Sunday, November 30, 2008

where now for India-Pakistan?

Watched the latest episode of NDTV's 'We the People'. Some of the militaristic bullshit that the audience is spouting is seriously disturbing. Leading the pack is the fabulously deranged Simi Garewal, who thinks that the fact that the US has not experienced a major terrorist attack since 9/11 suggests that we should follow its example and 'carpet bomb' those areas of Pakistan in which terrorist camps are located. She also suggests that a camera crew be taken to the Four Seasons hotel: look down at the slums below, she says, and tell me what flag they are flying. They are not flying the flag of the Congress, they are not flying the flag of the Shiv Sena or the BJP. They are flying the flag of Pakistan. This was the moment at which the programme descended into chaos as one member of the audience wisely (if somewhat shrilly, but who can blame him?) pointed out that people like Simi were the problem. Fortunately, Simi Garewal is not widely regarded as an expert in foreign policy. Nonetheless, what was disturbing was the applause that her remarks generated. One can hardly blame politicians for sounding hawkish when there seems to be a bottom-up demand for such posturing.

Explaining why this is wrong requires a brief history lesson. For most of its post-independence existence, as a relatively weak state in a rough geopolitical neighbourhood, Pakistan has relied on proxies to do its dirty work: the mujahideen in Afghanistan to put in place a government of its choosing that would (i) stop irritating Pakistan by fomenting Pashtun nationalism; (ii) provide 'strategic depth' west of the Indus, giving the Pakistani army space in which to regroup in the event of an invasion by India. The other set of proxies that it relied on were a host of jihadi groups in Kashmir, who could engage the Indian state in a grinding, low-intensity war that would have a better chance of wearing it down than a short, sharp inter-state conflict that Pakistan would inevitably lose.

With 9/11, key elements of the Pakistani establishment (read: Musharraf and the technocrats) re-evaluated these long-standing policies. The increasing Talibanisation of politics in Pakistan's northwest frontier and sectarian warfare in the cities were ample evidence that the chickens of Cold War policy were coming home to roost. US pressure on Pakistan to cooperate in the 'war on terror' constituted a final and decisive push to reverse the old policies.

The problem is that states do not speak with one voice, and weak states even less so. The fragility of Pakistan's ruling elite (Musharraf and even more, Zardari) means that these reversals of policy cannot be stamped decisively on the apparatus of state as a whole. The very uncertainty of their hold on power makes it difficult for them to root out renegade elements and rotten veins in the army and the ISI. This in turn exacerbates India's lingering mistrust, despite frequent protestations of cooperation and clean hands by those in Pakistan who claim that they are in charge.

A belligerent Indian response to this situation would make it even more difficult for moderate Pakistani elites to crack down on jihadi elements within the Pakistani state and society. The Pakistani state has rendered itself deeply unpopular in the eyes of its own people whenever it has appeared to be engaged in counterinsurgency/counterterrorism operations at the behest of an external actor such as the US. This will hold even truer if the demand comes from India. A belligerent India, pointing an accusing finger at the entirety of the Pakistani state and threatening to bomb the shit out of it might satisfy rightwing hotheads in India. But rather than strengthening the moderates in Pakistan, it will compel them to shift rightwards and make common cause with extremists against the 'Indian threat', thereby losing the goodwill of even the most cooperative elements of the Pakistani state.

Should India feel the need to engage in coercive diplomacy (surrender the people we want for questioning, or else...) it needs to do this very discreetly. Its public diplomacy should be all about making common cause with Pakistan. This shouldn't be difficult to do. The facts speak for themselves. If news reports are to be believed, RDX caches in some of the Taj rooms suggest a plot to blow up the hotel in what would appear to be an imitation of the spectacularly successful attack on the Marriott at Islamabad. Islamabad and Mumbai are twins in tragedy. We feel your pain, we should be saying. Whether we can move beyond the rhetoric to begin sharing intelligence and cooperating in more meaningful ways in counterterrorism operations will depend on whether the deep and long-running mistrust between our intelligence agencies can be overcome.

In the meanwhile, here's a concrete policy proposal: tell Simi to shut up.

'"The Indian Jewish identity is the only one that hasn't been created by persecution," he said. "We've never felt scared. This is the first time we've been made to feel like Jews." That, to me, has been among the most tragic casualties of this terrorist attack. In a barrage of grenades and bullets, a part of the Indian dream that's 2,500 years old has now been buried in a pile of bloody concrete shards.'

