Diplomacy: The New Opium for the Masses

Some of you might have heard of virtual reality software (here is one example) where whoever signs up is given an avatar that does all the things that real people do and much more – buy property, set up businesses, entertain oneself, etc. All with one major difference. There, one can have the perfect fantasy life one aspires for but is unable to achieve in real life. It seems very much like the sort of world many of our news commentators live in today.

Pankaj Mishra, writing in NYT says that the answer is to resolve Kashmir. He appears to have completely missed the fact that Lashkar-e-Taiba has never set its sights as low as the resolution of Kashmir. Not in 1993, not now. He also seems blissfully oblivious of how the current jihadi movement has achieved the level of success that it has, i.e., as a direct fallout of the victory of the insurgency in Afghanistan. If India were to make concessions in response to these attacks, is there any doubt how that will be seen by the LeT and their supporters? When 9/11 happened, no one in the mainstream American media – not even the NYT which published this article – actually said that Al Qaeda and Bin Laden would be pacified by solving the Palestinian question. Yet, we are now being told that the answer to the Mumbai attacks is a resolution of Kashmir.

His advice to Obama: reject military force and embrace political and economic reconstruction. The honorable author should kindly inform us how he will rebuild a country when the schools being constructed are being destroyed, the girls who try to go there are attacked, the roads and bridges being built are blown up, the personnel doing all this reconstruction are being killed and how he will bring around the elements that have no compunctions about engaging in any of this. Why just stop at rejecting force? Why not sing kumbaya?

Amitav Ghosh wrote yesterday why this is not India’s 9/11. The first reason he gives is that this is just one more in a long series of attacks India has faced. True but does that mean the same hand waving that has characterized our previous responses should be repeated again? Apparently so:

“The question now is this: Will the November invasion of Mumbai change this? Although there is no way of knowing the answer, it is certain that if the precedent of 9/11 is taken seriously the outcome will be profoundly counterproductive. As a metaphor “9/11” is invested not just with the memory of what happened in Manhattan and at the Pentagon in 2001, but also with the penumbra of emotions that surround the events: the feeling that “the world will never be the same,” the notion that this was “the day the world woke up” and so on. In this sense 9/11 refers not just to the attacks but also to its aftermath, in particular to an utterly misconceived military and judicial response, one that has had disastrous consequences around the world.

…The Indian government would do better to focus on an international effort to eliminate the terrorists’ hide-outs and safe houses, some of them deep inside Pakistan. India will also need to cooperate with those in the Pakistani government who have come around to a belated recognition of the dangers of terrorism… A buildup would indeed serve no point at all, since this is not the kind of war that can be fought along a border, by conventional armies. The Indian government would do better to focus on an international effort to eliminate the terrorists’ hide-outs and safe houses, some of them deep inside Pakistan. India will also need to cooperate with those in the Pakistani government who have come around to a belated recognition of the dangers of terrorism…It is clear now that Pakistan’s establishment is so deeply divided that it no longer makes sense to treat it as a single entity. ”

Siddharth Varadarajan who normally writes more sensibly seems to have caught the same bug:

“In the quest for a stern and fitting response, all options, including casually-bandied about military ones like ‘surgical strikes,’ flounder on a simple fact: the only force capable of defeating terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the al-Qaeda and the Taliban which operate from Pakistani soil is the Pakistani state itself. And the Pakistani state needs to take up this task urgently if it is to avoid imploding or becoming the next target in Washington’s ongoing ‘war on terror’.

… Rather than threatening a ‘limited war,’ surgical strikes or a suspension of the peace process, the logic of this metastatis is the most compelling argument India can marshal in its quest for the international community to insist that the Pakistani military make a final break with jihadi groups. The war that was launched in Mumbai will only end when the Pakistani military is compelled by the world and its own people to end its war on its own society. India can help this process by finding ways to help tilt the balance of power further in the direction of the civilian government. At the very least, it should do nothing that will tilt things the other way.”

I wonder where either of these authors has been all these years when attempts have been made to do just that, i.e., get Pakistan to shut down the terrorist infrastructure in their territory. It has not succeeded before and the summary rejection of India’s demands for handing over any of the men on the list of 20 suggests a replay of the very same events. Today’s NYT quotes an Indian official saying why even the composite dialogue has not helped this process at all: every time a lead is handed over to Pakistan, it is simply returned with the stock reply that it did not check out (B.Raman, without saying in so many words also asserts that this counter-terror mechanism is a farce). So, what is the solution if all this pressure does not succeed as Ajai Sahni predicts (and is widely expected)? More hand wringing? More demarches/protests? More debates/ resolutions by the diplomatic genteel in air-conditioned chambers?

