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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The sponge of terror

Another 26/11 would bring immense public pressure on the government to retaliate, which would be matched by American pressure to remain unprovoked.

US pressure has worked earlier, notably after the 2001 attack on Parliament when India mobilised its military along the Pakistan border in 2002’s Operation Parakram. It annoyed the US no end because Pakistan moved 60,000 troops to the border, allowing so many al-Qaeda and Taliban types to slip into Pakistan and escape post-9/11 US military action in Afghanistan. The CIA learned that India was planning a brigade-level commando raid into PoK; the US, along with Britain and Germany, in June publicly withdrew all but essential diplomatic staff, delivering a veiled threat to India. The government started looking for a way out and declared Operation Parakram over after the successful J&K elections in August 2002.

Then there was last year’s siege of Mumbai.

The then foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, made some angry noises prompting former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to read the riot act to Pakistan; Islamabad retaliated with extortion when “unnamed military officials” said that any confrontation with India would hamper Pakistan army operations on the Afghan border. The CIA again noted two Indian Air Force violations of Pakistan airspace, as well as IAF preparations to hit terrorist camps in PoK, so the US vise on India was tightened.

The pressure to not retaliate was enough, perhaps, for the prime minister to require a multiple-bypass heart operation, but he had already told Parliament that war was not a solution, letting Pakistan off the hook.

You cannot help but wonder what happens after the next terrorist strike. With a pro- America prime minister who does not directly face the electorate and who gets visibly thrilled by grandiose American pronouncements about India-on-the-global-stage (notice no one making such lofty declarations ever makes promises about India becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council), there are no prizes for guessing whose pressure will be more effective. India is likely to remain, in the words of Ashley J Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at a US Senate hearing earlier this year, a “sponge that protects us all”. To quote Tellis: “India’s very proximity to Pakistan... has resulted in New Delhi absorbing most of the blows unleashed by those terrorist groups that treat it as a common enemy along with Israel, the US, and the West more generally”.

None of us wants to be a “sponge”. When the next terrorist strike comes, many of us will want to see some “payback”, even if it is a token muscular gesture. So let us examine what may initially seem an absurd proposition: why not leave Pakistan alone (for these days it is the bigger “sponge” for terrorism, to the extent that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence directorate is repeatedly hit), and why not start talking of hitting targets in Saudi Arabia? Naturally no one would ever touch the holy places and of course the government should never do anything to distress or incite Indian Muslims. Also, Saudi Arabia is not a weak country; it has powerful allies.

Yet in the post-9/11 cacophony Pakistan is repeatedly called the epicentre of terrorism while no one talks much about the House of Saud’s role in promoting Islamism whether for religious reasons or geopolitical ones.

(Actually, several people pointed out that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi of Yemeni descent, and Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 911 explored the nexus between Saudi oil wealth, the Bush dynasty and terrorism).

When one gentleman, the venerable Ram Jethmalani, pointed out at a conference last Saturday that Wahabism was responsible for terrorism, the Saudi ambassador to India, Faisal-al-Trad walked out in protest; Law Minister Veerappa Moily had to sweettalk him into returning, saying that Jethmalani’s was not the government’s view.

There is something to what Jethmalani says, however. We have heard ad nauseam about how for decades the Wahabis have been promoting through petro-dollars their literalist and austere interpretation of Islam.

It is now a historical fact that most of today’s Islamists were spawned in the mujahideen resistance to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979; that resistance was funded evenly by the Saudis and the Americans.

What people seem to overlook is that Saudi intelligence deliberately encouraged the growth and the agenda of the ISI during the resistance against the Soviet Union, according to Steve Coll’s excellent Ghost Wars; that the Saudis were never interested in moderates in the resistance; and that after the US abandoned Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the USSR, the Saudis encouraged the ISI to back extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar over others. And as radical Islam grew, the Saudis hint that they had to turn a blind eye to it so that the monarchy could be protected; that, however, does not explain the Saudis’ wilful support to the ISI’s agenda of promoting radical Islam, an agenda that combined two Pakistani strategic objectives: keeping India off-balance in Kashmir and controlling Kabul.

When the Taliban swept into power, they fulfilled these objectives perfectly; the ISI became more powerful and the Saudis more supportive, to the extent of pressing the Taliban case with the Americans. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan were the only countries to recognise the Taliban government (the Taliban showed its gratitude by allowing Saudi and UAE royals to hunt for bustards in the southern Afghan desert), knowing fully well that the Taliban could not care about governance or the welfare of its citizens; and when it came to the reconstruction of post-Taliban Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t even pay its half of the bill for the Kabul-Kandahar road, leaving the US to pick up the tab (in contrast, several Indians have died building Afghan roads). The Saudis have always turned a blind eye to the Harkat- ul-Ansar, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Toiba; it is no secret that the Saudis dislike India. No wonder their immense wealth is directly responsible for the ISI’s growth, nurturing and evolution.

Saudi Arabia is the benefactor and sustainer of the ISI in the same way that the ISI is the benefactor and sustainer of the LeT and other lethal anti-India groups. Saudi Arabia finances the global growth of Islamist ideologies, from which spring extremism and terrorism. So while some may argue that to get at the root cause of terrorism in India, one has to get at the ISI, this column would go one step further: for getting at the root cause of the Frankenstein called ISI, one has to start talking about getting at Saudi Arabia.

And next time there’s an attack on India, we could respond to US pressure by pointing the finger at the House of Saud. Or we could continue being the sponge for terrorism.

editorchief@expressbuzz.com

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