storm: one is South Asia and the other in the Middle East and North West Africa. In South Asia the ‘storm’ is possibly about to break with the Peshawar outrage against school children being the forerunner of more to come with the Americans departing the region worse off than the way they found it, even after spending about a trillion dollars. Obama was unable to follow through with the peace prong of his double pincer, the other being the ‘surge’. Though Holbrooke was a known hatchet man from his Balkan’s years, but past his prime, he died on the job. This shows up American appetite for war in contrast to its stamina for peace. Though Hashmi dwells on the rest of South Asia too, the Af-Pak problem is less likely to end up a subcontinent-wide problem than being merged with the widening arc of instability from the other eye of the storm, in the Middle East. The ISIS has emerged, yet again on account of external support including the US and its Arab minders, to be the most potent group. As hitherto, a divide and rule policy is in place to contain it. It is unlikely anything more can be done, since rolling back will require boots on the ground that the US, several times bitten by now, will ensure are not its own but those of its proxies.
This brings out the sense in the author’s contention that the present day threat is not from Islamism and terrorism as the West projects it, but from proxy wars, nurtured by the West. With its periphery in turmoil, and, if Hashmi is to be believed, likely to remain so for a hundred years, the only gainer is easy to spot: Israel. The proxy wars also stem from the incipient second iteration of the Cold War with the West and Russia facing off over Ukraine. The outcome of this is in further entrenching proxy wars such as the one in Syria.
Since the US is part of the problem, it is clearly not the solution. In any case, its solution is only military, one that has failed it and the rest continually. This is best exemplified by an anecdote Hashmi recounts. The military victor in Kosovo, General Wesley Clark, inquiring after US strategy from a uniformed colleague in the operational hiatus post displacement of Taliban from Kabul learnt that since military power was all the US had, to it every problem appeared to be a nail! Clearly, the war machine the US has created will not be cheated out of a war by China allowing itself to be co-opted into the global order. It needs an opponent, and lucky for its self-perpetuation, has created a formidable one in the Jihadists.
If their tryst is to be less bloody than the last hundred years or the previous Hundred Years War, then liberals in both America and in Muslim lands need first to win the intellectual battle within the two sides respectively.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Diplomat - Balancing India's Right

Balancing India's Right

In the immediate wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s departure from India following his visit as chief guest at its Republic Day, India got itself a new foreign secretary, retiring the previous one prematurely. The new foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was instrumental not only in arranging Obama’s visit, but also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful trip to Washington last year, a visit that included the famous rock-star reception given to Modi by the Indian expatriate community at Madison Square Garden.
However, Jaishankar’s move has less to do with his ability to arrange diplomatic jamborees than it does with his well regarded experience and strategic skills, which stretch back to his days minding India’s political initiatives surrounding its peacekeeping presence in Sri Lanka.
What this appointment does is to redress the balance in India’s apex strategic establishment, which had become dangerously skewed towards an ideologically inspired strategic doctrine. India’s right-wing government began well, springing a surprise in reaching out to Pakistan and inviting its prime minister – and other South Asian leaders – over for Modi’s swearing-in. However, under National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, known for his tactical capabilities in the intelligence field and for his rightist ideological slant in his previous role as head of a think tank, India started to become decidedly hawkish, suggestive of an ideologically driven strategic doctrine.
Indian grand strategy aims at creating the strategic space and regional stability needed for its economic rise. However, as with foreign policy in general, there are domestic determinants and constraints. In India, this is principally the arrival in power of a right-wing government, one with a clear majority for the first time. The optics from a flurry of high-profile visits by the prime minister abroad and a reverse flow of dignitaries to Delhi fails to blur concerns stemming from India’s tryst with a majoritarian ideology.
The internal effect of this was best summed up in Obama’s town hall speech subtly reminding India of the risk to its religious equilibrium of Hindutva triumphalism, much in evidence since Modi’s convincing victory last year. Understandable apprehensions exist among India’s Muslims, who constitute the nation’s largest minority, according to figures released last month accounting for 14.2 percent of its population, or 172 million people. Modi’s apparent refusal to check his over-zealous followers has led to the middle class worrying that developmentalism, the reason why they cast their lot with Modi, may not be the only item on his agenda.
