Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Must Obama find the "right war"?

 
        Barack Obama has a serious problem. He is not a warmongering person. He opposed the Iraq war. As he said amusingly on Gandhi’s birthday, he would most like to have dinner with Gandhi – though perhaps Gandhi might not eat very much. Because of the limited changes he has so far made away from the darkness of yesterday, he just received the Nobel Peace Prize. As the head of the empire, he has a chance to mark out a different course. But he is the head of a warmongering elite. Worse yet, this elite always gets the war wrong. First, the U.S. plunged into Afghanistan (we are still escalating, even under Obama, after 9 years). Then the U.S. launched the pre-planned, neoconservative enterprise to seize Iraq’s oil and military resources as a way station to conquering Iran. As Frank Rich’s column emphasizes this past Sunday, John McCain was the wrongful cheerleader of this war and other so-called foreign policy “experts” (the think-tank belligerents) pretty much universally joined him. To be an “expert” for the media means to be "tough."  To advocate war. Now he (and Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman, joined by the usual suspects like the Kagans and Andrew Cordesmann at Brookings) agitate for more troops in Afghanistan and ever extended war. They cannot quite, with Cheney, get to Iran yet. But Obama must be made to “put up” on war. They are clear that war, or rather many wars or perhaps unending war is the answer...

         Obama campaigned on the issue that Afghanistan was the right war or in his words, not a dumb war. To seem serious on national security – given the military-industrial-media-political-reactionary think tank “expert’ complex - the Democrats had to be tough. They had to substitute the real war –Afghanistan - from which Bush-Cheney had run away from in 2003 and thus produced a weak and failing regime and a quick reemergence of the Taliban – for the phony war in Iraq (from the point of view of its ostensible purposes, particularly disrupting Al-Qaida; the aggression created Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia). The Democrats could call for stopping torture, though not trials to restore the rule of law. They could name the dumbness of the Iraq war – without legally or morally questioning the U.S.’s right to aggress against other countries – so long as they were tough or warmongering enough. Obama is not a warmongering person – the Nobel Peace Prize honors this and he deserves our hope – and yet he is also bound by the enormous and constricting American apparatus of war.

        A month ago, Glenn Greenwald wrote an insightful column on how many politicians and experts agitate for war. He cited Leslie Gelb, former head of the Council on Foreign Relations and irrational (they all were) advocate of the Iraq War:

        “My initial support for the war [in Iraq] was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility. We 'experts' have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we 'perfect' the media. We must redouble our commitment to independent thought, and embrace, rather than cast aside, opinions and facts that blow the common—often wrong—wisdom apart. Our democracy requires nothing less.”

       Advocacy of war among these people is not so much a tendency as an interest. If you wish to make a hit in the media or be invited to consult for General McChrystal, speak for war. – the military leadership, the war industries, the reactionary corporate mass media sometimes even owned by weapons manufacturers like General Electric all reinforce it. Jimmy Carter, a decent former President and Al Gore and some others like Senator Russ Feingold or representatives Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee are outside this circle, but theirs are, on war, not the standard or loud or “responsible” voices on say CNN or Fox. In addition, any “responsible” President – Obama inherited two wars - needs to spend his time figuring how many wars to pursue at once. If we are broke, we can borrow the money from China. The slightly repentant Leslie Gelb perhaps has an inkling that he has long made Dr. Strangelove look like a sophisticate. More…More war…

          One would think that the Vietnam war, and the reluctance of the American people to engage in similar imperial enterprises at enormous cost to us, in lives and wellbeing, would have taught the elite something. Warmongering politicians and pundits used to indict the democratic intelligence of the people as “the Vietnam syndrome.” Nonetheless, perhaps they could experiment in less nefarious ways of pursuing their own economic interests (as with the bail out of banks and the suffering of people over foreclosures or denial of medical care, it is clear that clashing interests determine government policy and that the majority of ordinary people have little say). Instead, these “experts” have fixated on the talisman of war. They perfumed Iraq. But as Gelb says, they didn’t learn from that. They are still perfuming Afghanistan. 