Another reason I am shaking with rage. The full story here (H/t, Amitava Kumar).

Saturday, November 29, 2008

This time, I can't do anguish, breast-beating, or sheer expressions of horror. There's enough of that going on. Be angry at the Lashkar by all means, but spare some for the twats we elect to run things.

Praveen Swami outlines the staggering intelligence failures that enabled these events. The Government of India had access to intelligence that suggested that Lashkar-e-Taiba was planning attacks from the sea on the western seaboard. Here's the horrifically important banal stuff:

'Based on these warnings, New Delhi moved to step up coastal counter-infiltration measures. In its 2007-2008 Annual Report, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs detailed the measures put in place for “strengthening coastal security arrangements, to check infiltration.” In liaison with the nine coastal States and Union Territories, it said, funds had been earmarked to set up “73 coastal police stations which will be equipped with 204 boats, 153 jeeps and 312 motorcycles for mobility on coast and in close coastal waters. The coastal police stations will also have a marine police with personnel trained in maritime activities.”

Precise figures are unavailable, but officials in three States told The Hindu that progress in realising the scheme was painfully slow. Both Maharashtra and Gujarat inaugurated over a dozen coastal police stations over the last year, but neither State set up a trained marine police. Fewer than a dozen new boats were made available to the two police forces. Without sophisticated surveillance equipment fitted on board, their use for counter-infiltration work was at best rudimentary. And while the Intelligence Bureau received sanction for hiring small numbers of new personnel to man new costal surveillance stations last year, it got neither boats nor observation equipment.'

And there were staggering operational failures. NDTV has just reported that the NSG has no dedicated aircraft to ferry commandos to sites where they might be needed. Instead, they had to wait for a plane to be made available and did the last leg of their journey by bus. BY BUS!

Moving on. Every life lost everywhere is equally significant and equally worthy of commemoration. But it took Shyam Benegal to ask Barkha Dutt why the media were focusing relentlessly on the victims at the Taj (and, to a lesser extent, the Oberoi). What about those who lost their lives at VT? Are they to remain faceless?, he asked. A chastened Barkha acknowledges that there seems to be a class dimension to the solidarity and empathy we are expressing.

The gold medal for bullshit goes to Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga for his memorialisation of the attack on the Taj:

One of the differences between India and other countries is that a lot of our civic space is contained within the five-star hotels. They have a different function here for us, they are places where marriages happen, where people of all economic backgrounds go for a coffee.

Is he fucking nuts?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mumbai: why?

Mumbai is no stranger to mass terror, but there is something different about the outrage that began unfolding on the night of November 26, 2008. Although motives are difficult to discern with any precision through the clouds of speculation, allegation and jihadi propaganda that swirl around such incidents, previous instances of terror are thought to have been motivated by decidedly local considerations. The March 1993 serial bomb blasts in which 13 bombs exploded virtually simultaneously in key buildings all over the city, were widely believed to have been carried out in retaliation for the massacre of Muslims in the riots that engulfed the city in December '92 / January '93, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya . Likewise the August 2003 car bombs which killed more than 50 people, and the July 2006 commuter train bombings which left over 200 dead, were thought to have been executed in revenge for the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. And there have of course been scores of terrorist incidents that have been linked to long-running separatist movements in Punjab, Kashmir, Assam and elsewhere.

The latest fidayeen-style attack diverges from this pattern in some key respects. Although the vast majority of those killed were Indians, a number of the targets (the Taj and Oberoi hotels, Café Leopold, Nariman House) appear to have been chosen for the fact that they were frequented by business and tourist travellers from abroad. The group responsible for the attack (a little known outfit calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen) sent an email to Indian media organisations declaring that 'this attack is a reaction to those actions that Hindus have been carrying out since 1947'. 'Hindus now give up thinking that martyring of Muslims' mosques, weakening Muslims' economic conditions through riots, and putting educated youths in prison will weaken the confidence. No, not at any cost…' it says, signing off, somewhat oddly, as the Mujahideen Hyderabad Deccan, as if to distinguish its alleged provenance in the Indian city of Hyderabad from a city of the same name in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Despite these apparently local grievances, as the media have repeated ad nauseum, these were also attacks against international targets. Eyewitnesses report that the gunmen in the hotels were particularly interested in people with British and US passports. Café Leopold is a favourite haunt of Western backpackers and local bohemia. And Nariman House was the location of the local office of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish movement.

