Back from the brink?

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The NDA government's perception of war as an option stems from the shifts in domestic distributions of power, a misperception regarding the place of Pakistan in U.S. strategic designs and the related delusion about India's own importance in the U.S.-Israeli design for South-West and Central Asia.

AIJAZ AHMAD WE live in dangerous times.

The United States declares an infinite, planetary war ("a task that never ends," President Bush called it), and India and Pakistan immediately start competing in a bid to show which among them is the more loyal member of the coalition conjured up in favour of this war. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was for the U.S. a point of culmination of a process that began with the Gulf war and the destruction of much of Iraq which has already cost that country well over a million lives, but also the first stage of a more permanent war that might involve numerous countries ranging from Iraq to the Philippines. The U.S. is now in the process of consolidating a ring of military bases in southwestern Asia and the Caspian states, to capture oil resources estimated to be worth over a trillion dollars and to choke both Russia and China militarily. Yet, all that the Indian and Pakistani governments, speaking in the name of the Vedas and the Koran, care for is which of the two embassies shall have relatively more clout in Kabul, in the court of the U.S.-appointed Hamid Karzai, who is not even a warlord but merely a former employee of Unocal, a middling energy corporation with pipeline interests in that unfortunate country. He is the perfect henchman for George Bush, who himself represents oil and tobacco interests.

A murderous but inept terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament building can bring more than a million soldiers, representing nation-states comprising a quarter of humanity, to a full-scale mobilisation on a war-footing, raising the possibility of all of us going up in a ball of nuclear fire, but in ways that make it difficult to tell between serious intent and mere posturing. Both nations then look to the U.S. to prevent them from doing what sane people would shrink from even contemplating. Help me get the Indians to talk to me about Kashmir, General Pervez Musharraf pleads with the U.S., since it is on your orders that I am dismantling my jehadi outfits there. The Indian government enters a competing plea: please get Pakistan to give us a face-saving device so that we can step back from the war we have threatened and for which we have moved 800,000 soldiers to the front because the posturing, expensive as it is, plays well in the Uttar Pradesh elections. Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, smiles, mutters a phrase to assuage Pakistani sentiments, another to please Indian ears, then gets down to the serious business of sorting out with Dick Cheney, Vice-President, and Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence, the pros and cons of invading Iraq, the pros and cons of allowing Ariel Sharon to kill Yasser Arafat, and so on.

Innocent, sleepy policemen get killed in the streets of Kolkata, in a shootout in which religious extremists seemed to have been hired by organised crime to settle a dispute with the local police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), an intelligence agency designed to function strictly on U.S. soil, suddenly takes charge of getting the chief suspect, a man of Indian origin, extradited from a third country to India. That a U.S. intelligence agency designed for strictly domestic purposes starts using India as its own turf and meddling in its international relations seems to bother no one. 'Islamic extremism' has become a bogey that far too many people feel pressed to use, in ways that the Left Front in West Bengal, for example, may yet have to pay for in the coming panchayat elections - perhaps even beyond, if the mentality takes hold.

Ayaz Amir, the Pakistani commentator with a gift for the striking phrase, has called his country "a banana republic without the bananas". That goes a long way in explaining the abjectness with which General Musharraf has been doing the U.S. bidding. Once the U.S. decided to take charge of Afghanistan directly, Musharraf was quick to realise that he was left with few bargaining chips; that the strategy that Pakistan's dictators, diplomats, spooks and commanders had been fashioning for three decades was a shambles, irretrievably; and that all he now had was what Pakistan has always had - the advantage of a mere geographical location, close to China, Russia, and oceans of oil to the west and north of it.

With his gesture of shaking hands with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit in Kathmandu and his offer of de-nuclearisation of the subcontinent, Musharraf sought to convey the impression that he continued to seek comprehensive peace despite India's aggressive posturing.-JOHN MACOUGHALL/AFP

That is his first "banana": the geo-political location. Then there are little patches of land: when the Americans started calculating the flying distances for their bombing raids on Kabul and Kandahar, bases in Sind and Baluchistan turned out to be much closer than any point in India, and Musharraf turned over more and more to the U.S., including portions of the Karachi airport. We shall return to this matter.

