Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Demise of Osama bin Laden – Some Observations from an Indian Perspective

On the face of it, it would appear that the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces is a very important milestone in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, perhaps signaling a reversal in the deteriorating American fortunes in the region. The reasons are not hard to understand. For one, it serves to boost the flagging morale of a population and military frustrated by their inability to conclusively win the war. Also, the way the operation was planned and conducted was an unambiguous show of decisiveness and strength by the United States. For a country that over the last few years seemed to have been put on the back foot in Af-Pak, hampered by directionless leadership and clumsily stumbling from one strategic setback to another (the latest being the Raymond Davis episode), the news could not have come at a better time. And lastly, it provides at least a semblance of justice to the families of the people who died in the 9/11 attacks. However, the long-term strategic implications of this event are almost zero, and may even exacerbate the security situation in Afghanistan. It is worth remembering that in the last five years, bin Laden had been reduced to a nobody, his presence inconsequential to the events unfolding in the region. While bagging him now does present the United States with a small victory, it is of little solace when the country has already lost the real prize – a stable and pliable Af-Pak with the United States shaping policy and events to further its long-term security interests. The tide of the war now seems to have shifted decisively in favour of Pakistan’s military-jehadi complex, and this event provides the Obama administration with just the excuse it needed to make a face-saving exit from the theatre. At the same time, Pakistan, and by extension, China, are perfectly positioned to fill the power vacuum this would create – putting them to control of the most important real estate in the continent and the gateway to Central Asian energy and mineral deposits.

In the short term, this event is sure to have repercussions for India, none of them positive. The brazenness with which the US military penetrated Pakistan’s well-defended air-space, that too by launching a successful intrusion near the heart of Pakistan’s military establishment, is sure to massively demoralize the junior and middle ranks of the Pakistani military. Additionally, having cast themselves as the sole defenders of the Islamic Republic from the designs of the crafty Americans and Indians, this very public failure of the Pakistani military is bound to affect the Pakistani population’s confidence in it. Indeed, just a few months back, it would have been unheard of for a junior officer to caustically utter “I am ashamed of what happened in Abbottabad” before the all-powerful Army chief, with the latter struggling to come up with a reply better than “So am I”, leave alone the ISI chief having to undergo a humiliating excoriation at the hands of the country’s parliament. At a time of such weakness, it would make perfect sense for the military leadership to make a play to regain its prestige and power, by seeking a definitive and public victory against a universally accepted enemy. And unsurprisingly, India stands out as a unique and enticingly soft target, the hatred for which runs deep in the Pakistani psyche – perhaps to the extent that it transcends the internal fissures in Pakistani society. One therefore hopes that the Indian leadership is taking measures to prevent a devastating terrorist strike in India, and is making preparations to deal with one when it occurs.

Speaking of terrorism, there is no reason for Indians to go overboard in rejoicing at the death of bin Laden. Indeed, he was a terrorist, but at no time was he an enemy of India except in the broadest ideological sense, and never really a particularly dangerous one. His support for the jihadi terrorism in Kashmir amounted to little more than lip service, and Al Qaida hasn’t been known to operate in Kashmir in any substantial capacity. At this time, it would do Indians well to remember that figures like Masood Azhar (a convicted terrorist, unlike bin Laden), Hafiz Sayeed, and hundreds of others walk free in Pakistan, spew hatred at India at every opportunity, and are not exactly averse to backing it up with action. The threat that Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed represent to India and Indian citizens is multiple orders of magnitude greater than what Al Qaida ever did. When these gentlemen are dispatched to meet their maker, we would have a real reason to celebrate. In the meanwhile, we are only doing a disservice to our country by acting oblivious to the fact that these people are safe under the protection of an enemy state, while celebrating the death of someone who was little more than an icon of Islamic terrorism for the West.

On a related note, it is worth noting we are, and not for the first time, seeing certain quarters (including some in Pakistan) refer to the ISI’s so-called perfidy in hiding Osama and sheltering terrorism. I think it is high time we stopped swallowing as truth the tosh about a “rogue ISI” or “rogue elements within the ISI” as independent entities. It casts the Pakistani state as an innocent body and allows it to pursue terrorism as a state policy with impunity, while all the blame is conveniently shifted onto a non-existent chimera. The ISI is made up of officers on deputation from the Pakistani military, it is no more "independent" than the Pakistani Military Engineering Service. To claim otherwise is just plain absurd.

As a final point, I feel it is high time the government revisited India’s approach in Afghanistan, and came up with a viable long-term strategy to secure her interests in the region independent of American designs and future actions. Until now, India’s strategy Afghanistan has been dependent on a significant US/NATO presence in the country, and her activities have been decidedly cautious, low-profile, and limited to providing aid and assistance with the country's rebuilding. While this may have been a plausible approach in the formative years of Afghanistan’s reconstruction, it makes little sense in the long-term, especially if India has to play a larger role in the region. This dependence has allowed Pakistan to play havoc with India’s plans, and also enabled the US to pressurise India to make compromises in Afghanistan. Ideally, this should not happen; if there is any geo-economic issue on which Indian and American interests align completely, at least for the foreseeable future, it is the question of who controls the Af-Pak region. However, it would be na├»ve for the Indian government to discount the United States propensity to sell its partners short for the sake of questionable short-term gains. A case in point is the suggestion in some circles in the US government that Pakistan’s concerns about Indian presence in Afghanistan are justified – implicit in which is the assumption that India’s activities in the region are far from benign, and that terrorism against NATO forces emanating from Pakistan would decline if India decreased her presence in the region. If the government of India wishes to truly secure Indian interests in the subcontinent, it will have to take positions and pursue lines of action that are not necessarily in line with America’s objectives in the region, and it will have to do so in the face of severe pressure from America and her allies. Further, it is important to understand that these actions and positions need not be held hostage to notions of righteousness or commitment to what was earlier said in public.

And finally, yes, I finally seem to have rid myself of that damned writer’s block, and hope to write more often!