Jihadi rhetoric has typically distinguished between the 'far enemy' (the US, Israel or the 'West' more generally) and the 'near enemy' (a designation that usually refers to Muslim 'apostate' governments and other local targets). The curious mixture of targets evidenced in the words and deeds of the Deccan Mujahideen suggests a relatively novel conflation of India (described very pointedly in Hindu majoritarian terms) with the 'far enemy'. Why has this happened, and why has it happened now?

It cannot merely be a coincidence of timing that an attack like this occurs at a time when India has decisively overturned its historic post-independence policy of non-alignment and edged ever closer into the US strategic embrace. The recently concluded Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement is only the latest in a series of moves that suggest the emergence of a strategic alliance. In recognition of India's strategic value (read: its potential utility in balancing China), the US has effectively legitimised India's possession of nuclear weapons by negotiating an agreement whereby it becomes the only nuclear NPT non-signatory in the world to be permitted to engage in international civilian nuclear commerce. India's quid pro quo for this special treatment is only beginning to become evident, in the form of a foreign policy that is steadily less independent (exhibit 1: India's obliging vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency, reversing a historic and principled stand against a world of 'nuclear apartheid' divided into nuclear haves and have-nots). The nuclear deal is only one element, albeit an important one, in this emerging alliance. Less commented on, but perhaps more far-reaching, is the India-US Defence Framework Agreement, under which the two countries have promised to enter into hitherto unprecedented levels of military cooperation. As the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan has reported, the agreement reflects the Bush administration's desire to outsource some of the lower-end aspects of security management in Asia to India (peacekeeping, search and rescue operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, etc.), thereby freeing itself to concentrate its resources on high-end fighting missions. In return, the agreement goes some way towards satiating India's thirst for advanced military technology. Indeed the sale of US military technology to India enables 'interoperability' between the two militaries, satisfying the objectives of both parties.

These seismic shifts in India's foreign policy alignment are no longer merely the stuff of discussion between foreign office mandarins or elite coffee table conversation. In July 2008, the Left parties withdrew parliamentary support to the ruling Congress party as an expression of their opposition to the nuclear deal with the US, precipitating a crisis in which for the first time, a national government teetered on the verge of collapse on an issue of foreign policy. You might describe this, depending on your politics, as the moment in which foreign policy was democratised or made populist. But even before this, these events seem to have registered on the jihadi consciousness as confirmation that India had joined what they have long described as the 'Crusader-Zionist alliance'. In June 2007, an organisation calling itself 'al-Qaeda in India' delivered a CD to the Srinagar-based Current News Service. It featured the usual masked man reading a statement, part of which read as follows: 'America was trying to equip India with sophisticated arms and nuclear capability and Allah had already warned the Muslims against this unholy nexus among the infidels against the Muslims. America, Israel and other western nations in collaboration with India were trying to divide Kashmir to gain hegemony in the region and set up military bases in this region. We declare Jihad against India.'

Whether or not the statement was made by the 'real' al-Qaeda, the remnants of which are probably holed up in the Waziristan region of northwest Pakistan, or emanated from an autonomous group that was merely claiming the 'brand' is not my concern here. Nor is the rather confused political analysis of the statement itself. What is significant is that the Government of India is increasingly seen not merely as an agent of local oppression against Muslims in places like Kashmir and Assam. Rather, it is perceived as a strategic partner in the global configuration of power that jihad attacks.

There may be reasons to welcome India's growing profile in international affairs, but those of us who do, would do well to remember that greater power inevitably breeds greater resentment. In our rush to curry favour with the US, we would be foolish to neglect the costs of being seen to be too close to a deeply resented actor on the world stage. This doesn't mean that we should let al-Qaeda dictate our foreign policy. But it should caution us that our quest for greater power in the world and the means by which we are currently pursuing it do not seem to be delivering greater security for the Indian people.

