Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Scientist reveals India nuke test fizzled

A top scientist's claim that India's 1998 nuclear test was a failure poses a big threat to Obama's nonproliferation plans.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
September 29, 2009

NEW DELHI, India — Days before President Barack Obama told the United Nations that he hoped to push through a universal treaty to ban all nuclear weapons testing by the end of 2010, a top Indian scientist threw New Delhi's security establishment for an atomic loop.

Kasturiranga Santhanam, the coordinator of India's 1998 nuclear tests, went public with allegations that India's much heralded Pokhran II test of a thermonuclear bomb 11 years ago was actually a fizzle.

“We are totally naked vis-a-vis China, which has an inventory of 200 nuclear bombs, the vast majority of which are giant H-bombs of power equal to three million tons of TNT,” Santhanam told reporters in New Delhi this week.

Naturally, the bizarre exercise in reverse brinkmanship (“About that bomb we told you we have...”) did not go down well. India's 1998 demonstration of thermonuclear capability — fission-based bombs with a force of 100 kilotons or more — was the cause of great celebration in a country still fighting for a voice in global affairs and sandwiched between a belligerent, hereditary enemy in Pakistan and a frightening potential future adversary in China.

By calling its success into question, scientist K. Santhanam, who was director of test site preparations for Pokhran II, shook the country's confidence in its nuclear deterrent at a moment when the long, frustrating peace process with Pakistan seems as futile as ever.

But for the rest of the world, Santhanam's bombshell amounts to a colossal preemptive strike against Obama's push for the nations of the world to sign a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by the end of next year — not to mention a potentially debilitating assault on last year's Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement. Already, opponents to the deal have begun echoing Santhanam's call for further testing of India's thermonuclear arsenal, and the lingering doubts about the efficacy of the country's bombs looks likely to tie Manmohan Singh's somewhat fragile coalition government's hands when the time comes to sign Obama's CTBT.

“We need to test again; it's just a question of when, not if,” said Bharat Karnad, a former member of India's National Security Advisory board and part of the group that drafted India's nuclear doctrine.

Of course, that may not have been true if Santhanam had kept his mouth shut. Since nuclear weapons are supposedly never to be used, whether the rest of the world believes they will work is more important than whether they actually do. And that's the simple fact that has flummoxed India's foreign policy experts, who are scratching their heads and asking, “Why now?” After all, Santhanam kept mum during the vociferous, three-year debate over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, which also mandates an end to testing.

“[Now] the whole thing becomes unnecessarily subject to controversy and doubts and questions, and the public loses confidence in what the government is saying about the nuclear deterrent — which is totally pointless,” said Kanwal Sibal, who was foreign secretary in the BJP-led government that proceeded Singh's Congress-led coalition.

The Singh government subscribes to the theory that a “minimum deterrent” is sufficient to protect India from its nuclear neighbors, and even though that theory was predicated on the existence of a small number of effective thermonuclear missiles, most observers believe that Singh will not begin preparations of any kind for a resumption of testing. The big question is whether he can sell the country on agreeing to Obama's full-fledged moratorium.

Some say yes, others no.

“I cannot see India testing at all, unless the U.S. itself tests or China tests or Pakistan tests,” Sibal said. “Unilaterally testing makes no sense to me. The cost would be intolerable, not merely in terms of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, but we'd be isolated internationally. We'd be seen as wrecking the international nonproliferation regime for no good reason.”

“Manmohan Singh may not be inclined to test during his tenure, which is another four years,” Karnad said. “But the idea is to nevertheless keep the testing option open.”
The implications of both testing and not testing are murky.

Even if India never tests another nuke, Santhanam's accusation that Pokhran II was a fizzle isn't as damning as it might sound. For nuclear scientists, fizzle is a technical term for detonations that yield 30 percent less concussive force than expected, and Santhanam himself acknowledges that India's thermonuclear device yielded an explosion equivalent to 15 to 20 kilotons of TNT — the rub is that it was intended to generate 45 kilotons. The minimum deterrent lobby argues that's powerful enough to dissuade Pakistan from getting any crazy ideas, and even if India's nukes pale in comparison with China's, they're still devastating enough to give any rational adversary pause.

But for others, the niggling fear remains that doubts about the capacity of India's nuclear bombs make it all the more likely that one day it may have to use them.

On the other hand, the global reaction to a new test is equally unpredictable. It would almost certainly spell an end to the Indo-U.S. agreement on civilian nuclear projects, and likely put its power projects with countries like France and Russia in jeopardy.