           But the costs are too great. There is now discontent in the elite – among some leading columnists (Bob Herbert, Frank Rich), Democrats and intellectuals (see Andrew Bacevich here  ). Escalation or more aptly, deeper military involvement in Afghanistan promises no positive results and a lot of harm. America is in financial collapse (official unemployment has just increased to nearly 10%; real unemployment - those who have given up looking for work or are working part time but would take up a fulltime job if offered - is probably around 18 or 19%; in the Great Depression, it was 30%). The Middle East, the Asian economies and Europe are all thinking of moving oil exchange off the dollar and to other currencies. The end of the era of American economic dominance in the world is visible. In the throes of collapse, the military and think tanks foreign policy “experts” trumpet war to Obama. But Afghanistan is not a smart war.

         John Kerry’s Senate Committee held revealing hearings last week (publicized only by Greg Kaufman in the Nation here, not in the mainstream press). Robert Grenier and Dr. Marc Sageman--both of whom served in the CIA, as station chief in Pakistan and on the Afghan Task Force - testified against escalation. They pointed out that the disparate and warring tribes of Afghanistan are united against the occupation.  This truth has long available.  When asked by an American soldier who happened to speak the local language whether he had seen any foreign soldiers, an Afghani farmer looked at him and replied: "Yes, you." 

          “[Senator Russ] Feingold said that polls now show the majority of Afghans want all foreign troops to leave within two years, and only 18 percent support an increase in foreign troops. He wanted to know ‘what impact these public attitudes [are] likely to have on the viability of any plan that involves a massive, open-ended foreign military presence.’"

          ‘There is a high degree of xenophobia that is endemic among the Afghans,’ Grenier said, ‘and they do tend to coalesce against what is perceived as an outsider. The best that we can hope for is not a permanent elimination of safe haven, or the opportunity for safe haven for Al Qaeda, but rather the elimination of uncontested safe haven.... That needs to be a sustainable effort. What we are currently doing, I believe, is not sustainable either by us or by the Afghans.’"

Afghanis famously have but tribal loyalties.  It must be rare for an official representing American belligerence to find an opporunity to denounce the "xenophobia" of others (h/t Amartya Sen). Otherwise, he has an excellent point.  Continuing occupation by the US and NATO will strengthen the Taliban.  If the US seeks to produce increased revolt and instability in Afghanistan, Obama will increase the number of troops.

       In contrast, the U.S. could make an effort to provide economic opportunities for ordinary     Afghani citizens and break off elements from the Taliban – say, those opposed to American occupation but uncommitted to Taliban violence against women - and potential recruits:
"’I think many of them are young men who could be won over,’" said Grenier, "’and who would just as soon take a paycheck from the local governor and serve in his militia as they would serve with the Taliban. Or if you had more constructive engagements that benefited them, they would pursue those instead.’"

           "’We make a mistake labeling everyone that is not for us with the same name,’ said Sageman. ’On the ground what you have is a collection of a lot of young people who resist central government. Those [people] really are not ideologically motivated. I don't think we can cut a deal with Mullah Omar, but we certainly can take most of his followers away from him.’"

           This seems a sensible idea. Such a policy would go far to develop conditions for a comparatively decent, if not democratic regime (the Karzai regime is illegitimate and even fraudulent, as the recent "elections" show, a mere creature of American and allied NATO and war lord guns). As the example of Sageman and Grenier (not covered in the mainstream press) reveals, there are many intelligent people in the US apparatus. The problem is that the military-indsturial-media-think tank “expert –reactionary politician complex usually overwhelms them, even in the absence of the madness of Cheney. But the US has now reached a desperate pass. There is no money for more war. Both current aggressions and occupations are losing steam within the country and support among the American people. All the expert and media noise cannot prevent the ultimate collapse of these policies. Obama is a smart and decent man. He would like to do something  more intelligent. There is a review of the policy. Some voices, including these two American experts are being allowed to speak up publically (at least to the Senate).

         Further, as Sageman and Grenier warn, if the U.S. escalates in Afghanistan, it will persuade millions in Pakistan – more accurately, confirm the conviction of many in Pakistan - that the U.S. is at war with Muslims. Even the genuine steps that Obama has taken – to recognize the dignity and interests of the Iranians and the Palestinians – will be eroded and washed away. This is not a path to tread.

