Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lessons Learned and Unlearned: 9/11 Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, I spent most of the September 11, scratching my head and trying to figure out how the assassination of the "Lion of Panjshir," Ahmad Shah Massoud would impact Afghanistan, and by extension, India.  Massoud had been assassinated two days before, and suddenly it seemed that Pakistan-backed Taliban were not only unstoppable but unbeatable.

I spoke that day to a friend, an Afghan refugee who worked on mental health issues for young children, trying to apply his education from Delhi University to people in the refugee camps in India.  At twenty-five, his homeland etched in his memory, yet his upbringing firmly done in north India, he would often hum Manna Dey's famous song, eliding both his longing for Afghanistan and his love for Bollywood in one go.  On September 11, 2001, I remember his desperation at Massoud's killing. "It is over. It is lost. We will never return."

Yet a few hours later, things had changed dramatically. All the channels had the same image of the airplanes flying into the Twin Towers. Although the myriad emotions continued to play havoc in my mind for a very long time (and inspired - and were worked out in - my second novel, With Krishna's Eyes), after those first anxious hours of phoning and locating friends and family, a ritual that follows terrorist attacks that we in India were already so accustomed to, and that the Americans learned on that bright September day, my focus turned back to figuring out the impact of the attacks.

The impact on America appeared clear: even in my years of living there, I had noticed a propensity to extreme positions, with little understanding of the long term consequences. In my twenties, and still a history buff, I had ascribed this American trait to a lack of historic grounding: most other nations have lived through - and more importantly - survived multiple depredations of war, famine, disease. Most of us, around the world, have embedded cultural memories, if that is not too much of a shorthand, of the possibilities of utter destruction; we take moments of peace and calm as anomalies, luxurious ones, but still rare and to be cherished. The US, on the other hand, has had a nearly charmed national life. Despite the hiccups of history, it seems to have eluded the travails that time brings to nations. Until of course you consider that five hundred years are merely a blink of an eye in time.

After 9/11, it was inevitable that US would go to war, all guns blazing. That in itself was a game-changer for Afghanistan. More importantly, for me, considering the impact of the attacks in New Delhi, the American urge for war would also be a huge game-changer for Pakistan.  What, of course, I could not foresee, on that evening of September 11, was the USA's idiotic and entirely self-defeating military action in Iraq.

And perhaps that is the other, unintended consequence of 9/11 that needs to be considered. USA obviously learnt no lesson, except that having achieved predictable sympathy for its military action against the Taliban, it grew quickly drunk on its own might and victim narratology, gave up all veneer of being anything but the newest avatar of imperialism. L'roi est mort, vive l'roi indeed!

Over a year later, as the American drums of war grew louder, the reports of swift but clear erosions of its democratic principles at home and international conventions abroad grew louder, I found myself in a long discussion with a motley group of journalist and analyst friends about USA's apparently unchecked and growing hegemony and the policies India needed to adopt to deal with it.

Since mid-90s as the impact of climate change has become apparent, I have argued that India's greatest challenge in the 21st century shall be an impending refugee crisis as increasing amounts of Bangladesh's low lying lands are swallowed by a rising sea. I have seen this as a creeping issue, reaching catastrophic proportions towards the middle of the century.  (An aside: having consistently analysed Pakistan's nuclear capacities in the past twenty years, I have always believed that India could - in the worst case scenario - suffer a devastating but not a mortal blow. The consequences of such a blow for Pakistan however would be fatal. And this is a completely political, military analysis not an emotional, human one).  However, with the changed global scenario in the aftermath of 911, and the increasing numbers of American projects gaming the break up of Pakistan, I found myself altering the factors, geographically and chronologically.

Even in 2002, it was apparent that Pakistan was rapidly heading towards failure as a state, with a potential break up. The erosion of Saudi Arabia's influence is a given, with the only crucial point being the time scale. It has neither a sustainable economy nor a clear model of human development that can replace its oil-based politico-economic influence in the future. At the same time, despite Pakistan's many apologists in the US, mostly Americans who had benefited from the Afghan-Soviet war, the writing has been clear on the wall.  This artificial buffer state as discussed in details in the Mountbatten papers, declassified by UK at the start of the millennium, has little to sustain it. The issue is not if Pakistan will splinter, but when and how. For India - at the risk of sounding cold - the issue is not of dealing with Pakistan until that date, but working out a strategy for containing the fall out when the inevitable occurs.

While our politicians will meekly declare that "a strong, stable Pakistan is in India's interest," few will go further. The splintering of the state would not only create issues of nuclear weapons falling into hands of various rogue non-state elements (see aside above), but also create a major humanitarian catastrophe. Fact still remains that we abut Pakistan's longest and most accessible border. Can we honestly say we will be able to turn away millions of clamouring civilians fleeing unimaginable violence, hunger and other travails, when Pakistan falls apart? Will we be able to withstand the enormous international pressure brought to bear upon us? And worse still, how would we cope with admitting millions of a people raised in what is mostly a dictatorship, mostly illiterate and brainwashed for three or more generations to hate everything about India? At the very least, we would have to write off all chances of seeing a "shining India" in any shape or form for many decades.

