Friday, August 26

Egg Drop Soup a la Kargil

Pundita has a treat for new readers! I have rooted in the Golden Oldie file to bring you this essay!

Translation: The source who promised to get data to me by 10:00 AM at latest has not delivered, which means today's planned essay is not ready for publication.

Dr. Ernie, I hope you see this essay. The ultimate point I make is that it's just a bunch of people, whether they reside on the other side of the globe or right here in the USA. To never lose sight of that fact is to always have a bridge that is much stronger than academic analysis and policy and development language.

We might not always be 'right' in how we try to deal with the problems of the developing world, but the bridge allows us to keep refining communications.

So it is for dealing with misunderstandings that arise between neighbors, co-workers and family members, and so it is for "foreign" relations and development strategies.

I hate to break the news to those who cling to hope, but nobody on this earth is from another planet. That means we all have much in common.
* * * * *
April 10
An excellent account of the Kargil War and the larger Pakistan-India conflict is found in Pakistan: Eye of the Storm . The author, Owen Bennett Jones, was educated at the London School of Economics and Oxford University. He was the BBC correspondent in Pakistan between 1998 and 2001 and saw firsthand many of the events that brought Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to power.

Read the book to understand the importance for India, Pakistan, and the war on terror of two historic bus rides taken April 7 by 49 courageous Indians and Pakistanis.

Few Americans excepting those with Indian or Pakistani heritage know about the Kargil War and the conditions that led to it. Yet the war, and the escalating terrorism in Kashmir during that era, could be described as the dredges thrown up by the US decision to abandon Pakistan after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. After helping to arm and prop up thugs, after training Pak and Afghan tribes and Middle Eastern Wahabists in aystemmetric warfare, the US turned its back on simmering hell.

For that reason the Kargil War should be viewed as a case study--or a morality tale, if you will--on the inherent limitations in the Cold War containment doctrine.

I remember the Kashmir region from a few years before the Kargil War. Even then, signs of escalating conflict were evident; I arrived in Srinagar to the sound of exchanged gunfire between police and a separatist group. But out on Dal Lake, strolling in the rose gardens built on houseboats, watching Kashmiri Muslim and Hindu children playing together, it was unthinkable that in a few years the region would be drenched in blood.

I remember Kargil from an overnight stop on a bus journey. I will burden the reader with a traveler's tale because it aptly illustrates a mistake the US government repeatedly makes.

BKW--Before the Kargil War--Pundita stupidly agreed to help nursemaid a group of cantankerous older Americans who had never been in India before, but who decided that instead of doing something intelligent for an American first-time visitor, they would travel from New Delhi to Leh, Ladakh.

The way the trip went, they would ask Pundita for advice, then do whatever they decided amongst themselves, which was the opposite of what Pundita advised. This included taking the bus route from Delhi to Leh instead of flying, on the argument that having camped in Yellowstone National Park they knew about roughing it.

That is how Pundita came to be sitting in a restaurant in Kargil at 8 o'clock at night, studying a menu that had several pages. There were German dishes, French dishes, Chinese dishes, American dishes--in short, food from every place around the world that famished foreign tourists landing in Kargil at 8 o'clock at night would love to eat.

During the tourist season, which even BKW was short because of rock avalanches falling onto the bus route, Indian troop maneuvers, bands of brigands, and snow-blocked mountain passes, Kargil is a stopover for the really fun next leg of the route. BKW, before the Indian military widened the road, was the leg about which one tour book advised consuming LSD to help stay calm if you were crazy enough to make the journey.

Much of the road through the mountains was not built for two-way bus and truck traffic but for single file one-way military jeep traffic. But in those days, the road saw heavy two-way traffic from tour buses and truck drivers going at fast speed. You could look out the window on a hairpin turn and see the truck that had just gone over the cliff, its wheels still spinning. Outside a hot war zone it was the world's most dangerous bus journey.

As for Kargil (see military map), there is a curse in northern India: "May you be reborn in Kargil." Kargil, post-British Colonial era, was reminiscent of the outpost town in Star Wars. A smugglers' route that became a hub for truckers delivering to Indian military dug in around the Line of Dispute with Pakistan. Then came the foreign tourists passing through on their way to trekking and visiting Buddhist sites in Himalayan regions.

The cavernous restaurant, large enough to hold more than a hundred, was packed with hungry, sleepy and jangled tourists from all over the globe who had spilled from buses.

Everyone at our table turned expectantly to me for advice after happily studying the menu. I knew it was useless but it was my duty to try. "Even if two cooks laboring over four kerosene stoves could produce coq a vin, lasagne, moo goo gai pan, filet mignon and fried chicken, look around you. You'll be here until 2:00 AM waiting for the orders to arrive and we have to get up at 4:00 AM."

After conferring among themselves, they put in their orders for their favorite food from the menu. "And what will you be having, Madam?" inquired the waiter.

"Whatever the cooks had for their dinner tonight."

Twenty minutes later my rice, dal and chapatis arrived. Two at the table--a Scottish couple who'd attached themselves to our group--grabbed the waiter and switched their order from fettuccine Alfredo to rice and dal.

An hour later, after the Scots polished off their dinner and the three of us ordered another round of beer, a division broke out in the ranks of the starving. One by one, they ran after the waiter and changed their orders to rice and dal. The lone holdout quavered with tears welling, "I want my egg drop soup."

Far from home in a land very foreign, hungry, exhausted, finally realizing he'd embarked on a journey he might reasonably not survive, he wanted comfort food.

Pundita found the waiter and explained the situation. Moments later he arrived at the table with a steaming bowl of dal watered down to the consistency of thin soup. Then, with a flourish, he produced a peeled hard-boiled egg and dropped it in the soup.

I'm not saying a couple master chefs can't do wonders with a few kerosene stoves and cooking pots, but the other Westerners at the table were lulled by their expectations into assuming that the kitchen staff and accouterments matched the menu offerings.

That, in one sentence, is the type of mistake behind much that goes wrong with US policy toward governments in less-developed countries. Such governments have learned to project the trappings of modernized administration but are in truth a long way from modern and informed.

A recent illustration is the US diplomatic blow-up with Russia. US administration officials were stunned to learn that Vladimir Putin assumed that President Bush had fired Dan Rather because of Rather's one-sided examination of Bush's service record in the National Guard.

One official commented that the US really must start building contacts within the Russian government, in order to learn exactly how much the Russian government knew about American democratic administration.

Gee whiz, what a brilliant idea. Better late than never, but it's a little late in the day for the American government to broaden their sources on the Russian government from a few oligarchs, foreign lobbies, business executives and policy institutes. A little earlier would have averted a foreign relations meltdown.

Pundita did not have a crystal ball with her when she entered the restaurant in Kargil. But before I joined the others at the table I stopped off to inspect the kitchen. US Department of State please take note: this exercise did not require spies, satellite technology, or trained foreign service officers. All it required was the decision to stop, look, and listen.

For more comments on the book by Owen Bennett Jones, see Yale University Press page:

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