Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Russian oligarch challenges 'Putinism'

Moscow is buzzing with excitement. Eight years after the disastrous challenge to Vladimir Putin's regime by the now-jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another oligarch entered Russian politics on Saturday - Mikhail Prokohorov, third richest man in Russia, who heads the Onexim group, an investment firm with big interests in mining, new technologies, media and banking. MP will be heading a 'pro-business', 'reformist' party Pravoe Delo [Right Cause], which has a programme suspiciously reminiscent of President Dmitry Medvedev’s own policies.

Russians will find MP hugely attractive - hopelessly handsome 46-year old bachelor, 6'8" tall, listed 39th richest man in the world by Forbes with assets estimated at 18 billion dollars. And of course he owns the top US basketball team, New Jersey Jets and has a dazzling range of interests including masterminding the production of Russia's first hybrid car, the Yo-mobile. Some of his remarks:

* "The model of management (of Russia) which had an effect for the last 10 years has simply exhausted itself. This is not surprising. The world is changing fast."
* "Do we have multi-party politics (in Russia)? Of course we don't. There is need to have at least two parties of power. Any political monopoly is our main opponent. It's even clear in school text books that a monopoly is the enemy of all development."
* "Our country is called the Russian Federation, but by structure it is an empire. Only presidential power works here, and this kind of governance cannot provide stability let alone development,"
* "Our whole country is systemically degenerating: our industry has collapsed, and we are nothing but a supplier of raw materials, although quite a powerful one."
* "The education, healthcare, and culture sectors are degenerating now. Expenses on these should be higher than the expenses on security, law enforcement, and defense."

MP is making the right noises for Russia's audience in the West, where he is a celebrity. MP even called for the release of Khodorkovsky, who is locked up in a Siberian prison for the past 7 years. “As a person, I express deep sorrow that such trials happen in this country,” MP said. All this has convinced some people to say MP has a secret deal with Medvedev - that MP is Medvedev's torpedo against Putin's submarine. They even say MP could be keeping a spot warm for Medvedev as the leader of Pravoe Delo. To spur speculations further, Medvedev's chief economic advisor, Arkady Dvorkovich, wrote on Twitter, "Most of Prokhorov's ideas in his speech are close to me".

The western press has gone berserk. The champagne bottles are out: It is the Gorbachev - Yeltsin dogfight all over again which brought the Kremlin's Soviet roof come down crashing. Leon Aron even wrote that Russia is approaching another "perestroika moment".

Aren't they going too fast on the track of wishful thinking? The Medvedev-Putin 'tandem' is an enigma. What if MP is a Kremlin creation designed partly as a lightning rod and partly to attract opposition-minded voters? Even stranger things can happen in Russian politics. Incidentally, MP has investigations on tax invasion pending against him. And his pet hybrid car project was also Putin's brainwave. MP can turn out to be what Russian cynics call a 'PR counterweight' to offset the bad name Russia earned as a foreign investment destination due to the case of Khodorkovsky case, who was once Russia's richest man but jailed on charges which the West alleges to be politically motivated after he funded opposition parties and threatened to sell off major assets to American companies.

On the other hand, MP holds big assets in the West and has powerful connections. To be sure, Russian politics is hotting up - parliamentary elections are scheduled for December where Putin leads the ruling party and his popularity will be tested ahead of the presidential election due in March next year. The western interference in Russian politics will be cascading in the coming months since this is a high-stakes game for US' global strategies (and for China) - who rules Russia from next year.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

SCO Faces the Afghan Challenge

There is stillness in the Central Asian steppes as the policymakers quickly huddle in their respective capitals to do stocktaking. The plain truth is that the Central Asian region’s interests do not coincide with Obama’s. They probably never really did but now onward they glaringly diverge. A collective effort becomes necessary, which of courses presupposes a regional initiative at some stage that can subsume regional rivalries and reconcile the contradictions in the inter-regional situation. Read my article published by Strategic Culture Foundation, Moscow-based think tank.

Losers and winners in Obama's Afghanistan

The shift in Afghanistan from "combat to support" and from the military track to the political track is now well underway with President Barack Obama's announcement of a timetable for troop withdrawal. India will feel badly let down. Iran will be pleased to no end and so may Russia. China's dependence on Pakistan increases by leaps and bounds, while Pakistan itself has some unpalatable truths to digest. Read my article in Asia Times on the dramatic day's happening in Washington, DC, on June 22, 2011.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A summit in Tehran trumps the US

An Iranian diplomatic thrust to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan onside against the United States - benefiting already from the countries' fury at US efforts to isolate them from Taliban talks - lends greater significance to an anti-terrorism summit in Tehran being attended by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. The nations could frustrate US visions of regional dominance and a partitioned Afghanistan. Read my article in Asia Times on the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan bonhomie.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Turkey cools down tempers over Syria

