Saturday, February 24, 2007

A 'fringe' ISI: Some thoughts

Some news reports are suggesting that a `fringe' ISI is responsible for the blasts on the Delhi-Attari train. Ofcourse we all remember what Teesta Seetalvad has to say about who could be responsible for the blasts, so after having been badly exposed on national television like that, one can always something from the people that talk such nonsense. Normally one would be keen to simply ignore this canard, but one is also being made aware of some discussions between British Intelligence and Indian's authorities about a possible intelligence sharing agreement about fringe elements in the ISI. This suggests that there is far more coordination to this 'fringe' ISI story than simply a local component could muster.

Sri. Raman has already weighed in on the topic of ISI's peculiar role in India-Pakistan relations in his letter to Mr. Kasuri, and one can add little of substance to that all encompassing description of the state of affairs. However a small backgrounder might be of interest to my readers.

The ISI maintains a considerable information database on Pakistan itself and quite naturally on India but what is more important is who gets access to that information. Very broadly speaking, the ISI as an organisation provides protection to the core conflict economic interests that run inside Pakistan. Briefly, these core conflict economies may be summarised as, drug trafficing, money laundering, arms smuggling and murder for hire (or as it is now popularly called "terrorism"). As the Pakistan Army and its people (serving and retired) play key roles in these economies, the ISI is tied at the hip to the Pakistan Army.

I would say that are basically three groups of people that "control" the ISI.

Firstly, the established conflict economic personalities, people that sit atop major pots of money along the lucrative trades inside the black economy. They are the only people in Pakistan that the ISI leadership truly have to satisfy. To that end the ISI has to provide a variety of conflict resolution capabilities that meet the needs of this community. The interface between the ISI and these people is provided by "retired" personnel. Though biradaris play some role here, ultimately, these people pick the interface officers based on their past records and the system self-organises.

Secondly, the leadership hierarchy of the ISI itself. Any ISI officer at any level has to worry about his promotion prospects. Despite all the performance in the world, he has to keep his supervisors happy. If he doesn't they can set adverse remarks against him, and that could severely impact his career in the private or public sector. The higher an officer rises in the ISI's organisation, the more his influence over broad policy decisions and the more credibility his word might potentially carry among the established conflict economy personalities. It is plausible that this is a very tricky game, because the supervisor has to evaluate the cost of adverse assessment against the percieved value of siding with his junior officer. If the supervisor makes a bad call, and censures a popular junior officer, he risks losing his career. Alternatively if he simply endorses everything a junior officer does, then he risks appearing like a rubber stamp. It is here that the pressure of things like biradaris and ethnicity become most acute and factionalism has a field day.

Thirdly, the COAS (currently also President of Pakistan), the sole motivation of this individual is ensuring personal political survival. If this fellow has made some commitments to someone about what he can make the ISI do, then the ISI has to do them. Apart from this, a clique of loyalists in the ISI often use its offices to promote the personal interests and security of the COAS. Outside of this the COAS generally gains no real profit in interfering with the ISI's operations. The machine literallly runs itself, occasionally he dips in and takes a cut, sometimes he make an economic killing, or periodically a politically inconvenient situation is managed with the ISI's resources. In this fashion the COAS and the ISI mostly coexist and keep out of each other's way.

So even very crudely you can see the fault lines and you can see where a `fringe' might develop, but again the question is what fringe are we talking about?

Ofcourse as Sri. Raman has already pointed out, intelligence cooperation with the West with regards Pakistan is never really in India's interests. The West is rather heavily invested in keeping Pakistan as a proxy for anti-India activities and never really responds to India's requests for help. In most cases this is a one way street for the West, they want us to share and give us nothing of value in return. It all comes down to the details of what fringe you want to talk about and there has never been a real agreement on that in the past. Who can forget that it took 9/11 to get the West to notice that there were severe problems in its handling of Pakistan? and that was so long ago? will their attitudes really change so quickly?

Oddly enough, I am not as pessimistic about the Joint Counter Terrorism Mechanism as others might be. It is difficult to ignore that Hamid Gul (as described by Sri. Raman) traded the Indian Army defectors but strove very hard to distance himself from the transaction, even if it meant ending Benazir's Prime Ministership. Clearly such a deniability regime does not extend to El Presidente today, after all the Joint Counter Terrorism mechanism is an open activity not a covert arrangement?

