Thursday, November 18, 2010

My interview with Prof Ishtiaq Ahmed

'Pakistani leadership lives in self-delusion'

Pakistan is a victim of many delusions - a country where the army and civilian leadership 'live in perpetual self-delusion' and take on 'jihadist overtones' that does not rule out orchestration of another Mumbai-style attack in the future, says a Europe-based, Pakistan-born political analyst.

However, if that were to happen, pressure will mount on India to act.

Ishtiaq Ahmed, professor emeritus of political science at Stockholm University and also honorary senior fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, said here: 'Pakistan is a victim of many delusions. The army and the civilian leadership live in perpetual self-delusion and this is the main problem which they must overcome.'

Ahmed, who is of Pakistani descent, was here for a roundtable discussion on 'From Jihad to Jihadism: Lessons for Southern Asia'.

'I don't think jihad is on the rise. The first wave of Al Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan.

'The second wave of terrorists who trained in Al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. So, clearly, it's been on the wane,' Ahmed told IANS in an interview.

He added that according to a RAND Corp report ', (of the) 83 terrorist attacks in the United States between 9/11 and the end of 2009, only three...were clearly connected with the jihadist cause'.

While the radical Islamic groups from Egypt to Jordan to Malaysia have lost much of military and political support, the situation in Pakistan is different.

Outfits like Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Al Qaeda, Jalaluddin and Siraj Haqqani's network and Tehrik-e-Taliban continue to thrive and pose danger to the West and Pakistan's immediate neighbour India, he said.

'The government's jihadist connections go back to the country's creation (in 1947) as an ideological, Islamic state, which makes it difficult for Pakistan to overcome its Jihadist overtones,' said Ahmed.

Ahmed, who is at present working on a book 'Is Pakistan a Garrison State?', said: 'At present there is no present idea of jihad in Pakistan. But there is Jihadism, which is an adopted form of jihad, launched with the help of non-Muslim state/actors.'

Contrary to popular beliefs, he said that India will not react militarily even if another 26/11 happens.

At least 166 people were killed in the November 26, 2008, Mumbai terror attack when 10 gunmen from Pakistan sneaked into India's financial capital and let loose a reign of terror.

'I can't say whether a 26/11 would happen again. The rogue elements still exist in Pakistan. If it does, I don't think India will go for a war with Pakistan. War has never been in India's interest,' said Ahmed.

Ahmed went on to say that India won't come back to the dialogue table and instead put pressure on Pakistan through its allies and foreign powers if at all a Mumbai-II happens.

'I don't think India will continue with the dialogue. It should not. They have shown enough restraint. Pressure is immense on India to act. They may try hot pursuit or pressurise the foreign powers to act. A lot depends on who provokes whom. It will be a very tense moment,' Ahmed said.

(As published in IANS)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Nuclear Myanmar and Implications for India

The world is not even half way through the promises made at the recently-concluded nuclear summit at Washington and the very first slap has come from Myanmar.

An investigation by an anti-government Myanmar broadcaster has found evidence that shows the country's military regime has begun a programme to develop nuclear weapons.

Even though there is no fresh angle to the claims, but a nuclear Myanmar, formerly Burma, threatens to upset the geo-politics of South Asia, and has profound implications for India as well.

After getting independence in 1948, Myanmar has claimed that it has only acquired weapons for internal security and defense against external enemies. But reports of Myanmar's interest in developing a nuclear research capability started circulating after the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan in May 1998.

The military junta introduced an Atomic Energy Law on June 8, 1998, within a fortnight of Pakistan's Chagai nuclear tests. The interest of the Myanmar military junta in acquiring civil nuclear expertise with Russian assistance came to be known in February, 2001.

Also, two Pakistani nuclear scientists (Suleiman Asad and Mohamed Ali Mukhtar) had moved over to Myanmar in 2001, when US intelligence agencies were investigating the involvement of Pak nuclear scientists with the Al Qaeda network.

The Union of Myanmar is the largest country by geographical area (678,500 sq kms) in mainland Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China on the northeast (with the Hengduan Shan mountains as the boundary), Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west, India on the northwest and the Bay of Bengal to the southwest. Myanmar and India share a border of over 1,600 kilometers.

It more or less serves as a buffer between four nuclear power states in Asia: China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The Junta has good ties with North Korea, China as well as Pakistan.

That puts New Delhi in a bind. In the early years of the military regime, India pushed hard for democracy. Myanmar thus gradually moved to embrace China, posing a strategic challenge to Indian policymakers.

India-Myanmar Relations

Burma is situated to the south of the states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India.

The New Delhi-Naypyidaw relations were mostly cordial in the early years after independence. Prime Ministers U Nu and Jawaharlal Nehru were both prominent figures in Non-Aligned Movement. India helped Myanmar survive its first difficult years as an independent state, especially when political and ethnic insurgent groups threatened to break the new country apart.

The bonhomie however took a backseat after the military junta's bloody repression of pro-democracy agitations in 1988, which led to an influx of Burmese refugees into India.

However, since 1993 the governments of the Indian Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee changed course and began cultivating ties with Myanmar, as part of a wider foreign policy approach aimed to increase India's participation and influence in Southeast Asia and to counteract the growing influence of China.

India has tried to develop friendly relationship with Burma but it cannot be compared to Chinese influence. Since 1988, China has been extending economic and military help to Myanmar. In the same year, China signed an agreement establishing trade across the border. Myanmar was isolated at that time due to domestic turmoil in the country and China opened up a trading outlet in the Indian Ocean.