Turkey grudgingly accepted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's vague reform pledges on Monday, warning however that they are "not enough". Though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blasted the crackdown by Damascus as "savagery", Ankara's diplomats are ramping down tensions over the crisis. Turkey knows Assad's position is not as threatened as the West suggests, and that it will be left carrying the can should anarchy erupt. Meanwhile, Russia's categorical opposition to any foreign intervention in Syria introduces a major dimension. Read my article in Asia Times on the regional developments.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Karzai lashed out at the US

Rapid-fire snubs from Hamid Karzai to the Barack Obama administration should serve as a warning that the Afghan president refuses to be the United States' donkey as it dangles a strategic partnership in its drive for permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Karzai knows he can always turn to regional powers, including Iran. Read my article in Asia Times on the extraordinary happenings in the Hindu Kush where Afghan sense of honour is resurfacing with a vengeance.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why is Saleh so unhappy?

The Americans tried their utmost to build up Amrullah Saleh, Afghan intelligence chief whom Hamid Karzai sacked last year. It wasn’t an easy thing to make a spook seem a statesman within a year. But it is an interesting wheel within the wheel, as they say. Saleh is Panjshiri strongman Mohammad Fahim’s protégé but then, these lines blur in today's Afghanistan. ‘Have dollar, will travel.’

Saleh oozes anti-Karzai venom. He can’t get over that he lost a great job in Kabul with perks and privileges. So he puts everything that is wrong with today's Afghanistan at Karzai’s doorstep. American think tankers love to listen to him do that. The US intelligence community sees him as a reservoir of information about Taliban. Saleh wrote recently in impeccable American English an opinion piece in Bloomberg laying claim to an “alternate vision to Karzai’s”. He said: “It entails a complete disarming of the Taliban, an end to Pakistan’s practice of giving sanctuary to Taliban militants and a truth-and-reconciliation process for Afghanistan.” How charming!

But his vision is not like Nelson Mandela’s. It cannot be. If ever there is a truth and reconciliation commission, Northern Shura 'warlords' who ran Kabul in the halcyon days of the Mujahideen takeover in 1992 will have to go into exile - or face suicide bombers; their wanton rape and looting of the Hazara district in Kabul and their subsequent massacres of thousands of Pashtun teenagers ('Talibs')in Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif may come to haunt them. Saleh’s 'vision' is riveted on scattering the Taliban from the face of the earth and forcing Pakistan to lay off. It is a recipe for endless strife. Taliban, too, are Afghans and Pakistan has legitimate interests in an Afghan settlement. Obviously, Saleh is enamoured of US' surge and “brilliant special operations” and wants them to roll on. He wouldn't hear about the war crimes. Nor, intriguingly, has he forthright view on US plans for permanent military presence, although Afghans feel strongly about foreign occupation.

Former foreign minister Abdullah will feel proud of Saleh's 'diplomatic skill' to walk the tight rope. The problem with people like Saleh - or 'warlords' like Mohammed Mohaqiq, Mohammed Atta, et al, - is that they thrive in civil war conditions. Things couldn’t be better if there is a ‘great game’ with regional powers putting big money on the table. Everyone has a jolly good time - 'warlords' and couriers who bring in money from foreign intelligence agencies (and the Dubai-based banks, of course). A broad-based government in peace time Kabul will spoil everything.

Turkey toughens its stand on Syria

No sooner than the Turkish parliamentary elections were out of the way, a more robust intervention by the reelected leadership of Recep Erdogan in Ankara in Syrian upheaval has begun. Turkish press has been highlighting a steady flow of Syrian 'refugees' across the border - obviously, building up a case for intervention. For the first time, Turkish government is encouraging journalists to meet the refugees in the 5 camps (less than 10000) set up in the border region. An orchestrated campaign has begun to mould the public opinion against the Syrian regime.

The Turkish officials have noticeably racheted up anti-Syrian rhetoric, including the top leadership in Ankara. Turkey claims it is going to deliver humanitarian aid to displaced people inside Syrian territory and that Damascus has been consulted. No confirmation from Damascus so far, though. A demonstration in front of the Turkish embassy in Damascus last week protesting against Turkish interference has been widely projected in the Turkish media as a hostile act. Turkish nationalist feelings would be aroused.

On Sunday, a Turkish military helicopter crossed into Syria on a reconnaissance mission. The Turkish TV speculated on the possibility that Ankara will create a 'buffer zone' in the border region on Syrian territory for providing shelter to displaced people rather than accept them as 'refugees'. Damascus has alleged that weapons are being smuggled into northern Syria, hotbed of current violence, from Turkey. Interestingly, Iranian media have picked up the Syrian allegation. Meanwhile, Turkish PM Recep Erdogan is planning to visit Cairo and has had consultations with Qatari emir who is, paradoxically, a charioter of the Arab Spring in Libya and Syria although a dictator himself.The heightened level of Turkish diplomatic activism has to be on the basis of some foreknowledge of US strategies in the coming period.

