Drone Wars from Britain: How Many More?

CounterPunch, October 29, 2012

Urgent Purchase

Now we know that not only did the United Kingdom already have drones, but more are coming to join the Royal Air Force for surveillance and combat operations in foreign lands. And, for the first time, they will be controlled from Britain.

According to a report in the Guardian, the United Kingdom has made urgent purchase of five more Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, which will double their number with the British military. Initially they will be deployed in Afghanistan and are expected to start operating within weeks. So, instead of sitting with their American counterparts in Nevada, the British “pilots” will be playing with videogame killing machines from RAF Waddington in the English county of Lincolnshire. These latest developments come as the United Nations has finally decided to investigate American drone strikes and other “targeted killings” of “terrorist suspects.”

In the main, three factors have influenced the British government’s decision: the prolongation of the war in Afghanistan beyond the military planners’ original estimates; the rise in the deaths and injuries of British and other Nato soldiers at the hands of Afghan security personnel; and President Obama’s plan to withdraw most of the U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Surely other Nato troops cannot stay in the country beyond that point.

Whether President Obama is reelected or Mitt Romney wins on November 6, it can be taken as certain that drone wars will continue in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and their use will be extended to other places. So mechanized, refined and cheap to manufacture are these instruments of the “war on terror.” In the present economic difficulties, the governing coalition of Conservative prime minister David Cameron and his Liberal-Democrat deputy Nick Clegg probably feels that Britain’s urgent purchase of Reaper drones is a “good investment.”

Sources in touch with American policymakers in Washington confidently predict that drone wars will continue. So, there seems to be no reason for the British government to withdraw its aircraft from the region. Under rules imposed by the European Union and the Civil Aviation Authority, drone missions can only be flown in certain places in Britain.

Civilian Deaths

In a recent article, I discussed a study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools. It concluded that the CIA’s targeted drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal areas were politically counterproductive, killing many civilians and undermining respect for international law.

That British drones have been in operation from Creech air base in the United States has been a less known fact. The Ministry of Defence in London insists that only four civilians have died in its drone operations in Afghanistan––in line with the Obama administration’s claims of there being very few civilian casualties. However, British defence officials say they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit.

Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the legal charity Reprieve, says that “decisions are being made that will ripple through the generations.” In a recent comment, he wrote: “Just as the secret Manhattan Project ushered in the nuclear age, so the military and their corporate colleagues are pressing forward with policies with very little public disclosure or debate.”

It is wholly inconsistent for any Western leader or government to assert that they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of “immense difficulty and risks” and yet for Prime Minister David Cameron to claim that by December 2010 British drones had “killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan.” No wonder defence officials denied that the information came from them, and said that “they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure.” So the question arises, as Smith has raised, whether the kill-numbers are being “conjured up by politicians.”

For several years since the “war on terror” started a decade ago, the British government has sought to deny accusations that its forces have been involved in terror and torture––against mounting evidence. The Stanford and New York universities’ report is among the latest and most damning. The truth about the use of circling drones to terrify the 800000 citizens––men, women and children––in a remote tribal region is a kind of war forbidden under the Geneva conventions. But the rules of war are being changed with disregard for established conventions and law. The West’s drone policy is on trial.

In a legal challenge before the High Court in London brought by a man who lost his father in a CIA drone strike, Britain once again faces accusations of providing intelligence for such attacks and therefore of complicity. After reading a harrowing account of drone terror from Noor Khan, a resident of northwestern Pakistan, Lord Justice Moses described the evidence as “very moving.” It is our responsibility as citizens wherever we may be to read Noor Khan’s testimony and ask ourselves, “How many more?”



Living With the Hegemon: Extending the Empire to New Frontiers

CounterPunch, July 17, 2012

Extending the Empire to new frontiers

Recent wars from Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region of vast natural wealth and strategic importance highlight a phenomenon as old as humanity. Iraq and Libya had oil, but their leaders were longtime foes of the United States, now the world’s lone hegemon. Saddam Hussein allied with the Soviet Union before its demise, so did Muammar Gaddafi. They both displayed stubbornness. They were ready to drop the American dollar as the oil currency before bigger players like China and India dared. Saddam and Gaddafi ruled with an iron hand state systems that were brittle. They were too independent for their own good.