I still hold by this scenario that I sketched out at that discussion nearly ten years ago. The only change I make to it is this: our analysts and policy-makers are still avoiding all thought of it even as the date for facing this challenge grows ever closer, ever faster.  But there are other consequences of that September attack on the US, most unforeseen and not all devoid of hope and grim.

The "Arab Spring" is clearly on the way to disproving the myth of the global ummah as a monolith. As political aspirations drive major changes in the West Asia and North Africa, identities other than religious ones are occupying their rightful space in the political imaginary. This shattering of the simplistic myth of a monolithic global Muslim identity, one that has often meant that bulk of Indian Muslims have been seen as traitors to the Islamist cause by jihadist groups (and yet suspected of secret sympathy by far too many both in India and abroad), is also one that is backfiring on Pakistan. With Saudi Arabia demanding that Pakistan pay the piper with its own troops, Bahrain using Pakistani mercenaries to suppress its own populace, and other countries in the region discovering that religion alone is no foundation for political aspirations (a lesson that we all should have learned in 1971) means long-standing political disputes - internal and external - will need to be negotiated and discussed on different parameters.

The splintering of this monolith shall be most painful for Pakistan. As General Zia once quipped (and I paraphrase): If Turkey stopped being Muslim, it would still be Turkey; if Egypt stopped being Muslim, it would still be Egypt; but without Islam, Pakistan will just be India. The dangers of constructing an artificial national identity based solely on religion, and by exclusion of all else, have never been clearer!

Nowhere is this more important - for India at least - as in the case of Kashmir.  In the past ten years, India has benefited from USA's wars with foreign jihadis ignoring the region to fight elsewhere. Just the figures on ex-filtration of jihadis from Kashmir since 9/11 are evidence of this. This ex-filtration has contributed to the diminishing influence of the Kashmir separatists: each call for bandh has been less likely to be enforced with violence and therefore less likely to succeed; as fear diminishes, voter turn outs have improved and political engagement increases. However, much remains to be done, mostly by the Indian state and polity: a strengthened human rights commission (like the one that produced the recent report on the unidentified graves) is a good start, as is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposed by Omar Abdullah.  Other steps need to be taken at centre and state levels which will be discussed in a different post (too many and too long for this one).  However one thing is clear: Kashmir ought to be, now and in future, off the agenda for any talks with Pakistan, or indeed elsewhere. There is no point "negotiating" a resolution with a state teetering on failure,and one that would likely cease to exist in the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, the above two factors - a failing Pakistan and the long term consequences (still many unseen but hinted clearly) of the "Arab Spring" - also point to one last point: it is time for India to grow out of its narrative of Partition. As identities other than religion come to fore, it is time for India to recognise that we need not be held hostage to the narratives of the past century. No where is this more obvious than in Kashmir which ought to be treated as another part of the nation-state and not in quick repeats as a spoilt child, a hostage, or a symbol of the success of our non-religious national identity. As changes sweep through West Asia and North Africa, the urge and need for victim narratives for Islam as well as the efficacies of usual red flags is being steadily eroded.

This provides us - India - a clear opportunity of forging a new national narrative that can move beyond simplistic Hindu-Muslim binaries. The internal political and economic impact of this can be extraordinary, while building on our long standing tradition of secularist polity.  Moreover, this realisation can help us re-forge earlier external links, formulate clearer foreign policy towards West Asia and north Africa, one based on mutual interests and not the fear of an imaginary fifth column within. This also would mean recalibrating our relationships with many nations around the globe, to our own advantage. (Again, too many steps and ideas on this but will write another post soon).

Ten years ago, there a fold in history that impacted all of us. Although much violence and sorrow has followed, it also opened up a moment of extraordinary opportunity, especially for us in India.  If we can sieze it, then when history is recorded, not too many decades in the future, the ghost of Partition would be seen to have been laid to rest on a bright September morning in New York. 


  1. I have a different view of American cultural memory.

    The United States was born with a massive crack in its political and social foundations. The slave holding Southern States and the anti-slavery North were deeply divided politically. This division drove American politics from the outset, culminating in an intensely bloody civil war that changed the way modern warfare is conducted. The cultural memories, are strong, especially in the American South which lost about 30% of its male population ages 18-40. For 100 years thereafter, the country was wracked by an extremist, sometimes violent split on race. The humiliation, and hatred that infected Southern culture after that bloody defeat stretched from the civil war 100 years forward into the era of American civil rights. That bloody cultural memory defines the tribal lines undergirding the heated extremes of American politics today.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree with broadly but disagree on one thing: although Civil War was bloody, it did not require the sort of mass destruction that lets say Europe has seen repeatedly. Also the dynamics of a civil war and the consequences are quite different from that of a foreign invasion.

    But I do believe that some of the extremes of politics are linked to an initial racial divide although I place it even before slavery and would put it at the very formation of US as a settler colony. Just as the ideals of liberty are articulated in the constitution, the memory of exclusion and annihilation based on race and/or religion are embedded in the lived history.
    Many thanks again for your comment.

  3. You're welcome. I've been following your blog for some time, and I enjoy your posts.