a version of this was printed in the DNA newspaper on 23rd march:


Spy vs. spy: Is Headley a protected ‘asset’?

Rajeev Srinivasan

The fact that the United States’ Department of Justice has agreed to a plea-bargain by David Coleman Headley (born Daood Sayed Gilani) is worrying. Headley, the Pakistani-American accused of being a Lashkar-e-Toiba operative and the person who did much of the planning and surveillance for the 11/26 terrorist attack on Mumbai, pleaded guilty to 12 counts, including conspiracy to murder Indians and Americans in India, and to support terrorism in India. Apparently, Headley has pleaded guilty so that he might escape the death penalty as a co-operating witness.

In and of itself, this is not surprising, because the Americans have dropped hints from day one about their reluctance to let Indian investigators interrogate Headley. Around the time of Headley’s arrest around October last year, Indian sleuths flew to the US, but returned empty handed. Suspicions were raised at the time that Headley was in fact a ‘strategic asset’ for American intelligence, because he had gotten off surprisingly lightly in a drug-related incident, a serious offense in the US.

However, it is worrisome because it implies that the Americans have many skeletons in the closet regarding Pakistan-related terrorism incidents. The plea-bargain insulates Headley from being examined in court, suggesting that the Americans did not want him to ‘sing like a canary’, revealing various things they would rather keep well-hidden. There will be no trial in the US, no depositions and no public disclosures, and he will not be extradited to India to stand trial for 11/26.

This is yet another instance of the ambivalent nature of the American attitude to Pakistan and its terror apparatus. Even though it is obvious that most terrorism has links to Pakistan, and that its spy agency ISI nurtures terrorist entities such as the LeT, the Americans pretend to not see this. Symmetrically, the Pakistanis pretend to reduce their terror sponsorship, periodically rounding up some unimportant or washed-up terrorist and delivering him to the Americans; this charade keeps everybody happy.

A particularly egregious example of American collusion with the ISI was seen in 2001 at the siege of Kunduz in Afghanistan. At the time, the Northern Alliance, in full cry, were besieging a thousand Taliban in an old fort in Kunduz. Astonishingly, the US allowed the Pakistani air force to air-lift most of these alleged Taliban, who, it turned out, were mid-level officers of the ISI and the Pakistan Army who had traded in their uniforms for the Taliban’s baggy pants and beards.

There is speculation that Headley is a double agent for America’s spy agency, the CIA. The world of double agents is complicated, as the CIA itself learned to its chagrin just a few weeks ago when most of its agents in Pakistan were massacred by a Jordanian double agent. This could be why, even though Headley was indirectly responsible for the deaths of several American citizens in Mumbai, they are not throwing the book at him.

Contrast Headley’s treatment with the fuss over Adam Gadahn, a white American convert, a senior spokesperson and propaganda advisor for Al-Qaeda. Even though Gadahn has not killed any US citizens, he is the first American charged with treason in over fifty years. Clearly they are bothered by Gadahn’s actions, but not so much by Headley’s. There is also no indictment of the LeT despite the fact that Headley is accused of attending several training camps run by them, in jihad indoctrination, combat, counter-surveillance, and weapons usage.

The tenderness shown to Headley suggests there is more to his story than meets the eye. Could it be that Headley, and his fellow-accused, Pakistani-Canadian Tahawwur Rana, breezed in and out of India and did their reconnaissance because the CIA was greasing the wheels? Maybe they even helped Headley erase his past, his Pakistani name Gilani, and his record as a drug-dealer so that he could travel as a white American to India. It is true that white Americans arouse less suspicion, as has been seen in the cases of blonde converts Jamie Paulin-Ramirez and Colleen R LaRose, aka ‘Jihad Jane’.

The Headley saga may well be a practical demonstration of the attitudes of the Obama Administration towards India. Obama has distinctly downgraded India in his priority list. When Obama made a trip to Asia, India was not on the itinerary. If and when Obama finally makes it to India, we can be assured that there will be a hyphenating visit to Pakistan included.

The DoJ’s willingness to protect Headley after he pleaded guilty to abetting terrorism and mass-murder in India, and admitted that he had attended terrorism training camps operated by the LeT, leads to a simple conclusion: the US government does not care about the killing of Indians. This, after all the honeyed words about the beginnings of a beautiful relationship, leads us to a sad truth: India cannot depend on anybody other than itself. And there are plenty of Headleys and sleeper cells out there.