“I would expect that India would be placed in an international penalty box for some period of time and would be blamed for 'scuttling' efforts to bring a CTBT into force,” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, confirmed in an email interview. The last time, India stayed in the penalty box for a decade, but U.S. sanctions prohibiting economic and military aid were waived after only a year.

The hawks in India's security establishment are growing more firm in their belief that the U.S. and Europe will not be comfortable isolating India from the global community for long this time, either, because it has emerged as Asia's only credible counterweight to China's growing military and economic might. “They might thrash about a bit and sound off a bit, but what option do they have?” Karnad said.

Apart from the paranoid, what developing nations hope to gain from their nuclear weapons is not so much security — though the contrasting treatment that the U.S. meted out to Iraq and Pakistan shows the value of deterrence in that realm — but a seat at the table. And that means Obama and the West have one big bargaining chip left to bring India into the nonproliferation fold: Sign the CTBT, get a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

the best war movie never made

A few nights ago, I finally managed to watch The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's nearly flawless movie about American sappers in Iraq. For the first hour and a half or so, I was completely riveted. Bigelow's directing and erstwhile journalist Mark Boal's writing were pitch perfect, and kept the suspense taut as a tripwire as the plot progressed from the tension of disarming bombs to the greater moral dilemma of policing an unfriendly population and identifying the insurgents among the innocents.

I'll try not to spoil too much of the movie--and, anyway, there's not much here that I'm skillful enough to describe; the way Bigelow ratchets up the tension really has to be watched for you to get it--but consider this master stroke. About a third of the way into the movie, the sapper team is out in the field when they run across a stranded jeep with a bunch of armed soldiers in front of it in what the GIs call "Haji gear."

There's a tense standoff in which Sgt William James--the loose cannon played with great nuance by Jeremy Renner--holds a man whose face is obscured by an Arab head scarf at gunpoint and repeatedly orders him to put his gun down and put his hands behind his head. The "Haji" finally complies, asking in an Oxbridge accent whether he can take off the scarf, and reveals the face of Ralph Fiennes. The allusion to the stylish introduction of the hero in countless war movies of the John Wayne type is unmistakable, and because Bigelow has been relentlessly knotting your gut with apprehension that somebody is going to blow himself up disarming a bomb for the past 30 minutes, it comes like a wave of relief. Ok, you think, now the fun is going to start.

Ten seconds later, a soundless sniper bullet cuts down one of the team, beginning a tense, fifteen minute skirmish where the enemy is a barely glimpsed shadow in the sand 800 meters away. Five minutes into it, Ralph Fiennes, the bluff hero in the style of Errol Flynn, catches his own soundless, anti-climactic bullet, and dies without a word.

I was already half-convinced this was the best war movie ever made at that point, just for the way it scared the piss out of me--so much better than the blab blab blab of Saving Private Ryan. But as the movie progressed, it got even more clever, more complex, and actually communicated some fairly strong emotional perceptions about the guilt of killing in battle, etc. (Again, better to see the film than to read me banging on about it).

Honestly, I felt like standing up and clapping at my DVD player.

Then, when it was almost over, about 2 hours in, without a single misstep, somebody pissed the whole thing away. After a stunningly tense climax that communicated clearly the whole dilemma of the soldier fighting against guerillas--all without a lot of talkie baloney--suddenly the two main characters get back into the Hum-V and start chatting away like they're on the couch with Oprah.

"Why do you put on the [bomb disposal] suit and take the risks?" --or something equally ridiculous and on the nose--says Sgt. Sanborn (played brilliantly up to this point by another actor I'd never heard of called Anthony Mackie).

Sgt. Jame / Renner wrenches himself into knots trying to make the scene work with his answer. But there's no way out. The writing is suddenly so utterly obvious and terrible, it's difficult to believe. I'm no Hollywood insider, but my deep research into the business (i.e. many hours spent watching Entourage) tells me that there's no way Bigelow / Boal screwed it up this badly after 2 hours of absolute brilliance. It had to be some pea brain studio hack who told them that the audience wouldn't get it, and they needed an explanation. But what a deflation!

The right end point for the movie has already passed. If they'd rolled credits right after the climax, with the two soldiers silent and defeated in the Hummer, audiences would have walked out of theaters feeling like they'd been hit by a baseball bat. But now that everything is so screwed up by the Oprah scene, they can't end it there, either.

