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Thursday, December 30, 2010

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The coming decade of nuclear risk

Four decades without war since 1971 is attributed as a peace preserved in part by nuclear weapons. By the mid-eighties both India and Pakistan had workable, if untested, nuclear weapons. By then, Pakistan was at war, if one by proxy. By the end of the decade there were two wars, one in Punjab and another in Kashmir. India too was at war, with itself. That the two states have not come to trade blows directly, despite Kargil, the Parliament attack and recently Mumbai 26/11, to some, is evidence of the nuclear peace. Will it persist through the coming decade?

If nuclear optimists are right then the coming decade should, unlike the preceding three, be most peaceful. Both India and Pakistan are poised at triple digit mark in warhead numbers. In other words, both can inflict unacceptable damage on each other. While India may believe that doing so is equivalent of assured destruction of Pakistan, it may be wrong to think that this would not be MAD (‘mutual assured destruction’). Both have evolving delivery systems. While Pakistan relies on missiles, India is working towards a triad with China as excuse. Both have a decade worth of experience with command and control systems. Pakistan has a head start and the dubious advantage of its military collapsing the three levels of war – tactical, operational and strategic – with the political in its omnibus Strategic Plans Division. Though smaller, it can yet prove to be David to India’s Goliath. Peace is to rely on this for longevity. Will it stand the test?

The immediate challenge will be posed by the manner Obama’s war unfolds. Having missed the earlier deadline of mid-next year, it has been reset to end by 2014. If all goes well, the opposition will expand the war in frustration and anger. If things go wrong, then the opposition will expand the war in pursuit of glory. The West, riven by distaste for the war, may disengage, perhaps as early as 2012 – a juncture dictated by US presidential polls. In case of Obama being a one-term wonder, a Republican Bush II could persist in the folly. In the four combinations possible, trouble lies ahead. For Pakistan, worse is ahead. What does this mean in nuclear terms?

The obvious is in the interest all sides will evince in nuclear weapons. With the US persisting in ‘going after’ them, the terror groups will go after nuclear weapons. The nuclear nether world can be expected to be active; with the ‘black swan’ event being the cataclysm waiting to happen. The second, of interest here, is in the regional impact of instability.

Just as they began the last one, India and Pakistan begin this one at odds with each other. The previous one began with the Kandahar hijack and ended at Taj Mahal Hotel. The current one finds India awaiting Mumbai II expectantly. Periodic terror alerts mean that terrorists need to be lucky but once and the state always. The odds are with the terrorists. No peace talks are on to prevent one. Without the peace process there is also no buffer, once the proverbial spark hits the cinder.

It must be conceded both state have not piled up cinder deliberately. India has tried to address ‘root causes’, but has been unable to go the distance. In Kashmir, it has reluctantly set the three interlocutors to work. It is pursuing the Sachar Committee recommendations in respect of alleviating concerns of its minority. It has placed the perpetrators of majoritarian terror on notice. It has investigated the leading political mascot of the nationalist opposition. It has attempted to reengage Pakistan, but found itself short of political capital to continue.

Pakistan for its part has been restrained in its provocation in Kashmir. It has attempted to cope as best as it can with the troubled western frontier. It has stopped short of risking civil war to placate the West or to give in to Indian demands to dismantle the ‘infrastructure of terror’.

While both states have gone some distance, both have also wilfully stopped short. And that gap could yet prove fatal.

India has replaced its unstated promise of ‘Cold Start’ with ‘contingency operations’ in case of another Pakistani provocation. This spells its comfort levels with its ability to react militarily. While this capability was being built up after Operation Parakram of 2002, ‘Cold Start’ was part of the smoke screen for deterrence. Retracting from it now, seemingly at the behest of the US to enable Pakistan concentrate westwards, indicates that it is a perfected manoeuver that can now be placed in cold storage. Pakistan, in its military exercises Azm e Nau over the summer, has also practiced its response.

