Feb 15, 2010

"We need economic peace to defend ourselves"

You have to put in place a framework in which you agree on some broad principles

Ronojoy Sen: What are the links between al-Qaeda and terrorist outfits in India?

Steve Coll: The American intelligence community believes that the core al-Qaeda organisation operating through their own channels and through like-minded Pakistani groups has had independent contact with cells in India. Would this lead to more Mumbais being generated from inside India? Since Mumbai, you haven’t really seen a metastasising of that pattern. I think al-Qaeda is increasingly under pressure. They are having trouble maintaining their own local operations. Their own focus at the moment has been operations in Afghanistan against American troops and aiding the Pakistani Taliban in their efforts to put the Pakistani state off balance.

RS: Do you agree with the belief that Indian Muslims are not radicalised at all?

SC: This idea is similar to the idea that America’s Muslim population is content, it is integrated, it is not going to get radicalised. There is a little bit of complacency in these assessments. It is not that somehow large sections of these populations are going to become radicalised and participate in revolutionary movements, but it does not take much to create violence — just a handful of groups and individuals. Every Muslim in the world is part of a common discourse about grievance, about violence. And to think that no participant in that discourse in India or the US will ever take it upon themselves to act is naive.

RS: Why do you think there have been no attacks in India since 26/11?

SC: In the US after 9/11, we had the same question: Why are we terror-free? First, there are always multiple explanations. Second, there is a kind of cyclical pattern. These groups do not have the capacity outside of Pakistan and Afghanistan to carry off a succession of sophisticated attacks.

In the case of India I would assume that at least two factors are at play. One, the Indian security services and the government have clearly taken the imperative of domestic surveillance and counter-terrorism more seriously after Mumbai than ever before. And maybe for the first time it is become a political issue. There have been lapses in the past and the politicians did not pay a price. This time it was obvious (laughs) that you would pay a price. That gets people motivated. The system has responded to that.

I also think that it is probable that the Pakistani security services concluded, however reluctantly, that they did not want to permit follow-on attacks of that sophistication and scale. I do not believe they have given up on their idea of jehadi violence in India but in their very complicated calculation of costs and benefits in their relationship with the US and the toys they are trying to pull down out of that, to be caught either facilitating or being negligent about another Mumbai cell coming up in their territory, they would have to pay such a high price that it may have caused them to tell their people to chill for a while. It is a guess but it is hard to explain this pattern of quiet without reference to the Pakistani security services. Obviously infiltration in Kashmir is continuing, and so the Pakistani state may have said to their clients, "Let’s go back to fighting on the ground."

RS: We just had an incident in Srinagar...

SC: Yes. One thing that was obvious about the attacks on the homeland in India is that you can attack all you want in Kashmir and the international community will not react (laughs). That conflict is its own story. But once you come down out of Kashmir into the Indian cities the whole world starts paying attention. The costs go up and the impact goes up too. That might have cautioned them at least temporarily.

RS: There are many, particularly in Pakistan, who believe that if you resolve Kashmir you take out the real cause of terrorism in South Asia. Do you agree?

SC: I don’t believe that at all. But Kashmir is an impediment to broader changes between India and Pakistan that are necessary to gradually eliminate the structural causes of persistent terrorism in India and Afghanistan. That is to say, change the practices of the Pakistani security services. In the medium run, how do you break the cycle of clandestine war between India and Pakistan, the use of jehadi groups? The only way you break that pattern is the same way similar conflicts have ended in other parts of the world — in the Balkans, in Southeast Asia — where economic integration and shared prosperity changes the incentive structure for the Pakistani army where they see that their own interests are better served by open, managed borders. Everybody in Pakistan knows that India’s prosperity is the big story of the region in the next 20-30 years. Pakistan can either be an impediment to that or be a part of it.

RS: And that probably reflects sentiments in Kashmir too where there is growing ambivalence about Pakistan...

SC: Absolutely. In fact, your newspaper (The Times of India) has quoted Manmohan Singh as saying that India was "very close to a non-territorial settlement" in 2007. I love that language. Because that is the right way to think about this. What you’re trying to do in Kashmir is to buy time for these other effects to take hold, and for both countries to share a period of war-free economic growth, middle class formation and cultural accommodation. It does not have to be peace, love and harmony. It just needs to be normalisation — the sort that you see between Serbia and Croatia.

In order to buy that 20 years, you don’t have to settle every line on the map. You have to put in place a framework in which you agree on some broad principles and agree to no longer pursue those goals through violence. It is just creating a framework where the broader process of peaceful economic and cultural integration can occur. That is the only way forward. You have to be realistic though. When you announce peace, those who have an interest in the violence will react; they will try to blow it up. The question is how much capacity the Pakistani state has to do its bit. The problem is that India understandably does not believe that Pakistan has the will. If India thought Pakistan had the will, it would have a realistic approach to its capacity problems. But you cannot accept the capacity excuse when you don’t think the other side is serious.

RS: Won’t the Pakistani military establishment keep Kashmir alive?

SC: Musharraf brought around the (Pakistani) corps command to this deal in 2007. It was interesting when I was reporting on this in Pakistan and you asked the question: What was the winning argument in the corps command meetings? First of all, Musharraf was at the peak of his authority, but there were three winning arguments. One was that if we want to modernise an army and defend Pakistan’s territorial integrity while India modernises its army, we need more money than our current growth rates can support. We already take a huge share of Pakistan’s GDP. We need the whole pie to grow. We need economic peace just to defend ourselves. The second argument was that we can achieve acceptable goals in Kashmir by political means that we cannot by guerilla violence. Let’s accept it, our strategy is not working. The Indians have defeated the insurgency; they have been able to create enough political normalcy in their part of Kashmir. We can keep throwing rocks, but why not create an outcome that history will recognise as just through political negotiations. The final argument was international legitimacy. The Pakistani army for all of its crazy self-defeating policies also craves recognition as a legitimate army, an unusually good fighting force. Musharraf personally wanted to go to Oslo and be awarded the peace prize with Manmohan Singh (laughs). These factors are still there in the psyche, but the problem is that the Pakistani government is in no position to come back to that.

RS: How do you see the future of US policy in the Af-Pak region?

SC: Despite the signaling that Obama did to American audiences about 2011, actually American policy is constructed for the long run in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike. The model that the American establishment has in mind is Egypt or Colombia or Philippines or other areas where long-standing alliances had to endure hostile public opinion and bad governance in the host country. The model is one where you just endure and you keep working on it. It does not mean that you give money unquestioningly. In Afghanistan, all that it means is preventing revolution and civil war. And in Pakistan it means help creating conditions in which Pakistan can succeed alongside India.

RS: Having attended a few hearings in Capitol Hill, I get the sense that the US Congress is getting fed up with giving aid to Pakistan.

SC: That is an important anxiety. I think it is constructive because it is a legitimate set of questions to ask and it also puts some leverage on the Pakistanis. The Pakistani government has to take account of these concerns. These are American Congressmen who question whether the Pakistani government is sincere about this partnership. There is a lot of manufactured outrage in the US-Pak relationship that is a negotiating tactic. Pakistanis manufactured a lot of outrage about the conditionalities (in the Kerry-Lugar Bill). It was not even conditionalities. So why do they manufacture the outrage? So that the Americans will feel guilty and send them more helicopters! Do you think members of the Congress might be aware that their complaints are a sort of counter-force against this Pakistani outrage? I think they are. Both sides have legitimate grievances. Neither side wants to blow up the relationship. The problem is more energy is wasted in manufacturing these grievances for negotiating than is actually directed towards fixing the problems.

The full version of this interview

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