Two things emerge from last month’s horrendous attack on Mumbai: one is how interconnected South Asia is with the rest of the world. The other is how the Carter Administration’s ill-conceived strategy in Afghanistan more than 30 years ago still reverberates throughout the region. Decades of subversion, terrorism and invasion have created what historian Vijay Prashad calls a “cauldron” from which has emerged avenging angels and dark demons in equal measure.
Consider for a moment the following:
1) Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization that launched the terror attack, was organized not in Pakistan, but in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, as part of the U.S. war on the Soviet Union. Its patron, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), later turned it against Indian troops occupying Kashmir, but initially the organization was one of a number of Muslim extremist groups, including the Taliban, cobbled together by Pakistan, the U.S. CIA, and Saudi Arabia.
2) When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it drove the Taliban into Pakistan’s Northwest Territories and tribal lands. When the organization began a comeback in 2004, the Bush Administration pressured the Pakistanis to send troops into the region to fight the insurgents and seal off the border. No one in recorded history has ever successfully subdued the Pashtun tribes who inhabit the area, and the Pakistani Army soon found itself under siege. While Islamabad’s invasion did nothing to quell the Taliban’s infiltration into Afghanistan, it did spark the creation of a homegrown Pakistan Taliban, which has launched scores of attacks and recently destroyed the Islamabad Marriott Hotel.
3) For years, the U.S. has tried to leverage India away from its traditional foreign policy of non-alignment and neutrality. It has particularly wanted to rope New Delhi into its campaign to surround China with hostile bases and allies. Under the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, India signed onto the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system and, under the current government, has expanded military ties and cooperation with Washington.
Most of all, India wanted to break out of the nuclear isolation imposed on it and Pakistan after both countries tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Under strictures imposed on the two countries, no member of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group could sell uranium to either one unless they agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). This was particularly onerous for India because the country has limited domestic supplies of uranium ore.
The White House saw an opportunity: craft a deal that lets India buy uranium ore without having to sign the NNPT in exchange for increased military ties with the U.S. and for sending aid and road building engineers to Afghanistan. The so-called 1-2-3 Agreement allows India to purchase uranium for its civilian program and use its domestic sources for its weapons program. Not only will this spark a nuclear arms competition between Pakistan and India, it threatens to unravel the NNPT, one of the few remaining treaties that prevents a worldwide nuclear arms race.
For Pakistan, the U.S.-India quid pro quo is deeply threatening. On the one hand, Indian involvement in Afghanistan squeezes off Islamabad’s “strategic depth,” a place to retreat to in the event of a war with the much more powerful Indian Army. On the other, the 1-2-3 Agreement means Pakistan has to ramp up its nuclear weapons and missile programs in the midst of a devastating economic crisis that has seen inflation rise 15 percent and food insecurity spread to 86 percent of the population.
4) The Carter and Reagan Administrations’ jihad against the Russians translated into supporting whoever would aid the infiltration of mujihideen into Afghanistan and later back the 2001American invasion. If that meant backing military dictators like Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, who crushed democracy and filled the pockets of their feudal supporters with gold, so be it. The result, of course, was entrenched extremists groups—some of whom eventually blew up the World Trade Towers and attacked the Pentagon—and weak civilian control over the government.
Over the past year, the wave of U.S. attacks on Pakistani targets using remote- controlled robot aircraft has helped to undermine the current civilian government.
5) Part of the Bush Administration’s wooing of India involved turning a blind eye to Kashmir, one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world. When India and Pakistan refused to accept a United Nations-sponsored referendum that would have allowed Kashmiris to decide if they wanted to opt for India, Pakistan, or autonomy, it set off a vicious shadow war between New Delhi and Islamabad. The Pakistani ISI infiltrated fighters to attack Indian troops in Kashmir, and Indian troops responded with savage repression. This past August, the Indian Army brutally crushed the largest non-violent demonstrations in Kashmir’s history. An estimated 80,000 people have died over the past 20 years, and the area has spawned terrorist attacks throughout India.
Pakistan and India have a long history of mutual grievances, but as each country is drawn deeper and deeper into the orbit of the U.S. and its allies, those grievances have become more dangerous. In the 1999 Kargil border incident, both countries came distressingly close to a nuclear exchange, and there are elements in both countries that talk quite openly about the possibility of a nuclear war. The 1-2-3 Agreement, and the nuclear arms race it will ignite, adds yet another explosive ingredient to the volatile “cauldron” that makes up Indian-Pakistani relations.
To date, the response of both countries to the Mumbai attack has been measured.
India has accused Pakistanis of being behind the attack, but has not charged that the Islamabad government was directly involved. It has also refrained from any overt military moves as it did following the 2001 terrorist attack on India’s Parliament.
Pakistan, which denies any official involvement in the Mumbai assault, has raided a Lashkar-e-Taiba training camp and apparently arrested some of the organization’s leaders. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the attackers as “enemies of civilization” and called on India to work with Islamabad “together to track down the terrorists who caused mayhem in Mumbai, attacked New York, London and Madrid in the past, and destroyed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.”
Left parties in both India and Pakistan have called for restraint. India’s Communists want their government to rely on the UN, not the Indian Air Force, and Pakistan’s Communists are calling for a “unified commitment…to combat extremism and terrorism in all its shades and colors.”
There are, however, actors on both sides who see an advantage in having India and Pakistan at each other’s throats. Lashkar-e-Tabia and other extremist Pakistani groups would like nothing more than to increase the polarization between Hindus and Muslims. So would their ideological counterparts in India, rightwing Hindu extremists in the BJP and the semi-fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BJP has already made “national security” the centerpiece of its election campaign, and the Party’s general secretary has called for India to respond the same way the Bush Administration did in the aftermath of 9/11.
Such a response “knocks at the doors of insanity,” says P. Sainath, India’s leading investigative reporter and last year’s winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.
The Indian journalist is currently teaching a class in the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley.
Sainath points out that the result of the American response to 9/11 was two disastrous wars, close to a million deaths and, according to Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, a three trillion dollar butcher’s bill for the Iraq War. That figure, says Sainath, is “about three times India’s GDP.”
Rather than talking of war and revenge, Sainath suggests that the most important thing both sides can do is to act in way that “denies the authors of this outrage the success of their goal.” To that end he sees resisting polarization along religious and ethnic lines as critical. And rather than “undermining the constitution,” as the Bush Administration did in the aftermath of 9/11, he calls for “shredding chauvinism and jingoism.”
In his commentary in the New York Times, Zardari argues “reconciliation and rapprochement is the best revenge against the dark forces that are trying to provoke a confrontation between Pakistan and India, and ultimately a clash of civilizations.”
As for Americans: isn’t it time we examined our part in setting loose the avenging angels and dark demons that have brought South Asia to the edge of an abyss?