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Sunday, October 11, 2009

WAR CLOUDS GATHERING

Kissinger gets it wrong again. He got it wrong earlier in his extension of the bombing campaign into Cambodia during the Vietnam war; in bullying India during its humanitarian intervention in East Pakistan; and in bad mouthing Mrs Gandhi along with his boss, Nixon. He has got it completely wrong this time in believing that accommodation of the Taliban in Kabul threatens India because in his words: ‘India (is threatened) by general jihadism and specific terror groups’. He was in the midst of advising Obama against a policy of accommodation with the Taliban by asking for help from the threatened neighbours in his Newsweek article, ‘Deployment and Diplomacy’.

Arguing against a former National Security Advisor to two Presidents, Nixon and Ford, is not easy. Especially since his views find echo in the ‘boots on ground’ school of the strategic community. The assumption of this school of thought is that a return of the Taliban to Kabul would witness a reversion to the pre 26/11 era. While its allies in the Northern Alliance would be scattered, India would be particularly vulnerable on two counts. They believe that Taliban expansion into Kashmir would revive the insurgency there. Also that a Taliban ‘victory’ could lead to creeping Talibanisation in India’s susceptible minority. It follows therefore that the foe should be fought away from the home turf. Thus far the US was doing a considerable job keeping the Taliban occupied in the Af-Pak region. They fear that the outcome of the current rethink in the US and the public hand wringing there may prove to be beneficial for the Taliban. Kissinger, for his part, weighing in against such a possibility, required that tackling the Taliban be outsourced to the neighbours. This school would be most happy to oblige being amenable to the idea of Indian troops containing Pakistan by keeping the Taliban at bay in Afghanistan.

Firstly, the return of the Taliban would be a mediated one. Those being courted are referred to as the ‘moderate’ Taliban, implying they are purchasable and non-ideological. The surge, reportedly of up to 40000 troops that General MacChrystal has requested in his report leaked to the Washington Post, is to suitably contain the hard-core Taliban and grind down Al Qaeda remnants. In effect, military action will continue, to suitably incentivise the Taliban to come for talks. This implies that the Taliban at the negotiating table would be those willing to accede to the demands made by the west. These would necessarily include a reconciliation with those of the erstwhile Northern Alliance who sided with the west in the toppling the Taliban. These terms would include a promise of good behaviour by the Taliban in return for a share of power. This means neighbours need not worry about triumphalism-driven expansionism.

Secondly, the US would unlikely leave in a hurry. Their exit would be stage-managed over perhaps half a decade. They would likely be confined initially to bases from where they would be free to operate against the Al Qaeda and their continuing supporters among the Taliban. This way the present day counter insurgency, gaining in unpopularity in the populations of the west and in host societies, would be discontinued, being no longer required. The emphasis would shift to anti-terrorism operations relying on technology and stand off weapons. Therefore, the fear of the Taliban turning against their neighbours would not arise, even if the capability to do so exists.

Thirdly, while the Taliban have earned their reactionary image by their revolting ideology and actions, a proportion of this can be attributed to the pressure-cooker of war. It is believed that the Taliban are so backward looking that they would not like to see development. Therefore, any promise of assistance with reconstruction is unlikely to work with the Taliban. Attributing this to them is to disregard history. Ever since their advent in power late last decade, they did try and reach out for recognition and assistance. However, this led partially to their association with the Al Qaeda, further ensuring that they were denied engagement by the international community. Two, poppy cultivation had been curtailed when they were in power last. It has resurfaced not only because of rule by warlords, but also as a result of the war. Therefore, the expectation that those coming over ground can be controlled through assistance in reconstruction is not unfounded.

Lastly, it is important to interrogate the degree of Taliban influence in both Kashmir and of their ideology among Muslims in rest of India. In Kashmir, there has been little evidence of direct Afghan Taliban participation as fighters. Though there have been reports of Afghan war veterans in the insurgency there, these are exaggerated since those involved are colourful and projected as larger than life. Further, statistics from Kashmir are unreliable on this count since any unidentified body is usually passed off for Afghan by security forces outfits competing for glory. That Kashmiri militants died in missile hit Taliban camps owes to the Taliban lending their services as trainers. This is a common phenomenon on the insurgent network. For instance, the LTTE were linked with the Maoists and the Kerens with North East groups.

With respect to rest of India, Muslim perpetrated terror has been over-hyped by the media. This has led to an eclipse of the terror perpetrated by right wing extremists passed off as Muslim perpetrated. In case suspicious instances, such as the recovery of the bombs in Surat after the Ahmedabad bomb blasts of last year, are subtracted, and those organised by Pakistani groups, then a more accurate picture of the terror originating in the minority emerges. The image of a minority vulnerable to terror inducement from the Taliban can then be safely discarded. The fear of ideological penetration - of Talibansiation - is also questionable. The minority in light of the Sachar Committee report revelations appears more concerned with existential and secular issues of bread, education and jobs. The expectation that Afghans could serve as a role model for them is to underestimate the ‘idea of India’, to ignore the syncretic fount of Indian culture and to do injustice to the draw of India’s economic miracle. Any angst that still exists has local causes, with the linkage to radical Islam being tenuous at best or a self-serving canard at worst.

Therefore, the case for India to fall in line with the Kissinger formulation - that all but asks for troops deployment - is wanting. Debunking it is important, for over the coming period commentary from the hawks can be expected to dominate the air waves and hog inches of print columns. This will create the ground for politicians to look more approvingly at military involvement that currently appears far-fetched. As it is, India is creating the capability for intervention through exercises in interoperability with the US military. It would lead to India backing the military dominant option against the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine.

The US is contemplating pushing Pakistan to ‘do more’, the Kerry-Lugar bill being the sweetner. This option is fraught with dangers of destabilisation of Pakistan with its knock on effects on India. Engaging Pakistan in talks could help extract a promise of Pakistani control over any anti India stance of the Taliban and also a cessation of India directed terror by Pakistani groups. In exchange India can offer to let up its containment of Pakistan in Baluchistan and Afghanistan and collaborate in reconstruction. Such ‘win-win’ options can only emerge once blinkers are forced off. Else the war announced by the bombing yet again of the Indian embassy in Kabul is set to escalate.

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