September 17, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ Surya Gangadharan

Musharraf’s cooperation with the US could be dangerous for him
Musharraf’s cooperation with the US could be dangerous for him
The Rediff Interview/Surya Gangadharan, editor, Strategic Affairs, and expert on the Taleban

While the Taleban has asked Muslims to prepare for jehad -- holy war -- United States President George W Bush has asked his armed forces to get ready. Will a US attack on Afghanistan achieve much? It may not, says Surya Gangadharan, editor, Strategic Affairs, a web magazine. He writes on South Asia and has travelled in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In an interview with Ramesh Menon, he says India stands to gain from an American retaliation only if it is going to be a global war against terrorism.

Is India one of Osama bin Laden's targets?

India has been his target for the last 12 years. His umbrella organization, al-Qaida, which has training camps in Afghanistan, trains the Harkat-ul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other Kashmiri groups before sending them into India. So if you look at the situation on the ground, he is clearly against India.

What does bin Laden want?

Osama has emerged as one of the main rallying points for Islamic groups in the world. Although he is a Sunni fanatic, the al-Qaida has links with the Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group allied to Iran, which is active in Lebanon against the Israelis. He has organisational skills and is apparently worth over $ 300 million. So, many extremist groups look up to him.

After the Saudis took away his Saudi citizenship, under American pressure, he said the Saudi ruling family by allowing American troops on Saudi soil can no longer claim to be the protector of Islam’s holy places. What he wants is a jehad against Israel and the US.

Could bin Laden have carried out the September 11 attacks in the US?

Bombings of the US embassies in Africa (Kenya and Dar-es Salaam) have been attributed to him. He denied it. But American agencies are quite sure of his involvement. Then there was an attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that was again attributed to Osama.

Western intelligence has obviously underestimated the strength and resolve of these Islamic groups, their ability to organise, their ability to command resources and their resolve to work towards a certain goal and carry out coordinated actions with good results.

Actually, the Americans have been lulled by their experience of the Arabs, Egyptians and the Gulf states that are all desperate to get into America's pockets. Israeli intelligence is supposed to be very good, but they have not been able to penetrate Hezbollah or Hamas the Islamic group in the occupied territories.

What is it that makes them so strong? Obviously, it is ideological orientation. It is faith and belief in a certain ideal. That is America's biggest enemy now.

The very fact that they could launch such an attack shows a great level of coordination. They hijacked four planes on the same day at the same time.

America has to look inwards. One of the largest religious groups in the United States is Islam. It also has a large Muslim migrant population. There is a large Pakistani population there. To penetrate the network they have created is extremely difficult.

I met a journalist from the US who had done a great amount of research on Islamic groups operating there. In Chicago, he saw a huge gathering of people with skull caps last year. He discovered it was an Islamic gathering organized by a group close to bin Laden. The master of ceremonies was an American Muslim. When he checked with the FBI whether they knew of this meeting, he found they had no idea at all. In some ways, their intelligence is as bad as us.

If the US does launch an attack, what will be their targets in Afghanistan?

This question must be troubling the Americans the most because there is very little that is standing in Afghanistan today. There are reports that Osama has moved somewhere into the country from Kandahar. Taleban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar is also believed to have left Kandahar. The US must have satellite pictures of the training camps which will be a potential target.

The problem is that three years ago the United States had carried out Cruise missile attacks on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and very little was achieved. Clearly, the United States needs to send in ground troops into Afghanistan who will physically strike at training camps if they are to achieve any success. To do this, the US needs to get clearance from Pakistan and also needs their intelligence inputs.

What is the incentive for Pakistan in this?

The jehadi groups of Pakistan have already warned against any accommodation with the Americans. Some demands of (Pakistan President Pervez) Musharraf could include some commitment on Kashmir apart from an end to sanctions. He may also ask for resumption of economic and military aid.

What are India's stakes then?

India has given the United States details of various training camps of terrorist bases in Pakistan. India hopes the new US experience of terrorism will give them reason to take action against terrorist groups working in Kashmir.

The United States is largely talking of revenge, not a concerted effort to banish terrorism.

Unfortunately, all public statements made by various US leaders including President Bush only refer to the terrorist attack on their country. There is no mention of the fact that the terrorist strikes in the United States are being carried out by the same set of people who have been involved in terrorism in Kashmir for the last 12 years.

The Taleban has called for Muslims to get ready for a jehad.

The Taleban is expecting a strike by the United States. The appeal to Muslims worldwide is obviously aimed at rallying sympathy for the Taleban among Muslims in the US, the Arab world and Pakistan. It hopes these Muslims will act against US interests. It is also to rally Muslim sentiment in Pakistan against Musharraf's public declaration of support and cooperation with the US.

The Taleban has not accepted responsibility for the attacks on America and have instead said that Western agencies were blaming bin Laden to cover up their failure.

That is the Taleban's way of putting it. That Western agencies have failed is obvious. The Taleban will always say that Osama is not responsible because they have given him sanctuary. They claim to have cut off all his communication ,links but it is not true. Osama has a renal problem, so he travels to Peshawar in Pakistan for medical treatment. All traffic of his men and material takes place through Pakistan. Weapons and drugs come in and out. The large mass of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is another fertile ground for him to operate.

