W’End Reading: Obama’S Nightmare And Suggestions For BJP
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editricon W’end Reading: Obama’s Nightmare and Suggestions for BJP

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In the second nuclear age, what happens or fails to happen in Kidwai’s modest compound may prove far more likely to save or lose an American city than the billions of dollars the United States spends each year maintaining a nuclear arsenal that will almost certainly never be used, or the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan to close down sanctuaries for terrorists. Just last month in Washington, members of the federally appointed bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism made it clear that for sheer scariness, nothing could compete with what they had heard in a series of high-level intelligence briefings about the dangers of Pakistan’s nuclear technology going awry. “When you map W.M.D. and terrorism, all roads intersect in Pakistan,” Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and a leading nuclear expert on the commission, told me. “The nuclear security of the arsenal is now a lot better than it was. But the unknown variable here is the future of Pakistan itself, because it’s not hard to envision a situation in which the state’s authority falls apart and you’re not sure who’s in control of the weapons, the nuclear labs, the materials.”

For Kidwai, there is something both tiresome and deeply suspicious about the constant stream of warnings out of Washington that Pakistan is the epicenter of a post-cold-war Armageddon. “This is all overblown rhetoric,” Kidwai told me on a rainy Saturday morning…

“Please grant to Pakistan that if we can make nuclear weapons and the delivery systems,” Kidwai said, gesturing to the models and a photo of Pakistan’s first nuclear test, a decade ago, “we can also make them safe. Our security systems are foolproof.”

“FOOLPROOF” IS MOST likely not the word Barack Obama would use to describe the status of Pakistan’s nuclear safety following the briefings he has been receiving since Nov. 6, which is when J. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, showed up in Chicago to give the president-­elect his first full presidential daily brief.

…By now Obama has almost surely been briefed about an alarming stream of intelligence that began circulating early last year to the top tier of George W. Bush’s national-security leadership in Washington. The highly restricted reports described how foreign-trained Pakistani scientists, including some suspected of harboring sympathy for radical Islamic causes, were returning to Pakistan to seek jobs within the country’s nuclear infrastructure — presumably trying to burrow in among the 2,000 or so people who have what Kidwai calls “critical knowledge” of the Pakistani nuclear infrastructure.

“I have two worries,” one of the most senior officials in the Bush administration, who had read all of the intelligence with care, told me one day last spring. One is what happens “when they move the weapons,” he said, explaining that the United States feared that some groups could try to provoke a confrontation between Pakistan and India in the hope that the Pakistani military would transport tactical nuclear weapons closer to the front lines, where they would be more vulnerable to seizure. Indeed, when the deadly terror attacks occurred in Mumbai in late November, officials told me they feared that one of the attackers’ motives might have been to trigger exactly that series of events.

“And the second,” the official said, choosing his words carefully, “is what I believe are steadfast efforts of different extremist groups to infiltrate the labs and put sleepers and so on in there.” As Obama’s team of nuclear experts have discovered in their recent briefings, it is Pakistan’s laboratories — one of which still bears A. Q. Khan’s name — that still pose the greatest worries for American intelligence officials. ….It is a lot harder for the Americans to keep track of nuclear material being produced inside laboratories, where it is easier for the Pakistanis to underreport how much nuclear material has been produced, how much is in storage or how much might be “stuck in the pipes” during the laborious enrichment process. And it is nearly impossible to stop engineers from walking out the door with the knowledge of how to produce fuel, which Khan provided to Iran, and bomb designs.

…NO SOONER HAD THE radioactive and diplomatic dust settled from the test site (after the tests carried out by Pakistan in 1998) than Kidwai was called in by his army superiors, and ultimately, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and told that he would now head an urgent project: to come up with a system to protect Pakistan’s new weapon from all of its enemies — the Indians, Western Europeans and the angry Americans. Kidwai knew speed was of the essence. Pakistan’s leaders feared that if the West thought that Pakistan had just a few weapons in its inventory, and no system to assure their safety, they would come under even more pressure to roll back the program and give up the handful they had manufactured. The only way to resist that pressure, they knew, was to create a large arsenal quickly and to hide it in underground facilities where neither the Indians nor the Americans could seize or destroy the warheads.

…Kidwai got off to a rocky start. The Pakistani nuclear program owes its very existence to the government-endorsed and government-financed subterfuges of A. Q. Khan, who then turned the country into the biggest source of nuclear-weapons proliferation in atomic history. And while Khan may be the most famous nuclear renegade in Pakistan, he is not the only one. Soon after Kidwai took office, he also faced the case of the eccentric nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who helped build gas centrifuges for the Pakistani nuclear program, using blueprints Khan had stolen from the Netherlands. Mahmood then moved on to the country’s next huge project: designing the reactor at Khushab that was to produce the fuel Pakistan needed to move to the next level — a plutonium bomb.