Yet, we are told, a 9/11 type of response is not the answer. Apparently, the fact that a number of Al Qaeda leaders have been caught or killed including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 does not matter. Nor does the fact that the organization has since been denied the benefits of a regime and a country that aided its efforts or that no further attacks have taken place on American soil. No, we are asked to follow the example of Spain which incidentally faces a threat nowhere near that of India. We are nevertheless supposed to keep up the talking perhaps in the fond hopes of exhausting our enemies through sheer verbosity!

Another argument is that we can no longer treat Pakistan as a single entity but must acknowledge that there are multiple centers of power. Unfortunately, the jihadi groups have no diplomatic corps of their own that we can talk to. Nor for that matter does the ISI or rogue factions in the army which have allowed them to operate freely. We talk to the same folks we have always been interacting with and only come to know of the outcome when we are informed about it. Their internal power dynamics being largely beyond our control, what difference does it make how many centers exist so long as those in office cannot offer us anything worthwhile or keep their word when they do so? Is it any more comforting to know that President Zardari is unable, not unwilling, to act against these outfits? In fact, if the problem comes from a part of their governmental apparatus that is not open to public scrutiny, that is all the more reason for outside intervention.

Another brilliant analysis and suggestion comes from Sitaram Yechury (incidentally seconded by The Hindu and partly by John Cherian in Frontline) who blames the nuclear deal for our tragedy. How convenient. Never mind that these attacks have grown in intensity and their focus has expanded well beyond the borders of Kashmir long before the deal was even conceived – the attack on Parliament is a case in point.

And his answer? Approach the UN Security Council. Mr.Yechury ought to let us know how this UN committee will magically enforce what none of the big powers has so far been able to do. Barring the US, other powers are not even willing to try. There has been enough grumbling from the European members of NATO to contribute troops for combat even in Afghanistan, let alone extend the mandate to Pakistan. As Ajai Sahni wrote, Pakistan has weathered many such storms and can be expected to do so this time as well. If there is a better way to give the terrorists a free pass, I could not conceive of it. Is it any surprise then that Hamid Gul, the foremost defender of jihad, has embraced our communists?

The EPW published an editorial on the Mumbai attacks that contains not a single word on what needs to be done, only on the things we have to avoid. If repeated horrific attacks orchestrated from outside only make our leading commentators respond with stoicism, sullen acceptance and self-incrimination of this sort, it signifies pathology more ominous than the pathetic weakness that is already evident.

We have long been advised by these and other worthies that all terrorism is dastardly and our answer, apart from verbally condemning it, should be to maintain harmony and stand firm. Right through this latest attack, our society has managed to do just that. Yet, not only have the attacks not stopped but have accelerated in frequency, enhanced in potency and enlarged in scope over the years. When the effect of this old mantra started to wane, we were told that aggressive diplomacy to build international pressure would have greater success. Following several anti-terrorism resolutions as well as a ban on the LeT (in 2001), the country has been made painfully aware of the lie this always was.

Now the same medicine is being administered once again this time in combination with an opioid to calm our nerves by weaving a new fantasy that claims that Pakistan itself will implode or become Washington’s next target should it fail to act. For one thing, we are unable to convince those who are killing us (or aiding the exercise) of this logic. Nor do they seem to care what excuse we make up for our own inaction (perhaps it reinforces their prior perceptions of Hindu weakness; after all much of their literature extols the achievements of Ghauri and Ghazni in that light). Secondly, if only a small number of committed and focused attackers who are not expected to survive the operation are provided the sort of specialized training that was on display here, their handlers have little to fear from random actions or of misdirected effects.

Thirdly, the heightened domestic violence has if anything only undermined the authority of their civilian government which is thought to have little control or say in any of this. So who stands to gain from an atrophied civilian apparatus unable to meet popular expectations? Surely it is the unaccountable branches of government and their supporters outside. The emergence of the Pakistani army as an independent state-within-a-state has not been an overnight transformation but a gradual one aided by the repeated failures of civilian leadership. The enormous success of LeT’s parental organization, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa in raising funds, building schools, colleges and hospitals can likewise be equally attributed to the failure of their state to provide these services. If the religious proselytization and terrorist training can hasten the transformation of their state along fundamentalist lines governed by an emasculated civilian authority, so much the better for their own future. Why would such a governing structure that benefits so much from such a coalition want to voluntarily forego it all suddenly by succumbing to international pressure? More importantly, is there even a semblance of a basis to the fond but deluded hope of such a radical shift from within? Yes, the government may ban the organization and arrest its top leaders temporarily but do we seriously expect it to muster the will to shut it down entirely and choke its finances? That is quite a tall order given the extensive network they have built over the years and the goodwill they have accrued through their charitable activities.