Both sides stand confident. Readiness of both at the conventional and nuclear levels should spell mutual deterrence. Such confidence is dangerous. Such confidence impels continuation of their tryst at the subconventional level. It also impels the argument in favour of the military option next time round were push to come to shove. Under the circumstance, the nuclear backdrop can come to foreground in short order.

All it awaits is a trigger event. The two states have not done enough to preclude this. The difference between the original Cold War and that raging within the region is precisely this: existence of unaddressed flashpoints. The outline has been around for about a decade since the Agra summit. It would involve Indian accommodation and Pakistani abandonment of its chosen path of proxy war. India does not have the political will to follow through and Pakistan’s Army has not been singed by the terror backlash adequately.

Apparently it will take a war to prod both to senses. The one good to accrue is that it would be a sure way to bring about a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in South Asia. But, let’s be equally sure, it would be at a price!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Army's right to its opinion

24 December 2010 - The right of the Army to voice an opinion has been defended by Minister of State for Defence, Pallam Raju. The background to his defence was Omar Abdullah's complaint to the Prime Minister on an Army press release of a day earlier. The press release indicated that the decision to remove certain bunkers from Srinagar did not have the Army's concurrence.

The press release had stated: "Though it appeared to be a well-considered decision, the latest incident has raised many questions. It may have pleased a few separatists and their handlers in Pakistan, but what about the common man in the Valley? Will the reduced security and visible absence of security forces raise uncertainties, fear and doubt in the minds of the population during the long winter ahead?"

The Army Commander has since apologised for the offending press release saying it was unauthorised. The press release has been explained away as the 'personal predilections of a junior officer'. Yet, the Army being a highly centralised system, it is likely that the press release on a sensitive subject would have been vetted in the Command Headquarters Information Warfare section. The Army Commander, in tendering an apology to the Chief Minister, has apparently taken responsibility, as a good leader must, and there the matter could rest. However, does the contretemps have any ramifications?

This case can be seen as part of the continuum of the Army's unease with the security implications of moves towards normalisation of the Valley. These initiatives include the reported dismantling of 20 bunkers, removal of 1000 CRPF jawans and contemplation of removal of the notification of disturbed areas from some parts in Srinagar. The latter was to presage the progressive withdrawal of the AFSPA from the Valley where the security situation made it feasible.

The Army, understandably focused on the military dimension of the security situation, has apparently missed the larger gameplan unfolding.


The Army, understandably focused on the military dimension of the security situation, has apparently missed the larger gameplan unfolding. It has two aspects. One is wider regarding AFSPA as law. Deliberations in North and South Block have focused on diluting its less 'humane' parts by either reframing it or incorporating the legal cover the Army needs into the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The Army Commander had earlier made his reservations on any dilution of the AFSPA, terming it a 'holy book'.

The second is of local significance, relating to the security aspect of the draw down in Srinagar. The Army had been called out in July for the first time since early nineties in 'standby' in case the agitations in the run up to the foreign minister's meeting in Islamabad got out of hand. Such a situation would have placed the Army in a delicate position, that it no doubt apprehends in case control over Srinagar by the central police forces is diluted.

With regard to the latter, the Army has the Corps Commander in Srinagar as the advisor to the Chief Minister in the Unified Headquarters looking after the Valley. His position, taken with approval of the next rung in hierarchy at Udhampur, has doubtless been taken on board in its decision making by the Chief Minister. In any case, Srinagar town does not have Army deployment and is the responsibility of the state police assisted by central police forces. The onus is therefore of the state, legally and structurally. Therefore, the apology was due.

But it does indicate a major perspective in the military. Outside the small print is the fact that the Army Commander is due to retire at year end. He can therefore choose to go the extra distance in firming up the military position. Army Commanders in the Indian system have considerable stature and power. This has proven disruptive at times in J&K, since the Army Commander curiously does not figure as the security adviser, though corps commanders, reporting to him, do.