An autodidact intellectual with grand aspirations, Mahmood was fascinated by the links between science and the Koran. He wrote a peculiar treatise arguing that when morals degrade, disaster cannot be far behind. Over time, his colleagues began to wonder if Mahmood was mentally sound. They were half amused and half horrified by his fascination with the role sunspots played in triggering the French and Russian Revolutions, World War II and assorted anticolonial uprisings. “This guy was our ultimate nightmare,” an American intelligence official told me in late 2001, when The New York Times first reported on Mahmood. “He had access to the entire Pakistani program. He knew what he was doing. And he was completely out of his mind.”

While Khan appeared to be in the nuclear-proliferation business chiefly for the money, Mahmood made it clear to friends that his interest was religious: Pakistan’s bomb, he told associates, was “the property of a whole Ummah,” referring to the worldwide Muslim community. He wanted to share it with those who might speed “the end of days” and lead the way for Islam to rise as the dominant religious force in the world.

Eventually Mahmood’s religious intensity, combined with his sympathy for Islamic extremism, scared his colleagues. In 1999, just as Kidwai was beginning to examine the staff of the nuclear enterprise, Mahmood was forced to take an early retirement. At a loss for what to do, Mahmood set up a nonprofit charity, Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, which was ostensibly designed to send relief to fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. In August 2001, as the Sept. 11 plotters were making their last preparations in the United States, Mahmood and one of his colleagues at the charity met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, over the course of several days in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that Mahmood talked to the two Qaeda leaders about nuclear weapons, or that Al Qaeda desperately wanted the bomb.

…Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a longtime C.I.A. nuclear expert, was given perhaps the most daunting job at the agency in the aftermath of 9/11: to make sure that Al Qaeda did not have a weapon of mass destruction at its disposal. “The worst nightmare we had at that time was that A. Q. Khan and Osama bin Laden were somehow working together,” Mowatt-Larssen told me

…Musharraf tried to tamp down American alarm. He told Tenet and Mowatt-Larssen that “men in caves can’t do this.” He had Mahmood and his colleague rearrested, though they were never prosecuted. Pakistan did not want to risk a trial in which the country’s own nuclear secrets came out. Today, Mahmood, like Khan, is back home, under tight surveillance that seems intended primarily to keep him a safe distance from reporters.

…But what’s terrifying about Mahmood’s story is not what happened around the campfire, but rather that the meetings happened at all. They took place three years after Kidwai and his team started their work and demonstrated the huge vulnerabilities in the Pakistani nuclear infrastructure at the time.

…In Pakistan, the problem is made worse by the fact that the universities — where the nuclear program draws its young talent — are now more radicalized than at any time in memory, and the nuclear program itself has greatly expanded. Kidwai estimated that there are roughly 70,000 people who work in the nuclear complex in Pakistan, including 7,000 to 8,000 scientists and the 2,000 or so with “critical knowledge.” If even 1 percent of those employees are willing to spread Pakistan’s nuclear knowledge to outsiders with a cause, Kidwai — and the United States — have a problem.

JUST AS KIDWAI FEARS, every few months someone in Washington — either at the Pentagon, or the Energy Department, or on the campus of the National Defense University — runs a simulation of how the United States should respond if a terrorist group infiltrates the Pakistani nuclear program or manages to take over one or two of its weapons. In these exercises, everyone plays to type…As one frequent participant in these tabletop exercises put it to me, “Most of them don’t end well.”

The Pakistanis insist that these American fears are exaggerated …But back in Washington, military and nuclear experts told me that the bottom line is that if a real-life crisis broke out, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to assure an American president, with confidence, that he knew where all of Pakistan’s weapons were — or that none were in the hands of Islamic extremists. “It’s worse than that,” the participant in the simulations told me. “We can’t even certify exactly how many weapons the Pakistanis have — which makes it difficult to sound convincing that there’s nothing to worry about.”

…IN BUSH’S LAST YEAR in office, Pakistan’s downward spiral came to dominate the meetings of the principals down in the Situation Room of the White House…with each successive trip it became clearer and clearer, particularly to McConnell, that the gap between how Washington viewed the threat and how the Pakistanis viewed it was as yawning as ever. Even worse, suspicions grew that Inter-Services Intelligence was directly aiding the Taliban and other jihadist militants, seeing them as a useful counterweight to India’s influence in the region.