Pakistan actually has more "bananas" to offer than Ayaz Amir makes out in that colourful phrase, not to speak of the fact that it is not in the nature of "banana republics" to be republics at all, as is amply testified in Musharraf's insistence that even though he shall hold elections he will not himself contest in them and shall nevertheless remain at the helm of affairs in his country.

The problem with what India has become under the Bharatiya Janata Party - and the National Democratic Alliance, which punctually allows itself to be used as the proverbial fig leaf - is that it is turning itself, unnecessarily and quite voluntarily, into a banana republic. However, it has too many bananas to see what it is actually becoming. The abject haste with which India endorsed Bush's proposed National Missile Defence (NMD) plan, well before his own European allies or any other country on the planet had done so, testifies to this will to be almost as loyal to the king as the king himself. When the U.S. set out to assemble its coalition for the "war against terror with a global reach", India was among the very first to seek membership and offer its own facilities. It was actually left to the U.S. to decide that Indian facilities were not terribly useful to it for the assault on Afghanistan.

Clients with delusions of grandeur can be at times more dangerous than those who know themselves to be mere clients - without the delusions. This contrast was quite evident, from the beginning, in the way the recent - and still ongoing - military mobilisations were portrayed by the two countries, domestically and internationally. Even if the largest military mobilisation in peacetime history of the past 50 years which India ordered was a bluff, it had to be carried out in a way that could credibly show India's readiness to go to war. So, an aggressive posture and extremist rhetoric was an inevitable part of the design, and sections of the Indian media, addicted now to sensationalism of the worst kind, obliged by harping on the theme of readiness. By the same token, Pakistan was able to portray its own answering mobilisation as being merely defensive in nature. More crucially, it had actually started cracking down on the Islamicist establishment well before the threat of war from India came, and Musharraf therefore had a wide latitude in portraying further crackdowns quite differently at home and abroad. Domestically, he was able to portray all that as simply a continuation of a policy that was already in place, while his inaction on India's list of 20 could also be portrayed as his standing tall against Indian pressure. So far as the domestic situation in Pakistan was concerned, Indian mobilisation only served to unite the Pakistani population behind a self-appointed President who had been under great pressure on the question of delayed democratisation, not to speak of the armed forces which quickly grouped around their chief even though his crackdown on the jehadi establishment had been unpopular with sections of the officers' corps.

INTERNATIONALLY, on the other hand, Musharraf could argue that he was taking strong action to suppress the groupings that had attacked the Indian Parliament building, while continuing to seek comprehensive peace with India despite India's aggressive posturing. His striding up to shake Atal Behari Vajpayee's hand at the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) meeting in Kathmandu, when the latter was refusing even to talk to him, was seen around the world on BBC and CNN. More substantively, and at the height of the eyeball-to-eyeball mobilisations all across the Indo-Pakistan border, Musharraf became the first head of state in South Asia to offer wholesale de-nuclearisation of the subcontinent: not just a moratorium on further nuclear testing or nuclear weapons production but de-nuclearisation as such. The Indian government failed to respond and the Indian media in general greatly underplayed even the fact, let alone the magnitude and import, of the offer. In context, then, there was broad sympathy, within Pakistan and abroad, for his view that the onus for de-escalation on the borders was on India since India was the one to resort to the escalation in the first place.

It was quite clear from the beginning that India was overplaying its hand, mostly for domestic and demagogic purposes. That a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament building was a crime of immense magnitude was self-evident, as were the potential consequences of the act. However, the culpability of the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba notwithstanding, it was inconceivable that the government of Pakistan could have possibly ordered it (see "Pakistan's time of reckoning", Frontline, February 1). No responsible leader there could have taken the risk of being found out - by India's own very considerable intelligence sources, by the global surveillance network of the U.S., or both. Pakistani Generals understand India's military superiority, in conventional warfare as much as in the matter of nuclear capability. They would have understood quite clearly that ordering a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament building in these days of "war against terrorism" - and by the chief Islamicist organisations, at that - was tantamount to signing a death warrant for themselves, and possibly for the territorial unity of their country as well. That was the one circumstance in which the U.S. would have condoned whatever means of revenge India chose, tacitly at least. This circumstantial reality precludes the possibility that terrorism on the premises of the Indian Parliament did not have official Pakistani sanction.