Friday, June 17, 2011

SCO steps out of Central Asia

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's 10th anniversary summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, saw confident steps taken towards integrating the entire Eurasian landmass. While the planned induction of India and Pakistan will create a pan-regional reach that supersedes the United States' "Great Central Asia" strategy, SCO efforts to assume responsibility for post-2014 Afghanistan are a direct challenge to US plans to establish permanent military bases there. Read my article in Asia Times on the future directions of SCO's development as a regional organisation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

US-Russia 'reset' symphony giving way to jazz

Dmitry Rogozin, Kremlin's envoy to NATO, is a rare weapon in Russia's diplomatic armoury. Having been a politician - and a gifted politician who may still choose to retake his original vocation in a top position after next year's presidential election in Russia - Rogozin can get away with murder. Generally speaking, diplomats are afraid of the very sight of blood, but Rogozin insists on a latitude drawn from his previous avatar to use his power of language lethally like a razor with the purposive intent to maim, kill, silence the adversary - and in turn preserve Russia's interests.

How far he is doing it as own enterprise and how far he represents a collective enterprise is often hard to tell - and leaves the NATO adversary guessing. In diplomatic jargon, Rogozin becomes for Moscow a 'Non-Paper'. Which makes him a rare asset for Russia, and Vladimir Putin indeed spotted the infinite scope by asking him to cross over from the poltical arena to the world of diplomacy.

This week has been a memorable one for Rogozin-watchers. Speaking in London, he compared Russia to a bear in its lair, which the US/NATO hunter approaches with the tantalising proposition to go hunting for rabbits. Thereupon, the bear happens to notice that the barrel of the gun the hunter holds is actually meant for bear-hunting, not rabbit-hunting.

He was referring to the US' plea that the components of the missile defence system it is planning to deploy in Poland, Romania, Turkey, etc. are directed against the 'rogue state' of Iran and not against Russia. Rogozin seems to be in great mood. Yesterday, on a podium which he shared with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Rogozin said Russia saw Resolution 1973 passed by the UN Security Council on Libya as a "slender, harmonious symphony" while the NATO seems to interpret it more like jazz.

Rogozin says it all so beautifully. It does seem increasingly that the slender harmonious symphony of US-reset is giving way to trumpets and jazz. Something like '1812 Overture' by Pytotr Illyich Tchaikovsky and 'Hello, Dolly!' by Louis Daniel Armstrong? Viktor Ivanov, Kremlin's troubleshooter par excellence on Afghanistan, left Moscow this morning and is heading for Tehran. This comes within a day of the SCO summit in Astana - and, again, Rogozin spotting that NATO has interrupted its eastward expansion and has instead begun slouching southward. Indeed, something is changing in the 'voice of Russia', to use the name of the Moscow Radio station.

The tone of the MFA statement on the presence of the USS Monterey cruiser in the Black Sea makes that very clear. The battle group entered the Black Sea in the weekend to ostensibly hold an exercise with Ukraine on anti-piracy, but Moscow happened to notice that the barrel of the cruiser battle group is meant for hunting Slavs - not Somalis.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Neutral Afghanistan serves regional stability

The Anglo-American project to craft an Afghan endgame that ensures long-term western military presence in the South and Central Asian region has entered a critical phase. The United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) now acknowledge that a complete withdrawal from the region by 2014 is not on the cards. Several stages of diplomatic and political deception concealed this “hidden agenda.” Regional powers — Pakistan and India, in particular — are sadder and wiser today. Read my article in The Hindu…

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Erdogan leads the Turks - and the Middle East

It's been a long journey for Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from his rabble-rousing Islamist past to the global statesman and three-time election winner he is today, a transformation as compelling as Turkey's emergence from instability to unprecedented economic heights. With little need of Europe, Erdogan can mould the Middle East in a better fashion than Suleiman the Magnificent. Read my article in Asia Times on the extraordinary story of an Islamist leader.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Syria on the boil, US warship in Black Sea

The United States warship floating in the Black Sea is a clear threat to Russia to curtail its obstinance over Syria's bloody uprising. While Washington wants pro-Western regime change in Damascus to break Israel's regional isolation, this would spell the end for Russia's last naval base in the Mediterranean. With Saudi, Israeli and Turkish interests aligning against it, the Kremlin seems in deep water. Read my article on Asia Times on the US pressing ahead with regime change in Syria.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nawaz Sharif challenges Kayani's leadership

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's speech in Islamabad Friday becomes a notable moment in the country's tortuous path to democracy. Sharif is not above rhetoric, grandstanding or politiking and he understands the national mood. But Sharif also knew he was speaking within a day of the Corps Commanders Conference in Rawalpindi suggesting that he and his party should stop directing further criticism of the military. Yesterday's was no doubt a most defiant speech.