“China has the advantage of being able to work comfortably with authoritarian and quasi-democratic regimes, without any schizophrenic (ideological) commitment to democracy… Combined with China's "no strings attached" approach to aid, this is making China a more attractive partner to regimes with questionable records in human-rights and democracy,“ says R Swaminathan, an expert with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

Security Implications for India

Dealing with a nuclear Myanmar would put India in a tight spot along with an ever squabbling nuclear Pakistan on one side and a hawkish China on the other. India fears China is using Myanmar to expand its influence in the Southeast Asian waters and the Indian Ocean

With Myanmar taking N-strides, Bangladesh might also desire a nuclear weapons programme. Bangladesh would definitely not want to be squeezed in between two nuclear weapons countries without a deterrent of its own, thus setting in motion a nuclear arms race in South Asia.

According to experts, a nuclear arms race in a region of unfriendly neighbours could make the South/South East Asia Asian region as volatile as the Middle East.

Last but not the least; it would also lead to the failure of the US nuclear proliferation regime. In such a scenario, India will have to deal prudently with Myanmar’s ambitions and also by keeping the neighbours in check.

Because India is encircled by hostile nations that are friendly with China, the need for improvement of relations with Myanmar has therefore gained more importance.

Energy-starved India has been courting Myanmar, which is rich in natural gas. India has been trying to look after its own practical interests by maintaining good relations with the military junta in Myanmar.

According to Rajiv Sikri, former secretary in the Ministry of External affairs, “Decision-makers in New Delhi are not bestowing serious and sustained attention to Myanmar, since the bordering North-East states are themselves political lightweights in the eyes of geographically distant New Delhi. This is in sharp contrast to the attention that, for example, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan gets. If Myanmar were to get even half of the grant assistance and the attention that India has given Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, India would considerably improve her position there. There is no time for India to lose in giving much higher priority to relations with Myanmar.”

There is still no definitive proof of nuclear related activities in Myanmar and in that case Indian must keep mum. An impulsive reaction could rub junta the wrong way. India, and the world at large, will have to ensure that Myanmar sticks to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; else there is another North Korea in the making.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Trust deficit a mere political balderdash?

Diplomacy has always been either a game of betrayal, a game of trust, or a game of trust with a hidden agenda of betrayal.

In 21st century, “building trust” sounds like just one of the many political rants that are being let off as media bytes after bilateral meetings between countries, especially in the South Asian context.

It has become customary to talk of “bridging the trust deficit” especially when it comes to relations between India-Pakistan, India-China or US-Pakistan, US-China and US-Afghanistan.

The media -- quoting analysts and political pundits -- portray it as the impending solution to all major problems. More bilateral meetings, more cultural exchanges, encouraging trade and business have definitely eased up the pressure, but they have largely remained futile in tackling issues that need immediate redressal.

The Indo-China border talks over Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh remain deadlocked and the status quo on Kashmir continues.

Can we actually believe Pakistan that on one hand overtly conducts composite dialogues, confidence-building measures and cultural exchanges with India and covertly stokes cross border terror?

What has India got after all these years of facing terror and going back to the table? No Masood Azhar. No Dawood Ibrahim. No action against Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi or Hafiz Saeed.

Or do we trust China that assures us every now and then of deepening trade ties and improving foreign relations and in the same breath continues with its clandestine activities in the North-Eastern and Tibetan region.

The high-level political deliberations talk of bridging the trust deficit as if it is an easy kill. According to security expert B. Raman, “large sections of the civil societies in India and Pakistan are well disposed towards each other and want close relations. This is particularly true of the younger generation in India and Pakistan. This enables the political leaders of the two countries to make political gestures to each other.”

But good people-to-people contacts don’t necessarily mean healthy political relations as well.

At the recently-concluded BRIC Summit, India and China spoke of eliminating the trust deficit. But despite the increasing comfort level, the stance of the two nations would remain hawkish primarily because of China's military and nuclear-related relationship with Pakistan and India's strategic relationship with the US and Japan.

Also, China continued to deny the existence of any river project on the Brahmaputra, despite satellite images showing construction of a dam in Zhangmu, in the Lhokha prefecture of Tibet.

It is trust at one moment and at other instance there is something as embarrassing as the hacking episode to take the relationship further downhill.

So what exactly are these leaders hinting at when they talk of building trust? In realpolitik, trust is merely used as an instrument of power.

An ambitious Beijing wants to court New Delhi probably because it wants to manipulate the much touted US containment of China policy via India.

As regards India, it needs China’s backing to win a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

The US needs Pakistan for logistics for the 130,000-plus US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Experts in Pakistan believe that US is just using Pakistan as a proxy in the war on terror and Pakistan allowed itself to be used because it is in dire need of aid.

“Once Afghanistan is pacified, Al-Qaeda eliminated from this area and the US forces out of Afghanistan; Pakistan will remain in the US calculation only as a nuclear armed country capable of considerable mischief,” says a report in Pakistan’s Daily Times.

This increasing “call for bonhomie” is a direct reflection of a rapidly shifting economic balance of power. Each country has tied its economy to the other. The US has been a source of billions of dollars in direct investment in China, from thousands of American companies big and small.

Low politics has taken over high politics which precisely explains why political leaders of India and China have shown wisdom in not allowing the border dispute to affect bilateral relations in other fields.

What these nations call trust is merely, as most experts would agree to, a marriage of convenience, a political balderdash and nothing else.