And yet, in ordering the largest mobilisation in peacetime history in the last half a century, the Indian government acted as if it had proof of precisely such an authorisation. This was strange, considering that neither the Indian intelligence services nor any of the foreign ones had produced any such proof or even any credible evidence demonstrating a larger conspiracy behind that group of desperados that actually carried out the attack. Threatening war against Pakistan for an act that was probably designed to undermine the authority of the current Pakistan government was somewhat like Israel punishing Yasser Arafat for every suicide bombing carried out by the same Hamas that has always sought to undermine his authority in the first place.

But why? Part of the answer of course lies in the very dangerous instability that America's unilateralist war-mongering has introduced into the world's interstate system. If the U.S. can launch an attack anywhere in the world in the name of fighting a "war against terrorism" and if Sharon can be given a free hand to bomb, kill and expel whoever he wishes and as many as he wishes, again in the name of his own local "war against terrorism", then what prevents the Indian Army from crossing international borders on similar grounds? Indeed, the combination of an urgent demand that a certain number of individuals be handed over forthwith and the accumulation of massive military force on the borders with threats of imminent war was itself reminiscent of the earlier U.S. demand that the Taliban either hand over Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda or face invasion and annihilation.

THERE are only two possibilities. One is that the scale of the military mobilisation and the unbridled rhetoric which went with it were, from start to finish, a mere bluff, which is how Pakistan has by and large treated it. If this was the case, it was transparent, pointless, extraordinarily expensive and counterproductive in the sense that it showed up India as an unnecessarily aggressive paper tiger. The next time the tiger emits such a huge growl, it will actually have to draw blood in order merely to be believed at all. Meanwhile, it is also perfectly plausible that those who could make money out of the purchase of coffins for soldiers saw even greater profits in these extravagant war-mongering expenditures.

The other possibility is that the ruling establishment in New Delhi actually believed - perhaps still believes - that it has the licence to conduct such a war. Now, the very idea that this kind of unilateralist option is at all available to India, if seriously held, would be proof of a considerable delusion of grandeur. Ordinarily one would imagine that no responsible government could possibly nurse such delusions. However, what one hears from secondary sources as to the kinds of discussions that are going on in the halls of power in New Delhi seems to suggest that the same forces which prevented progress in Agra and made sure that the Summit would fail are also the forces which do at times contemplate that kind of unilateral military action. If so, the delusion is likely to be fed with a series of misperceptions.

The first misperception would relate to the relative strengths of the two military establishments, and the import of that imbalance. Pakistan is weaker but its weakness cannot be compared, even by the wildest stretch of imagination, to that of the Taliban's Afghanistan or Yasser Arafat's emasculated little Palestinian Authority in the Occupied Territories; India is not the United States, nor, relative to its adversary, an Israel. That Pakistan's military capability is much inferior both in conventional and nuclear terms is undeniable. The advantages of such asymmetry can itself lead, however, to dangerous delusions in hawkish and ideologically fevered minds. That India can fight a winnable war, or that it can dictate terms by laying siege to Lahore or slicing into Sind, is an implausible idea. In a situation where war cannot be extended beyond a few days or even a week or two, opposing forces do not have to have strict parity; it is sufficient for the lesser power that it commands enough resources to create facts unacceptable to the other side, and Pakistan does have that kind of strength even in conventional terms. And there is of course the nuclear factor which, if a war actually breaks out, cannot be neutralised through diplomatic pressure alone. The pressure would rather be on India not to press the weaker adversary to that point.

Home Minister L.K. Advani with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. As India and Pakistan are assigned different positions in strategic designs and divisions of labour in the overall imperial system, one does not go down because the other has gone up in the matter of their bilateral relationships with the U.S.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

Secondly, the international environment is today much less conducive than ever before to war-making by regionally ambitious medium-sized powers, especially the ones which have nuclear weapons. Aside from Israel, which has always been a special case, unilateralism is above all and by definition a privilege of the 'sole superpower'. For the rest, unilaterism is allowed either in local conflicts that have no global significance, as in some cases in Sub-Saharan Africa, or, more circumspectly and only in some cases, where the constituted nation-states use military force against territories and populations which they claim as their own but which rebel against them (Chechnya for Russia or Kashmir for India, but not Kosovo for Yugoslavia or Taiwan for China). Pakistan, for example, was not allowed occupation of territory even in Kargil even though the U.S. itself recognises it as disputed territory. Nothing would internationalise Kashmir as quickly as an Indian incursion across the international frontier, and Kashmir (a "nuclear flashpoint" in U.S. parlance) is too important to be left to the Generals of either side.