Instead, we get Sgt. James back in the States with an obvious case of post traumatic stress disorder, shopping for groceries with the mother of his kid. After a few pointless (and oh so obvious) reaction takes, he re-enlists and the tour of duty countdown that has been a running theme from the first frame resets: Bravo Company (or whatever), 365 days to end of tour.

I wanted to shoot my TV. This was the best war movie ever. And then it wasn't. Thanks to some joker who doesn't know the difference between his screenplay and his Powerpoint presentation, it's now officially The Best War Movie Never Made.

I'd love to see the director's cut.

the coming war for water

Kashmir's mighty rivers are a source of strife on the subcontinent.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
September 21, 2009

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Atop the disputed Baglihar Dam in the mountains of Kashmir, the Chenab River roars like a 747 as its silvery waters churn the dam's massive turbines and boil out over the ravine in a tremendous, spiraling white waterfall.

The air is moist, and a massive cloud of mist floats downstream toward the roadway, where moments ago a dozen busloads of soldiers headed for posts along India's border with Pakistan have rumbled across a narrow bridge.

“Even today, soldiers are moving up and down all the time,” says my translator and guide, Rashid Dangola, a white-haired houseboat owner from Srinagar who tells me that in the heyday of India-administered Kashmir's armed struggle for independence he would buy his booze from the army and his hashish from the militants.

These troop movements are indeed a constant part of daily life in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where the Indian army stations 600,000 to 800,000 soldiers — more than double the number deployed for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A fragile cease-fire has held here since November 2003, but Kashmir remains one of the most dangerous places in the world. Anger over the bloody partition that divided India and Pakistan in 1947 and a bitter feud over the ownership of this majestic portion of the Himalayas have led the two subcontinental powers to three full-fledged wars and a perilous standoff in 2002, when many world powers feared the dispute would go nuclear.

There are many reasons for the Kashmir conflict. But perhaps the most important of them is the water that spews into the sky at my feet.

When the British drew the borders partitioning India and Pakistan, their cartographers failed to consider the run of the rivers that would feed the two countries. Kashmir's accession to India granted New Delhi control over the headwaters of the Indus — the lifeline of civilization in what is now Pakistan since 2600 B.C. And although a treaty for sharing the water was worked out in 1960, its foundation has begun to crack under the pressure of the two countries rapidly growing populations and the specter of climate change.

Shortly before he led Pakistan's troops into the Kargil War, a then-unknown Pakistani general named Pervez Musharraf wrote in his dissertation at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London that the issue of the distribution of the waters of Kashmir between India and Pakistan has “the germs of future conflict.” Because water is the one resource that neither India nor Pakistan can do without, many experts fear that one day the dispute over the Indus — already an incessant source of diplomatic skirmishes — will propel these two nuclear weapons states into an all-out war.

Battles over water are already mounting in number around the world, according to Peter Gleick, an expert at the Pacific Institute. But Kashmir could be the most dangerous flash point. According to a recent United Nations report, Pakistan's water supply has dropped from about 5,000 cubic meters per person in the 1950s to 1,420 cubic meters today — perilously close to the threshold at which water shortage becomes an impediment to economic development and a serious hazard to human health. India, at 1,750 cubic meters per person, is not much better off. Both countries' huge populations are still growing, and because most of the available water comes from the disappearing glaciers of the Himalayas they are extremely vulnerable to climate change.

“We already see evidence that the climate is changing water availability and water quality,” Gleick said. “Kashmir is a place where water may not be the worst of the problem, but like the Sudan, or like the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers or like the Nile, it's a growing factor in what is already a conflict situation.”

Perhaps worse still, it appears that hawks on both sides are attempting to use water to create an insurmountable impasse in the dispute over Kashmir, rather than acknowledging that the sharing of rivers forms a framework for the two enemies to cooperate. This unease was underscored just last week, when India objected to a Pakistani proposal to build a new dam in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, with the help of the Chinese.

In Srinagar's Cafe Arabica, I met with two Kashmiri journalists, Parvaiz Bukhari of the Mail Today and Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express. In most respects, the two seasoned reporters could not be more different. Bukhari, a former TV journalist, is a handsome, bearded man with a grave voice, and an eloquent turn of phrase. “In an abnormal situation, the normal becomes news,” he told me, referring to countless New Delhi newspaper articles that featured the cafe where we were meeting as evidence that Kashmir's long-curfewed nightlife was picking up.

Jaleel, by contrast, is ebullient and manic, and gushes with gossip. He stormed into our bull session shouting out his order to the barista across the room.
Both of them, however, were united in their cynicism about the saber rattling over water in India and Pakistan.