Lost amidst all these prevarications is how the jihadi groups and their supporters in government perceive our non-response. Following the success of the parliament attacks and the withdrawal of our army from the border, Masood Azhar emerged a hero to the far right. If the storm abates again this time with our retribution restricted to diplomatic chambers, we can expect Hafiz Saeed to be feted as a glorious warrior in the most hallowed Islamic traditions who has stood up to the great tyrant, India. Not only does this bode ill for any government looking to tamp down on his activity, it will only serve to strengthen his organization in one form or the other (assuming the current avatar is banned) and augment its capacity for future mayhem.

The last argument for inaction is that it will unite all the jihadi groups with the Pakistani army against the common foe, India. This view has gained some ground following a preliminary effort at rapprochement between the two sides. If we buy into this argument, we must be under no illusion about the costs. The status quo would prevail indefinitely into the future (the war against the Taliban is nowhere near conclusion) in which case, India will continue to hemorrhage without end. If things take a turn for the worse with a weakened civilian dispensation, that will be no less dangerous to us. The example of piracy emanating from anarchic Somalia is right before our eyes. Finally, if and when the time indeed arrives when we decide to confront the menace, for the reasons mentioned above, we will likely face a foe with more resources and a reach greater than what it currently has.

That our domestic surveillance and intelligence apparatus needs to improve is not in doubt. I would also second the idea of an inquiry commission on the lines of the 9/11 commission set up in the US to apportion responsibility and make recommendations. But given the nature of the attacks we have faced in recent times, it is clear that virtually anyone can be hit anywhere and with relative ease. Markets, hotels and even a scientific institution have been attacked. Corporate offices have been reportedly targeted. That takes care of pretty much any one working in any building leaving only urban residential areas. We do not know when apartment complexes may be hit but it is not beyond the range of comprehension. It is a humongous and perhaps ultimately futile task to equip all of these places even to face bombs let alone be battle ready at all times to deal with fidayeen strikes. An attack on any of these places will guarantee a minimum number of deaths and destruction that may be considered adequate pay off for the investment made by the individual or organization planning it. Even if the individuals come from outside the country, a success rate of one in ten that achieves a spectacular display of carnage could be deemed sufficient to justify the effort. All this is apart from the fact that it will take years to reform our security organizations to live up to this task. The notion that we can somehow protect ourselves from this growing menace without being able to get to its source is an delusion of gigantic proportions that we can ill afford.

The PM’s idea of an investigative agency may have its advantages but is relatively worthless from the standpoint of either prevention or diplomatic persuasion. Those willing to believe our claims have already come around to our view point while those who refuse to be convinced show no sign of changing their position. Besides, the foot soldiers involved here are ready to die during the operation and their masters are beyond our reach. With an enduring supply of cadre at their disposal, they can afford to use a fresh group for every attack. That means convicting those found this time is of no help to prevent the next outrage. Why this has suddenly become an urgent priority is therefore not clear.

To paraphrase Churchill, we have repeatedly chosen dishonor over war. War has therefore now been thrust upon us. It is time to strike back.

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  • Excuse me, Mr. Hawk…

    Pakistan is a nuclear armed state.. and you want a military response? How many of us will be left to sing Kumbaya after all is “Dr.Strangeloved”?

    Try to get the larger point that Siddharth Varadarajan and EPW are saying..


  • These so called intellectuals are more bothered about being ‘politically correct’ and being faithful to their ‘constituencies’ than suggesting solutions.We have heard the same arguments in different words many times before.Even if Kashmir becomes an independent nation the problem will not be solved.In fact that will make the problem worse. Tough action cannot be an option that should be postponed till the worst has happened.

  • hi,

    you make a logical argument against inaction. However, a conventional war appears to be the last thing that would help India attain its main objective – destruction of terror camps/infrastructure/support in Pakistan. The most effective method to achieve appears to be Afghanistan-style bombing and critcial strikes. The biggest challenge here-in lies in getting the Pak govt onboard with this plan, which is where the US and other western countries may help.

  • i agree with the headline. And i agree that we have often chosen dishonor over war. Therefore, war has now been thrust upon us. Its a different kind of war, but not one that we do not know of. We have used it at least 300 years ago and more.

  • Srinivasan Ramani,

    Various forms of escalation are being suggested including covert attacks, surgical strikes, Indian troops joining NATO in Afghanistan in fighting the Taliban (may not be feasible), support for the Baluchistan insurgency and outright war. One or more of these might lead to outright war with its consequences but that is something we have to be prepared for. Moreover, the nation was ready for this when Operation Parakram was launched in 2001. What has changed now?

