Buying out of trouble

A quick Quiz: what’s common about India’s North-East, Kashmir, and Afghanistan? It’s money. The Indian government’s attitude to any insurgency-infected state and, indeed, its solution to ending rebellion and bring distant communities within the Indian fold, is essentially to tempt the “freedom fighters” into getting hooked on easy money. It is a successful strategy. For the guerillas, it is better by far to forego traipsing around in the jungle, hunted like vermin by security forces and no knowing when a bullet gets you. Moreover, after a few years living as outlaws, when the romance has worn off, and the fatigue of living meagrely off the land, of being always on the run, sets in, the insurrectionists give up the ghost, make peace with the Indian state, decide to enter the political process, parley their hard-earned reputation as underground leaders into votes, get elected chief minister, and lo and behold! discover they never had it so good – the state treasury at their disposal to use it for the good of the people or, if they are so inclined, to siphon off the monies into personal accounts. This is preferable to running extortion rackets – the norm of the North-Eastern insurgent groups Ask Lalthanhawla, head of the Manipur Liberation Front and later Chief Minister of Manipur.

Lalthahawla’s example has proved irresistible. Leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom, for instance, too have come in from the cold, and those of other separatist outfits, such as the Isak Swu-Thuingaleng Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, are in the line for rapprochement with the Indian government. What they seek is a face-saving way to re-enter normal life and join the political mainstream.

Kashmir is the oldest of these boondoggles. Political life in that state, as the US Ambassador reported to the State Department, is “as dirty as the Dal Lake” with every “political family” and religio-political group in sight, such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s and Yaseen Mallik’s, prospering by being on the take, and benefitting one way or another from access to public funds. (Thank you, Wikileaks!) There’s something homey, democratically comforting, and richly comic, about the Indian tax-payer, good naturedly or otherwise, subsidising the lifestyles of Kashmiri politicians and separatists alike.

This modus operandi of the Indian state to buy and retain the loyalty of often times cantankerous outlier peoples is, at one level, a mark of political genius. After all, this is how India, a hugely heterogeneous, composite state, cements its nationhood. Except, the lure of easy money to fuel the local politics and sustain the separatist cause become damn good reasons for the beneficiaries to do whatever is necessary to ensure the enormously gainful status quo never ends. Thus, Mallik, Ali Shah Geelani (charged with “money laundering”), and the Mirwaiz, the MGM of Kashmir, for example, dutifully meet visiting Pakistani dignitaries in Delhi, make pro-independence noises, and generally keep the kettle on the boil even as the more mainline parties such as the ruling Abdullahs’ National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party of Mehbooba Mufti talk of reviving the 1953 Constitution. Their potential for mischief is the leverage.

Afghanistan has posed much the same problems to the United States in over a decade of hard fighting and negotiating. When the outgoing Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral “Mike” Mullen lashed out at Pakistan, saying the Haqqani shura was the “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, he was expressing Washington’s frustration with its inability to sift the “good” Taliban from the “bad” Taliban – the measure of goodness determined by which sections among the followers of Mullah Omar and the Haqqani Waziri tribal network are buyable and pliable and, once bought, will stay bought.  Had such amenable Taliban been found – and it was not for want of trying these many years — Washington’s justification for military withdrawal would have seemed more credible. Instead, the departing American military units will carry the taint of defeat and, worse, confirm the widely held belief in the world, that while America jauntily jumps into “bushfire” wars without much prior thought, it lacks the will and the stomach to see the fight to a successful end. It is a bad reputation to lug around, as it will end up costing the United States allies and partners it seeks the next time, as a self-appointed international policeman, it despatches expeditionary forces to fight terrorism, impose democracy, enforce peace and order, or to obtain stability in distant parts of the globe.

In this imbroglio, Pakistan is worst affected. The US has about given up on it, but Beijing is not eager to replace Washington and won’t pick up the yellow man’s burden and become the principal benefactor, patron, and strategic ally of Pakistan as this may exhaust the Chinese treasury before the returns roll in; in other words, that such involvement is simply not worth the dubious honour of being counted as Pakistan’s “all weather friend”. So that country is left by its supposed well-wishers to twist slowly in the wind. But you’d never know of Pakistan’s predicament after hearing their Ministers and Generals talk. The effervescent Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is a revelation. Good looks combined with a keen mind, the gift of eloquence, and an imperturbable nature meant that, whilst recently in America, she used television not just to press home the Pakistani view but to turn the tables on the US. After reminding interviewers that the Taliban are a CIA creation, she rounded on American intelligence. If it is, in fact, as good as its reputation, how come, she asked tartly, the Haqqani-sourced suicide bombers were not apprehended during their longish journey from the badlands of North Waziristan to Kabul, where they struck the US embassy? The head of ISI, Lieutenant General Shuja Ahmed Pasha, on his part, warned of dire consequences if the US dared to attack Pakistan. What tremendous display of brio and offense-mindedness, and that too from a losing position!

[Published in ‘The New Indian Express’, Oct 7, 2011, at http://expressbuzz/op-ed/opinion/Buying-out-of-trouble/320732.html


About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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