          Yet even if Obama deescalates – reverses course - in Afghanistan, there are two deeper questions in assessing the bizarre warmongering in the American elite and of the American Presidency as an institution. They underline the difficulties Obama faces in living up to his promise, a promise honored by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. First, how can the threat of war between Pakistan and India – both nuclear powers – be diminished? How can Pakistan become less an ally, at least through the ISI (the intelligence services) of Al-Qaida? As Vice President Biden and others are realizing, in the current White House debate, Pakistan is a far deeper danger to the United States than Afghanistan. (Since Biden talks almost daily with Obama about foreign policy, it is likely that some of his reservations express Obama’s). The Pakistani Taliban, with links in ihe intelligence service (the ISI) has become a strong political force. Our military presence in Afghanistan nurtures and escalates its influence. Worse yet, the CIA’s new toy, the drone missile controlled from Langley, West Viginia, has been used by Obama to kill Al-Qaida "suspects" in Pakistan – so we are told by an “intelligence” apparatus far distant and with few sources - and their families and civilians. Murder a mother or a child and see how many enemies you can produce. The words “collateral damage” are a threadbare ideological veil. Further, these enemies have justification in striking at the United States (not at innocents, but at the American government). Everyone who hears the story – and is not under the influence of anti-Arab racism - will be appalled by the United States, whose policy combines murder and cowardice (striking at long distance at those who cannot defend themselves). Yet murderous and counterproductive technology whispers into the ear of Presidents…Reliance on drones may be the worst – and morally hardest to understand - single policy measure so far adopted by Obama.

         But the second issue is still more disquieting, one not even discussed yet seriously in the American media or perhaps even the Obama war cabinet. What is the pivot of the hostility between Pakistan and India that might lead to war and even possibly nuclear war? Kashmir.

           Moazzem Begg, an Englishman from Pakistan who had gone to fight in Kashmir and ended up in Bagram and Guantanamo – he was released in 2005 and is under no restrictions, even with regard to travel in England - wrote a very good account of being tortured by the United States called Enemy Combatant.  Perhaps those who tortured him could pay attention to his story.    Since Begg speaks English, the American intelligence took his testimony on the murder by American soldiers – kicking him 150 times in the legs till his legs were destroyed and he had a heart attack - of Mr. Dilawar, the Afghani 22 year old taxi-driver picked up near Bagram. One has just to listen to Begg who got involved in Al-Qaida training to fight in Kashmir to realize that this issue – and not the US occupation of Afghanistan – is the one that the US will have to mitigate (along with Palestine) in order to avoid nuclear confrontations or extinction in this century, to diminish Al-Qaida, and to achieve a decent peace in the Middle East.

        But the U.S. had no vehicle to make war over Kashmir, no pretext to go to war with the world’s largest democracy, India, or with Pakistan. The U.S. of course provide military aid to both.  Pakistan is one of the biggest purchasers of American weapons (the US dominates world research and production of big weapons, and it is the main productive – if one can refer to destruction as production as our conventional economics does – activity left more or less inside the United States). But since partition in 1947, 4 wars have occurred between India and Pakistan (see here for the story of nonviolent efforts by Badshah Khan and Gandhi to preserve India against partition). The threat of renewed war between these powers is, for anyone who knows about the situation, always a potential. But American foreign policy “experts” and mainstream pundits are silent about it (can the Kagans spell Kashmir?). It takes Arundhati Roy, the visionary Indian writer, to drive home the seriousness of this issue – as potentially deadly as Palestine and the Israel-Iran conflict – as a threat of war (see below).

          Kashmir is the Muslim province with the initial K in the idea of Pakistan. India seized it in 1947 and holds it by force. Since an uprising in 1990, the Indian government has murdered some 70,000 Kashmiris. In addition, India has the biggest in the world and most brutal occupying army in Kashmir, half a million soldiers (one for every 20 civilians). This year the people rose up nonviolently. Street sellers chanted “Azadi! Azadi!” – freedom! freedom! It was as big and important a democratic uprising as in Iran. Yet while Andrew Sullivan determinedly made available the voices of the Green Revolution and the mainstream press covered it, there has been a sad and uniform silence, in America, about Kashmir.

