Mumbai: Institutional Paranoia And Obama's Foreign Policy

There are a lot of conflicting reports coming out of the Indian subcontinent right now, and no-one seems to have told their right hand what their le

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There are a lot of conflicting reports coming out of the Indian subcontinent right now, and no-one seems to have told their right hand what their left hand is doing. For instance, The UK's Telegraphreports Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Mumbai, saying that two British citizens were among the terrorists who first attacked Mumbai two days ago and who are still being winkled out of their positions by Indian special forces- while elsewhere the Mumbai Police Commissioner Hassan Gafoor is being quoted as saying "We have found nothing to indicate they were British."

That confusion extends to speculation about who is to blame, although India seems to be prematurely certain. Pranab Mukherjee, India's Foreign Minister, has said: "Preliminary evidence, prima facie evidence, indicates elements with links to Pakistan are involved." India is stopping and searching Pakistan-flagged merchant vessels, yet the best indications are that the terrorists came ashore from Indian fishing vessels. Rather than admit it might have an indigenous terrorism problem, which would open an unhappy can of worms about tensions between militant Muslim extremists and equally militant Hindu supremacists, the Indian government is stretching as hard as it can to implicate Pakistan. Their working theory is that these Indian boats were hijacked off Pakistani shores - yet they've no evidence for that at all.

Analysts also say that the sophistication of the attacks point to training outside India, and Pakistan is India's favorite venue. But there are also Islamist terror camps in Bangladesh, where the 10,000 strong JMB group receives ample funding and arms from sympathizers across the Muslim world. Even in India, a massive country with large rural areas under-patrolled by police, Islamist terrorist camps have been found in the Karnataka jungles of the Southwest. The Maoist Naxalite movement operates in thirteen of India's twenty-six states and is a robust organisation with anywhere up to 20,000 members. In April 2006, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Naxalite threat the “biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.” There's plenty of indigenous terrorist training capacity, not all of it controlled by or even backed by Pakistan.

However, institutional paranoia is the defining mental state of Pakistani-Indian relations. One of the big stories right now in Pakistan is about official claims that India is planning to destroy Pakistan by thirst, using dams on the Indus to deprive Pakistan's population centers of water. Rumor has it that, when Pakistani President Zardari recently offered to commit Pakistan to a "no first use" nuclear policy in a broadcast to Indian TV, he infuriated his military leadership from Kayani on down. Indian finger-pointing will not have defused their anger.The Indian and Pakistani governments have said that the head of Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency has agreed to to go to Indiato share information, at India's invite. However, despite the PR spin of Zardari's civilian government it's in no way clear that the dog yet wags the tail when it comes to civilian control of Pakistan's military and that visit might yet not happen in such a hostile atmosphere - which Indian politicians will immediately see as a sign of guilt.

Both nations' militaries have defined themselves in terms of their rivals since the two states separated and there's little real sign of that abating. Despite American VSP received wisdom that two US allies will never war between themselves, neither the Indians nor Pakistani's see things that way. An op-ed in The Asian Age newspaper back in 2006, following the massive Mumbai rail bombs, made it very clear:

There is a reality about India-Pakistan relations that sudden bonhomie cannot wish away. The reality is decades of distrust and suspicion, nurtured and cultivated by vested interests that include governments in Pakistan and political parties in India. The Hindu-Muslim angle remains the cornerstone of this distrust, as does the deeply embedded view that Islamabad and New Delhi can never really wish well for the other. Both governments are willing to lie down and be tickled endlessly by Washington, but when it comes to each other, every word is dissected and every action viewed under the prism of dislike and intolerance.

That op-ed is no longer online, but I quoted it last in 2006 post in which I argued that willfully ignoring this dynamic of paranoia was setting the U.S. up for it's next foreign policy disaster.

The incoming Obama administration (and my friends at the Center for American Progress) seems to have learned nothing from the Bush administration's mistakes in this regard and is set to perpetuate them. There's a massive helping of "pony plan" in Democratic plans for the region. The NYT today explains the idea thus:

Reconciliation between India and Pakistan has emerged as a basic tenet in the approaches to foreign policy of President-elect Barack Obama, and the new leader of Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus. The point is to persuade Pakistan to focus less of its military effort on India, and more on the militants in its lawless tribal regions who are ripping at the soul of Pakistan.

A strategic pivot by Pakistan’s military away from a focus on India to an all-out effort against the Taliban and their associates in Al Qaeda, the thinking goes, would serve to weaken the militants who are fiercely battling American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

And Reuters correspondent Myra MacDonald adds:

...the argument is that the cause of instability in Afghanistan is in Pakistan, and that Pakistan in turn will never fully turn against Islamist militants as long as it believes it might need them to counter India. Since Pakistan is nervous both about the growing power of India on its eastern border, and about rising Indian influence in Afghanistan on its western border, the best way to calm the situation down, so the argument goes, would be to persuade the two rivals to make peace.

It was always an ambitious plan — getting India and Pakistan to put behind them 60 years of bitter struggle over Kashmir as part of a regional solution to many complex problems in Afghanistan. Have the Mumbai attacks pushed it out of reach? And if so, what is the fall-back plan?

Even before Mumbai, Obama's plan was looking like it might fall apart. Before reports from Mumbai had begun to surface, the Indian foreign minister, in a joint press conference with his Pakistani opposite number, had poured cold water on an important facet of the plan:

On Jammu and Kashmir, Mukherjee rejected any third party interference, when asked to comment on the reports that the US president-elect was mooting to appoint Bill Clinton as his emissary to settle Kashmir issue. "There was no question of the intervention of third party. Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. It is part of composite dialogue process," he stressed.

Still, it remains true that Pakistan is the true "central front" for international terrorism. Every single major Islamist terror attack in the West in the last decade has had links to Pakistan. Bush's policy of hiding the truth and appeasing Pakistan's military dictator while fuelling a regional arms race by selling to both sides didn't work. Invading Pakistan is a non-starter. If any plans to foster an Indo-Pakistan thaw are unworkable because of deep-seated paranoia and anger - and I believe they are - then I personally have no idea what to do. The thing is, I don't feel confident that anyone else does either. Obama's plan, born from think-tanks like the Center for American Hope, always felt to me like a case of "we have to have a plan that stresses negotiation" rather than any deep seated conviction that such a plan would work.

The intertwined Gordian Knot of Afghanistan-Pakistan-India has no easy or obvious solutions, and is essentially uncuttable by Alexander's method while two of those three are nuclear powers. The US and the West will be working hard at it for decades, and there's no clear hope that even then it will be soluble. Imperial Britain's "divide and conquer' policies for its former dominions, decades of local tit-for-tat provocations and short-term thinking from successive US governments haven't done anything except tangle the knot further. It's a problem for the world comparable in scale to that of Israel and Palestine, but gets far less attention - and it's still the venue for the most likely next American foreign policy disaster.

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