Sharif accused the military leadership of warped mindset; deception; intrusive behaviour and undermining rule of law; messing up Afghan policies and Kashmir issue(read relations with India); hogging the country's budget; responsibility for Abbottabad and Mehran incidents. Sharif threatened that he would launch a 'long march' to force the military to return to the barracks and stick to its vocation.

Sharif tore into the military leadership and the ISI in a way that makes it difficult for army chief Gen Parvez Kayani to ignore. A flash point arises if Sharif continues on this track. What a splendid irony that Washington did all it could to keep him out of power!

Peace doves hover over Islamabad

Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives in Pakistan on Saturday amid a huge wave of expectation that the process of reconciliation with the Taliban is finally on a track that could lead to peace. Most important, Islamabad's longstanding demand for reconciliation now finds almost complete acceptance in the United States establishment. This puts the onus on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Read my article in the Asia Times on the broad sweep of of an Afghan peace process that struggles to be take off.

Where is India heading?

Let me reproduce a report which a friend sent to me this morning. It speaks for itself:


NEW DELHI: In the first ever audit of any intelligence agency in India, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has unearthed a Rs 450-crore purchase scam of Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) lying as junk with the Hyderabad-based National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), a technical arm of the external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

Efforts were mounted to prevent the probe the CAG sought on the basis of a complaint from a whistle blower, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh allowed the inquiry overruling all objections as he felt such a serious charge on an agency providing technical intelligence capabilities to the country with huge budget to fight the cyber piracy is too serious to be overlooked.

The CAG submitted the report to the government in February second week marking it as "top secret" since its release in public domain can blow off the secrecy of the operations of NTRO created in 2004, primarily for strategic monitoring of satellite, terrestrial and Internet communications.

The government decided to keep the report in the wraps and did not table it in Parliament, accepting the CAG's "top secret" label, but the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has now ordered an internal inquiry into the 2007 purchase.

The budget and expenditures incurred by the intelligence agencies are treated sacrosanct as they are not allowed scrutiny by CAG or even Parliament, but such a scandal has made the Prime Minister think of making them accountable, the PMO sources said. The next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) may take a view on all intelligence agencies subjected to the CAG scrutiny.

The CCS had sanctioned Rs 300 crores in 2007 for purchase of UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The NTRO, however, purchased additional satellite link and electronic intelligence equipment worth Rs 150 crores from the company without keeping the CCS in the loop.

Then NTRO chief tweaked the rules that empower him to spend up to Rs 20 crores without clearance from the CCS by paying the additional Rs 150 crores in several smaller instalments to show he is not overstepping his financial powers.

Then National Security Adviser (NSA) M K Narayanan, who is now West Bengal governor, had tried to scuttle the inquiry the CAG wanted to carry out in December 2009 on the complaint by a whistle blower, pointing out that the intelligence agencies are kept out of scrutiny to maintain secrecy. The NTRO reports directly to the NSA and the RAW chief and hence Narayanan's refusal of permission meant a dead end.

The CAG, however, felt the whistle blower's tip-off was too serious to be ignored and hence it approached the Prime Minister who overruled Narayanan's objections and allowed the CAG sleuths get cracking in January last year.

NTRO chairman KVSS Prasada Rao, a scientist who retired last October, and its current adviser M S Vijayaraghavan, have been indicted in the CAG report. Dr Prasada Rao had also served the Space Department and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) earlier.

As part of the inquiry ordered by the PMO, some major generals, who were on deputation to NTRO, as also some senior finance officials involved in the deal are being questioned. Once this internal inquiry is over, the government may hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to register a case and proceed against the suspects, sources said.

The CAG has noted that the UAV machines are lying grounded as the satellite link purchased was not at all meant for dedicated transmission and the military personnel in NTRO put brakes on putting them in the sky as anybody could have downloaded the sensitive data sent from these UAVs.

The NTRO top brass not including the satellite link and electronic intelligence equipment in the proposal put before the CCS is itself intriguing as the UAVs bought at the high cost without them could be nothing more than the electronic-controlled aircraft children play.

The CAG has faulted the NTRO officials engaged in the dubious purchase for taking the Israeli vendor on his word that the "satellite link was successfully tested in Australia."


We have an old saying in Kerala: “When the fence starts encroaching on the property, beware, the doomsday is nearing.” Is there anything more reprehensible than what the above report claims? Shame on all of them!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

India, China leave Lagarde guessing

Even without waiting for the West’s candidate for the post of Managing Director of International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, to emplane from Beijing, Xinhua announced the uncertain outcome of her visit. Chinese FM Yang Jiechi told her the race is "open".

On Tuesday, Lagarde got an almost-identical response in Delhi. Most significantly, while reporting China’s stance today, Xinhua took note of the Indian stance. It does seem Delhi and Beijing are in active consultation on the issue.