Saudi Arabia and tiny Arab emirates such as Bahrain and Qatar, on the other hand, are punching above their weight. Wealthy and dictatorial, their rulers accommodate the hegemon’s interests. These rulers sell their oil and amass petrodollars which they spend in vast quantities on weapons and consumer goods from the industrialized world led by the hegemon. Their relationship is far more agreeable.

The hegemon is thus left with states of two more categories of significant kind. In one category is Iran since the 1979 Revolution, Syria since the 1963 Ba’athist coup, and Sudan. The hegemon intervenes seeking to overthrow uncooperative regimes by diplomatic, economic and military means. In the second category are China, Russia and, to a lesser degree, India, where even the world’s lone hegemon has limits. Beyond these categories are the discarded––completely failed entities like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, where utterly poor and miserable people live.

The hegemon and satellites have not a care in the world for the welfare of such people, except sending drones or troops from neighboring client states to kill those described as “terrorists.” What desperate poverty and misery lead to has no space within the realm of this thinking.

Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how a society develops from primitive to higher levels of civilization. Trades and occupations multiply and population grows. The next stage of development, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that results in war, because an enlarged society wants even more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to understanding the causes of war. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims. A relevant section in the Republic reads:

We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries. There will be hunters and fishermen, and there will be artists, sculptors, painters and musicians. There will be poets with their following of reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and producers; there will be manufacturers of domestic equipment of all sorts, especially those concerned with women’s dress and make-up. 

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their core argument in the book published in 2001 was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Negri and Hardt, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire now is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication. It has no definitive political center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system––a “terrorist” entity to be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as subsequent events testify.

The United States occupied “a privileged position in Empire” depicted by Negri and Hardt. Its privileges did not necessarily arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” They derived from the assertion of  “American exceptionalism.” From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea had become global. The presidency of George W. Bush was a powerful militaristic expression of America’s will.

Like terrorism, the term “empire” is often used disparagingly by those on the left and the right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting models. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.

Different concepts of empire have existed through history. For centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of ruling an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades later, the West was to hit the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. It was brought about by a combination of impudence after the West’s Cold War triumph, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.

Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term “empire.” He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the U.S. empire “provides a complete configuration, articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner.”  The Pentagon planner in question was Lt. Col. Ralph Peters:

The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. (Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? 1999, 141)

The American defense planner’s confession was as revealing as it was terrifying. Economic interest and cultural domination are interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources––energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior drives a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military and other means to territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater the cultural symmetry, the better for the hegemon.


On War, Humiliation and the Making of History

CounterPunchJune 18, 2012; The Nation, June 20, 2012

The “global war on terror” started by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago has taken a new and more sinister turn. Now we know that Barack Obama, the current president, goes through the profiles of people he wants eliminated (New York Times, May 29, 2012). He decides their fate in escalating drone wars in a growing number of countries.

Those to be killed may or may not be combatants engaged in war against America. They may or may not even be involved in an armed struggle against a brutal dictatorship which is America’s regional proxy. Mere age of others or their relationship and proximity to the “target” in a loose tribal community can be enough to be given the label of “militant”––a crime punishable by death. In Obama’s world, what else could their motive be if they were in the same area as a “terrorist?” It is a license to kill at will.

But never underestimate the cost of humiliation. For in war victory is never clean, because it empowers the vanquished or their successors to struggle in the future. Recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world confirm this, often unheeded, lesson of history. From Alexander the Great, king of the Macedonian Empire, nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago to date, imperial powers far afield have sent their rampaging armies to conquer and to humiliate the populations of vast fertile lands, cradles of civilization, close to the four great rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Hwang He. What has transpired forms a pattern.

Those lands include modern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the South Asian subcontinent, Pakistan and India in particular. Amid extreme volatility in this region, there has existed something consistent. Alexander’s campaign of conquest finally ran out of steam on the banks of the Hydaspes, modern-day Jhelum river in India and Pakistan. Exhausted, his troops mutinied, refusing to march any further. The rebellion continued later at Opis, a Babylonian city on the east bank of the Tigris, where Alexander gave a stirring speech admonishing his troops. But his rhetoric failed.

