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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fighting the ISIS: Why India should measure its steps                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, while interacting with the press at the wreath laying ceremony commemorating the 1971 victory anniversary at Amar Jawan Jyoti, said, "We have made it clear that if there is a UN resolution and if there is UN flag and a UN mission, then as per India's policy to operate under UN flag, we will participate."
There are two dimensions to the unfolding game. One lies in addressing the fighting between the Russia-supported Assad regime and the US-supported rebels. The second and more daunting prospect is dealing with the ISIS. Rationally, the first should precede the second.
It is not clear what Parrikar has in mind. If he is referring to the first then it can be reasonably backed. After all, the conflict has seen 250000 deaths and over 10 million displaced or refugees. Halting the fighting politically and bringing in UN peacekeeping forces for overseeing the ceasefire and follow-up political arrangements can only be taken as urgent and necessary.
Indian participation can easily be seen as facilitating the above. It is, after all, on top of the table of UN peacekeeping contributors alongside Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It would also be in keeping with this tradition and its national security stakes including a voice in the Security Council. As it is, Indian blue helmets are already in close vicinity of the fighting in Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
However, Parrikar appears to have had the second in mind – military operations against the ISIS albeit under a UN flag. There are two aspects to this: the UN-mandated operation and the foe, ISIS.
It can easily be seen why India might like to sign up. It wishes to be on the high table. It makes up with military might what it lacks in diplomatic heft. Especially where ‘boots on ground’ matter, it is streets ahead of all armies. Since cleaning out the ISIS would require troops, It is also easily understood why the US may look to India.
The manner in which the media campaign has shaped up since Russia joined the fray and the Paris attacks occurred makes it difficult to argue against participating in wrapping up the ISIS. India is determined to place itself in the same corner as those fighting the ISIS under the garb of fighting terrorism. Soon after the Paris attacks it invited the French President for gracing the next Republic Day parade.
There are internal political reasons that should not be discounted. The deep wellsprings of cultural nationalism are watered by a belief of Muslim domination of Hindus over the last millennium. Here is an opportunity for Hindu power to stride across Muslim lands. The internal political utility of such projection would be in suitably cowing India’s Muslims, their red rag.
The rationale would be their susceptibility to outside blandishment towards terrorism – witnessed over the last two decades through their hobnobbing with Pakistan’s ISI. This necessitates tackling the problem at its origin. Watch this argument being trotted out over the following months by closet right wing strategists.
Words of caution
That said, anticipatory arguments against premature commitment to military adventurism are in order. The ISIS is all that the western media says, and more. It is an ogre. It is however not a monolith. The West and Russia have good reasons to want to get rid of it. Its rise shows up their underside.
The West has flirted with radical Islam not only for strategic heft against Soviet Union initially, but also in this case against Assad. Russia has trampled Chechnya and the Russians in the ISIS is a blowback brewing. The ISIS is resident in an Iraqi Sunni populace with its own political and strategic moorings. To add to complexity, a proportion of its funding is from Arab sources alienated from their feudal regimes to an extent that cosmetic elections as the latest one in Saudi Arabia are simply too late salvage.
A military roll back of ISIS, even with the powers on the same page, would be to address symptoms. This means that just as ISIS succeeded Al Qaeda, there would be another new kid on the block. The military way as currently underway does not lend confidence that it is sufficiently cognizant of the laws of war. Incessant bombing of populated areas is on. It is hard to believe that the ISIS is sitting out in the desert without its human shields.
It is apparent that photo opportunities of the kind Prime Minister Modi is indulging in -- such as those showing him aboard IAF choppers providing relief in Chennai or onboard an aircraft carrier -- are being taken too seriously. Overconfidence in the military also calls for a warning. A brass that could not convince its political leadership that a combined commanders’ conference is not like a political party’s jamboree is not one that can be relied on to pull off peace enforcement half a continent away.
The only positive spin one can make of the statement is that India is perhaps under pressure from the USA to sign up for an impending ‘Coalition of the Willing II’, which it rightly wishes to avoid. Therefore, its insistence on UN resolution, which in the circumstance of peace enforcement in Iraq or Syria may be difficult to come by.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Chennai floods and India’s strategic underside

The floods in Chennai for a second time round bring home that our metropolises are quite incapable of withstanding disasters. If natural disasters continue to perplex the administration across the country, be it in Srinagar or Garhwal earlier, it can well be imagined what nuclear conflict aftermath would wreck. In Chennai, it took longer to react since the army was absent, with its Southern Command over at its winter manouvers, Exercise Drad Sankalp. Therefore, public interest is warranted and public interest a must, even in arcane issues of nuclear strategy.

Recent obituaries on the death of Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security advisor, prompted a return to the Kargil War. Sandy Berger apparently defused an India-Pakistan nuclear crisis during the war, quite like another national security official, Robert Gates, had done once previously in 1990. Alongside, excerpts from an Indian war correspondent’s just released memoirs of the period also make a mention of the nuclear dimension to the conflict.