Yang explained to western journalists in Beijing in English: "We had a good discussion. She explained to me the purpose of her candidacy. I listened very carefully. It's an open field now. There are quite a few people campaigning. China of course gives serious thought to this very important issue." Just before Yang spoke, MFA spokesman in Beijing repeated China’s stance that choice of a new IMF chief should be based on "openness, transparency and merit, and better represent emerging markets and better reflect changes in the world economic structure". He added, “China hopes relevant parties will make the final decision through democratic consultations.”

Of course, Lagarde pitched hard in Beijing, estimating that if she secures China’s support, it becomes a done deal. What does Lagarde herself make out of this unhappy journey to Delhi and Beijing? She put a brave face and admitted it is up to Beijing to decide whether it supports her bid to lead the IMF. Curiously, she agreed with the Chinese statements that said the selection should be “open, transparent and merit-based”. As for her overall prospects, Lagarde said, "I'm confident. I'm very positive about the meetings that I've had so far. My sense is that it's too early to count the chickens, if I may say."

Even as Lagarde arrived in Beijing, Lagarde tried a charm offensive. The AFP quoted her saying China's share in IMF should be boosted to 6.4 percent. China's voting share in the IMF was increased last year to 6.19 percent from the previous 3.65 percent. But Beijing kept a big picture in view.

Is it absolutely crucial Lagarde secures China’s backing? No, even without it, she can get the job. But the issue is of legitimacy. China’s backing legitimises her election. Lagarde’s chances of winning are even because even at this point, with just a day ahead of the key deadline on Friday, the emerging-market nations have failed to coalesce around a consensus candidate. The nomination process closes Friday. Two candidates are officially on the field at this point aside Lagarde: Mexican Central Bank Governor Agustin Carstens, and Kazakhstan National Bank Chairman Grigory Marchenko.

A consensus candidate of the emerging economies has to be Carstens. His candidacy will put the United States in a fix. Carsten arrives in Delhi Friday.

US views Afghan war without blinkers

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday on the appointment of Ryan Crocker as the new ambassador to Afghanistan was a mere formality insofar as the ambassador-designate enjoys prestige on account of his successful stint in Baghdad and his professional credentials are not in doubt.

But Crocker's testimony still mattered: how would this veteran diplomat estimate the challenging assignment that lies ahead? Is he cocky about pulling it off, repeating his success in Iraq during a transitional period? I got the sense that Crocker was neither grim nor gung-ho, maybe NYT got it right that he gave the senators an 'unvarnished assessment' of the war.

I found it significant that he didn't fulminate against the Taliban but instead outlined the raison d'etre of the war exclusively in terms of preventing al-Qaeda from gaining an Afghan base for future operations and, secondly, ensuring America's homeland security. No tall claims about making Afghanistan a model country or guaranteeing South & Central Asia's stability and security.

Crocker was also modest about David Petraeus's surge. He spoke of surge having "stolen momentum from Taliban" rather than vanquishing or weakening the insurgents significantly. The surge made “significant progress but, "this progress is still fragile and reversible”.

Spot-on. This was what Barack Obama said. Again, he refrained from exuberantly asserting the Kabul government's capacity to handle the transition; on the contrary, he was guarded about the challenges ahead, which he said are "hard but not hopeless". Crocker was not expected to say anything about US' contacts with Taliban. Equally, he routinely expressed US' backing for an 'Afghan-led' peace process.

But let events speak for themselves. It needs to be noted, though, that Crocker spoke of the insurgents in the same breath - not as 'good, bad and the ugly'; he stressed a "durable, responsible settlement" as the desired outcome of peace process. Crocker was categorical that US isn't seeking military bases in Afghanistan and explained that the strategic partnership declaration under negotiation aims to 'normalise' USG's relationship with Kabul government and "provide a roadmap for our long-term political, economic and security cooperation".

Most significantly, he held out an assurance that the US is not seeking a "presence that would be a threat to any of Afghanistan's neighbors". Afghan NSA Dadfar Spanta is on a visit to Washington and, curiously enough, he is drumming up American support for an Afghan plea that US shouldn't leave Afghanistan in the lurch. Seems Spanta's wish will be granted. Crocker recalled during Q&A that US' exit soon after defeating the Red Army in 1989 had "disastrous consequences", and, "We cannot afford to do so again."