Elsewhere in the Kunar and Swat valleys, tribes put up extraordinary resistance forewarning one of history’s greatest military geniuses. However, the message from those uprisings was not enough for Alexander to overcome his hubris. After the Battle of Hydaspes, he retreated to Persia, leaving governors he had appointed in charge. They, too, misbehaved. Alexander was exhausted, injured, his aura of invincibility having abandoned him. Alexander became even more brutal. He retreated to Persia and died three years later. A remark attributed to him at the time: “I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians.”

The hills and valleys of Swat and Kunar, together with lands of the vast region of South and West Asia, have been subjected to repeated invasions through the centuries. The soil is soaked in blood spilled in violence between invaders and defenders, communities and tribes, whose fortunes and failings have attracted eagle-eyed predators far and near. The soil is fertile for resistance as it is for agriculture. Foreign armies have found this to their detriment time and again.

Subjugation by external forces renders victims helpless, but consolidates their long-term resolve. It breeds local resistance to foreign occupiers and their culture. It results in the colonization of lands occupied by foreign troops, mercenaries, and those wearing civilian hats as administrators and advisers. They engage in activities to extract and sell local assets, manufactured and agricultural goods through market mechanisms created and managed by themselves, not by those who owned them in the first place. Or they use the location of occupied lands to extend their control further.

In Chapter V of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli discussed three ways to hold newly acquired states that once had their own sovereign laws. His methods were: by devastating them; going and living there in person; or by letting them keep their own laws, extracting tribute and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly. Machiavelli’s work is associated with corrupt, manipulative and totalitarian government.

Examples are provided by Spartans and Romans. The Spartans ruled Athens and Thebes through the oligarchies they established there, although in the end they lost them. The Romans, in order to hold Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, destroyed them and so never lost them. They wanted to rule Greece almost as the Spartans did, freely, under its own laws, but they did not succeed. So, in order to maintain their power, they destroyed many cities in that province.

Five centuries after, Machiavellianism, a mishmash of cunning and duplicity, lives on–– despised if words of condemnation were to be believed, but witnessed extensively in practice.

Since the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Soviet communism, the terms of the United States-led Western military campaign for unrestrained access to petroleum and other strategic resources have altered. War today is fought for “freedom” against “terrorism” when both terms remain highly contested. Definitions, when attempted, are arbitrary, incoherent and irrational. The right to use unreserved force under the pretext of “self-defense” for the powerful has superseded the underdog’s right to self-defense and to resist.

We hear the absurd logic of brute military power couched in legal jargon. As an example, the rights of the Israeli state prevail over the basic rights of the Palestinians. Israel is allowed to have its clandestine nuclear weapons program, but no other country in the region. Elections in Iran are “fraudulent” in the absence of irrefutable evidence. But polls are “acceptable” in Afghanistan where plenty of evidence of fraud exists. High-altitude bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and drone attacks killing civilians posthumously described as “militants” or “terrorists” are justified in the “war on terror.” Talk is rare of “night raids”–– a euphemism for breaking into Afghans’ homes at night. Those at the receiving end of such treatment see it as humiliation under foreign occupation.

Loss of possessions is one thing, loss of dignity is quite another. There exists an inverse relationship between humiliation and pride. Take away a people’s dignity and they will be ever more determined to take revenge in the form that their culture and values dictate when the opportunity arises. History has repeatedly shown that the price of great power intervention is high; national humiliation caused to the victim leaves a legacy that haunts the intervenor and tempts the conqueror to resort to even more force.

The dynamic of the victor-vanquished relationship is that the fewer means the humiliated has, the more precious his honor becomes, and the stronger and more determined his retaliatory instinct is. Imperial powers like Britain and Russia––and more recently the United States––have intervened at will in the oil-rich Middle East and surroundings for resources and access to waterways. The legacy of imperial subjugation continues in the form of conflict and social upheaval.

At the advent of the twenty-first century, a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States tried to reshape the region in President George W. Bush’s vision. The world’s greatest military power found the spirit of resistance in the peoples radicalized by past interventions as strong as ever. When Bush left the White House in January 2009, America was involved in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exhausted and in deep economic crisis. Under the Obama presidency, the “war on terror” has been expanded and the economic crisis is deeper, not only for America, but for the entire industrialized world.

Unchecked military power and hubris, seeking pleasure in the abuse and humiliation of others, are corrosive. They take the perpetrator on a path of infamy leading to the abuser’s own humiliation.

War is history’s revenge.