Who is killing Indians in Australia? An open letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

Rajeev Srinivasan on enough weasel-wording, some action needed now

Dear Prime Minister Rudd,

Allegations about systematic racist attacks on Indians in Australia have echoed in India for some time. But the gruesome murder of a 3-year old Indian boy is a game-changer. Gurshan Singh Channa, whose mother is a student, was abducted from his parents’ residence, murdered and dumped about 20 miles away. This goes beyond what civilized people can tolerate.

The incident is reminiscent of the infamous kidnapping and murder of the small son of Charles Lindbergh, American aviation hero of the 1930s. The murderer was sent to the electric chair. Indians have the right to expect nothing less than the arrest and conviction of the murderer of young Gurshan. The Australian government must act with the full force of its forensic powers to track down the killer(s) immediately. When an Australian named Graham Staines was killed in India some years ago, the Indian government worked overtime to solve the case; diligence on your part would be simple courtesy.

I understand that an India taxi-driver has been named the suspect in the case, but even if he is proved to be the murderer, what about all the other cases where your police have admitted they have no clue?

The ongoing attacks on Indian students in Australia, which has led so far to several deaths, have been downplayed by your government. The standard line has been that attacks on Indians are random acts of violence by anti-social elements. Occasionally, the Indians were also blamed for putting themselves in danger; some official even told the students to conceal their iPods and cellphones, suggesting that the motive was simple robbery, and implying that it was their own fault for flaunting their stuff.

Blaming the victim is, shall we say, unusual? There have been cases in Australia where defendants in rapes suggested that the women brought it upon themselves by wearing skimpy clothing. I don’t remember this line of thinking being considered acceptable by the courts.

The obvious question: how come nobody is robbing Chinese students, or African students, or Arab students, all of whom are visibly different from native (white) Australians, and who should, by the same logic, be equally subjected to harassment, beatings, murders?

Nobody has an answer, so the next logical hypothesis is that there exists a group of people with particular animosity towards Indians: that is to say, these are racist hate crimes. But nobody in Australia has had the guts to admit it; however, now with the brutalization of a small child, there is no more room for beating about the bush – someone is targeting Indians in Australia, and it is the moral and legal duty of the federal government to find out who it is and to stop them.

It is interesting to compare the general Indian experience in the US, which I am personally familiar with, to the Indian experience in Australia, which I have heard about from Indian students. In the US, barring some discrimination and an occasional casual epithet thrown one’s way, there has practically been no sustained violence against Indians since the 1960’s (if you forget certain incidents early in the last century when anti-Asian and anti-brown laws were in force).

In the past year or two, there was a disturbing series of murders of students from the state of Andhra Pradesh, which led some to speculate that there were contracts being put out back home, but nothing was proven. But it must be acknowledged that there were three singular, barbaric acts in the US in the last thirty years: Navroze Mody was beaten to death with baseball bats by teenagers in Hoboken, New Jersey; Charanjit Singh Aujla was shot to death by plain-clothes policemen in his own liquor store in Jackson, Mississippi; and Khem Singh, a 72-year-old Sikh priest, was starved to death in a prison in Fresno, California. Otherwise, Indians have felt welcome in the US, on average.

The experiences of Indians in Australia, according to long-term residents, have been good. Many say they have felt little overt discrimination or racism. A large number of Anglo-Indians, of mixed Indian and white ancestry, emigrated to Australia around the time the British left India – and because of the shared colonial experience, I assume there was a certain wry recognition of the damage the British did to both countries: a Gallipoli in one case, a Jallianwallah Bagh in the other.

Speaking from the Indian side, there is a appreciation for the well-marketed Australian image (exemplified in the US by ‘Crocodile’ Dundee and in India by witty Foster’s ads) of the place being full of blokes having a rollicking good time. Then there is, of course, cricket. Although I am personally indifferent to the game, many rabid Indian fans are great admirers of the Australian team, generally considered the best in the world in recent years.

Thus, Indians start off with residual goodwill towards Australia, although, sad to say, this has not been reciprocated at the official level. Australia has in the past acted as the ‘enforcer’ in nuclear-related matters, and your government has been forcefully arm-twisting India regarding the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (alas, that would be suicidal with bellicose nuclear powers China and Pakistan next door). Besides, you appear to have made a conscious decision to put all your Asia eggs in the China basket. Official relations with India have been chillier than they need to be.

On the face of it, still, it is baffling to Indians that students – who are spending billions in tuition fees – are being murdered by Australians. It simply doesn’t seem in keeping with the Australian character that has been marketed to us; or for that matter, with the Australians I have personally encountered – they seem too easy-going to plan mass-murder. Of course, appearances being deceptive, I am aware that the treatment of, say, Aborigines, wasn’t exactly pretty. I too have seen “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith”, and incidentally I have enjoyed “Breaker Morant” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock”.

