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|May 16, 2002||
What the hell were they doing in this galley?
Last week a suicide bomber drove his car into a bus leaving the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi. Fourteen persons, including 11 French engineers working in the naval base in Karachi, lost their lives; many more were injured. The French were working for the Pakistan Navy to produce an Agosta type of submarine (far superior to the Russian ones used by the Indian Navy), which is assembled in the Pakistani shipyard with parts imported from France.
This heinous crime has deeply shocked the French public as it is the first time French citizens have been directly targeted after September 11.
The immediate suspect of the French media as well as the French government was the Al Qaeda network. In the West, and in France in particular, Al Qaeda is a miracle word, which explains all ills. General Jean Pierre Kelche, the French chief of army staff, himself declared that 'there is a non-negligible possibility' for the involvement of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda. After all, the French Air Force participated in the bombing of the Tora Bora sector where a couple of months ago, bin Laden was supposed to be hiding and it was thought logical that the Saudi would want to take revenge.
Coming after the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in South Asia, and the bomb blast in a Protestant church in a diplomatic enclave in Islamabad, the Karachi suicide attack was immediately perceived as yet another attack on the Western coalition fighting terrorism. There is today a plausible lead though the inquiry may take several months and the outcome will most probably be kept secret.
However, this murderous crime raises some other serious questions, principally about the foreign and economic policy of some Western nations and of France in particular.
There is a character of Molière, the famous 17th century French playwright who keeps repeating throughout the play Mais que diable allait-il donc faire dans cette galère? (It can be translated as 'But what the hell were they doing in this galley?' though 'galère' has two meanings in French, one is 'galley', the other one 'mess', which is the same for our purpose.)
It is a question that the new French government of Jacques Chirac -- which was elected on a very high moral ground with 82 per cent of the votes (nearly as much as Musharraf through his rigged referendum) -- should be asking itself. Clearly the French electorate wanted a clean and moral government providing security to all its citizens. So, what were these innocent engineers doing in this galley?
Another question: are the Western powers serious about fighting terrorism? In which case, why do they ally themselves with a nation which gives refuge to (and often overtly sponsors) fundamentalist outfits? A corollary question, but perhaps more vital, is why were the French engineers not repatriated when all chancelleries in Pakistan had sent back their non-essential staff?
While visiting the site of the attack in Karachi, the recently appointed French minister of defence, Michèle Alliot-Marie, was very quick to declare: "If some people had thought to strain the links between Pakistan and France, they were mistaken." Though this statement can be attributed to someone very new in the business, it is still rather surprising. She added: "This odious attack will not harm the links of co-operation and friendship existing for so many years... The current agreement will be continued." She specially mentioned the 1994 accord signed during Benazir Bhutto's regime for acquiring three submarines for the Pakistani Navy.
No doubt Mrs Alliot-Marie had been defence minister for only three days, but she should have been briefed that the situation had dramatically changed in Pakistan since 1994 and that even then the contract had been surrounded by a lot of controversy and rumours of bribery (Benazir Bhutto's husband Asif Zardari, known as Mr 10 per cent, was alleged to have been the recipient of the French largesse).
The sale contract of three submarines was signed by Francois Leotard, then French minister for defence, for more than 700 millions dollars. One of the submarines (named Khalid) was built in Cherbourg in France, a second one is still being assembled in France, and the third, on which the French engineers were working, was to be assembled in Karachi through a technology transfer. (An interesting aspect of the not-so-above-board deal is that Leotard's adviser was Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, who has now been nominated in the new French government as minister of state for European affairs.)
At that time, Pakistan was still a democracy, and one could understand that France wanted to sell its technology, but in eight years things have changed. It is therefore relevant to ask: what were the French staff doing in this galley? It is not that France has a special love for Pakistan or even important strategic interests in the region.
Things are simpler; it is plain business. According to a report tabled in the French parliament by the ministry of defence, Pakistan is France's third best customer after Taiwan and Saudi Arabia. Between 1991 and 1997, military sales to Pakistan amounted to $1.5 billion. Could France neglect such a good customer? Was it not worth taking some risks?
Did Mrs Alliot-Marie know that a week earlier, Musharraf, the military dictator, had rigged a referendum to get a new five-year lease as the 'elected' president of Pakistan? Mrs Alliot-Marie was perhaps too new to be informed of the situation inside Pakistan, but it is a fact that France following in the steps of the US has long chosen to close her eyes to what is going on inside her 'ally's' house?
Each nation has its own 'national policy' in the region; French policy seems to be mainly dictated by economic interests. But let us look closer at these interests: many knew that behind the veil, everything was not rosy. Senior officials in the French ministry of defence (as well as the French CAG) had pointed out that this contract was not good business for the simple reason that they knew Pakistan was broke and France would have to give a loan to Islamabad to pay the bill. It was estimated that the loss would be about 20 per cent of the contract (or $130 million). But the politicians decided otherwise.