When Clouds Appear …

When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;

When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;

When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?

– William Shakespeare, Richard III

The year gone by has been one of civil protests, upheaval and violence in many parts of the world. Old wars continued, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peaceful awakening movements that sprang up with much hope in Algeria and Tunisia turned violent as they spread east from North Africa to the Gulf region. A brief and bloody war in Libya, with an overt display of NATO’s military power on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces, resulted in his overthrow and brutal killing. For NATO, the Libya war was over, but not for Libyans. A fledgling government now competes with warlords for territorial control and legitimacy in a fragmented country.

External intervention in Syria is more vocal internationally, but shrouded in secrecy on the ground. Accounts of the conflict are based on claims and counterclaims and not much independent evidence to corroborate. If detractors are to be believed, the Ba’athist regime of President Basher al-Assad is on the brink of collapse. The outcome of the Syrian conflict will have profound consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East, in particular for Syria’s ally Iran, as well as in Lebanon and Palestine.

Human aspirations for liberty and freedom from oppression defined the year 2011. Paradoxically, great powers who played a role in sustaining oppressive systems, and still do where it suites them, declared themselves on the side of liberty in other places. The result is confusion, division, conflict and a more insecure world. Afghanistan and Iraq in the last decade were America’s “bleeding wounds,” a term first coined by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan. With both Iraq and Afghanistan far from stable, there is an unwelcome prospect of Libya and Syria also extracting a high price in terms of security threats and energy costs in the current decade.

Past events cannot be reversed, nor are their consequences easy to contain. So I have in mind events which I believe the world in 2012 would be better off without. In the United States, from President Obama and administration hawks to his Republican opponents have been talking about punitive action against Iran and others in this election year. Powerful voices in the ruling circles of Israel, France and Britain are egging the American president on. The gap between rhetoric and posturing can lead to something far more serious. How civil movements can be manipulated by external forces for their own interests has been demonstrated during the current upheaval in the Arab world.

The overthrow and killing of Gaddafi may have resolved the conflict in Libya in the West’s view. Now the prospect of real power remaining with the militias, and an ineffective Western-supported government, reminds one of Afghanistan following the 1992 collapse of the last Communist leader Najibullah. Libya, with its porous borders, surrounded by Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt, is vulnerable itself and threatens others. The year 2012 could be decisive, not only for Libya, but for the region and beyond.

The situation in Syria is very dangerous. Unlike Libya, Syrian state institutions are more robust. The regime’s friends are not many, but Russia and China are taking a much tougher line with the West. Iran, its ruling allies in Iraq, and Lebanese and Palestinian groups have huge stakes in Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supported by the West, are determined to see the end of the current Syrian regime.

Turkey, a NATO member, has moved from its previous “independent” position to a stance much more in tune with the Western interests in the Middle East. Once a close ally of Syria, Turkey hosts the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army and allows the group to train its fighters and orchestrate attacks inside Syria. The Turkish military guards the Syrian rebel base, and a refugee camp, just across the Syrian border.

For Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, which professed to seek close relations with its neighbors, this is a complete about face. Two factors appear to be at work here. The Sunni support base of the party is one. The prospect of joining the European Union, an idea that France and Germany in particular oppose, may be the other.

How far Turkey’s moderate Islamic government will go is difficult to predict. It has its own Kurdish insurgency to contend with, so the strategy is risky. Turkey’s growing involvement in Syria reminds one of the 1980s when, from a small beginning, Pakistan, in the midst of ethnic insurgencies, became a base for anti-Communist Afghan forces. The consequences were disastrous.

The conflict in Syria continues to simmer. The sanctions on Iran are steadily being tightened. The talk of military action is persistent and the risk of a weak U.S. president facing reelection being pushed into a war against Iran is haunting. Sectarian violence in Iraq is on the rise. The country faces a new political crisis after an arrest warrant was issued for the Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges, prompting the mainly Sunni party al-Iraqiya to boycott parliament. The Syrian conflict threatens further instability in Lebanon and the wider region. And between Libya in North Africa and Pakistan on the edge of South Asia lies an ominously explosive region, waiting for a trigger strong enough to stage a catastrophe.