Call me a softie if you like, but I am always willing to explore any number of low cost options. The point about terrorist attacks is well made, but I remain of the view that at the present time, a regime of reciprocity will not actually yeild an end to terrorist attacks and will only cause Pakistan (which is currently stewing in its own juices) to boil over. This will entail a whole new set of problems that we will have to deal with. I am not entirely convinced we are in a position to deal with such things yet, the situation may change in a few years and then the long awaited transformation of India-Pakistan policy will finally occur but until then it is very difficult for me to say things should change.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A few notes about the situation in Iraq

There has been a lot of media attention focussed on the timetable for withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Many writers in the liberal British media are projecting this as a victory against what they term as Blair's blatantly illegal war. To their minds, Tony Blair's media machine has now been damaged and his exit from power is imminent. It is curious to note that there is no negative commentary on the British withdrawal from American sources. After all the British are withdrawing at a time when the Americans are keen on sending in more troops. So why aren't the Americans making a royal fuss about it as they did when Spain and Italy left? Our American friends are curiously silent.

It is quite interesting also to hear the British commanders speak with confidence about the ability of Iraqi national forces to hold Basra. However it is hard to forget that a just a few months ago, the British were actually at war with the Basra police. Some remarkable changes must have occured in Basra since then, as it appears the British now have a totally different take on things.

Speaking of a different take, ofcourse there is the Iran angle, how can there not be one? now we are seeing a very serious beating of the drums vis a vis Iran aren't we? As in any game of brinkmanship it is impossible to tell whether the Americans are serious about their threats and when the Israelis join in this chorus, the level of sheer amusement in this becomes beyond what can be had from even ordinary TV. This kind of media posturing is much more entertaining than the boring headlines in Pravda.

That leaves us with our Pakistani friends. We have now heard whispers in the media about Pakistan-Saudi nuclear ties and some ties between Pakistan and other Sunni states in the region. Now I have to whisper too, this is a subtle threat to the Shia of Iran but it is also a way of signaling Israel that Saudi Arabia will be second to none when it comes to going nuclear.

There is also a more open threat from the Saudis which suggests that if the American abandon the fledgeling democracy in Iraq to Shia hands, the Saudis will be forces to act. Also concurrent with this are media reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Basra training Hezbollah and Hamas operatives. Yet another fine thread that connects Israeli security to the mire in Iraq.

It is generally believed that as long as Israel sings in the American chorus, the Americans ensure that Israeli-Saudi disputes remain civil. If Iran openly declares hostility towards Israel, Saudi leadership of the Middle Eastern Islamicate, comes into question. Iran thus creates pressures on Saudi-Israeli relations as it forces the Saudis to be assertive. An old and tired dynamic, that is currently infused with the rhetoric of WMD and democracy.

Yes there are deeper threads in here that I have glossed over deliberately too I might add. Yet can someone explain to me why is it that whenever discussions on the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline gain momentum, the war chorus becomes shrill. And while mouthing off about Iran's nuclear ambitions, the same experts put in a word or two about Iran obstinate behaviour on the oil market. Is the disconnect not apparent to the experts? if this is a terrorist axis of evil state? why do you want to buy oil from them?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Recent Events in Pakistan: A Brief Comment

It is very difficult to connect events occuring in the Pakistani context to macroscopic trends. It is something that one must do only sparingly.

I wish to comment in the most limited possible way on a few recent events which speak to one particular macroscopic issue. I am not rushing to call this a trend but merely a noticeable pattern.

First a few key historical notes about heroin trafficing routes into Pakistan. Per international estimates, there are three main routes for trafficing drugs from Afghanistan to Pakistan; Jalalabad-Parachinar, Kandahar-Quetta and Helmand-Balochistan. The details of these routes can be found in a number of publications but they are not particularly relevant here.

A separate route from Baluchistan takes narcotics via the Iran-Pakistan border to refineries in the Middle East. The Iran Pakistan border region has four-five major transit points and periodically reports surface of clashes between narcotics trafficers and the Iranian revolutionary guards units manning the border. You may have heard about recent clashes at one of these points that left a large number of casualties in the IRGC.

Another route takes narcotics from Pakistan via the international shipping lanes to various places in the world. The exit point of this is believed to be near Karachi. You may have heard about recent interdictions of large quantities of opiates by US led naval forces in the Arabian sea. The ships in each case came from Pakistanis ports. It is also believed by some that route travels by the sea from Karachi to India.

A third route allegedly leaves Pakistan via the India-Pakistan border and enters North India. North India is both a local market and a transhipment point to Europe, South East Asia and Africa. You all may also recall reading news items recently about the arrest of several NRIs in Punjab, these people were believed to be trafficing heroin and other narcotics to Canada. There were also reports of a route opening up via the Srinagar Muzzafarabad route that was opened recently. You may have heard of attacks on passengers on those buses.

To put not too fine a point on it, the Samjhauta express forms a vital link along this drug route. I am not saying that there is no transit at places like Barmer, Bikaner, Akhnoor etc... but the volume cross via the Samjhauta express is believed to be quite in excess of the other routes. The Samjhauta Express is also a way for large quantities of other smuggled goods, from commericial items like medicines to drug related intermediaries like Acetic Anhydride, to go from India to Pakistan. The flow of goods in the other direction in someway balances the flow of drugs from Pakistan to India. As you probably expect the trade along this route is often underwritten with fake Indian rupees printed in ISI controlled presses in Pakistan.