That the Army has a right to an opinion is well understood. This enables it to perform its advisory function in a democracy. That it should voice its opinion is also useful - in providing access to its view for the attentive public. This helps make the democratic debate better informed. However, the question is whether it can voice it openly in a manner as to bring a policy and the policy-maker under cloud.

Watchful commentators, such as AG Noorani and Srinath Raghavan, are of the opinion that the military's repeated assertion of its position is an attempt to expand its role. Such views are based on the recent publicly-voiced position of the military by multiple personages at different occasions against deployment in Central India and against reformulation of the AFSPA. The point these critics make is that this ties down the policy maker's hands, since the politicians who make policy are often short of wide political capital, and would not like to be pilloried for going against professional judgment if things go wrong.

In the political process unfolding in the Valley, there is a need for calculated risks to be run to bring about a modicum of trust necessary for talks to proceed. Over a hundred youth have died in the summer agitations, and something substantive must be done to reverse this downward spiral. The slow and limited draw-down of visible security in Kashmir is part of this effort. The problem is that the Army is apparently not on board with this agenda.

This is a structural deficiency and a political gap that needs to be filled. The state government which is taking the initiative, backed by North Block, has only limited oversight over the Army, since the latter reports up its channel to South Block. Compounding this, the top brass of the armed forces is skeptical of political processes in general.

The Supreme Court judgment in the Nagaland Human Rights case against the AFSPA for the North East in 1997 had required that the armed forces maintain a relationship of 'cooperation' with the state when in 'aid to civil authority'. They are however outside the scope of authority of the state government. This means that the military is accountable neither to the state nor the Ministry of Home, responsible for internal security. It is instead accountable to the Raksha Mantri, who has no answerability for internal affairs. This divergence requires reconciling.

In the interim the onus is on the military leadership to navigate the structural deficiencies of the system by better formulation and articulation of the military's institutional position.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Varanasi was recently rocked by a terrorist explosion which targeted worshippers at the evening prayers ceremony at the Ghats. Two additional IEDs were recovered later. The Indian Mujahideen (IM), in an email reportedly sent from Mumbai, took responsibility for the attack. The ostensible reason was to avenge the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992; its plausibility was seemingly enhanced by the anniversary of the event only a couple of days earlier. Taken along with the bomb blast at the German bakery in Pune, it appears that India has not transited its past yet, despite the calm since 26/11.

That the IM are behind the blasts is the dominant expectation. Two recent headlines would indicate that the extremist group would like to claw its way back into reckoning. Recent media reports had it that the Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the events in Gujarat let off the Chief Minister for culpability in the events of 2002. The second was the earlier judgment of the Allahabad High Court on the disputed site in Ayodhya, splitting the land three ways. Extremists can be expected to have a grouse with both.

Pakistan’s shadowy ‘deep state’ can be expected to keep India off balance and seek to periodically remind it of its underbelly. A WikiLeaks-disclosed cable of a conversation with President Zardari post 26/11 shows him rationalizing the Mumbai attack as one that could not have been done without Indian collaborators. He hinted, referring to the Sachar Committee report, that India’s minority has reservations about India’s benign credentials, which may have led to some disgruntled Muslims lending a hand to the Pakistani terrorists.

The media, as is its wont, has latched on to the dominant discourse and furthered it. For the opposition to go after political dividend, both at the State and the Centre, can be expected. The government being on the back foot due to a poor political showing in Bihar and arraigned for corruption, would want to avoid opening up another front. Security analysts, sensitive to facts placed in the public domain by police, past commentary and their reputations, cannot be expected to chase after alternative explanations, termed ‘conspiracy’ theories. With the IM’s self-confession and Pakistan implicated by extension, there is little chance of all angles being explored. Therefore, the blast will be consigned as the handiwork of the IM, building up the notoriety of the group.