The Killing of Osama bin Laden

History News Network (May 2, 2011)

Ten years after the dreadful events of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden is dead. His killing in a CIA operation in the Pakistani colonial city of Abbottabad, about thirty miles from the capital, Islamabad, brings a closure for relatives of many thousands of victims of al Qaeda violence around the world. It will be seen as ultimate justice for the man viewed as the chief perpetrator of international terrorism for two decades. The sentiment is understandable, even justified. However, there is a bigger truth. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the heart of America unleashed a global crisis. The subsequent ‘war on terror’ so polarized the world that there will be those who will mourn bin Laden’s death. It is an uncomfortable truth, but should not be overlooked. For although his physical presence may be behind us, the legend of Osama bin Laden still lives.  

The biblical expression – Those who live by the sword will die by the sword – comes to mind. On the other side of the coin is the phrase – The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The simplicity and perils of this mindset are revealed by the manner of Osama bin Laden’s death now and his creation at the outbreak of the CIA proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan three decades ago. There is no dearth of experts associated with think tanks inside the Washington Beltway who claim with confidence that the United States had no contact with bin Laden, and did not help him. These claims are often based on the logic that bin Laden was already so hostile to the West that any warm relationship with the United States was out of the question. But Mujahideen warlords like Hikmatyar, Rabbani and Haqqani were hostile to Western ideology as well. Their opposition was strengthened during the time they spent in the Arab world. Yet they and the West became allies in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Comments made by Britain’s ex-foreign secretary Robin Cook in an article in the Guardian newspaper are worth noting at this point (The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means, July 8, 2005). In one passage, Cook, who had earlier resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said:

Bin Laden was … a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden’s organisation would turn its attention to the west.   

Robin Cook was a politician of immense credibility. An ex-foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons (another cabinet post) with access to classified information, his revelation after resigning would reasonably have to take precedence over other expert opinion. Cook did not live long after writing his article in the Guardian. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack barely a month later in August 2005. Had he lived, we may well have learned more from him. The purpose of my reference to the past is to make a point about the present. Hiring armed men driven by ideological zeal, and willing to fight your enemy for dollars, is a highway that goes through minefields, whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or anywhere else.

The killing of bin Laden in a US special forces operation will go a long way toward assuring the reelection of President Obama in November 2012. In the short run, though, the outcome has implications for al Qaeda, Pakistan and the West, including the United States. Bin Laden’s demise has taken out America’s most recognized and resourceful enemy, who inspired those discontented enough to kill innocent people. A wealthy man in his own right, he could both finance al Qaeda activities, and attract money from other sources. Many of those channels will surely be cut. But the risk of revenge attacks is real. The ruling establishment in Pakistan has to tread carefully. Already angry by frequent American drone attacks in the tribal areas, Pakistan’s public opinion remains extremely sensitive to any US military incursion so deep inside the country. Official reaction in Islamabad is therefore brief and non-committal.

Conflicting messages are coming from Washington and Islamabad about the degree of cooperation between the CIA and Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Some sources claim that the Pakistani authorities had no idea about the US operation. President Obama, announcing that bin Laden had been targeted and killed by American forces, nevertheless said, “It is important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped us lead to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”

The episode raises many questions. For instance, could it be true that Osama bin Laden had been living in an expensive home, especially built five years ago, next to the Pakistan Military Academy a few miles from the capital city, without the authorities having a clue? Would anything similar be possible close to West Point in the United States, Sandhurst in Britain or one of the military academies in India? Were there any Pakistanis who might have advised bin Laden to move from his hideout in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt to a garrison town deep inside the country? If so, who were they?

The construction of a new mansion-style house in a colonial city is a big project and requires the planning permission, preparation and supervision. In whose name was the application made? Who managed the building project so close to the country’s premier military establishment? Was it all due to a series of monumental failures on many fronts? Or was there any involvement of Pakistan’s security agencies, or individuals serving in them, and what may have been their motive? The whole episode is shrouded in mystery. Answers to some of these questions may come in time, but nothing is straightforward in the world of spies and clandestine operations.

There exists a difficult relationship between the United States and Pakistan’s ISI, supposedly America’s partner in the ‘war on terror’ and simultaneously close to militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In reality, the past conduct of the ISI shows that the agency has sometimes kept certain al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban figures from Washington, and handed others over to the CIA at other times. In a high-profile case, the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a leading al Qaeda figure, was announced in March 2003 from a ‘safe house’ of a Pakistani military officer. The officer had family links with one of Pakistan’s religious parties, Jamaat-i-Islami, which supported the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, a close partner in President George W Bush’s war on terrorism.