    Ravi and ‘How do we know’,

    I agree. As the latest diplomatic effort is showing every sign of degenerating into the same old charade, it seems clear that postponing the day of reckoning will bring us little succour.


    Surgical strikes may well escalate into full blown war. Whether we can have Pakistan’s buy in to prevent that is unclear – if at all anyone can do it, it will have to be the US. It was however reported way back in 2001 when war seemed imminent that Secretary of State Colin Powell had extracted assurances from Pakistan that it would not resort to the nuclear option. Their value is however unclear but the US may be able to and probably will (even if it is for its own reasons) do the same this time around.

  • Dilip,

    I am forced to go a bit harsh in this post. The seriousness of it all demands it.

    You seem to having a poor knowledge of what has been done in the past in covert operations in Pakistan. Have you heard of CIT-X and CIT-J? Do you have an understanding at all of the varied power structures in Pakistan? The difference between the army-security apparatuses and the fledgling democratic setup? And how the tensions between these groupings can easily shift the balance to the jihadists?

    Any kind of military escalation that you talk about is only bound to heighten those tensions and escalate the process of a jihadi takeover of a Pakistan that is nuclear armed.

    Have you ever heard about the Libyan case- Lockerbie.and its aftermath? How the diplomatic ‘fury’ unleashed by the international community forced the Libyans to dismantle their covert apparatus, and turn a new leaf altogether?

    You seem to show a high lack of understanding of diplomatic nuance in making the poorly made arguments that you make.

    The best possible manner of finishing off the jihadi threat that threatens Pakistan as well as India is to strengthen the democratic processes over there as much as is the case in India too (where because of a strong functioning formal democracy, it is much easier). Any military escalation of the kind that you are talking about (including the crap that India should intervene with NATO against Taliban!. Wow! Lets bring the Taliban threat to Indian shores now!), is only in VR Krishna Iyer’s terms (considering this is a law blog) – seppukku

    Various means of strong international pressure, without India having to quid pro quo an involvement in the unpopular Afghan war, can help sort out the situation for the better much more effectively than a stupid exercise of “surgical strike” or “reverse ISI cuts”. For the former, we need to know “what” or “whom” to strike…that too beyond the Rubicon of “sovereign borders”..a clear way of inviting a jingoist response from “sovereign Pakistan”. As for the latter, a Pakistan that is already threatened to go jihadist by the south Waziristan extremists, the Lal Masjid radicals, the LeT and JeI, JeM wallahs, if subjected to CIT-X/CIT-J kind of strategies is only recipe for the Pakistani public to accept a discredited army and a wanton ISI, which means more trouble in Kashmir, more disenchantment over there and only more headaches for the much stretched Indian establishment.. not to mention the mother of all threats..the nuclear option.


  • Srinivasan,

    I am aware of the civil-military relationship and the fractured dynamic between them. The question is whether our inaction can change that to our advantage. Since real power has rested with the military even in the best of times, I have no reason to believe so.

    It has long been claimed that the situation is so fragile that the jihadists will easily win power. The jihadists have never secured more than a small fraction of the vote. Why do we believe that they will suddenly win through the ballot box? The one possibility that we do not desire but may materialize is of the army taking over.

    Diplomacy has had varied success in varying situations – success in Libya, mixed results with North Korea and a failure in Afghanistan (diplomacy was tried since 1996 or so). You will agree that the most reliable predictor of the outcome of the current exercise is past experience with the same country. By that yardstick, I am not so sanguine about it.

    If you read it carefully, I am not suggesting that diplomacy be terminated right away. By all means, let it run its course – even President Bush allowed time for some diplomacy before the invasion in 2001. The question is if it fails as it has in the past, then what? What is the alternative proposed? The commentators I mentioned insist that there is not one which is where the problem arises.

    I did not dwell on what the strategic objectives of a military response ought to be. That was not the purpose of the post but something we surely need to debate. Anyway, the coming days will tell us what if anything strong international pressure can achieve.

  • @ Dilip,

    I don’t understand what you mean by “inaction”, and what you mean by saying that you don’t rule out the “diplomatic” action, but have a problem with the “diplomatic” solutions offered by the experts. And your post title, “..Opium of the masses”.. is indeed revealing.

    In the case of Afghanistan, there has always been a serial lack of a central authority that had sway over the entire country. The very reason for the exacerbation of conflict was external meddling, of the military form (from Pakistan and the US just after the Soviet involvement).