Nevertheless, revelations from ongoing investigations into the cases of terror bombings by majoritarian extremists by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) suggest that other candidate explanations cannot be ruled out. Earlier bombings by this terror group had been designed to implicate the IM and had succeeded in doing so till investigations revealed otherwise. The group is under considerable pressure, brought on by ongoing investigations identifying functionaries of the revivalist formations. The motive, if they are instead involved, could be diversionary. The other gain is to bring into focus a link, howsoever contrived, between India’s minority and wider global Islamist extremism as yet another stick to beat the minority with.

The domain of terrorism being murky and dirty, placing anything beyond their imagination is to give them undue credit. In their mind’s eye the political end justifies the means. In case this was minority-based, they were seeking to engineer a backlash - one not necessarily violent - that would then place them at the vanguard of ‘defence’ of the community. If numbering among the majority, discrediting the minority and the government would be two birds with one stone.

In the neoliberal scheme of things, the populace is too busy gainfully participating in India’s economic miracle. The expanded resource cake from the 9 per cent growth can be shared out in ending any perception of deprivation. A deprivation-alienation-terror link is made. Consequently the need is for statecraft that ensures social stability is maintained till the rising tide lifts all boats.

Periodic blasts prove that this is not enough. Action on three levels is required. At the international level, the impetus to radicalism needs defusing. The clash of extremisms emanating from Arabia between Wahabbism and Salafism has had a back drought thus far. With the war in AfPak set to continue till 2014, no end is in sight. At the regional level, the government could be more proactive on the Pakistan front. The July promise of a repeat meeting of the foreign ministers at the year’s end has not materialized. The sparring over the perpetrators of 26/11 continues. Reconciling with Pakistan has asymmetric benefits for India, including eased internal social relations.

In terms of internal security, it needs acknowledging that much has been done, such as acting on the Sachar report on the one hand and exposing majoritarian terrorism on the other. Much is also on the anvil, such as operationalizing the NCTC. The government can only do so much. It is for the majority and minority, in their multiple communities, to reach out to each other externally and deny intellectual space to extremism internally. One thing is certain: the media will be of little help.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


Obama helped India along in its search for greatness. During his visit, he reckoned India was a candidate for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Obama’s visit is being followed in quick succession by Medvedev, Sarkozy and Wen Jiabao. This owes not so much to the comparatively pleasant Indian winter, but to the percentage change in its yearly GDP.

Opinion is upbeat not only because of a selective view of the Indian reality but also due to perceptions of relative power. Europe is in trouble economically. The NATO, exhausted by Afghanistan, decided at its summit in Lisbon to leave by 2014. Declining populations in Russia, Japan, Europe and elsewhere and an ageing China are contrasted to India’s youth bulge yet to play itself out and its seeming energy. Manmohan Singh’s recent East Asia trip suggests that India’s strategic location is seen in fresh light as a check on a rising China. Obama’s visit, and his remainder itinerary across China’s periphery, can be read as an acknowledgement of this. The belief that India can now be an equal partner of the US can hardly be faulted.

Strategic commentary has it that this is in Indian interests since it would replicate the manner other great powers achieved such status. For instance, the Chinese first latched on to Communist Soviet Union and thereafter to the US. This assistance enabled China to get to its current position as the second superpower. India could also follow this route, using the proximity to the US for its own ends. India’s case as a potential great power cannot be pursued as a ‘free rider’. India would require lending a shoulder, alongside democracies in running the world. Since such reasoning is gaining uncritical acceptance, it could do with a critical once over.

Firstly, the analogy is stretched. In the period of US-China patch up, the dangers of the Cold War turning hot were well past, the last instance being 1962. China’s relations with the Soviet Union were also on the mend since the nadir of 1969. This is not the case with India since its border problem with China remains in the news. In case India was to weigh on the side of the US, it would complicate the problem by having the superpower competition figure as a factor. Also, local and regional problems would acquire wider ramification. This would endanger its growth path, sought to be benefited by such closeness.