In my book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have described how Sheikh Mohammed was protected and moved around by the ISI until he was handed over to the United States (Chapter 4, p 52). The conduct of Pakistani military and intelligence agencies in recent years suggests that while they have been willing to hand over ‘low-value’ suspects, or in many instances innocent people, to the CIA, they have withheld the most valuable individuals. These people were passed on to the Americans when there was likelihood of extracting a high price in return, or when the CIA confronted the Pakistani authorities with evidence that a wanted person was in Pakistan and the United States knew the location. Whether this was true in Osama bin Laden’s case, or whether the recent controversy over the arrest of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis after the reported deaths of two Pakistani nationals in a firefight is relevant remains a topic of speculation.

The success of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden is certainly a major coup for President Obama – something his predecessor, George W Bush did not manage in nearly eight years. It will boost Obama’s popularity in the United States, and greatly improve his prospects in the November 2012 presidential election. However, it is unlikely to bring the threat of terrorism to an end, given the continuing conflicts in which the United States and allies are involved in the region. Since assuming the presidency more than two years ago, Obama has often repeated his intention to make sure that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are no longer a threat to America’s security. The influence of al Qaeda seems to have declined in recent years, and the killing of bin Laden is the latest, most serious setback to the organization. Instead, the ‘Arab Spring’ is sweeping across the region. While the peaceful mass movement demanding basic freedoms appears to have achieved some success in Egypt, the ‘Arab Spring’ has to endure suppression in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Syria. The conflict in Libya is more akin to tribal warfare, with Muammar Gaddafi’s military apparently determined to crush the armed opposition which NATO supports. With bin Laden no longer on the scene, will President Obama seize the moment, refocus on the ‘Arab Spring’ and let flowers bloom?  


India’s High-Stakes Foreign Policy

HNN (George Mason University, October 11, 2010)

President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to India in November comes amid a noticeable increase in tensions in US-Pakistan relations and a favorable climate for Washington’s ties with India. His visit to China almost exactly a year ago was a prickly reminder to Delhi of Beijing’s undeniable importance for Washington. However, Obama’s China experience ended with no significant breakthrough on relations with Iran or trade, heavily in favor of Beijing because of an artificially low exchange rate of the Chinese currency. The trade war has intensified in the year gone by, with Congress recently passing legislation that would punish China for undervaluing its currency.

On the other hand, the muted resentment felt in India’s official circles at Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election has evaporated to some extent. In a strange contrast to the negative sentiment about the Bush presidency in the United States and much of the world, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India even told the outgoing president at a White House news conference in September 2008, “The people of India deeply love you.” Such was the Indian prime minister’s gratitude to George W. Bush for delivering the civilian nuclear deal to India in the final months of his presidency.

Nearly two years on, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and India’s External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna met in Washington in late September, they dubbed President Obama’s forthcoming India visit as a “defining moment.” The United States thanked India for its “commitment to Afghanistan.” Washington and New Delhi both have their own imperatives. Pakistan has not delivered the expected in the “war on terrorism,” but remains crucial for the US administration. As Obama approaches his preferred deadline of July 2011 for starting a “drawdown” of troops from Afghanistan, India is emerging as a willing ally for America’s strategy in the region, and an enthusiastic agent to counter China, indisputably the superior military and economic power. As Obama ponders ways of reducing direct military involvement in Afghanistan after Iraq, the administration needs to contract out its role to proxies, with India the principal contender. The Obama administration and the Congress Party-led coalition government in India are playing for high stakes, but the stakes are higher for India in the long run.  

At this point, I want to make some general observations that reflect the situation in South Asia, and how this situation has evolved. Foreign policy is to protect national security and prosperity. The goal is to develop relations as harmonious as possible, to avoid war which is destructive and bad for prosperity. Successful foreign policy depends on internal peace, because internal conflict almost always invites outside interest, if not intervention, and enflames unrest. India has a serious conflict in Kashmir and uprisings in other deprived parts of the country by tribal communities, inappropriately labeled as Maoists. India’s relations with neighbors are hostile, adversarial, and reflect distrust and suspicion. Yet the Indian elite’s consciousness is heavily occupied with achieving impressive statistics of growth – 7, 8, maybe 10 percent. Questions such as: “How can we compete with, and beat, China and build military power.” India’s ambition is to become a superpower, and soon. All very impressive, but there is a cost – growing poverty, hunger, small farmers constantly squeezed, city slums and eviction of slum-dwellers. There are two very different narratives running side by side in rising India.  