That particular asymmetry in the military balance and this very international environment have both existed for some years, certainly since the Pokhran explosions, within the region and in the context of the increasing unilateralism in U.S. strategies through the past decade.

What, then, has changed for war to be considered a realistic option? Three shifts are notable: shifts in domestic distributions of power, a huge misperception regarding the place of Pakistan in American strategic designs, and, as a corollary to that misperception, a sense that India's own strategic importance in the U.S.-Israeli plans for South-west and Central Asia is now great enough to earn India a free hand in its dealings with Pakistan, more or less as Sharon has been given a free hand in relation to the Palestinian Authority.

The domestic situation is somewhat paradoxical. With parts of Mamata Banerjee's mass base shifting back toward the Congress(I), thus weakening her bargaining power in relation to the BJP, and with the Telegu Desam Party making explicit alliances with the BJP at the local levels in Andhra Pradesh, not to speak of George Fernandes having been fully incorporated into the designs of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), there is now a strong feeling within the Sangh fraternity that no significant opposition will come forth from the main constituents of the NDA regardless of what the BJP does domestically or internationally.

Within the BJP, meanwhile, the balance of power seems to be shifting away from Vajpayee and more toward the nexus controlled by L.K. Advani. Indeed, the recent trips made by Advani and Fernandes to the U.S. had the air of job interviews, while, domestically, any real war of succession may well incline the competing aspirants to even closer alignment with the hard core of the RSS. On the other hand, the BJP itself seems to be losing ground in a number of States and the temptation, therefore, is to retrieve a position of strength by playing the temple card for specific sections of the constituency and the patriotism card for the country as a whole. Nothing unites an electorate behind the existing rulers as a war, even a limited one, with a neighbour that is feared and despised in equal measure. No wonder the war-mongering noises have coincided with a renewal of the temple agitation. Again, there is a nice, predictable division of labour between the BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

As regards Pakistan, India seems to pay far more attention to short-term shifts in the configuration of forces than to long-term strategic realities. When Pakistan became the front line state for the recent U.S. operations in Afghanistan and was rewarded with substantial economic concessions, there was fear that India's newly gained centrality in U.S. designs for the region had been eclipsed. Then Pakistan made the blunder of not breaking with the Taliban (perhaps because too many of its own jehadis and soldiers were trapped in Taliban-controlled territory) and the U.S. reneged on the promise of not permitting the Northern Alliance to take the cities as the Taliban collapsed. In view of those short-term tensions, India persuaded itself that Pakistan would no longer enjoy any considerable importance in the evolving U.S. plans; all sections of Indian political opinion insisted that no elements from within the Taliban be permitted to join the new dispensation, because the Northern Alliance, no less thuggish, was in any case comprised of thugs that India had supported. With the Pakistani position collapsing in Afghanistan and its clients in Jammu and Kashmir despondent and in disarray, the Indian government seems to have calculated that it could use the terrorist attack on the Parliament building to force a final separation between Pakistan and the U.S.

As a mature bourgeois society, however, the U.S. does not change its long-term strategic perspective from one event to another. Its only fundamental problem with Pakistan was that the latter had continued to support and expand the jehadi groupings even after they had turned anti-American and that those groups were deeply connected with the Taliban, Osama's network and so on. This problem disappeared as soon as Musharraf assured it that he was going to suppress those groups even if that weakened his position in Kashmir; for the rest, the Americans also knew that full suppression of such groups takes a lot of time, and they were willing to wait so long as the process did begin in earnest and American intelligence itself was given a role in it.

This relative tolerance also comes from the fact that Pakistan is important for the U.S. on several counts. They know that no stable government is possible in Afghanistan unless the Afghani Pushtuns feel that they have been given a proper share in power, and that every Afghani Pushtun leader must also seek blessings from that half of the Pushtun population that lives in Pakistan and whose leaders occupy positions of power and influence there. Without backing from Peshawar, which necessarily passes through Islamabad, no Pushtun leader can feel safe in Kabul, especially as he is bound to be in perpetual conflict with a whole array of warlords of various ethnic stripes.