Musharraf says he will cooperate with the United States in its attack against terrorism.

Musharraf has come to the job with numerous disadvantages. One, he is a Mohajir (originally from India and moved to Pakistan after Partition). Generally, Punjabis look down on Mohajirs. While he was at the staff college in Australia, he had written a thesis on how economic ties between India and Pakistan was the only way forward to get rid of distrust and hostility. Today, he is the president after throwing both the prime minister and the president out. He talks of democracy when he does not practice it. He talks of peace with India. But the Pakistani army has a vested interest.

If there is peace, how will it justify its control over Pakistan, its control on its budgets, the economy and so on? They say India is an enemy and unless the Kashmir issue was resolved, they had to keep up their defences. So the Pakistan army has the biggest vested interest. They even control the drug trade.

If you have not been to Islamabad, you must. See how these generals live there. Indian generals live in small flats in Delhi and Noida. But Pakistani generals live in opulence with numerous cars and all that. Where is the money coming from? Will they give up their benefits?

Can Musharraf contain the fundamentalist elements in Pakistan who have said they do not approve of the US plan to attack Afghanistan?

A section of corps commanders are reportedly opposed to Musharraf's cooperation with the US. This could be dangerous for Musharraf as there is a possibility that the army could split and could lead to civil war in Pakistan.

The Pakistan army has corps commanders who are Islamic in their orientation, who feel Islam is the only recourse left. Can Musharraf tackle them? He cannot control one group without creating a backlash in the army. It is going to be a tightrope walk for him.

How will Musharraf show the Americans he is sincere?

Maybe he will be able to convince the Americans. Bush has said that not only the perpetrators of terror but even the harbourers will be dealt with. Can Musharraf draw a distinction for the Americans? He has done that before talking of American interests and Pakistan's interests in Kashmir.

You will see the Americans have never said anything against the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. This group has never touched Americans. As long as they do not touch American interests, they are okay with that. It all depends on how Musharraf is going to convince the Americans.

What does it mean for India?

It all depends on how the Americans approach the problem. If they approach it in a more holistic manner, they can even hit terrorists in Pakistan occupied Kashmir or turn the screws on Pakistan by stopping IMF loans. But some sections in the US state department see Pakistan as an old ally. They think Pakistan can be useful in hitting Afghanistan, the Taleban and maybe, Central Asia.

Has India been cogent and assertive enough in pushing our interests as far as insurgency goes?

There does not seem to be any cogent thinking in South Block about how to tackle the proxy war in Kashmir. Our artillery has the range to attack the terrorists camps in Skardu and elsewhere. Why do we just not shell them? After a point of time, Pakistan will not be able to retaliate, as they will run out of ammunition.

Unless Pakistan gets hurt, there is no incentive for them to stop hurting India. Right now, the proxy war does not cost them anything as they are using drug money to run it. Nothing is coming from the Pakistani army budget. But India bleeds.

But Americans still think of how Pakistan was useful in the Cold War and how loyal they were. So, today, there is a tussle between the state department and defence. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, wants to have a quick opening up with India and wants the sanctions to be lifted, even start mutual level training and even arms sales. But the state department wants to hang on to the old US-Pak equation.

Some of the new guys in the Bush administration want to focus on new countries that can be reliable partners in the future. India and the United States have more in common like being a democracy, having a secular framework and so on. Whether they will take this seriously depends on whether they now broaden their fight against terrorism and start looking at things in a broader perspective.

What about the likely air strikes?

What is it going to achieve? And what are you going to hit? No one is going to sit around in Afghanistan hoping to be hit. Air strikes will be a symbolic thing, that is all.

In 1998, when the American embassies were attacked, the US launched a Cruise missile attack against Afghanistan. They ended up killing just four or five people and some sheep. Worse still was the fact that some missiles did not explode. The Taleban invited the Chinese who took the missiles home, dismantled it and apparently exchanged information on missile technology with the Russians.

What about the American monitors who are going to be stationed on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border?

The 14 monitors who will be on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are basically to monitor and stop the movement of arms to Afghanistan. It is also to ensure that Pakistan does not get involved with the Taleban. There must have been some arm twisting on part of the United States to get Pakistan to say okay to these monitors as the jehadi groups are totally against it.

Do you see Pakistan having a tough time?

It depends on how Pakistan is able to maneuver itself. In terms of diplomacy and public posturing, the Pakistanis are very adept. As soon as the tragedy struck the United States, Musharraf appeared on television offering condolences. They know how to manipulate the media and how to use it.

What do you think India is looking for?

For India, the issue is whether America will look at terrorism in a broad perspective or whether they will just look at their interests. It is not that they do not know about how Pakistan is involved in terrorism. But they still have Cold War memories and are basically worried only about what hits them.

Our image as a soft State also contributes to it. We are not proactive about our own interests. There is no consensus in India on anything. We are seen as a country that cannot get a handle on anything. So countries like America tell themselves that they should not bother about India.

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