India’s foreign policy has become distinctly radicalized over the last sixty years. Its historical development is worth examining to understand the mindset and ambitions of India’s neoliberal elite today. I will look at certain noteworthy events that have played a determining part in this process in the decades gone by.  

The 1950s were the most difficult period for India, an infant, fragile nation. Yet in a way, it was also the best period. India was known for its huge capacity to provide moral leadership in the growing community of emerging nations. It stood for values such as peaceful coexistence, non-alignment and the need for self-sufficiency to reinforce its independent status. It seemed willing to walk away from instant gains in the interest of these objects. Then two significant events happened in the 1960s: the defeat by China in October 1962, and two years later China becoming a nuclear weapons state. Soon after came territorial gains for India in the 1965 war with Pakistan. Many Indians felt that their country had shaken off the 1962 defeat against China. But the Tashkent agreement reversed those gains under Soviet pressure, because the Indian army was required to withdraw from the territory it had seized from Pakistan.

Two further events happened in the 1970s. First, the 1971 India-Pakistan war that resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh in its eastern half. That was when India finally shook off the “China syndrome.” Second, in 1974 India carried out its first nuclear test, which triggered Pakistan’s nuclear program. With Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal a reality now, that advantage, at least with respect to Islamabad, has diminished. In 1975 the Bangladesh leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a military coup. India lost a close ally and much of the strategic gains made in the 1971 war. Looking back, the 1971 victory over Pakistan has been a mixed blessing. In the late 1980s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi thought it was possible to impose peace in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict under the India-Sri Lanka Accord. He sent a large military force to the island state. It did not work out as had been intended. On the contrary, the feeling was reinforced among neighbors that India was behaving like the “big brother.”

India went through a domestic trauma in 1992. Hindu fundamentalists demolished a medieval mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya, where they claimed Lord Ram was born. Communal riots followed in which thousands, mostly Muslims, perished. These events signified the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, a mirror image of the phenomenon of Muslim fundamentalism in Pakistan in the previous decade of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. By helping Islamist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan with weapons and money to fight the Soviet occupation forces, the United States had greatly contributed to the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region. In the 1990s reverberations began to be felt across the border in the form of Hindu radicalization, with India witnessing the ascent of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to power. Those events radicalized not only Indian society, but also the country’s foreign policy.

The irony was that India, with its illustrious past, reacted at best with muted criticism of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. And it came to support the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Then as now the primary motive was to counter Pakistan and China. Today, the environment around India is unfriendly. So India has built a flyover – a super highway – to Israel, bypassing the Muslim and Arab world. That flyover goes from Tel Aviv straight to Washington. The space between India and Israel has been left to other players. As India and Pakistan remain locked in a decades-long cold war, each country maneuvers to have the United States punish the other. And each of the two rivals seeks to demonstrate that it, not the other, is the true ally of America in the war on terrorism. But as has been seen once again in recent years, abuse of military power against own citizens and those of other countries has a corrosive and destructive effect in the long run. India should consider whether its foreign policy would do better with a different balance of military and referent power.  


Obama’s Pakistan bombing reminds of Cambodia, Vietnam

US-led forces in Afghanistan launched another air attack inside Pakistani territory today, September 30th. The Obama administration’s usual explanation is that these air attacks are to kill “militants.” It has emerged that in the latest bombing, at least three Pakistani troops have been killed and five injured. This is too much for Pakistan’s government, which has blocked the movement of trucks carrying NATO supplies into Afghanistan. The Pakistani authorities had earlier threatened to stop providing protection to NATO convoys if American aircraft hit Pakistani targets again. US-led occupation forces in Afghanistan are known to have launched more than twenty drone attacks and a number of missile strikes using helicopters inside Pakistan in September.

As Obama gives political cover to extending the Afghan war inside Pakistan, his military commanders describe it as part of the mission. It is all reminiscent of America’s secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos as the Vietnam war peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The difference is that Obama’s bombing campaign is not, and cannot be, kept a secret.