On the Indian side, Jaleel pointed out, right-wing politicians have sought to turn Kashmir into a Hindu holy land of sorts to make ceding any of its territory non-negotiable. This is the impulse behind the strong political support for the Amarnath Yatra, a new pilgrimage to a cave in the mountains above Srinagar where an ice formation resembles a lingam — a Hindu religious symbol representing the phallus of the god Shiva. The same motive lies behind a new festival called the Sindhu Darshan, which casts the Indus as a Hindu river, though it was the cradle of ancient civilizations in what is today Pakistan, long before Hinduism existed. “India is trying to turn the rivers of Kashmir into religious symbols,” Jaleel said.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the opponents of detente cast the battle for Kashmir as a struggle for survival to prevent governments there from giving any ground, according to a new report by Mumbai's Strategic Foresight Group. Recalling the standoff on the border in 2002, the report's authors argue that Pakistani ideologues immediately leaped to the conclusion that India planned to use water as a weapon without any prompting from New Delhi, and predicted that such a move would ultimately lead to a Pakistani nuclear strike. At the same time, a leader from an umbrella organization of Pakistani jihadi groups told a local newspaper: “Kashmir is the source from where all of Pakistan's water resources originate. If Pakistan loses this battle against India, it will become a desert.”

Though Indians tend to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as senseless paranoia, Pakistan's fears are not completely unfounded. Almost immediately after Partition, India diverted the Ravi and Sutlej rivers, depriving the city of Lahore and Pakistan's irrigation canals of water during the spring sowing season. Now, whenever a new Indian dam comes up, Pakistani commentators see the project as another move to starve them out. One Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, for instance, lumped Baglihar in with 50 others built “in gross violation of the Indus Waters Treaty,” lamenting “India simply cut off waters flowing into Pakistan, dealing a big blow to our agriculture and economy.”

Kashmiris on both sides of the border — or Line of Control, as it is known locally — are caught in the middle. The Indus Waters Treaty, drawn up in 1960, has prevented India and Pakistan from going to war over the rivers of the Himalayas for almost 50 years by granting India exclusive use of the three eastern tributaries of the Indus, the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers, and granting Pakistan exclusive rights to the three western tributaries, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab.

But it has also prevented development of irrigation and hydroelectric projects in Kashmir itself. The treaty caps the amount of land Kashmir can irrigate and sets strict regulations on how and where water can be stored — making hydropower projects on the Chenab, like the Baglihar dam, difficult to execute. And, increasingly, the limitations imposed on India by the treaty are becoming a motivating force in Indian-administered Kashmir's struggle for independence.

“It is the irony of history that the waters belonging to Kashmiris are being decided by India and Pakistan. They have robbed us of our own natural resources,” said Shabir Ahmad Dar, the diminutive but passionate chief superintendent of the Hurriyat Conference — an alliance of separatist parties. “They have signed a treaty that is leading us to war.”

As to why this is so, conspiracy theories abound among the common people of Kashmir who I came across while traveling around Srinagar and its environs with Sajaad Hussain, an activist who chairs an NGO called the J&K Research Development Trust. A fair-skinned Kashmiri with long, dirty-blond hair, Hussain, too, was outraged that India's most water-rich state was struggling to meet its own needs.

As cup after cup of salted tea flowed from the samovar in Hussain's house in Srinagar's politically volatile downtown region, an interesting picture emerged of the common Kashmiri's perspective on India's water dispute with Pakistan. Motivated in part by wishful thinking, the consensus here was that India uses the dispute with Pakistan as an excuse not to invest in Kashmir's infrastructure, because it fears it may one day have to give up its claims on the territory.

“They (India) say that Kashmir is an unbreakable part of India,” exclaimed one of the tea drinkers. “But they do not treat it that way.”

The next day, Haseeb Drabu, who as chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Bank has struggled to finance many hydroelectric power projects in the state, told me a somewhat different story. “There are all kinds of conspiracy theories, but the fact of the matter is that the state government doesn't have any money.” Nevertheless, Drabu, too — however optimistic he is about the Indian-administered Kashmir's ability to exploit its water resources — firmly believes that water will increasingly become a source of conflict. “Water will be the most potent political weapon by which India will screw Pakistan, because they have a huge problem as it is,” Drabu told me. “[Eventually] they will sign off on whatever we say, and say give it [water] to me, because they have such big problems.”

