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Sunday, February 27, 2011

What if Pakistan implodes?

India would do well to consider its options in light of its national interests. Loose nukes are certainly a concern, but talk of taking them out is cavalier, and we must put the brakes on that.

28 February 2011 - Nuclear safety and security in the subcontinent have been among India's concerns. Recently, the National Security Adviser had this to say: "there is an increasing danger of terrorism spreading from those parts of Asia, like Pakistan and Afghanistan ... The security of nuclear materials and weapons in those same parts of Asia is another example of the sort of problems that we face." (Indian Express, "Towards a New Asian Order"). These fears have been around ever since the United States commenced military action in the region against terrorists and their supporters.

In international fora, the spectre of a 'failed' Pakistan, and the resulting threats to nuclear safety have been played down, generally, but they cannot be ignored altogether. The answer so far has been to pressure Pakistan to maintain vigilance, with the US providing more substantial material and technical support. With the assassination of Salman Taseer, the personnel reliability program has come under cloud. Various scenarios of Pakistan going under finally, although still far-fetched, have also gained life in light of uprisings in Arab lands.

Take out the nuclear weapons?

A government-funded think tank believes it has the answer to the development of such a threat. In its view, "in case there is ever a successful coup led by radical extremists with the support of disgruntled elements in the Pakistan army, nuclear warhead storage sites will need to be bombed so as to render the warheads ineffective. For this contingency, India must consider providing military and logistics support to the US and its allies" (see this link).

We only need to remind ourselves of Chernobyl, while mulling over this advice. Of the population of about six million in the affected area stretching from Ukraine to Belarus, an estimated 5000 died of radiation effects according to WHO figures. In a country of 175 million people with another 100 million or so Indians in close vicinity, the possible casualty figures are mind-boggling. In case this advocacy was part of internet cacophony, it could have been easily ignored. But coming from a military-linked think tank, it calls for closer scrutiny.


The risks of intervention

It is readily accepted that India needs to intervene in some manner on the side of the besieged rational-secular element in Pakistan, in case the challenge of radicals goes beyond limits. But the scenarios for such intervention are also dismissed too quickly, since, as a noted Pakistan watcher Sumit Ganguly put it, "Pakistan is not Egypt". Nevertheless, this alternative is something we must discuss, lest the advocacy for intervention assume dominance by default.

In a country of 175 million people with another 100 million or so Indians in close vicinity, the possible casualty figures from an attack on nuclear sites are mind-boggling.

Assuming Pakistan slides into its oft-predicted but perpetually eluded 'failed state' status through a civil war, the Indian interest would be to ensure that the secularists in that country prevail. Towards this end India may choose to be supportive. However, the opposition can be expected to cash in on the backlash of that group associating with India. In case this backlash is more powerful than Indian exertions, the secularists are unlikely to be saved. It would be best, therefore, for India to keep any support it provides covert.

As for allowing other countries to use its national territory for more proactive uses, India must be prepared to end up as a 'frontline state' if it makes this choice. Given the dubious benefits of this distinction for Pakistan over two periods in the eighties and last decade, the price India would have to pay can be easily imagined. Those desiring a closer engagement with the US and Israel may not mind such a development, but the historical record is quite clear - countries have not benefited from an overly close asymmetric relationship with the United States.

A secular soft-landing

If the secularists find support within Pakistan itself, they could hold out for long against the Islamists, but in that case the civil war would be both brutal and prolonged. To some that is not such a bad thing - since keeping the instability restricted to Pakistan would be better than permitting its spread to the region in case of an Islamist victory. However, there is no guarantee of a secularist victory. That the secularists have themselves brought on such a catastrophe through policies such as ignoring land reforms, education etc. implies they are not necessarily the better side.

But staying out of Pakistan's affairs would have one benefit, in case the secularists are displaced. India would be better positioned to engage with the opposition, even if Islamist, in power. Engagement can help socialise the new regime, whereas efforts at containment are likely to make it expansionist in reaction. Reassurance may be a better strategy towards normalising the regime. This would serve the larger Indian interest in regional stability.

What does this imply for the crown jewels - the nuclear weapons? Taking them out of circulation may prove possible with the help of secularists guarding the facilities and assets. However, firstly such action can be expected to instigate fighting over their possession, endangering them further. It is better instead that the victor be allowed the spoils without turning the sites into dangerous battlefields. This way there would be greater hope of central and local authorities continuing control. Secondly, there is no guarantee of taking out the complete inventory. The threat from those remaining in the wrong hands would be considerably more. India, being closest at hand, would be in the line of fire, more so than the US or Israel.

India would therefore do well to consider its options in light of its national interests. That the US is threatened by loose nukes is certainly an international concern. The response to this threat is not necessarily through intervention, but by defusing the 'pull factors' that cause the threat, such as the violence of the Islamist opposition. American support for authoritarian regimes is as much to blame for this as anything else. If there is a message from the Arab revolt, it is that democracy is the best safeguard against radicalism. Preventing a collapsed Pakistan and ensuring its soft landing in secular hands is therefore a better strategy.

It is important to refute the irresponsible advocacy not only so that taxpayers' money is not ill-spent, but to prevent the group-think that may result from such ideas being posted as the 'only option'. There are always other options, if we choose to think first.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Manufacture of a partner

31 January 2011 - With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was fairly clear that Washington's covert operations in Afghanistan had inflicted a mortal blow on the Soviet Union. This arrival of the unipolar moment served as background to India's grand strategic shift, brought on by coincidence of the foreign exchange crisis and the era of coalition governments.