Later, the fact that Pakistan was fast becoming a rogue state was not taken into consideration. Business is business (or employment, as the politicians will put it). This occurred also during the Kargil war. In the midst of the war on the Kargil peaks, France was due to deliver 8 Mirage III aircraft to Pakistan. Instead of using her 'friendship' with Pakistan to restrain Islamabad's actions on the front, the French authorities tried to furtively deliver the Mirages.
Unfortunately for them, the delivery leaked out and was splashed in the Indian and French press. France had no choice but to reluctantly agree to postpone sending the planes and the spokesman of the French foreign ministry insisted that "France was not imposing an arms embargo against Pakistan or against neighbouring India "with which it is at odds in the crisis".
This is a typical assessment of the situation by a Western power when it suits its economic interests. While there was a full-fledged war in which thousands lost their lives, a war clearly triggered by Pakistan (under a certain General Musharraf who had forgotten to inform his prime minister), the French foreign ministry believed the countries were only 'at odds'.
Without naming Pakistan, France satisfied itself by calling for an end to intrusions by armed groups across the existing boundary lines. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine telephoned his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz, asking him to 'make the necessary gestures' to resume a dialogue with India and thereby take delivery of the Mirages.
Similarly, Mrs Alliot-Marie today pretends that all is fine with Pakistan and the friendship can continue to flourish.
Another point: the simplistic view that every ill is due to Al Qaeda based in Afghanistan does not correspond to the facts on the ground. Several other Islamic outfits have existed and continue to exist in Pakistan. These groups striving against the very basis of Western democracies, liberty of thought, are as dreadful as Al Qaeda and extend their tentacles from Afghanistan to Kashmir. 'Holy War' or 'Jihad' is their motto. Though these outfits had not till recently attacked the interests of the West directly as Al Qaeda did, terrorism has been on the map of South Asia for years. But who cared for Kashmir or Afghanistan in the West as long as Europe and the US were safe?
Pakistan has had for many years several bin Ladens with their networks fully operative in the region. After Musharraf's January speech, the French, like most Western governments, preferred to believe that though a dictator, the general was doing his utmost to control Islamic groups. It was more conducive for business.
The most clever analysts may have thought that in any case as long as the French collaborated for the defence of Pakistan, the 'friendship' was not in danger and therefore individuals and organisations working for the defence establishment were safe. Most probably the reasoning was that the terrorist outfits owe their existence and subsistence to the Pakistani Army, more particularly to the ISI. The logical conclusion was that the mujahideen or other Islamic groups would never bite the hand that fed them.
This was logical and till now had been true: foreign targets have mostly been civilians within Pakistan; it is only in India, more particularly in Kashmir, that the terrorists had military objectives. But France, like other Western nations, has not yet realised that a nation or organisation that spreads terror always creates small (or big) genies which may be kept under control for a certain amount of time, but which can one day suddenly jump out of their bottle and become independent. This was true yesterday in the case of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and today for bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Created by the West, they turned against the West when they were no more necessary for their sponsor.
A similar phenomenon has occurred in Pakistan which created not only the Taliban but also all sorts of fundamentalist groups which have been engaged for 12 years in jihad in Kashmir and elsewhere. Who will put the genies back in their bottles?
Two notorious genies known for their heinous actions are the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayiba. They have been engaged in kidnapping, hijacking and suicide bombing. They have been working hand-in-glove with the Pakistani military intelligence, and it is quite possible that a splinter group of one of these main groups may have decided to attack the French presence in Pakistan.
Now the question is why is France so involved with a nation which is herself so deeply involved with terrorism and why did she not discover earlier that she was sending her people to the galley?
In this context, it is significant to point out that the trade unions of the shipyard in Cherbourg, the headquarters of the Agosta project, were very reluctant to let the French personnel go to Pakistan. In fact, soon after September 11, all staff had been repatriated, but in October a team of the directorate of naval shipyards visited Karachi and said everything was fine. A month later, the first batch of engineers was sent to Karachi, followed by a second batch in December.
The French staff was supposed to be in constant touch with the French embassy, which only requested them to change their itinerary from the hotel to the shipyard daily. That was clearly not enough.
The trade union had raised another question: why transfer the latest technologies to countries considered military dictatorships? Here again the shipyard and the French government have a lame excuse: it creates employment in Cherbourg.
The main question, however, remains unanswered: what the hell were they doing in this galley?
One can only hope that in the months to come France will have a much more balanced and mature policy vis-à-vis South Asia and will discover that her true friendship lies with India, which shares the same democratic and human values.
The appointment of Kanwal Sibal, who speaks perfect French and is a great lover of France, as the next foreign secretary and Dominique de Villepin (who has twice been posted in Delhi) as the new French foreign minister will certainly provide an opportunity for Paris to strike a new and more balanced South Asian policy and develop a healthy Indo-French partnership. The current Indo-French naval exercise is a step in this direction.
Tailpiece: Another worrying fact has come to light: in Cherbourg, the Pakistanis were trained on the submarine project in a building divided in two parts by a wall. On one side, the most sensitive research was being conducted by French engineers on the latest prototype of a nuclear submarine, while on the other side was the workshop named 'Khattak' where the Pakistanis learned to handle the Agosta submarine. One can only hope that wall was not too porous.
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