Obviously, US has drawn close to Karzai lately even as tensions in US-Pak ties got exacerbated. Spanta's demarche smacks of the new bonhomie, which, in turn, suits Karzai as well, as it gives him space to negotiate when he arrives in Islamabad Saturday on a historic visit to formally kickstart the run-up to the Afghan peace process.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Turkey's not-so-subtle shift on Syria

Turkey allowed Syrian opposition figures seeking to overthrow the Assad regime to meet in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya on Monday, simultaneously declaring "ties of trust" with the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The conclave adds to signals that Ankara is rapidly shifting stance. While this clearly stokes Assad's ire, Turkey has strong reasons to play with fire, and would prefer a weak neighbor. Read my article in Asia Times on Turkey's trapeze act over the snowballing Syrian situation.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A low-key interaction

The scheduled visit by the Afghan defence minister Abdul Wardak to Delhi last week took place in a period of acute contradictions in the regional security scenario. One has to be incredibly audacious to build sinews of military content into India-Afghanistan relationship at the present juncture of extreme fluidity. Read my article in Deccan Herald on the parameters of any Afghan-Indian defence cooperation in the changing regional milieu....

Caveats in the Yemeni narrative

The Arab Spring has finally become beastly, marching stealthily and devouring a third dictator in the Middle East when it all but seemed that the region was lapsing back to its bad old ways of autocratic rule. In the event, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exit turned out to be even more dramatic than that of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators. He was attacked while actually praying in a mosque...
Read my article on the turmoil in Yemen and its geopolitical implications, published by the Moscow think tank Strategic Culture Foundation.

US breathes life into a new cold war

The gathering storms presage that a new cold war will be largely fought in the South Asian region. Just as the Greek Titan god Prometheus was released from captivity, the United States is being "released" from the chains of Afghanistan and is pursuing with renewed vigor its Eurasian energy strategy. A Russian-Chinese initiative to embrace Pakistan and India could deal a devastating blow to the US' drive, coupled with tapping into Turkmenistan's massive gas reserves. Read my article in Asia Times...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gates's farewell call on Afghans

Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, paid his farewell call Saturday on Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul before he demits office next month. Amongst the entire AfPak team in Washington, Gates acquitted himself the best. He was conscious of Afghan traditions and sensitivities and never talked down like a viceroy, and he kept out of controversies and ego clashes with the Afghan eladership. He tried to look at problems from the Afghan viewpoint as well.

Gates' visit took place against a dramatic backdrop - killing of Osama bin Laden and Ilyas Kashmiri, Taliban-US direct contacts, Pak-Afghan bonhomie, and US drawdown in July. The press conference with Hamid Karzai threw up a few salients. One, neither Gates nor Karzai would be drawn into any criticism of Pakistan. Obviously, US is in 'damage control' mode and Karzai is preparing for his next visit to Islamabad. Pakistan is manifestly courting Karzai.

Two, Gates took a 'wait-and-see approach' when asked about the impact of the killing of bin Laden on Taliban. He spoke about a 'personal relationship' between bin Laden and Omar rather than an al-Qaeda-Taliban nexus. Karzai, on the contrary, was hopeful that Taliban would be more open to reconciliation.

Three, Gates repeatedly claimed that US operations have reversed Taliban momentum, but Karzai remained silent. On the other hand, Karzai forcefully complained about excesses of NATO operations. Karzai insisted that the transition should be through mutual consultations and it is not only a matter of transfer of security responsibility, but also an obligation to dismantle the parallel power structures the western powers created in the provinces bypassing Kabul's authority. A sharp observation, indeed.

Finally, it seems the draft strategic partnership agreement Kabul has handed over to Washington regarding long-term US presence would require more negotiations to meet US expectations. Karzai called it nicely as a 'mutual document of interests'. He justified its raison d'etre somewhat curiously as providing for Afghanistan protection from 'any far or close interferences'. But he didn't insist on seeking Afghan parliament's approval for it or on consultations with regional powers. He put his weight behind the strategic agreement and saw it as in the mutual interests of Afghanistan and US. Gates' silence was deafening.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Russia's Libya role irks China

Russia's u-turn in support of the United States claim in Libya that Muammar Gaddafi must go shows United States-Russia discourse is becoming distinctly conciliatory. While the change of heart leaves China frustrated that Russia has effectively dumped a "joint cooperation" project on the Middle East, on final reckoning, Libya is just a blip in the relationship. When you draw the balance sheet, Barack Obama is the sure winner. Read my article in the Asia Times...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Don't lose sleep over Sino-Pak bonhomie

Watching China's rapid rise has become a national pastime for the media and strategic community in India and a range of complex feelings plays out against a vast backdrop of adversarial sentiments overlapping with admiration, an inadmissible sense of envy bordering on unspoken rivalry and indeed inchoate apprehensions. China is not the first country in history to stand up and start walking brusquely toward greater destiny and it is marvellous to watch such contemporaneous moments but it is critical China's rites of passage are properly understood. Something that troubles us is China's relationship with Pakistan...
Read my article in Mail Today on the transforming 'all-weather friendship' between China and Pakistan and its implications for India.