The poor muslims who travel on this line are often used as couriers in this illegal trade and whoever dominates this trade effectively dominates a number of local economies in Pakistan especially in vital things like medicines. This trade plays a crucial role in stablising India Pakistan relations, and India has only closed the Samjhauta express down in periods of extremely high India-Pakistan tension. This gesture on the Indian side has almost always been accompanied by public and private threats from Indians to Pakistan to completely shut down the flow of acetic anhydride from India to Pakistan. A move that never seems to fail to rattle people inside Pakistan. Pakistani submissive gestures follow almost instantaneously and not long after this any residual rebelliousness on their side ebbs.

The consequences of a blast on the Samjhauta express are obvious. There are going to be increased security checks and that means any smuggled goods are going to face greater risks of discovery. Also a number of potential couriers are going to be discouraged from travelling on the train. The result will be a disruption in the trade route. A similar disruption can also be assumed to occuring on the Pak-Iran border after the latest round of clashes there. So in sum, the last two weeks we have seen major disruptions along key drug trafficing routes out of Pakistan.

It is too early to comment on the impact of this and while it is certainly plausible that any number of groups inside Pakistan might see potential extortion opportunities from disrupting these trafficing routes, it is by no means certain. A detailed examination of the modus operandi is necessary without which the topic remains too sensitive to survive commentary.

Needless to say that any loss of life in acts of terrorism is extremely regretable and instantly becomes a personal burden on the leadership of India and Pakistan, but it is especially disheartening to see people travelling from India to Pakistan, get hurt.

It is painful to see traders, even illegal ones, going from India to Pakistan, without doubt people we were supposed to protect, get hurt in this way. In that sense, though the dead are predominantly Pakistanis, this event wounds us more than it wounds the Pakistanis, after all these were Pakistanis who had a extremely vested interest in India-Pakistan peace!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Collaborating with the US on Defence R&D projects

I am getting tired of this nonsense from the mouthpieces and the talking heads.

There appears to be a concerted effort underway to solicit India's participation in American defence R&D projects. As some of you may be aware, a number of Indian expats work in this sector already and what is apparently being suggested is an expansion of such interactions.
Prima facie this may seem like a good idea, but you have to take into account the fact that places like DRDO are already losing manpower to the higher paying civilian software sector and any direct research arrangement of this kind will amount to the Americans effectively strip mining our intellectual property.

Please understand, in this kind of an arrangement, the employees will be Indian and they will have no IPR over their work. They will work under non-disclosures and for a fraction of the cost of American labour. This may seem profitable from the perspective of investors in US defense R&D for the reasons described below.

Firstly US defense R&D is without doubt the most advanced in the world. It is also frighteningly expensive both in terms of manpower and money. It is impossible for even a casual observer in the US to miss the fact that though the US has the highest number of science and technology graduates in world, numbering in the millions, it still imports a sizable number of high tech labourers from other countries each year. It is not like the US high tech labourers are unemployed either, the American unemployment numbers are actually quite low. So where does this manpower go? it can only go to one place - the US defense industrial sector. There is considerable expense involved in hiring people for these jobs in the US and salaries in this sector tend to be higher than the civilian sector. There is a natural imperative to keep the costs down.

Secondly, the US defense R&D sector is currently enmeshed in two main areas of activity; they are maintaining an absurdly obese nuclear arsenal and they are trying to develop disruptive technologies which will enable their side to prevail in various battle environemnts. The large nuclear arsenal will have to be restructured lest it sink the economy, and disruptive technologies are being viewed as the key American national survival, especially in a time when the US may need to fling its forces far across the globe to dominate key trade routes and natural resources, every American is aware of the costs of having troops in Iraq, and people are pushing hard for developing disruptive technologies.

Thirdly I am of the opinion that American policymakers are seeking ways of moving away from a carbon fuels dependence over the next decade. This transition will require the entire might of the American government and the full attention of their R&D sector. This kind of R&D activity will place considerable demands on money and manpower, drawing both away from the defense sector. This enhances the desire to keep costs down in the US defense R&D sector.

An outsourcing of R&D activity in certain sectors to a friendly country like India might help cut costs and free up American R&D manpower.

Again on the face of it, this may seem fine, and it is so long as there is something in it for India.

As the defense technology through such outsourcing will obviously not be shared. We need to have something else in return.

A few people might express a childish enthusiasm for bigger toy guns on spaceships and shiny new American airplanes but...

I do not have the authority to negotiate or comment in any level of detail on what India as a whole might want. That is solely the prerogative of the GoI... but incidentally, I seem to recall that Ambassador Saran had clearly said some things about the supply of nuclear fuels for Indian reactors and the reprocessing rights for imported fuel.