           India carried out a campaign of arrests and detentions, including for two days Arundhati Roy who was then vacationing in Sriganar. Jailed for speaking against the harms of a large government sponsored dam in India and being an international leader of the movement for democracy and against American wars, Roy is obviously, though not Muslim, a “danger.” Dissent – a majority of one, as Thoreau said, who casts her whole weight against a grave injustice – is indeed a threat to the Indian government.

          How much anger does the brutality of this regime in Kashmir generate? How many are the stories of street sellers, who chanted “Azadi” or were thought to have chanted  “Azadi!” or their families killed by the soldiers exist? How many knew them,  knew of them?  Careless of nonwhite and particularly Muslim lives, the American establishment has barely a glimmer of the danger. The President’s war cabinet is having 5 meetings. The Times ran a big story yesterday about the agreement of Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates (they are comparatively sober “moderate” escalators, between McChrystal and Biden). The “right” war? They aren’t even focused on the right place.

           Obama could deescalate in Afghantistan, call off the drones, give civilian and not so much military aid in Pakistan. Yet angry and disaffected Muslims would still want to fight oppression in Kashmir and join with Pakistani intelligence, and even Al-Qaida to do it. Unattended internationally, Kashmir could lead not only to war but to nuclear war between Pakistan and India – probably the most likely scenario for such a war in the next quarter-century if America does not launch one itself (as Bush and Cheney thought of doing with nuclear “bunker busters” in Iran; listen to Rush Limbaugh, think of the racist "tea-bagger" demonstration in Washington,  conjure a future Romney or a refurbished Palin or the next military-industrial-fundamentalist creation….). Or it could lead to the renewal of Al-Qaida. 

          Pakistanis who want to fight Indian aggression and occupation in Kashmir do so in a just cause. Why does the United States, out of its great power interests with India, zeal for other wars and ignorance, give the whole territory of self-defense about Kashmir morally to Al-Qaida? Does this not fundamentally bolster this organization which  Obama seeks to disrupt? Al-Qaida murders innocents. It is as casual about Arab civilians in Iraq as about Americans. Without American belligerence and in this case, war-inspired ignorance, it would lose any following among Muslims. America has cause to become aware of and alter – at least, to make tolerant and decent- the regime in Kashmir.

         The United States (and the world) also have interests in strengthening Indian democracy. The Indian government, as Tom Hartmann pointed out last week, has given an electrical grid and miles of paved highways to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Indian democracy and not America has some plausible approach to diminishing the threat of the Taliban and – what is not the same thing – Al-Qaida (intelligence suggests that there remain 100 members of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan – Bin Laden has long been in Pakistan…). But India in Kashmir is a different story. As with Israel, strengthening Indian democracy means ending the respective occupations. International efforts are crucial. Producing a decent solution in Kashmir (something far removed, as in the case of the Palestinians from justice, but a long way up from here) is an unobserved key to the security of ordinary Americans in the 21st century.

         Kashmir is thus the right war. But America cannot fight it. Instead, Obama needs to have a strategy over a long period to end India’s oppressiveness, to produce a solution Kashmiris can live with. Some Americans like Steve Coll are concerned and knowledgeable about this issue. But think tank foreign policy “experts” are still attached to throwing bombs and soldiers at the last war, some other war, any war... 

        These “experts” are, as they have always been, followers of a policy made by someone else – they are the camp-followers of the powerful - and under the illusion that an American President can, through violent interventions, solve political problems. But as is observable in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, American Presidents cannot, by war, solve the problem. In fact, in those three cases, American leaders have created and exacerbated the problem. An American President pursuing policies of aid to civilians and deescalating war might help the people of Iraq or Afghanistan begin to solve their problems. Like the Nobel Peace Prize committee, we might wish Obama to be Obama. Perhaps only a strong anti-war movement, which grasps the difficulty of the Pakistan/India conflict and the centrality of Kashmir, can make a difference. But even the anti-war movement is now focused on Afghanistan (it is hard to take on even current American madness, let alone think out how to make American leadership sane). Tragically, in their bellowing for any war, in their failure even to take in so dangerous a center for conflict as Kashmir, the disconnection of our foreign policy “experts” and establishment stands out.