France BRICS up emerging economies

Russia, India and China, core members of the BRICS grouping also comprising Brazil and South Africa, have joined with Western countries that have closed ranks and staked their claim in unseemly hurry to keep the top International Monetary Fund job as their exclusive preserve, in the form of French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. The saga has badly bruised BRICS and dented its credibility. Read my article in Asia Times on how the BRICS countries easily capitulated when confronted with the western challenge for the top post in the International Monetary Fund...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Two US visions of Sunni-Shia politics in Middle East

The failure on the part of US President Barack Obama to press ahead with the agenda of his Cairo speech of 2009 distracted attention from his singular contribution to rescuing the US regional policies from the intellectual tyranny of Bernard Lewis. Obama did open the doors and windows and has been receptive to new thinking regarding Islamism and the problems of the Muslim world. That was how Vali Nasr walked in. When I wrote the article in Asia Times last week titled Decoding Obama's Bahrain Puzzle, frankly, I was having Nasr's classic work The Shia Revival as my compass.

Lewis of course did great damage to the US's Middle East policy by advocating that America's geopolitical interests lay in exploiting Shia-Sunni sectarianism in the Middle East by putting together a phalanx of Sunni Arab states, which would be natural allies of Israel, and thereupon to confront Iran. Lewis wove an entire thesis toward this political end by portraying the Iranian Shias as essentially Persians who by being Indo-Aryans are inherently hostile to Jews - unlike the Arab Sunnis including the Wahhabis. The edifice that Lewis erected was on weak foundations and it lies in complete ruins today -- and alongside the debris of US regional policies -- and the Arab Spring will ensure that the edifice can never be made habitable again.

Today, much of what Nasr wrote and spoke about over the years stands vindicated. There is great validity in Nasr's assessment that:
A) Since 1991, Sunni militancy, and not Iranian Shi'ism, has been the ideological force animating Islamic activism.
B) Militant Sunni forces are growing in prominence as the expression of Sunni frustration.
C) Sunni miltancy and Wahhabi activism pose the greatest danger to US interests.
D) Shia revolutionary activism, on the other hand, is essentially a spent force.
E) Iraq - and not Iran - will be the first country to become openly Shia.
F) The Shia revival in Iraq may well lead to other regime changes in the region.
G) The US cannot, perhaps, afford to openly embrace the Shia revival without alienating many in the Arab world.
H) However, the challenge of Sunni militancy coupled with the promise of change brought about by the reemergence of Shia political influence in the Middle East demands new US thinking and policy toward Islam and the challenge of Islamic activism.

Many of Nasr's ideas, it was apparent to the initiated, were struggling to surface in Obama's great speech in Cairo. (Remember Obama's historic 'apology' for the overthrow of Mohammad Mossaddegh in the CIA-sponsored coup d'etat in Tehran in 1953?) But everything went astray in the period since then due to the realities of power politics in Washington. It seems highly unlikely that in his first presidency at least, Obama, being an astute politician, will push the envelope.

Nonetheless, there are occasional flashes of Nasr's thinking on US - like a lighthouse on a stormy sea that is malfunctioning. An important template here concerns the Shia-Sunni strife in the Middle East. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece last week tangentially touching on this. It analyses how continued Saudi efforts to rally Sunni countries to form a bloc against Iran (by rallying countries as diverse as Pakistan and Malaysia) "signal increasing friction with the Obama administration".

Alas, the WSJ piece was more on the lookout for the trees and may have missed the woods, but nonetheless it makes a few points of interest for Indian geo-strategy - such as this, for example: "The Saudi overture in Pakistan is a sign of how diplomatic friction in two distinct regions — the Middle East on one hand and Afghanistan and Pakistan on the other — could make it harder for the U.S. to pursue its goals of ending the conflict in Afghanistan, stabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, limiting Iran's power and keeping a lid on violent turmoil in the Mideast."

Of course, the Saudis are not going to be deterred by the Obama administration's lack of enthusiasm for resurrecting the discredited regional strategy based on Muslim sectarianism. The US needs to factor in that the new Iraq, which is arguably its legacy in many ways, is destined to play a lead role in the politics of the region sooner rather than later. Indeed, Iraq is raring to go and the Shi'ite empowerment in Iraq constitutes the cornerstones of the country's democratic system and, as Bernard Shaw would say, its "life force" itself.

Equally, the new Egypt will not have a relapse, either, as it moves on to a new plane of secular politics built on Arab nationalism and non-alignment. Last week, Saudis extended a 4 billion-dollar soft loan to the military leadership in Cairo as "inducement" for not accelerating the improvement of Egypt's relations with Iran -- and for not being too hard on Hosni Mubarak, who, of course, was a votary of Lewis.

Elaraby brings the new Middle Eastern narrative

Sometimes it can happen in life or in politics that a little aside in the heat of the moment gives the game away -- the fog lifts leaving a clear 100-metre stretch ahead visible. One such moment came up in Cairo on Friday when Omar Suleiman broke down and 'confessed'. Imagine the poignancy of the moment when you betray the man to whom you owed everything. Like Assadullah Sarwari betraying Hafizullah Amin or Lavrenti Beria and Josef Stalin.