Downstream from the Baglihar Dam, the executive engineer on the project explained over stacks of toast and mango chutney how serious the threat of conflict has already become. Not two weeks before, an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist captured near the border by the Indian army had reportedly revealed plans to attack the dam — which Pakistan has opposed from the outset, approaching the World Bank for arbitration in 2005. “Everything in this place is under threat,” the engineer said. “What can we do? We continue our work.”

Most Kashmiris feel the same resignation. But in their mouths it leaves a bitter taste.

india's hidden war heats up

As New Delhi steps up its fight against Maoist rebels, casualties mount

By Jason Overdorf

NEW DELHI, India — Deep in the jungles of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, commandos from the police force's elite “Cobra” division launched a devastating surprise attack on an encampment of Maoist rebels last week.

Providing a wordless rebuttal to the prime minister's admission that India is failing in the protracted battle against the would-be revolutionaries, the police action took the commandos deep into Maoist-occupied territory. And together with a new blitz of government propaganda countering the rebels' claims to be fighting for justice for the common people, the push likely signals that India plans to step up action against rebels that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has identified as a graver threat to law and order than Kashmiri militants or terrorist infiltrators from across the border in Pakistan.

Simmering for nearly a decade, India's low-level war against these communist revolutionaries has been fought mostly under the radar, since the battleground lies in the remote jungles of some of the country's least developed states — like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa — where indigenous tribal peoples comprise a substantial part of the population. But as Singh pointed out in a recent speech to a gathering of police chiefs from the country's 26 states, the rebels have leveraged official complacency and local resentments to steadily gain ground against the state.

"I have consistently held that left wing extremism is, perhaps, the gravest internal security threat we face,” Singh said on Sept. 15, admitting that efforts to contain the rebels have failed to yield significant results.

Two days later, the subsequent one-two punch of the surge-like commando strike and the propaganda campaign — full page newspaper ads featuring photos of seven innocents allegedly killed by the Maoists and the slogan “Naxals (Maoists) are nothing but cold-blooded murderers” — hints at the strategy the government plans to adopt as the mostly hidden war heats up.

But it remains to be seen whether deploying crack commando units, whose numbers are limited, can generate real results against the Maoist's guerilla army, or whether media propaganda will be effective in diminishing support for the rebels among the dispossessed — for whom newspapers and television are often unknown luxuries.
Without a doubt, India needs a new strategy. According to the latest data released by the home ministry, roughly 220 districts across 20 of India's 26 states are variously affected by Maoist activity — a fourfold increase since 2001. At the same time, the Maoist struggle has surpassed Kashmir as the deadliest conflict on Indian soil, and the number of fatalities per year continues to grow.

The reason, says Ajai Sahni, an expert on terrorism at the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, is that India has yet to come up with a sustained, coherent response to the revolutionary threat. Political sensitivity has prevented the government from launching full scale, military-type actions against the rebels, and the piecemeal efforts to fight them with small units and civilian militias have been disastrous.

“How can you send men out in a 12-man force or 20-man force when you know that the Maoists are going to come in the hundreds, if not the thousands to overwhelm these posts? You cannot say to people, 'I've recruited you as a policeman, now go commit suicide.'”

At the same time, public and political sympathy is relatively strong for the Maoist cause — unlike the cause of Kashmiri separatists, for instance — because the inequalities and injustices of society are blatantly obvious and the Maoists have been very effective at tapping into resentments of controversial government actions like the acquisition of tribal land for mining projects.

“There is a bottom 7 to 10 percent of the population which has been treated very badly by Indian policy makers,” explained Ashis Nandy, a sociologist with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.

Though a revolution is not on the cards anytime soon, the constant gains made by the Maoists over the past decade are of grave concern, because the disruption of public services in remote areas threatens to have a snowball effect.

“If they can create substantial disruptive activities across India, the government will be confronted with a situation that will get more and more difficult as time goes by,” said Sahni. “We cannot come to a situation such as what happened in Nepal, where they had no government anywhere except in Kathmandu.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

now available in high-def.... well, on the internet, anyway

Obsessed fans can now catch me in pixellated digital video. That's right: They've decided that I am destined for oversimplification and simpering, as well as great taglines like "Cute chicken" and "Sad story." Yes, folks. TV. Well, Internet TV. But that's just a million small steps away from the real thing. Anyway, everybody will be watching on his computer pretty soon, right?

Seriously. If you're curious, check this out to see how a good camerawoman and editor can make a rank neophyte look downright semi-professional:


You won't be surprised to learn that this is the first time anybody has asked me to work IN FRONT of the camera. Well, apart from The Rising. But it doesn't count if you wear a fake beard.