Reportedly, Brajesh Mishra went over to Europe to suggest Americans use their good offices with the Pakistanis to wind up their intrusions in Kargil, or else India would use all measures to evict them. The hint was that India may require crossing the Line of Control (LC) and, following its 1965 War footsteps, would not necessarily restrict itself to the LC sector. This could provoke a nuclear response from Pakistan, necessitating nuclear retaliation by India. The scenario impressed Clinton enough to persuade Nawaz Sharif to call back the Pakistani intruders. The rest as they say is history.

The Kargil War prompted a rethink in India at both levels: conventional and nuclear. However, there was a mismatch between the two. While at the conventional level, India went on to a proactive and offensive doctrine, at the nuclear level it promised ‘massive’ – city busting – nuclear retaliation. A conventional offensive could prompt a Pakistani nuclear counter, leading to reflexive escalation on India’s part that would insensibly put its own cities at risk.

This would have been sustainable in case the conventional offensive was made a remote possibility by measures such as meaningful talks over conflict triggers such as Kashmir. However, while the talks did get underway, as the then Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri’s memoirs testify, they could not be sustained and eventually were derailed by Mumbai, 26/11.

The latest Exercise Drad Sankalp has all the hallmarks of nuclear dangers: ‘decisive manoeuvres by mechanized forces on ground in harmony with utilization of the Third Dimension (air power (added)) to ensure complete dominance of the battlefield.’ The highlighted phrases would tend to trigger Pakistan’s nuclear card, officially pointed out finally by its foreign secretary only this September.

The mention of ‘integrated theatre’ concept the finds mention in the press note suggests that the manouvers appear to be prepared for such an eventuality. What the phrase means is that even though the Pakistani frontage has three geographic commands arrayed, they are capable of fighting as one, as was the case in the 1965 War in which General Harbaksh Singh was the de-facto theatre commander. While in 1965, the war was brought to an end with General JN ‘Mucchu’ Chaudhuri pleading lack of artillery ammunition, the integrated theater concept also entails integrated logistics, implying that India could rely on its depth in resources to continue the war despite its going nuclear.

India is evidently still fighting the last war. Deterrence wonks would have it that this ability will strengthen deterrence by implying ‘escalation dominance’, an ability to prevail even if Pakistan goes nuclear and at any level of nuclear exchange(s). However, the Chennai floods bring home that this does not hold for the civilian front. It would be wishful to believe that the civilian front will remain unscathed in war.
The favoured scenario is of Pakistan setting off a few tactical nuclear warheads to thwart India’s mechanized forces. However, with its conventional forces continuing the war – an ability the military exercises underway testify – then it would be yet again bringing its cities under risk. Pakistan, once it has broken the nuclear taboo, will unlikely defensively restrict nuclear salvos to its own territory, hurting itself multiple times over in addition to suffering India’s retaliation. Therefore, India’s prolonging the war despite Pakistan’s introduction of nuclear weapons would open the way for nuclear escalation.
India needs instead to end war immediately on its going nuclear. This was the conclusion of India’s leading nuclear thinker, General Sundarji (Blindmen of Hindoostan, Delhi: UBS Publishers, p. 102) that now needs dusting and readying for doctrinal battle.
Nuclear hawks would have it that this plays into Pakistani hands, enabling that state to get away. India must instead be firm and resolved to inflict punishment. The problem with this argument is India needs to then, alongside, gain ability to withstand punishment. It is debatable whether any society can really ever do so, leave alone India.
As Mr. Modi lands by helicopter to address the military brass assembled for the combined commander’s conference on INS Vikramaditya mid-month, he needs reminding that India would end up as Churchill would have it - a geographic concept – in case India does not lead South Asia off the nuclear path.
His foreign minister’s visit to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference has set the stage for more than merely his visit to Islamabad for the SAARC summit. The two national security advisers’ secret meeting in Bangkok heralds a revival of the ‘back channel’. The two must ensure that ‘back channel’ they go beyond nuclear confidence building that is part of the up-front ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’ to arrive at a mechanism for nipping the nuclear genie right in the bud.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

India-Pak bonhomie: Can it last?