The socio-cultural agenda of Hindutva, which Modi has never disavowed and which his supporters espouse, appears more significant. Economic gains from developmentalism will serve to legitimize the Modi regime, giving it the time it needs for its pet project. If this is taken as the lodestar of the regime, externally, it is manifest in the rather heavy-handed approach India has adopted to Pakistan since it backed off from a promising beginning by aborting the resumption of talks last August.
Admittedly, strategic sense is not altogether absent. India keeps Pakistan from being too venturesome in Afghanistan, and meets the expectations of a higher regional profile the U.S., its strategic partner, has of it. When it is itself terrorism-infested, Pakistan cannot possibly rekindle the problem in Kashmir. Former U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel once alluded to the Indian backing of Pakistani insurgents, including possibly Baloch insurgents, who caused a nationwide blackout in Pakistan even as Obama was in Delhi. This hardline approach could conceivably permit a tradeoff in which Indian aims of a moderate Pakistan are met by India turning off the pressure.
However, an ideologically driven strategy would not stop at this. Its aims go beyond taming Pakistan. The ideological roots lie a hundred years ago in the Hindu-Muslim rivalry that led to Partition. Modi admitted as much when in his maiden speech in parliament he included the period Muslims have been on the subcontinent as one of Indian (read Hindu) slavery. Scores are to be settled. In that sense, while the middle classes want the economic rise of India as an end in itself, to India’s right-wing now in the saddle, power is also instrumental. It facilitates a strategy of compellence that, against a nuclear armed state, may not be in India’s best interests. It requires realists who, unlike hyper-nationalists and cultural nationalists, are sensitive to the limits of power, to balance out the right-wing influence on national security policy.
Within the Indian strategic establishment, the Prime Minister’s Office has had primacy at least since the mid sixties. Although the national security adviser has acquired stature over the last decade and a half, in this administration the reported convergence of minds between the prime minister and his adviser, Ajit Doval, has resulted reportedly in a centralization of national security decision making.
This cannot help with checks and balances. Since its formation at the turn of the century and despite credible people at its helm, the National Security Council Secretariat has not yet given any indication that it is an institution to reckon with. Acting as an ideological sieve by running ideas through a reality check may prove beyond it. The last deputy, Nehchal Sandhu, resigned soon after the changing of the guard in Delhi. The sacking of India’s defense research head and home secretary will only serve to further cow the upper ranks. Recall during the Emergency when bureaucrats were asked only to bend, but were inclined to crawl instead. The arrival of a realist such as Jaishankar is therefore welcome.
To rise to the occasion, he will need to turn his statement on learning of his new appointment – “Government’s priorities are my priorities” – on its head. What he must do is mellow the government’s ideologically driven priorities to conform, into a strategically sustainable realism. The parting advice of his predecessor on her departure from office is worth recalling: “It’s not about individuals … it’s about my Ministry as an institution.” Institutional checks and balances must return for the benefit of India’s national security.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

India-Pakistan: Visualising the next round

India-Pakistan: Visualising the Next Round
At the Council on Foreign Relations last week two South Asia watchers Amb. Robert Blackwill and Stephen Cohen were asked the ‘unthinkable question’: ‘What happens if there’s another Mumbai attack?’ Both replied that there would be a ‘vigorous’ India reponse that would most likely be military. Both suggested that this owed to the personality of the new Indian prime minister and the sentiment within India.
After the initial promise of an opening up to Pakistan in Nawaz Sharif’s India visit of May last year, India has since August been tough on Pakistan. It has engaged in an exchange of firing on the Line of Control and if Pakistani allegations are to be believed also been supporting Pakistani insurgents, Baloch and the Pakistani Taliban, from across the Afghanistan border.
In so far as this hardline stance has been tactical it appears to have borne fruit. Former ISI head and Track II presence, Mahmud Durrani, is reported to have met India’s National Security Adviser Doval and its new foreign secretary, Jaishankar, in what might have been an attempt to seek out India’s position on a resumption of talks. The Pakistani ambassador in Delhi is also meeting Jaishankar. More significantly, the new regime in Delhi has managed to ensure that there has been no terror attack out to test it, besides one in Kashmir designed to disrupt elections there.