PAKISTAN has indeed had a major role in Afghanistan for over two decades now, in collusion with the U.S. Once the surviving remnants of the Taliban have been eliminated and the question of the Pakistani jehadis is settled, there is no reason why the U.S. cannot use those same Pakistani military personnel and civilian technicians and managers, nor any reason why the likes of Karzai cannot do a flourishing business with Pakistan. After all, the U.S. itself broke decisively with the Taliban, and even Osama, only a couple of months before bombing them, and Saudi Arabia continued to recognise the Taliban regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan until well after September 11. That Pakistan was so intimately involved with them is hardly an unforgettable stigma. This is what Bush means when he now says that Pakistan shall play a "major role" in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. If Musharraf can get such a bonanza for them, the Pakistani bourgeoisie is likely to forget all about democracy and bestow 'greatness' upon him.

Then there is the question of the pipeline. Building one through Afghanistan is the more expensive option and bringing oil from Central Asia to the Red Sea, to be then re-transported to Europe and North America, is undoubtedly a very roundabout way of using that oil. However, building a pipeline through Afghanistan is also the surest way to turn that oil away from regions where Russia continues to compete for influence and active economic control. If Afghanistan does become sufficiently stable for the building of a pipeline to become a militarily feasible option, Pakistan again emerges as the key country that can enable that oil to bypass Iran as well. Pakistan is thus very important in the emerging oil economy of the region. And, of course, China continues to treat Pakistan as a key strategic ally.

Beyond that, and next only to Turkey which in any case identifies itself more with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (E.U.) than with the Islamic states, Pakistan has the most sophisticated techno-managerial intelligentsia and military personnel in the entire Muslim world, arguably more so than even Egypt. Pakistan's military and economic involvement already extends to a dozen Arab countries, especially the Gulf sheikhdoms. The U.S. is unlikely to overlook this reality. In India, people are in the habit of looking at Pakistan only in relation to India. In reality, its strengths and strategic importance have little to do with South Asia and much more to do with West and Central Asia, not to speak of its proximity to Russia and China. For China, surely, Pakistan serves as something of a corridor between India and Russia.

It is in view of all these factors that the U.S. has determined its current policy toward Pakistan. Its strategic and economic interests in India are too extensive now for it ever again to accord preferential treatment to Pakistan in relation, specifically, to India. For the rest, Pakistan is indeed back in favour in Washington. One no longer hears that it is under military rule. Instead, Musharraf and Karzai were the two heads of state in the Third World that came in for special praise in Bush's State of the Union speech in January. Musharraf was then given the red carpet treatment during his recent visit to Washington, with Bush describing him as a "strategic ally" and a "partner", and Rumsfeld saying that the military-to-military relationship between the two countries shall now return to the level of earlier decades. Musharraf has been promised that one billion of the $2.8 billion bilateral debt to the U.S. shall be written off and preferential treatment shall be given in the assignment of multilateral aid and a whole range of trade relationships. One can assume that the U.S. bases shall now stay in Pakistan as they will in the Central Asian states, and, in return, Pakistan's economic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia shall be protected.

All in all, Pakistan is too important a country for the U.S. to allow its stability to be undermined to any significant degree. This has nothing to do with how important India has become in the imperial calculations. So far as the respective bilateral relationships with the U.S. are concerned, one does not go down because the other has gone up. The two countries are assigned different positions in strategic designs and divisions of labour in the overall imperial system, and only dependents and clients nurse the illusion that, with enough services rendered, they shall emerge as the permanent favourites to the exclusion of others.

It is time for the BJP-led government to stop bluffing others and deluding itself. It is somewhat pathetic that no one but themselves finds such bluffs and delusions credible. Meanwhile, the decline in the jehadi menace should not be construed as if the Indian government now has a free hand in Jammu and Kashmir to do as it wishes. Frontline (March 1) published the text of an extraordinary interview that A.G. Noorani recently conducted with Sartaj Aziz, the former Foreign Minister of Pakistan, which spells out, for the first time in public, the terms on which Pakistan has been willing to move away from its historic and maximalist positions. Those terms need not be acceptable to either India or the people of Jammu and Kashmir but India does need to abandon its war-mongering brinksmanship and its delusions that the time has come to dictate terms to all other parties concerned. With the decline of jehad India has a historic opportunity to reverse the terrible trends of the past decade or more, meet flexibility with flexibility. It now needs to explore new and imaginative solutions leading to lasting peace, not consider the war that the more irresponsible elements in government seem to be contemplating.

A letter from the Editor


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