        Below is Arundhati’s Roy’s article wondering about the fate of ordinary parliamentary democracies, given the rule of money – she speaks as an Indian democrat - and what has happened in Kashmir.  As a writer, she explores what words can convey the truth about the India. For us, her article holds up the mirror of Indian democracy to America. The issue I raise in this post about the belligerence and frailty of the American foreign policy establishment- that there is "no right war"  even under Obama - has similar concerns.

        If ordinary Muslim and decent Hindus act against Indian occupation along the lines of the recent resistance, this and only this will lead to fundamental change. In this context, the example of Badshah Khan, the nonviolent Afghani ally of Gandhi, comes to mind. See Badshah Khan: the Martin Luther King of the Pathans here. Renewed Pakistani war with India carries the threat of mutual destruction. The best way to resist Indian occupation is not war or terror. For ordinary people, for democracy and for the world, the best way is mass civil disobedience.

                                           What Have We Done to Democracy?

Of Nearsighted Progress, Feral Howls, Consensus, Chaos, and a New Cold War in Kashmir

                                                                                                            by Arundhati Roy
 
        While we're still arguing about whether there's life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be? By "democracy" I don't mean democracy as an ideal or an aspiration. I mean the working model: Western liberal democracy, and its variants, such as they are. So, is there life after democracy?

         Attempts to answer this question often turn into a comparison of different systems of governance, and end with a somewhat prickly, combative defense of democracy. It's flawed, we say. It isn't perfect, but it's better than everything else that's on offer. Inevitably, someone in the room will say: "Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia... is that what you would prefer?"  Whether democracy should be the utopia that all "developing" societies aspire to is a separate question altogether. (I think it should. The early, idealistic phase can be quite heady.) The question about life after democracy is addressed to those of us who already live in democracies, or in countries that pretend to be democracies. It isn't meant to suggest that we lapse into older, discredited models of totalitarian or authoritarian governance. It's meant to suggest that the system of representative democracy -- too much representation, too little democracy -- needs some structural adjustment.

           The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly -- our nearsightedness?

        Our inability to live entirely in the present (like most animals do), combined with our inability to see very far into the future, makes us strange in-between creatures, neither beast nor prophet. Our amazing intelligence seems to have outstripped our instinct for survival. We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost. It would be conceit to pretend I have the answers to any of these questions. But it does look as if the beacon could be failing and democracy can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would.

                                                          A Clerk of Resistance

        As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on. Does it eventually mask a larger truth? I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.

       Something about the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, "apply-through-proper-channels" nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world's favorite new superpower. Repression "through proper channels" sometimes engenders resistance "through proper channels." As resistance goes this isn't enough, I know. But for now, it's all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl.

        Today, words like "progress" and "development" have become interchangeable with economic "reforms," "deregulation," and "privatization." Freedom has come to mean choice. It has less to do with the human spirit than with different brands of deodorant. Market no longer means a place where you buy provisions. The "market" is a de-territorialized space where faceless corporations do business, including buying and selling "futures." Justice has come to mean human rights (and of those, as they say, "a few will do").

         This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the tsars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalize their detractors, deprive them of a language to voice their critique and dismiss them as being "anti-progress," "anti-development," "anti-reform," and of course "anti-national" -- negativists of the worst sort.

       Talk about saving a river or protecting a forest and they say, "Don't you believe in progress?" To people whose land is being submerged by dam reservoirs, and whose homes are being bulldozed, they say, "Do you have an alternative development model?" To those who believe that a government is duty bound to provide people with basic education, health care, and social security, they say, "You're against the market." And who except a cretin could be against markets?

        To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when Free Speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.
Two decades of "Progress" in India has created a vast middle class punch-drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it -- and a much, much vaster, desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts, and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines, and Special Economic Zones. All developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy.

         The hoary institutions of Indian democracy -- the judiciary, the police, the "free" press, and, of course, elections -- far from working as a system of checks and balances, quite often do the opposite. They provide each other cover to promote the larger interests of Union and Progress. In the process, they generate such confusion, such a cacophony, that voices raised in warning just become part of the noise. And that only helps to enhance the image of the tolerant, lumbering, colorful, somewhat chaotic democracy. The chaos is real. But so is the consensus.