India's consequent availability as a potential partner attracted the strategic attention of the United States. In the two decades since, India has moved to a position of that country's strategic partner, serving as a counter-weight to China's growing influence in Asia. Also, in case Pakistan were to collapse from the ripples to its west, India may emerge as a 'frontline' state in various wars of the West's making. In part, this story of strategic convergence has been a collaborative effort between strategists in both states.

Prior to the 1990s, there was only the dependable Stephen Cohen as a credible South Asia watcher. His work on the Indian Army served not only those abroad, but also Indians, to understand themselves better. Thereafter, George Tanham, a longtime RAND policy analyst came to study Indian strategic culture, a study incidentally intended for the US Air Force. After speaking to several members of the strategic community - which was much smaller back then - he echoed their view that India lacked a strategic culture and attributed this, possibly reflecting some of his interlocutors' opinions, to the pervasive cultural - read Hindu - beliefs.

Stephen Rosen, at about the same time, reinforced Tanham's finding on the cultural roots of lack of India will to power, alighting on the caste system and divisiveness for India's strategic incapacity.

Interaction between visiting scholars and the mainly Delhi-centered strategic community in interviews, conversations and on the seminar circuit, served as a feedback loop, with the ideas of the strategic community defining how India was viewed and viewed itself. The strategic community used the opportunity to press its descriptive and prescriptive agenda. This principally consisted of viewing India as less ill at ease with the use of force, and consequently lacking in the institutional edifice necessary to exercise it. Their aim was a departure from Nehruvian antecedents for an assertive India.


This had two consequences, both traceable to the tests quite easily. One was that under cover of the Chagai tests it conducted in response to India's nuclear bravado, Pakistan plotted and executed the Kargil intrusion. The after-burn of the operation to evict them from the snowy heights around the Line of Control led to landmark changes institutionally in India - in the direction that strategists had been demanding. The second was in the opening up of India to the US, and indeed, vice versa, of the US opening up to India - through the dozen meetings between Strobe Talbot, who had Clinton's ear, and Jaswant Singh, the leading strategic light of the BJP.

At about that time, echoes of the contest for shaping of India's nuclear capability can be witnessed in the writings of Ashley Tellis. His book on India's emerging arsenal was seemingly a reaction to India's Draft Nuclear Doctrine. The Draft, in balancing the input of nuclear-inclined members of the National Security Advisory Board, outlined an expansive nuclear agenda, if a wishful one back then. Tellis, by defining the emerging arsenal as a 'force-in-being', attempted to restrict it. His access to the nuclear establishment was not only because of his intrepidity but because using his work, the nuclear establishment attempted to shape India's policy to go further down the nuclearisation route.

The advent of the Bush era, the challenge of Islamism, the beginnings of global multipolarity and the rise of China by the early 2000s resulted in the growing strategic significance of India for the US. India, by then itself experiencing the beginning of rapid economic growth, was transferring the economic benefits into usable military power. The decade ended with India spending three times the amount on defence that it did at its beginning. This was impelled by the perceived failure of its attempt at coercive diplomacy during Operation Parakram, its military response to the parliament attack.

The changes were noted in strategic literature in Steve Cohen's Emerging India and C Rajamohan's Crossing the Rubicon. The Indo-US relationship climaxed with the clinching of the nuclear deal, spawning a cottage industry of strategic writings both for and against it. The fresh entrants were Indian academics returning after acquiring familiarity with the jargon and cliches of non-traditional fields as international relations and strategic studies in academic institutions in the west. The refrain of this younger generation reflects that of the diaspora and middle class, for an Indian seat at the global high table, finally and at long last.

The latest in this opinion and policy shaping interaction is Steve Cohen's third book of consequence, Arming Without Aiming. That the book is co-written with Sunil Dasgupta, indicates the increased intimacy of collaboration in the manufacture of India's strategic image and self-understanding. The book, as in case of earlier books by George Perkovich, Tellis, Paul Kapur and Cohen himself, has the last chapter detailing policy recommendations for the administration. This exemplifies the cycle in which the strategic community, using the medium of the US academic, prods Indian security policy in a direction that is conveniently advantageous for the US.

What is the wider implication of this observation?

Casting about for fresh foes and allies, the US alighted on India for the latter role. The exercise of soft power, through the academic conditioning described above, has helped ease India's movement from a position of skepticism of the US to one of an easy familiarity with it.

The ends of the strategic community in the creation of an India at home with power and its instrumentality have in the process been partially met. While Indian strategists exerted to make India a strategic actor worthy of its potential and weight, the US, for its part, needed a player aligned with its aims in the region. The convergence of interests and ensuing interaction nudged India on to the status of an 'emerged power' in Obama's complimentary words, in sync with the US and its allies.

Two candidate explanations present themselves for this development. The first is that it was an inadvertent convergence, with structural causes. This is the rationalisation. The second one, deserving of investigation, is that India's emergence was the superpower's project. Condoleeza Rice admitted as much in the US promising to make India in its own image. Cadences of Edward Said's Orientalism, discerned in the institutional and intellectual structures and processes of the engagement over the past two decades suggest this. Strategic India was first imagined and its imagination captured, with the help of those Said would term as 'native informants'.

The implications for security of India and its people are still to play themselves out, and if the unraveling of US allies in the Arab world is any guide, it may not be benign.