Waiting for action

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

IT was one of the most difficult speeches to write. Once written, it was even more difficult to deliver without displaying even a trace of counterfeit emotions. On June 4, President Barack Obama rose to the occasion when he addressed a largely invited audience at Cairo University comprising students, scholars and diplomats. He did not come, as his predecessor did, to pontificate or hurl veiled threats at those who decry the United States. His appeal to both Muslims and non -Muslims to shun bitterness and make a new beginning in their relations transcended borders and touched many hearts the world over. This was made possible because he was direct and scrupulously avoided hollow rhetoric and bombast. His tone was deliberate yet humble because he knew that one day history would judge him as a man rather than for how he shaped the presidency or took his country out of the economic morass in which it finds itself.

The impact of Obamas words on the more than one billion Muslims in the world has undeniably been positive. It is said that White House staffer Ben Rhodes (33) wrote the first draft, which later underwent several changes, with Obama himself adding to its weighty content. Rhodes may be a brilliant wordsmith. But to infuse emotions into those words, it required the memories of the trials and tribulations of an African American who was almost wholly brought up by a single mother. The effect of the speech was multiplied by his commencing it with a popular Muslim salutation and infusing it with appropriate verses from the Quran (including one which commanded that no innocent be killed, an obvious reference to terrorist misdeeds). As one commentator put it, although delivered on a Thursday, it could easily have passed off as an exhortation to a Friday gathering at the local mosque.

Not everyone around the world, however, has gone gaga over Obamas speech. Many are sceptical whether it will bring any good to U.S. relations with the Muslim world. According to them, an hour-long oration can hardly wipe away the bitterness of decades of American superciliousness, when Islam and terrorism came to be described as synonyms. Many in the Arab world want deeds rather than words from the White House. Unexceptional but possibly impractical in an immediate context.

What do we in India expect as the outcome of the speech? Can we look forward to fewer terrorist attacks from across the border? Obamas focus was on Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Iran. He mentioned Afghanistan in passing. India has no problem with most of the Arab world and has not made much of Saudi Arabias generous assistance to Pakistans coffers, which is sometimes diverted to strengthening groups inimical to it. But India has a definite problem with what is happening in Afghanistan and its fallout in Pakistan.

The Taliban has made deep incursions into the heart of Pakistan. Unchecked, the deadly group can seep into Indian territory as it is believed to have already done and indulge in mindless terrorism. Until now Pakistan has borne the brunt of it, with more than a dozen incidents in the past two months, including the deadly bombing in Lahore on May 23 in which more than 20 people were killed. It will not take much time for the Taliban to convert India into its favourite theatre. There is fertile ground here, in the form of an ill-equipped police, lack of organised community support and some sleeper cells. Apart from being a strong U.S. ally, India has also gone into Afghanistan to assist in a substantial way in its economic development. The Taliban has not taken kindly to this, and we may expect it to launch action on Indian soil whenever it gets an opportunity.

What can Obama do to confine the Taliban to Afghanistan and destroy it as soon as possible? This is the issue that is relevant to us. Interestingly, Obama did not even once mention the word terrorism in his speech. Nor did he make an allusion to the phrase the clash of civilisations, which President George W. Bush was so fond of referring to at the drop of a hat. Obama did, of course, refer to extremists who deserved to be put down with a heavy hand. Cairo was perhaps not the occasion to spell out micro-level policies or tactics. In fact, Obama was short on policy pronouncements when he spoke. His attempt was to heal as a preacher rather than unfold an action plan in the style of a chief executive. This is why we need not feel disappointed. We may, however, have to watch Obama closely for what he does to root out terrorism in Afghanistan and its Asian neighbourhood so that we do not remain targets.

Osama bin Laden, in an audio tape released on the eve of the Cairo speech, denounced the U.S. for the recent fighting in the Swat valley and other tribal areas of Pakistan and for causing the resultant mass migration of Muslims from this region to refugee camps. Even as doubts linger on whether Osama is still alive, Al Qaeda propaganda confirms the assessment that in Cairo Obama was speaking to a divided Muslim world and that the impact of his speech was severely limited by this phenomenon of different voices speaking for Muslims.

There is only slender evidence to suspect an active and strong tie-up between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Except on a few occasions, the two have acted independently of each other and in totally removed territories. While Al Qaeda has been operating mostly in West Asia, and nominally in Europe, the Talibans interests centre round the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The two share an antipathy to the U.S. and its allies that translates itself to violence whenever an opportunity presents itself. There is nothing to believe that such antipathy will dissolve itself or lose its sharp edge even after Obama extends the hand of friendship to the whole of the Muslim community.

Against this backdrop, it is naive to expect terrorism to get diluted by the conciliatory approach of the new White House. There is actually an assessment to the contrary, according to which the refugee camps run by the Pakistani government for the Swat immigrants could breed militancy. This is because conditions in these camps are described as being miserable, and the funds that the United Nations has managed to garner from member-countries may hardly be sufficient to provide a reasonable improvement of the care offered at the camps. The U.N. had asked for $543 million, and less than 25 per cent of that has arrived. The longer these camps are a necessity, the greater the potential for mischief by the extremist fringe.

Disenchantment with the Taliban in most of Pakistan is now real. The irresponsible manner in which the group has acted in Swat, and the many acts of terrorism attributed to it in other parts of the country have angered many sections of the population. The recent incidents in which villagers took the law into their own hands and dealt with suspected Taliban members severely is an index of the popular anger. This sort of lawlessness deserves to be condemned. But then, when victims and their families find the government ineffective, they could rationalise any action against the perpetrators of violence as morally correct even if it will not satisfy the test of legality. This is the danger that we in India should also guard ourselves against.

India faces twin dangers: from the Taliban elements that have possibly entered our territory and from jehadist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Pakistan authorities frequently make noises to the effect that they have controlled these two groups, but they are unconvincing because intelligence reports are to the contrary. The paradox is that while the government in that country is waging a war in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) to contain the Taliban, in south Punjab, there is no matching determination against jehadist formations. Obama cannot be ignorant of this situation. His advisers, including special envoy Richard Holbrooke, are well clued up on the subject.

They should also know that the recent arrest in India and the confession of Mohammad Madani, the suspected head of the LeT in Nepal, are significant enough to establish that India faces a serious terrorist threat from Pakistan-inspired outfits. Madani visited Pakistan and Bangladesh several times and had possibly been instructed to open a module in Bangladesh to train cadre meant for the offensive against India.

This is why the Cairo pronouncements are only of limited interest to us. India will not be amused if Obama stops with the Taliban and its danger to the rest of the world, especially Pakistan. It is not enough for the White House to tell us that it has advised President Asif Ali Zardari to root out the jehadist groups. It should go beyond this and collect intelligence on both the jehadist groups and, if possible, dismantle their infrastructure if Islamabad is found wanting.

Pakistan may scream if drone attacks are launched against the militants in Punjab, especially if they lead also to major civilian losses. (Drones have until now been used by the Obama administration mainly against Taliban leaders.) This is no reason why the U.S. cannot show the same aggression in this area that it displays in the NWFP and Afghanistan. In the final analysis, India will judge Obama and applaud his Cairo utterances solely by deeds that help contain Pakistan. The next few weeks are crucial because intelligence reports speak of terrorists targeting South India. At no other time is vigilance by law enforcement and the community at large more vital than now if we are to save precious lives.

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