There is an emerging hypothesis in India that it is not hate-filled whites behind the attacks on Indians; rather that it is immigrants of certain ethnicities who may have a grudge against Indians or are picking on them because of the known tendency of Indians to be pacifist. I understand there are many ethnic gangs in your country, and that there are no-go areas where law-enforcement fears to tread. Well, that’s really no way to run a country. I submit that you simply have to do something about it.

Both from an ethical angle and from a trade angle, booming India (growing at 8% this year) is too big a market for Australia to lose. At the very least, you need a second buyer of your raw materials lest China gain too much buyer power and dictate terms, glimmerings of which we saw with the Rio Tinto affair.

No, Mr. Prime Minister, as America declines, and Asia rises, it would be strategically unwise to alienate one of your potential allies. India will be growing faster than China in a few years’ time as the demographic dividend kicks in. And India would be happy to have Australia as a supplier for various strategic goods. It would be a shame if all this is thrown away because you cannot offer Indians physical protection from a bunch of violent thugs. You need to, as Indians are surely an industrious and inoffensive ethnic group in your melting-pot.


Rajeev Srinivasan, a concerned Indian

a version of this appeared in mint on 9th Mar 2010 at http://www.livemint.com/2010/03/08205755/Alternative-energy-blooms.html

Srinivasan – bloom energy – v4

Can Bloom Energy transform the energy equation?

Rajeev Srinivasan

Bloom Energy has excited techno-watchers. Led by Dr K R Sridhar, a graduate of Madras University, who developed comparable technology for NASA’s space missions, this stealth clean-tech startup—which raised $400 million in venture capital—hit the airwaves with an awe-struck report on American national TV last month. Its vision is compelling: a solid-oxide fuel cell based on a high-temperature chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen or a hydrocarbon fuel, with no combustion.

A box the size of a toaster could eventually power a home at twice the efficiency of a traditional gas-burning system, with 60% fewer emissions. A small-truck-sized server supplies 100 kilowatt, enough for an office building. Several have been installed at beta-test sites such as eBay and Google.

The key technology is a stack of floppy-disk-sized zirconium-oxide electrodes, coated with proprietary inks. The electrodes are not made of precious metals, but from sand using a low-end semiconductor process.

There are many reasons why this idea has great potential. One, it can be “off-grid”, that is, it can be used remotely with no infrastructure. Two, it is “fuel-agnostic”, that is, it can run on any hydrocarbon such as propane, natural gas, ethanol, bio-diesel, or biogas or farm waste (for instance, methane). Three, remarkably, the process is “reversible”, which means it can take in renewable energy from solar or wind and create storable oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be combined to generate electricity at night or when there is no wind (or used in a hydrogen-powered vehicle).

Especially for energy-starved India, the implications are huge: Without expensive transmission networks, and at reduced emission levels, it may be possible to produce power at grid-comparable prices. This could be a technological leap–frog, just as in cellular telephony where India bypassed the expense of copper wire in the ground. India could avoid large infrastructural sunk costs while providing hitherto unreached citizens with electricity.

The current Indian grid is anyway not reliable, with endemic power cuts and brownouts; the ubiquitous diesel generator is testimony to that. Replacing dirty, noisy generators with efficient Bloom servers could be a good idea. Even better, rural users could harness gobar gas and other local by-products instead of imported hydrocarbons.

Bloom also brings the robustness and reliability of a distributed network compared to a centralized one. One of the nightmare scenarios strategic planners worry about is that of cyber-attackers hijacking the energy grid of a nation and bringing it to its knees.

There are other intriguing possibilities: the provision of electricity on-demand, comparable to “cloud-computing” using server farms. Bloom consciously uses the terminology of servers and farms; and Google, cloud-computing pioneer and early adopter of Bloom’s technology, has just received a license to sell energy. Maybe Google Power and others will soon compete with national grids.

There is enthusiasm about the possible benefits, but there are also obstacles in Bloom Energy’s path. The most significant is cost, now running at $750,000 for a 100-kilowatt server; although Sridhar estimates that larger volumes can bring this down to $3000 for a home unit in 5-10 years. Since they have had beta sites for some time, many engineering issues must have been worked out. But some remain: can it deal with India’s dust? How do you store generated hydrogen without it exploding?

The proof will be in the pudding. However, there are bad precedents: the fabled Segway was supposed to transform personal transport; Motorola’s 77-satellite Iridium project was meant to revolutionize wireless telephony—both were expensive flops. But skepticism aside, if Bloom can drive down costs, this technology could well be a boon. It could be the proverbial game-changer.

Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant focusing on innovation and energy. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com

a version of this was published by DNA on march 1st at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/comment_bargaining-with-the-devil_1353963

“Bargaining with the Devil: When to negotiate, when to fight”

Rajeev Srinivasan on negotiating with evil

As India sits down for talks with Pakistan and with Communist insurgents, an observer may wonder why its track record is so poor in negotiations. As Churchill said, “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”, but there is a make-believe quality to it in India, as the mandarins appear to just go through the motions. There is no recognition that there is a logic and a structure to parleys, there is a difference between positions and interests; and that ends and means must be separated.

Consider some instances – the negotiations with China over treaty rights in Tibet, wherein India meekly surrendered all leverage; the border talks for the last 28 years that have only led to further Chinese claims on Indian territory; the interminable and futile discussions with Pakistan, with no letup in cross-border terrorism. In Copenhagen, China hoodwinked India into a stand that helps China, a major polluter, not India, a minor villain. The ‘nuclear deal’ with the US also gave away too much in return for very little.

There are rare success stories too, especially when there is a clear goal. Arundhati Ghose famously fended off nuclear blackmail regarding CTBT at the UN.

A recent book by Harvard’s Robert Mnookin, “Bargaining with the devil: When to negotiate, when to fight”, highlights two paradigmatic situations – the decision made by Winston Churchill to not negotiate with Adolf Hitler; and the decision made by the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, to indeed engage with F W de Klerk’s apartheid regime. Both decisions, according to the book, were right, and avoided worse outcomes.

Mnookin focuses on situations in which two parties that may consider each other evil sit down at the bargaining table. There should be a combination of intuitive as well as analytical approaches, he suggests. This is where India fails: negotiators depend entirely on intuition, when a cold-blooded decision-tree analysis would help. Some Indian negotiators are seduced into accepting the other side’s perspectives, for instance through judicious use of Urdu couplets and sob-stories about poor villagers.

There are several major problems. First, a serious, core issue: the lack of a clarity about objectives. Nobody knows what the goals are, what is absolutely non-negotiable, what the ‘don’t-cares’ are that can be thrown in as concessions to clinch a deal. Therefore they do not know when to hold and when to fold. When talking to Communist terrorists, the objective is to prevent their violent overthrow of the State; their civil rights are not the main concern. (We also have to be hard-nosed: the human rights of the insurgent and the terrorist are no greater than the human rights of the average citizen).

Second, the negotiators do not distinguish between positions (some of which may be posturing for domestic consumption), and fundamental interests. China always takes extreme positions, probing for weaknesses. However, if there is credible push-back, China will retreat. To be deterred, they have to believe that India is prepared to fight if the talks fail. They don’t; nor do Pakistanis or Communist guerillas. Without that implicit danda, all the carrots, sama, and dana, don’t work.

Third, because they do not internalize core interests, India’s negotiators are sidetracked into peripheral and trivial matters. An example was the panic-stricken insistence about Indo-Pak rail links, which were jeopardized by a terror attack on the Samjhauta Express. There were pious pronouncements: “The rail links must not be affected”. The show must go on? Why? What is so sacred about it? The rail links are only a means to the end. By focusing on the rail links – a means – they were coerced into losing sight of the termination of terrorism – the ends.

Negotiation and game theory are taught in business schools (“Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury is a favorite) and schools of government the world over, but apparently not to India’s mandarins. One of the cardinal principles taught is that you must be fully prepared with three alternatives: a) the desired goal, b) the compromise you can live with even though it is less than ideal, and c) the walk-away position. These alternatives are decided on ahead of time, and negotiators will not deviate from them. They will be prepared to walk away if the only thing they can get is worse than the compromise situation. Indians attempt to wing it and figure out their alternatives on the fly, and get confused and rattled. And lose out.

Game theory is relevant: a negotiation may be modeled as a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game. The best known tactic is tit-for-tat, so that if the adversary cooperates, you cooperate the next time; but if they betray you, you betray them the next time. Alas, what Indians do is to cooperate all the time, which means there is no penalty to Pakistan for betrayal; their payoff is better if they betray, so they will do it every time. Exhibit A, the 91,000 prisoners India released after the Bangladesh War. Exhibit B, Sharm-al-Sheikh where the unfair equivalence of Baluchistan with Kashmir was accepted.

Similarly, Communist insurgents have learned that they can offer ‘talks’ and ‘ceasefires’, use the respite to re-arm themselves, and then turned around and betray. There is no consequence to them for bad-faith behavior.

In other words, India’s negotiation skills are extremely poor. It is best to not expect any miracles from these palavers; if there are no major faux pas and blunders, the nation can consider itself lucky.

900 words, 23rd Feb 2010