Washington’s sanguinity was not increased when Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, arrived in Washington over the summer for what turned out to be a disastrous first visit. Gilani, as the country’s first civilian leader in more than a decade, was under huge pressure to show he could bring the intelligence agency, and the country, under control. He couldn’t — a brief effort to force the ISI to report to the civilian leadership was quashed — but he thought he had better show up with a gift for President Bush.

Gilani wanted to tell Bush that he had sent forces into the tribal areas to clean out a major madrassa where hard-line ideology and intolerance were part of the daily curriculum. …Though Gilani never knew it, Bush was aware of this gift in advance. The National Security Agency had picked up intercepts indicating that a Pakistani unit warned the leadership of the school about what was coming before carrying out its raid. “They must have called 1-800-HAQQANI,” said one person who was familiar with the intercepted conversation. According to another, the account of the warning sent to the school was almost comic. “It was something like, ‘Hey, we’re going to hit your place in a few days, so if anyone important is there, you might want to tell them to scram.’ ”

When the “attack” on the madrassa came, the Pakistani forces grabbed a few guns and hauled away a few teenagers. Sure enough, a few days later Gilani showed up in the Oval Office and conveyed the wonderful news to Bush: the great crackdown on the madrassas had begun. The officials in the room — Bush; his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley; and others — did not want to confront Gilani with the evidence that the school had been warned. That would have required revealing sensitive intercepts, and they judged, according to participants in the discussion, that Gilani was both incapable of keeping a secret and incapable of cracking down on his military and intelligence units. Indeed, Gilani may not even have been aware that his gift was a charade: Bush and Hadley may well have known more about the military’s actions than the prime minister himself.

…At the end of Bush’s term, his aides handed over to Obama’s transition team a lengthy review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, concluding that in the end, the United States has far more at stake in preventing Pakistan’s collapse than it does in stabilizing Afghanistan or Iraq.

“Only one of those countries has a hundred nuclear weapons,” a primary author of the report said to me. For Al Qaeda and the other Islamists, he went on to say, “this is the home game.” He paused, before offering up the next thought: For anyone trying to keep a nuclear weapon from going off in the United States, it’s our home game, too.

*** End of Excerpts ***


*** Excerpts from Open Letter to Mr. Advani on Education ***

Dear Advaniji,

You are one of the few politicians in India who I sincerely respect. You have been in the dust and heat of Indian politcs for more than six decades, you have been personally incorruptible, and whats more - you write well too, what with a bestseller book, and a new blog! Moreover while you are clearly not a young politician, to this young blogger you seem like one who would not mind accepting new ideas.

That is why I was greatly disappointed when I came to know about your recent “five-point promise on education”. I liked your emphasis on universal secondary education, but rest of the ideas are old, and frankly the whole promise seems more than a little gimmicky. Let me elaborate why, and let me then suggest an alternative policy announcement for the BJP, India’s major center-right party.

To begin with, most disappointing were the following promises to the teacher unions:

… recruit at least ten lakh more teachers… we shall launch a Shikshak Aawas Yojana to ensure that every teacher in India has his or her own house

Now, universal access to primary and secondary education is a laudable goal. Most Indians agree on that. But we must separate the “how much” from the “how to”. The big question - is “how to” implement this increase in educational access.

Should the government itself hire teachers and run subsidized schools? Or should the government pay poor parents to send their kids to the school of their choice so long as it meets certain standards?

Down the first path lies licence raj, union-baazi and monopolies which have not worked in industries, and no surprise - which are not working in education. …

Down the second path lies school choice, parental control, improved quality, and reduced costs. In fact, studies by James Tooley show that scores in private schools art better than “free” government schols and when I say “private schools”, I dont mean posh private schools, but the one-roof institutes running in slums.

Government teachers, like most Indian public servants, have no incentive to perform and excel because of unparalled job security and lack of merit pay (I am speaking of averages here, exceptions fueled by idealism obviously exist). There is no pay differentiation according to performance, but on “years of experience”. Developed countries like America are having problems hiring quality teachers for similar reasons, so I do not see how India can spend its way out of the problem.

The reason cash transfers in the form of vouchers would work is because of choice and competition… In remote villages, where vouchers may seem less viable - we can simply raise the cash transfer to make creation of private schools viable, instead of resorting to bureaucracy by default.

The idea of school vouchers has been supported by Nandan Nilekani and Gurcharan Das amongst others. We must look beyond reservations in private schools (like one section of the yet-to-be passed Right to Education bill promises) and work towards fundamental reform.

… now imagine the great political dividends of the following poll promise….


… and like a true Iron Man, take on those teacher union leaders.


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