                                                      A New Cold War in Kashmir

       Speaking of consensus, there's the small and ever-present matter of Kashmir. When it comes to Kashmir the consensus in India is hard core. It cuts across every section of the establishment -- including the media, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia, and even Bollywood.
The war in the Kashmir valley is almost 20 years old now, and has claimed about 70,000 lives. Tens of thousands have been tortured, several thousand have "disappeared," women have been raped, tens of thousands widowed. Half a million Indian troops patrol the Kashmir valley, making it the most militarized zone in the world. (The United States had about 165,000 active-duty troops in Iraq at the height of its occupation.) The Indian Army now claims that it has, for the most part, crushed militancy in Kashmir. Perhaps that's true. But does military domination mean victory?

          How does a government that claims to be a democracy justify a military occupation? By holding regular elections, of course. Elections in Kashmir have had a long and fascinating past. The blatantly rigged state election of 1987 was the immediate provocation for the armed uprising that began in 1990. Since then elections have become a finely honed instrument of the military occupation, a sinister playground for India's deep state. Intelligence agencies have created political parties and decoy politicians, they have constructed and destroyed political careers at will. It is they more than anyone else who decide what the outcome of each election will be. After every election, the Indian establishment declares that India has won a popular mandate from the people of Kashmir.

        In the summer of 2008, a dispute over land being allotted to the Amarnath Shrine Board coalesced into a massive, nonviolent uprising. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people defied soldiers and policemen -- who fired straight into the crowds, killing scores of people -- and thronged the streets. From early morning to late in the night, the city reverberated to chants of "Azadi! Azadi!" (Freedom! Freedom!). Fruit sellers weighed fruit chanting "Azadi! Azadi!" Shopkeepers, doctors, houseboat owners, guides, weavers, carpet sellers -- everybody was out with placards, everybody shouted "Azadi! Azadi!" The protests went on for several days.

         The protests were massive. They were democratic, and they were nonviolent. For the first time in decades fissures appeared in mainstream public opinion in India. The Indian state panicked. Unsure of how to deal with this mass civil disobedience, it ordered a crackdown. It enforced the harshest curfew in recent memory with shoot-on-sight orders. In effect, for days on end, it virtually caged millions of people. The major pro-freedom leaders were placed under house arrest, several others were jailed. House-to-house searches culminated in the arrests of hundreds of people.

         Once the rebellion was brought under control, the government did something extraordinary -- it announced elections in the state. Pro-independence leaders called for a boycott. They were rearrested. Almost everybody believed the elections would become a huge embarrassment for the Indian government. The security establishment was convulsed with paranoia. Its elaborate network of spies, renegades, and embedded journalists began to buzz with renewed energy. No chances were taken. (Even I, who had nothing to do with any of what was going on, was put under house arrest in Srinagar for two days.)

         Calling for elections was a huge risk. But the gamble paid off. People turned out to vote in droves. It was the biggest voter turnout since the armed struggle began. It helped that the polls were scheduled so that the first districts to vote were the most militarized districts even within the Kashmir valley.

         None of India's analysts, journalists, and psephologists cared to ask why people who had only weeks ago risked everything, including bullets and shoot-on-sight orders, should have suddenly changed their minds. None of the high-profile scholars of the great festival of democracy -- who practically live in TV studios when there are elections in mainland India, picking apart every forecast and exit poll and every minor percentile swing in the vote count -- talked about what elections mean in the presence of such a massive, year-round troop deployment (an armed soldier for every 20 civilians).

         No one speculated about the mystery of hundreds of unknown candidates who materialized out of nowhere to represent political parties that had no previous presence in the Kashmir valley. Where had they come from? Who was financing them? No one was curious. No one spoke about the curfew, the mass arrests, the lockdown of constituencies that were going to the polls.

        Not many talked about the fact that campaigning politicians went out of their way to de-link Azadi and the Kashmir dispute from elections, which they insisted were only about municipal issues -- roads, water, electricity. No one talked about why people who have lived under a military occupation for decades -- where soldiers could barge into homes and whisk away people at any time of the day or night -- might need someone to listen to them, to take up their cases, to represent them.