Policy analysts have a deplorable tendency to interpret crises in ways that reinforce their worldviews: there's nothing like a disaster to say 'I told you so!'. And perhaps I am guilty of the same, in that the current crisis merely serves to confirm my already considerable misgivings about the direction of Indian foreign policy. There is a sense in which I could be very wrong, but it is not one that should give anyone cause for comfort. Some of the most astute observers of contemporary global jihad (Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad) have suggested that it cannot be understood in political terms at all. If political acts are distinguished by a sort of means-ends rationality in which the act is intended as an instrument to achieve a particular vision of society, global jihad no longer demonstrates this, if it ever did. Its purveyors have no coherent vision of a utopia they seek to construct, they are not concerned with the creation of political parties, revolutions, ideological states or collective modes of solidarity of any sort. Rather, acts of jihad are conceived as demonstrations of faith performed for God by an individual, as individual ethical acts rather than collective political ones. The modern jihadi is animated by a volatile mixture of emotions and experiences: an existential angst familiar to twenty-somethings the world over, an alienation from the societies in which they live, and a disillusionment with the metanarratives and certainties of the traditional organisations of political Islam. It is a heady cocktail, not hugely dissimilar to the emptiness and disenchantment that leads young people in the developed world to abandon organised party politics in search of individual, ethical ways of 'doing good', in movements against globalisation or for the environment, aided by the tools of globalisation. An understanding of global jihad as ethical rather than political is infinitely more troubling: if it isn't about politics, it is hard to see what politicians can do.

Yet even if we cannot adequately describe the motivations of those who feel compelled to end their lives in orgies of death and destruction, in the secular and materialistic categories of western political science, there is a great deal that the state can and should be doing to protect its citizens from acts of wanton murder. Perhaps the most distressing stories that have come out of this tragedy are those of staggering intelligence failures: Praveen Swami writes of intelligence briefings, only half-acted upon, that suggested that the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba was planning attacks from the sea on India's western seaboard. News channels have been commenting on operational failures, one of which seems to have been that the heroic commandos of the National Security Guard possessed no dedicated aircraft that could have ferried them swiftly to the sites of attack. Be angry at the terrorists by all means, but spare some of your outrage for the great big lumbering Indian state which has, yet again, been caught napping.

modified 30 November 2008


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

how the FUCK is cafe leopold supposed to defend itself?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The wise Alice Walker's advice to President-elect Obama.

Oh and prop 8 can go to hell. This morning I woke up thinking there could be a gay President, in my lifetime. But in the meantime, there is work to be done. See this excellent piece in the Nation, which helps make sense of the fact that '
70 percent of African-Americans voted Yes on 8, as did 53 percent of Latinos and 49 percent of Asians', without making the racist claim that non-white people are inherently and inescapably homophobic.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Nous sommes tous americains.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

election day

There have been many moments in this presidential race when I have felt rather alienated from the excitement. By the time I came around to supporting him, tentatively it has to be said, Oxford was already swept up in a tidal wave of Obamamania. I was/am irritated by the facile assumptions that a Democratic victory would change everything for the better - a view that neglects the bipartisan consensus on a lot of the bullshit that forms a kind of bedrock for US foreign policy (leader of Free World etc.). I am concerned that with all the excitement over individual agents, we lose sight of structural constraints - the pathways that leaders are locked into by previous decisions - thereby setting ourselves up for immense and inevitable disappointment. I was ambivalent about the extent to which I should attempt to influence, in my own small way, the electoral process of a sovereign state: yes it affects me too, but participation seems like acquiescence in its imperial overlordship (what did anti-colonial nationalists do everytime there was an election in Westminster? lobby? fundraise? sit on the sidelines?). And a very tiny part of me is, frankly, terrified by the prospect of an Obama victory: what happens when tremendous power is harnessed to tremendous legitimacy? The only thing worse than an unpopular emperor is a popular one.

But when all the caveats are made and reservations entered, when I have worked through my Gramscian intellectual pessimism and gotten around to thinking from another place in my head, the hugeness of the moment is blindingly obvious. If Obama wins (and I say if because I am worried about the illegal aunt, the Bradley effect, faulty voting machines, weary voters, bad weather, a terrorist attack, swiftboats, hanging chads, Supreme Court judges, an act of fricking God) - if Obama won, many things will not change and in some ways everything will change. These days when I read Martin Luther King's words, I hear Obama's voice. This is, quite simply, a moment of renewal for the nation, a chance to deepen its democracy. Please, even if the queues are four hours long today, vote Obama.

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