Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mumbai Postmortem

In all the comment and analysis that has followed the 26/11 terrorist invasion of Mumbai there seems to be a general consensus that jihadists sponsored by Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, were responsible for the attack. The United States and Britain have energetically taken up this traditionally Indian view, and even China, a strong ally of Pakistan, joined in the unanimous call by the United Nations Security Council urging Islamabad to act.

Amidst this heartening consensus there is a niggling question that remains unaddressed: what has the ISI to gain from an attack on India at this time? Even the most die-hard India-haters in the ISI leadership must surely see that improved ties with New Delhi have eased the mounting pressures on Pakistan from a set of potentially disastrous problems that include terrorism at the hands of drug mafias pretending to be Islamists, and a national economy on tenuous life-support from the International Monetary Fund. In this situation it makes little sense for New Delhi to blame Pakistan for the Mumbai attack or threaten military action. No matter how "surgical" the strike on terrorist training camps, its only real effect will be to derail a peace process that is critically important to both countries. Which brings us back to the question: who benefits from the Mumbai attack?

For an answer we must look to Indian history, specifically to the creation of Pakistan at the time of Indian independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Though billed as a homeland for Indian Muslims, Pakistan was conceived by British policy-makers primarily as a tool to defend and promote their strategic interests in the region. That required animosity between the two newly independent countries, which was achieved by the conflict over Kashmir, initiated when both Indian and Pakistani armies were still under British command. (The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at this time removed from the scene the major agent for peace.)

Pakistan’s Directorate of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which was established by a British officer serving as Deputy Chief of the Pakistani Army after the country's independence, has been a primary tool for manipulating the region. Set up to coordinate action against Indian forces in Kashmir in 1948, its primary aim has remained unchanged for six decades. However, its roles and capacities grew enormously during the Cold War, when Pakistan emerged as a key Western proxy. In the 1950s and 1960s it was the base for American U-2 surveillance aircraft operating over the Soviet Union and China, and in the 1980s it became the staging area for the Mujaheddin, with the ISI serving as the conduit for massive financial and arms aid from the United States. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pakistan became the pivot of a Western effort during the 1990s to control the rich resources of the newly independent Central Asian republics. That involved the ISI in promoting jihadist groups, organizing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and overseeing the rise of Al-Qaeda.

During most of this period British and American interests in South Asia were coherent, but that began to change after 1998, when, in the wake of the Indian declaration that it had become a nuclear-weapon State, the United States initiated a major revaluation of its policies towards the region. The Indo-US strategic relationship that emerged, and American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, accelerated the growing UK-US divergence; Tony Blair’s “poodle” reputation and his resignation from office were rooted in his attempt to continue traditional support for Washington.

The transatlantic split became more visible in January 2008 when London failed to gain firmer control of Afghanistan by having one of its former intelligence operatives take charge of the UN, EU and NATO operations in the country. Word of the appointment was leaked at the UN, and generally taken to be a fait accompli till Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to endorse it; his opposition was a clear signal that Washington and London were not on the same page. At just about the same time, the Karzai government told two senior British officials in Afghanistan, one working for the UN and other for the EU, to leave the country within 48 hours; they had been conducting unauthorized negotiations with the Taliban insurgents.

What is the reason for the US-UK split over South Asia?

The cause is not ephemeral policy; it is rooted in basic differences in the nature of American and British power. The United States is a large country with a continental economy, global military reach, and a fundamentally democratic society; it is the dominant force in international affairs, confident of meeting any challenge to its power. Britain is a medium/small country with an unspectacular economy, governed by a social/political elite that grew rich on the criminalities of the colonial era, including the slave and opium trades, and the economic strangulation of dependent territories. Because of that, and despite centuries of parliamentary democracy and a free Press, the British impact on the world has been fundamentally undemocratic; globally, Britain’s power now continues to depend on its capacity to subvert and manipulate developing countries, especially the resource-rich countries of Africa, and the populous countries of Asia.

The new Indo-US strategic relationship that has emerged over the last decade has thus been inherently threatening to Britain. So is the more recent d├ętente between India and Pakistan. Add Afghanistan to the mix, and a war directed at the drug lords who finance “Islamic terrorism” – the prime instrument for manipulating societies across Asia and Africa – and we have panic time for the remnants of imperial Britain. Over the last decade, just as all these developments were in train, terrorist attacks on India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have risen to an unprecedented crescendo. All three governments would do well to take seriously the declarations of innocence by the official authorities of their neighbors. They should also look to British proxies within the region if they want to defend their people from gratuitous assaults.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Menon:

While your essay provides an interesting perspective, the main thing I learn from it is that you view Britain as a more evil and devious devil than the United States.

In particular, your suggestion that Britain is somehow behind the Mumbai attacks, completely unsupported by any evidence other than your tendentious historical analysis, seems, on its face, to merit the description "patently ludicrous."


Bhaskar Menon said...

It would be incorrect to see my analysis as comparing two "devils." What it does is provide honestly rendered historical background. Britain has a long terrorist record in international affairs, but it has been dressed up by its historians as "imperial glory." To point that out is neither tendentious nor "absurd."