        The minute elections were over, the establishment and the mainstream press declared victory (for India) once again. The most worrying fallout was that in Kashmir, people began to parrot their colonizers' view of themselves as a somewhat pathetic people who deserved what they got. "Never trust a Kashmiri," several Kashmiris said to me. "We're fickle and unreliable." Psychological warfare, technically known as psy-ops, has been an instrument of official policy in Kashmir. Its depredations over decades -- its attempt to destroy people's self-esteem -- are arguably the worst aspect of the occupation. It's enough to make you wonder whether there is any connection at all between elections and democracy.

         The trouble is that Kashmir sits on the fault lines of a region that is awash in weapons and sliding into chaos. The Kashmiri freedom struggle, with its crystal clear sentiment but fuzzy outlines, is caught in the vortex of several dangerous and conflicting ideologies -- Indian nationalism (corporate as well as "Hindu," shading into imperialism), Pakistani nationalism (breaking down under the burden of its own contradictions), U.S. imperialism (made impatient by a tanking economy), and a resurgent medieval-Islamist Taliban (fast gaining legitimacy, despite its insane brutality, because it is seen to be resisting an occupation). Each of these ideologies is capable of a ruthlessness that can range from genocide to nuclear war. Add Chinese imperial ambitions, an aggressive, reincarnated Russia, and the huge reserves of natural gas in the Caspian region and persistent whispers about natural gas, oil, and uranium reserves in Kashmir and Ladakh, and you have the recipe for a new Cold War (which, like the last one, is cold for some and hot for others).

            In the midst of all this, Kashmir is set to become the conduit through which the mayhem unfolding in Afghanistan and Pakistan spills into India, where it will find purchase in the anger of the young among India's 150 million Muslims who have been brutalized, humiliated, and marginalized. Notice has been given by the series of terrorist strikes that culminated in the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

            There is no doubt that the Kashmir dispute ranks right up there, along with Palestine, as one of the oldest, most intractable disputes in the world. That does not mean that it cannot be resolved. Only that the solution will not be completely to the satisfaction of any one party, one country, or one ideology. Negotiators will have to be prepared to deviate from the "party line."
Of course, we haven't yet reached the stage where the government of India is even prepared to admit that there's a problem, let alone negotiate a solution. Right now it has no reason to. Internationally, its stocks are soaring. And while its neighbors deal with bloodshed, civil war, concentration camps, refugees, and army mutinies, India has just concluded a beautiful election. However, "demon-crazy" can't fool all the people all the time. India's temporary, shotgun solutions to the unrest in Kashmir (pardon the pun), have magnified the problem and driven it deep into a place where it is poisoning the aquifers.

                                                            Is Democracy Melting?

        Perhaps the story of the Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield in the world, is the most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been deployed there, enduring chill winds and temperatures that dip to minus 40 degrees Celsius. Of the hundreds who have died there, many have died just from the elements.
The glacier has become a garbage dump now, littered with the detritus of war -- thousands of empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents, and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate. The garbage remains intact, perfectly preserved at those icy temperatures, a pristine monument to human folly.

        While the Indian and Pakistani governments spend billions of dollars on weapons and the logistics of high-altitude warfare, the battlefield has begun to melt. Right now, it has shrunk to about half its size. The melting has less to do with the military standoff than with people far away, on the other side of the world, living the good life. They're good people who believe in peace, free speech, and in human rights. They live in thriving democracies whose governments sit on the U.N. Security Council and whose economies depend heavily on the export of war and the sale of weapons to countries like India and Pakistan. (And Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, the Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan... it's a long list.)

         The glacial melt will cause severe floods on the subcontinent, and eventually severe drought that will affect the lives of millions of people. That will give us even more reasons to fight. We'll need more weapons. Who knows? That sort of consumer confidence may be just what the world needs to get over the current recession. Then everyone in the thriving democracies will have an even better life -- and the glaciers will melt even faster.


Arundhati Roy was born in 1959 in Shillong, India. She studied architecture in New Delhi, where she now lives, and has worked as a film designer, actor, and screenplay writer in India. Her latest book, Listening to Grasshoppers: Fields Notes on Democracy, is a collection of recent essays. A tenth anniversary edition of her novel, The God of Small Things (Random House), for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize, was recently released. She is also the author of numerous nonfiction titles, including An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire.

2 comments:

JLC said...