Second, China, due to its closed system was an autonomous player in the relationship. India could instead end up a ‘junior partner’. Is this term merely a bogey of the political left? America’s relations with states that have been close to it, such as one closest to India’s western border, suggests that the embrace is certainly useful for some sections of the state and society. Even its allies have to suffer the consequence of dependence, such Blair’s Britain being inveigled into unpopular wars. Any tie up would have an internal political price. China could bear this due to its closed system. India’s internal deficits, particularly on the governance front, make this debatable.

Lastly, the Soviet Union was a satisfied power. Therefore, China did not get embroiled in great power games, including those that brought down the Soviet Union in the eighties. India would not have like luxury since the Chinese challenge is underway, best evidenced by its access denial strategy based on missiles and submarines. Even if the China front remains dormant, China would take care to keep India tied down on the other front by proxy.

Strategists bewail India’s lack of will to power. On that count, their analysis, in its focus on the structural, neglects the internal political and social consequence. A true appreciation of power - the staple for realists - would include being sensitive to India’s deficiencies and vulnerabilities. The structural level reasoning limits political choice and agency, making for poor strategy. Unless realists are countered in debate, their argument and dominance of the strategic community may carry the day, restricting India’s foreign policy choices.

Economy-centric neoliberals, in control of policy currently, find the neorealist logic appealing. Their case is that without growth, India’s internal contradictions would overwhelm it over time. Growth would be slower and will have indeterminate outcome. Closeness to the US may have a price, but worth paying in India’s interests such as access to high technology, investment, weapons etc. In any case, India is autonomous and in control. They iron out jagged edges in emulating the US in creating a regime of interdependence, such as through making China India’s largest trading partner.

India is ready for great power status, but not for great power games. How can it gain the former without the latter is the key question? To some it cannot be otherwise, in fact, being in the game is the sign of arrival. To others, India has been up there before and done it differently. It can be so yet again, even if to the disappointment of its self-styled strategists, middle classes and diaspora.
Muddling along

30 November 2010 - India's 'strategic community' comprises two distinct circles with little overlap. One can be termed the 'mainstream' and the other 'alternate' (Kanti Bajpai). While the reference point for the former is the state, for the latter it's society. Consequently, mainstream strategists have an external orientation to their discourse, concentrating on high politics; the latter is more internal oriented. While one is enamoured of India's rise and place in the global order, the other is more sensitive to its vulnerabilities and inadequacies.

Their prescriptions too are understandably poles apart. The state, to which both their commentary is directed, has to play balancer, and ends up being at the receiving end of criticism from both sides.

The 'community' can be imagined as comprising sub-circles of intelligence, military, police, foreign and administrative services, and technologists. There are several academic policy-wonks, co-opted for their expertise or proximity with one or other sub-circle. The denizens of this intellectual realm, usually retired, have continuing links with their respective fraternity. This keeps them current.

Their utility for their sub-circle of affiliation is in projection of issues with the desired spin into the public discourse. This helps build a constituency for any changes that the respective bureaucracy of affiliation seeks. In this role they amount to a pressure group. The upside of this is that the debate is in the open domain. The downside is that it is susceptible to manipulation.

Many of the 'mainstream' stalwarts are tapped by the government on account of their reputation as resource persons or integrity for security-related input. The National Security Council (NSC) system enables formal access to this in the form of the multi-disciplinary National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) having more than a score experts charged with rendering policy advice. There is considerable jostling to serve on this since it facilitates visibility, perks and information access otherwise unavailable due to a closed security establishment.

This is the closest India gets to the revolving door system in the US in which experts, comprising academics and retired professionals, rotate between appointments in the administration with the change in parties running the government. The NSC Secretariat also hires a few experts at various bureaucratic levels. The quasi-governmental think tanks have similar billets. Gubernatorial appointments and Special Interlocutor are the incentive.