    So it is not as if diplomacy was ever used in this country, where a mess was created by unilateral international intervention, which took overt, covert and all kinds of malicious forms. (Check out the life stories of the Lion of Panjsher valley Masood, that of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Dostum warlordship, the Taliban-Pakistan love affair, and much more).

    I don’t also understand what do you mean by “failed”. Diplomatic moves have objectives. If diplomacy’s objective in the Indo-Pak peace talks were to de-escalate tension in Kashmir, it was indeed achieved, but for Indian bungling in the region that gave way to a democratic upsurge of anger rather than Pak-sponsored militancy in the near past. And anyone would affirm that over the years, there has been substantial de-escalation of tension over the nuclear issues, other various outstanding disputes between the country due to the efforts of diplomacy and track-II.

    The current phase of terror attacks is a event and consequence that has affected both the countries and diplomacy’s current objective would be to strengthen the hands of the democratic forces in the fight against the extremist elements.

    As for your “facile remark” about jihadi forces winning in Pakistan through the vote bank, it is not unprecedented. I have a lot of confidence on the weary Pakistani public in resisting such a culmination, but I don’t want to rule that out either in extra-ordinary circumstances. Nirupama Subramaniam’s reports from Pakistan compels one to expect the worst in the worst of situations.

    And one of those worst case scenarios comes up when “hawks” like thyself and other dolts in the television media (as well as some ex-RAW agents) go gung ho for war and “reverse ISI options”.


  • Srinivasan,

    Please do not think that I am being gung-ho about it. I do not like the option myself but am simply pointing out that India has few other alternatives should the current round of diplomacy fail. In that sense, the position I took is no different from what several newspaper editorials have taken in recent days.

    When I talk of diplomacy failing, I mean in the sense of whether the Pakistani government successfully dismantles these terrorist organizations in terms of their infrastructure, chokes their finances and incarcerates their leaders. Only the last of them has been done before albeit temporarily and without any worthwhile outcome. There is no evidence of the rest. The question is whether diplomacy will achieve that within a reasonable time frame. We will know in the coming weeks whether that is the case.

    The Clinton administration did try to negotiate with the Taliban (some of these efforts are documented in Steve Coll’s book on the Afghan war). There have been other attempts by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan prior to 9/11.

    You are right that we would like to strengthen the hands of peace loving democratic forces. The question of course is how. If diplomatic efforts end in deadlock and military action is ruled out, that still leaves you to answer that question.

  • Dilip,

    From saying this-

    To paraphrase Churchill, we have repeatedly chosen dishonor over war. War has therefore now been thrust upon us. It is time to strike back.

    to saying what you are saying now..

    I am happy that my “aggressive diplomacy” has worked.

    Request you to read a lead editorial coming up in the EPW tomorrow .


  • Even for striking back, we would need adequate preparation and enough time. Perhaps I should have said ‘It is time to prepare to strike back’ – I correct myself if that helps.

  • Dilip,

    Even for striking back, we would need adequate preparation and enough time. Perhaps I should have said ‘It is time to prepare to strike back’ – I correct myself if that helps.

    By “adequate preparation and time”, are you talking about adequate preparation for a nuclear holocaust, if both countries eventually go to battle? If yes, obviously you are asking for solutions on the lines of this. Surely, you are being serious and not talking about this — a hilarious tragi-comic exchange of views between President Melvin Muffley and Dr. Strangelove, aren’t you?


    If by “striking back”, you are hinting at a preparation for a “limited war” restricted to conventional weapons and “hopeful” that it is not extended to a nuclear war, the counter would be available here.

    ..and if you want to understand why diplomacy with international pressure (through various means, UN, bilateral, multilateral) is the way out, this article will be of help. It is titled, “A Call for Sanity”.

    And more is available in this blog itself :

    With hope for peace and solutions,

  • The EPW articles offer little new insight. The points made therein have already been discussed. Aiyar’s comparison of Pakistan to post-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq is flawed. I have already addressed why Yechury’s treatment will resolve the malady.

  • It is rather that the warmongers want to deny any insight. Terrorism can’t be solved by going for war (or preparing for a futile war either). It has to be a long drawn out battle of wits that has to derive from sufficient international pressure. Today, India having faced a horrific terror attack, and having accumulated sufficiently enough evidence, can make a belligerent Pakistan take action .. as it has already started to do by incarcerating the LeT sub-commanders who are supposed to have conducted this Mumbai horror.

    If you still don’t understand this basic reasoning and don’t want to give up on a nuclear holocaust, you can join the ranks of Slim Pickens’ Major T.J.”King” Kong.

    End of discussion.