The advantage of the hardline is that it sends the unambiguous message that India would go military in its response. This is to deter any adventurism in Pakistani national security establishment. This can be reasonably be expected to be registered by the army and its intelligence agency since they are busy in rolling back the jihadi strongholds using the outrage against the terror attack on a school in Peshawar to good purpose.
However, the danger is in ‘rogue’ and ‘out of control’ terrorist elements taking advantage of India’s response to create regional instability. Profiting from resulting Pakistani nationalist and religious reaction to any Indian action, they may seek to expand their space once again in Pakistan that is currently being attenuated by Pakistani military and legal action.
How can India achieve its aim without presenting terrorists with their desired opportunity?
The likelihood of such an attack is low since the Peshawar terror attack is being taken as a watershed. Therefore, there is unlikely to be any sponsorship relying on plausible deniability from within the establishment. It would be remarkably difficult to mount a major attack without such tacit and covert support as attended the 26/11 attack in Mumbai.
In the hypothetical case that a terror attack does occur, the breadcrumbs’ are unlikely to lead either clearly or directly to the Pakistani establishment. India will have to reckon with this when it considers its response.
In light of the new government having invested in building up an image of itself as distinct from its predecessors in terms of decisiveness, it would require taking action. Whereas its predecessors, both the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance regimes earlier, have considered and rejected a military response, it is widely expected that Mr. Modi may be more willing to take military action. Even if Mr. Modi’s self-image does not push him towards taking military action, there are other ‘pull factors’ that may incentivise such a decision.
The military options he has are probably more fleshed out than earlier. The Indian army has given itself the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine and over the last decade has been able to practice it. These exercises have likely kept in mind the criticism directed at Cold Start and it possibly has a menu of non-escalatory options. Since 26/11, major arms acquisitions that have placed India on the top of the table of arms importers have helped with modernisation. With an intelligence czar and old Pakistan hand as NSA, India possibly has the levels of intelligence and synergy necessary to execute a variety of strikes including counter terror and counter military by land, air and intelligence means.
Where can India proceed with such military action? Firstly, terror camps are an obvious target. The ones across the Line of Control (LC) are well known. These can be hit by artillery and those further in depth by air. Secondly, military objectives along the LC are next. With Pakistani military embroiled over the past half decade on its western border and the decade long relative quiet on the Line of Control, there are gaps and weak spots that Indian military can take advantage of, do a ‘reverse Kargil’ of sorts.
Thirdly, in the IB sector, the plains do not lend themselves for such action given the developed terrain and terrain obstacles along their length. However, a mechanised foray in the less-escalatory desert sector is possible. Between the two, military action in the plains sector will bring home the dangers more speedily to Pakistan and its Punjabi elite.
India’s strategic priority of economic development suggests a limited military action. Therefore, in its choice of options it will likely favour the least escalatory one. The military action will be such as to leave Pakistan without a plausible rationale for an escalatory counter. For instance, if military objectives on the LC are taken, then India may likely go in for those that help it improve its defensive posture, rather than expose Pakistan to further Indian offensive. Alongside, if India does not mobilise, then Pakistan would not be pushed into an over-reaction.
Finally, the military action needs to be such as to drive a wedge between the establishment and its potential jihadi support base by making the establishment weigh in favour of a ‘Pakistan first’ strategy rather than a religious ideological one. This can be best done by quick retraction of forces in order that Pakistani military bears down on the jihadists who provoked the situation at the cost of Pakistani security.
Pakistani reaction for its part will be to threaten escalation to get international pressure to bear on India as also help reopen the Kashmir issue. It will have to be seen to be robust enough a counter to assuage nationalist upsurge in Pakistan. This will keep the religious right wing from taking political advantage. Pakistan would also not like to see international pressure clamp down on it instead for fear of escalation. Therefore, a rational counter on its part will likely be non-escalatory.
This analysis suggests that fears of consequences, possibly nuclear, are slightly exaggerated. Both states will pitch their (re)actions to project escalatory possibilities without actually going over the threshold. This will facilitate crisis diplomacy. To fine tune this both states need to have a meeting of minds through means such as the Durrani mission. This will have the welcome effect of placing both states on the same side with respect to the expanding jihadi threat from the west