Alan, if I may, as a former student of yours, (MA-2002) provide the following:
There are many issues buried deep in here. There are two that I would like to highlight via response: 1. pressures in the U.S. political system that focus on short-term gain rather than long term decency and 2. Pakistan and U.S. development assistance to the Central Asian region. First, though, in full disclosure, I work for the State Department, but the following comments are my own, written in my private capacity and do not reflect the policy of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

In the contemporary era, we seem to have conflated democracy with the free market. This is wrong at its foundation: Democracy is a political system premised on equality, the free market is an economic system premised on inequality. Until we realize this and break them apart, the pressures on the government (ours and, as Ms. Roy highlights, India’s) will push government officials in the direction of short sighted goals, such as scoring political points on your opponents to get re-elected. This has been exacerbated by 24-hour news channels which tout entertainment (i.e., the loudest voices, the most popular arguments) over just reporting the facts. I would argue that this is one of the underlying factors that pushed the think tank elite so squarely into the court of war advocacy under the Bush administration, and, likewise, is now pushing them out of it since the prevailing “wisdom” is far less bellicose (and thank goodness).

However, when a policy maker or influential opinion leader abdicates the responsibility to analyze situations to the mass (entertainment) media, we wind up with policies that are at best short-term in scope or, more likely, destructive in the long run. I offer this analysis to augment Alan’s idea that it is a “military-industrial-media-political-reactionary think tank “expert’ complex” that drives decision making (incidentally, for an excellent take on the original military-industrial complex that is still relevant today, see The Warfare State by Fred Cook) and to point out that it comes down to individual decision makers who have gotten sucked in by the easy route (letting others decide for them) rather than standing up and analyzing on their own (the way that President Obama seems inclined to do). I’m certain, Alan, that you don’t mean there’s a conspiracy in all levels of the “complex” but sometimes your argument along these lines could be read that way.
[Apologies for the long post--continued below]

JLC said...

Second, assistance policy in Pakistan specifically and Central Asia more broadly. You’re directly on point that Pakistan seems to be a forgotten element in our strategy against Al-Qaeda. The country seems to be disintegrating before the world’s eyes. As Alan and Ms. Roy point out, this is probably due to an over reliance on military assistance, rather than actual development assistance to the people. The danger writ large in the region is this reliance on military assistance (which, the U.S. does well) at the expense of development assistance. Not that development assistance isn’t happening, especially in Afghanistan where the dedicated public servants in the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and various UN Agencies carry out programs crafted in conjunction with Afghans to move the country to be a self-sufficient member of the international community in which every citizen has a voice (see the recent rumblings about a very large number of votes being invalidated for fraud in the recent elections). The problem facing this administration is that there’s a nearly forgotten war there, and military gets all the money. I would argue that we’ll get a better long term return on our investment if we diverted even half of the DoD budget into USAID for development programs that have been well planned. But, since these are long-term goals, the current US political structure makes it a losing proposition. Unfortunately, this is a disconnect between aspirations/ideals and the situation with which we must deal.

But, do we need/want to take on Kashmir? Only through use of our good offices as mediator between India and Pakistan. I think that reducing anti-American opinion in the Muslim world to one or two issues (Palestine, Kashmir) is dangerous as it obscures nuances that are vitally important (as does any stereotype). Kashmir is important in so far as it is a flashpoint between [the] key countries in South/Central Asia. It should not become the panacea to address Muslims’ discontent with the United States. There are other issues in the Muslim world (actually, all over the world) that contribute to anti-Americanism: perceived xenophobia, national egocentrism, hyperconsumerism exported around the world, hypocrisy on development policies (when there are many poor in the US, and we don’t follow our own recommendations to other countries), seeming callousness towards deeply impoverished countries, especially in Africa (where there are also many, many Muslims)… the point is, Palestine, Kashmir, or whatever issue one deems “the root” of Muslim anti-Americanism is never the root-take away that issue, and another one will be chosen.

To counter this, our focus should be on establishing, in Alan’s words, a “decent” government in our own country that explains its actions cogently to others around the world. They might not agree, but if you at least understand what’s behind another party’s actions, you’re less likely to react violently. Having a decent government of our own would grant the moral high ground in dealing with extremist organizations that seem to be offering the currently disenfranchised a way out, even if it is via violence against an “aggressor.”

Respectfully,
Joe Chamberlain

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