The 'alternate', no less strong, present and omniscient, is the conscience keeper of the nation. Perhaps Arundhati Roy is its most visible sword bearer. They are better represented in the faculties of universities. They have their set of think tanks, but there is little interaction between the two sets. They are not less visible though, since they are more articulate, have greater information available being outside the purview of the security establishment, and having several fronts to engage with in the broad ambit of economics and social science. Their input is directed more at the Planning Commission, the National Advisory Council and the line ministries. The Finance Ministry is perhaps the lone one accepting lateral induction of experts at various levels in the hierarchy, including the higher rungs, otherwise dominated by the IAS.

More familiar with the mufussil and tehsil from their early careers, senior bureaucrats reinforce the inward focus, to the chagrin of the diplomatic community and the military.
The government, comprising the politicians and the bureaucratic levels, has the task of integrating the input and facing the critique. This perhaps can be considered as the third circle, the security Establishment as the 'official' strategic community. The politicians are savvy about and sensitive to the internal front. Their competence and interest in the external front, the staple for the 'mainstream', is considerable less so. This leads to the criticism that the state lacks a strategic culture and will to power. Instead, it is indicative of the unacknowledged relative strength of the 'alternate'.

Power is exercised through the bureaucrat-controlled ministries. These are the preserve of the 'steel frame', the IAS. More familiar with the mufussil and tehsil from their early careers, they reinforce the inward focus, to the chagrin of the diplomatic community and the military.


The bureaucratic stranglehold over the police in particular, makes the retired police fraternity bitterly critical and with ample reason. The military veterans' community too considers the military yoked by the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence. This owes to the elite service presence in not only the nodal ministry but also its control over the finance ministry. The allied services play out their subordinate role with unwarranted zest, enabling a more pervasive control of the bureaucracy. The disadvantage is in a corroding steel frame unable to hold up the weight of a continent sized polity. This, however, makes for a balance between the 'mainstream' and 'alternate', that in other states is usually inclined towards the former.

While the democratic space is enriched by the resulting cacophony, the articulation of a strategic doctrine by the state is difficult. The political party running the government is averse to giving those disappointed by such articulation a target; therefore the absence of a strategy document on the lines of the Strategic Defence Review of the UK and Nuclear Posture Review of the US. This results in a listless strategic orientation to the state. Without explicit direction from the political class, the bureaucrats have greater discretion but without corresponding expertise. Thus contestation between the 'mainstream' and the 'alternate' has the unintended fallout of holding up the security policy of the state.

The upshot is that the security policy ends up as 'more of everything for all'. For instance, in the internal security front, the central police forces are set to expand by another 38 battalions over the coming decade, in addition to the expansion over the last decade that made the CRPF the largest paramilitary in the world. The Army too has raised three score Rashtriya Rifles units for internal security in the decade prior to that. Caught in the advocacy between development and police action, the state prevaricates in Central India, with Operation Green Hunt proceeding unacknowledged.

Likewise on the external security front, there are several militaries in the offing instead of an integrated 'joint' one. For instance there are mechanized forces; mountain forces for two theatres, North and North East; different counter insurgency forces for Kashmir and North East; an amphibious force; and nuclear forces based on triad. Currently, an 'out of area' capability is in the works, mistaking the rhetoric in speeches for policy, such as references by the prime minister or defence minister to India's interests ranging from Aden to Singapore.

The strategic community - or rather the three strategic communities - have a democratic function in enriching the open domain. There is no escaping the parochialism in the mainstream communities, nor the critical brakes applied by the alternate on India's great power aspirations. The 'official' strategic community's inadequacy, at both the political and bureaucratic levels, leads to the system 'muddling along' between bouts of activism such as in the reorganisation of higher structures after Kargil and of the homeland security turf in wake of 26/11.

It is worth pondering if the miracle of India is due to or despite all this.