Since this is the fourth spectacle that Modi’s national security establishment has pulled off, it would be difficult to bet if this is the last one. The first was to get Sharif to attend Modi’s swearing in. Soon thereafter, they cancelled the foreign secretary talks. A year later at Ufa, Russia, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan outlined a step-by-step approach to begin with a meeting of national security advisers. The very next month, the meeting was called off over whether the agenda would include Kashmir.
The fourth and latest volte-face on India’s part witnessed the two national security advisers meeting in secret in Bangkok to set the stage for the Indian foreign minister’s visit to Islamabad. Clearly then, between now and the prime minister’s visit scheduled for next September for the SAARC summit, the only certainty is uncertainty. Any bets would need to be hedged.
Consequently, it makes only some sense, but not very much, for applauding the latest turn round. The good part of appreciating the move is that it would incentivize the two states to stay the popular course, for yet another departure would prove costly in terms of reputation and felicity for foreign policy. Since this time round the foreign minister has announced renewed engagement under the rubric of ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’, it would appear to be more serious, making a turn back more costly.
However, there are two major drivers behind this that might change in the months ahead, leading to the possibility of yet another turn, if not an about turn.
The first one is external: US influence. The influence of the US on India’s Pakistan policy has been there since India asked for its intervention to pull its chestnuts out of the fire during the Kargil War. In the event, the Clinton succeeded spectacularly, setting the stage for the bilateral dialogue between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot that the two succeeding governments took to the logical conclusion in the nuclear deal.
India eased up on Pakistan in the period the US needed Pakistan to prosecute its Afghanistan offensive. In the event of the Taliban bouncing back and the theatre expanding to ‘AfPak’, the US needed pressure on Pakistan. The coincidence of 26/11 enabled India to apply the pressure that then enabled the US to keep Pakistan to the till, including acquiescing to drone strikes on its territory.      
With Obama coming to office with an aim to pull out troops from both Afghanistan and I    raq, the US needed Pakistan all the more. There was even talk of ‘talking to the Taliban’, in this case the ‘good Taliban’. In the post Osama phase of US-Pakistan relations, India-Pakistan relations transited what Sushma Swaraj called the ‘resumed dialogue’. These were essentially talks about talks rather than a resumption of the ‘composite dialogue’ and were soon to collapse in the beheading of Indian soldiers on the Line of Control. The Congress then fast approaching its nadir was unable to look beyond the elections.
This brings one to the second factor: internal politics. Internal politics punches way below its weight in international relations, although it is perhaps the more significant in determining a state’s foreign policy. The Modi wave was such as to make his national security managers believe that they could dictate terms even to Pakistan. With the Pakistani ambassador unwilling to oblige by cancelling his tea with the Hurriyet, foreign secretary level talks about a return to the table were called off.
India upped the ante by selective firing along the Line of Control, replied in kind by a spurt in infiltration by Pakistan. This was useful from the ruling dispensation’s point of view as significant states were going to polls, including J&K. While the gains in J&K were obvious, Delhi and later Bihar showed the diminishing marginal utility of muscle flexing. The politics of polarization that brought dividend in the national elections and elections in Maharashtra and Haryana appear to have run out of steam.
Assam and later West Bengal now face polls. Whereas the politics of polarization has made an early appearance, particularly in Assam, the fact is that both states have significant minority populations that cannot be ignored. Consequently, in the minds’ eye of the right wing political strategists a tough Pakistan policy may require watering down, at least temporarily.
In their thinking, Indian Muslims identify with Pakistan and would be mollified if India were to be seen as chumming up with that state. Fallacious though this is the connection drawn of Indian Muslims with Pakistan is self-evident from the numerous references to both that find mention in the same breath of right wing politicians and propagandists. Memorable on this score are, ‘go to Pakistan’ and ‘celebrations in Pakistan’. 
Clearly, the internal elections timetable appears to be driving the foreign policy agenda of the government. If Mr. Modi is to eventually have a free hand in reshaping India, he requires conquering Raisina Hill, one half of which - its upper house -  is currently not in his kitty. A reverse while on top would expose both Modi and the right wing, setting them back with finality.
Peace with Pakistan is useful in this sense by helping with his economic agenda, since he has come under criticism for promising much and delivering little. He can afford to do without any buffeting that can originate in Pakistan. Keeping Pakistan placated makes sense and any subsequent crisis onset can then be rightly blamed on that side for not keeping up its side of the bargain.
What does such an inside-outside look at India’s Pakistan policy spell for longevity of this phase?
In the immediate term, it is all for the good in that the two military operations heads can meet as per the schedule set at Ufa. This will translate on a tranquil Line of Control. This might well extend into summer since Mr. Modi has accepted the invite to travel to Islamabad for the SAARC summit. Pakistan for its part has promised good behavior so long as talks continue, so infiltration may once again be at ebb.
Yet, Modi in travelling to Islamabad would not like to end up as Vajpayee did with egg on his face, so there would be little let up in militarization. This will ensure that the next crisis will likely be more ‘on the edge’ than was the relatively placid one of 2002. Internal politics will pressure Modi to give a ‘befitting reply’. Since the onus would be on Pakistan, even if this has an economic price, playing to the gallery militarily would compensate.
Pakistan for its part needs a break in order to make the gains its proxy the Taliban appear to be making in Afghanistan. The US also needs Pakistan to keep a check on the Taliban pulling the rug from under its sponsored administration in Afghanistan. The US cannot keep a closer watch since history appears to have speeded up in the Middle East. Once Pakistan has seen off the US, and gains a measure that India is only set to discuss J&K, rather than talk meaningfully, its gloves are liable to be off.
The timeline for the strategic outlook here takes Modi into his second term. By then he would not need to be soft with Pakistan any more, either for the economy’s sake or elections. The reboot of India would be away in right earnest, for which a hostile Pakistan would be preferable to accentuate the internal ‘Other’, India’s minority.
So what we are essentially seeing is a stowing away of the gloves for timely retrieval a few years on. The interim would in any case see twists and turns aplenty, if only because an intelligence head on the Indian side as national security minder and a military man on the other, are both adept at shadow boxing.