Suleiman, Egypt's dreaded spymaster, told the prosecutors in Cairo yesterday that he didn't do a thing that was out of turn and all those killings on Tahrir Square were undertaken at the instance of Hosni Mubarak. He said Mubarak knew of every bullet that was fired and that he gave him hourly accounts of what impact those bullets had.

It is an ancient game - the blame game. Suleiman can't account easily for all the blood on his hands that the waters in the Nile river can't wash away, and the sensible thing to do is to pass the buck to Mubarak. He also knows that there is an extraordinary revolutionary storm building up outside the cell where he is detained with the masses insisting that the military, the arch-reactionary segment of any society, must obey the will of the people and must craft policies so that Egypt's tormented soul is calmed.

And the fact of the matter is that the military is obeying. The Rafah crossing with Gaza is being permanently opened today. The Palestinians are no more under blockade! And Israel can't do anything about it. The Egyptian military is pressing ahead with the Palestinian unity pact despite protests by Israel, and ignoring Barack Obama's strictures.

Without doubt, Nabil Elaraby, Egypt's foreign minister - who is choreographing Egypt's new 'partnership' with US, is untying the security ties with Israel and re-engaging his country with Arab brotherhood, and is forging ties with Iran - arrives in Delhi today. Elaraby is a rare scholar-diplomat and will have many heart-throbbing, intellectually stimulating, utterly spell-binding things to narrate to the Indian leadership. And yet, our media and think tankers seem unaware who Elaraby is. They are full of the US Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. Not a word about Elaraby! Aren't they like frogs in a well croaking at the sliver of sky above and thinking that is all that the firmament is about? The Indian foreign policy establishment which reached out to Elaraby is once again outstripping our intelligentsia and making the latter appear rather pedestrian.

Friday, May 27, 2011

IMF job: China stoic, India cagey, Russia acrobatic

Dominique Strauss-Kahn cannot become the president of France. But, equally, his contribution to the making of the world order will exceed Nicolas Sarkozy's. The manner in which he quit his job at the IMF triggered the scramble that followed, which, in turn, has brought into focus the fault lines in the international system. But for Strauss-Kahn, the birth pangs of a multipolar world struggling to be born wouldn't have surged.

The heart of the matter is that despite the universal homilies that the world order needs to be democratized, when the crunch time came, the western countries rapidly closed ranks and staked their claim in unseemly hurry to keep the IMF job as their exclusive preserve. It is, literally, the West versus the Rest. The US traditionally headed the World Bank and Europe the IMF. The West simply can't contemplate any other way the world financial system can be run.

But the crudity of the western attempt to hustle the election to the IMF post by June 10 and to draw up the schedule of election almost unilaterally in a weekend meeting without even giving time for all executive directors to assemble in Washington indeed came as a rude shock for the "non-Western" countries, BRICS countries in particular. Thus followed their joint statement on Wednesday calling for abandoning the "obsolete unwritten convention that requires that the head of the IMF be necessarily from Europe" and for observing the commitment made in 2007 at the time of selection of Strauss-Kahn by the Euro group that "the next managing director will certainly not be a European" and that "in the Euro group and among EU finance ministers, everyone is aware that Strauss-Kahn will probably be the last European to become director of the IMF in the foreseeable future".

Within BRICS, all eyes are on China and India. (Japan is indifferent despite holding the second largest shares.) Can China and India tango although they have shared interests? That's the big question. China has taken an unusually noisy stance. All three major Chinese newspapers carried editorials/commentaries. The Xinhua commentary which was carried by People's Daily and China Daily expressed satisfaction that the statement is "a much-needed example of coordination among these leading emerging economies". It exhorted the BRICS countries to be "more confident in asserting their common position, even if that may annoy others". The commentary was in a self-congratulatory mood and appeared more about the BRICS having come of age than about the IMF becoming senile.

In comparison, the Global Times featured a forceful editorial attacking the "backroom deal between Europe and the US to respectively head the IMF and the World Bank". It said: "Dominating the global financial layout, the US and Europe are grabbing colossal benefits in international labor division." It explained candidly that China has been pragmatic to join hands with the BRICS as alone it lacked the clout to put up a fight against the western dominance. "Besides, due to historical and practical reasons, BRICS countries still have misunderstandings and divergences among themselves, which may be taken advantage of by the US and Europe to disintegrate the group. However, by issuing the joint statement, the BRICS have initiated a protracted battle to oppose Western financial dominance."

In sum, China recognizes that "It may take a few decades before the BRICS are able to bring substantial changes to the ingrained financial order... It is still early to stress the status of the BRICS members in the IMF... Their latest joint statement is but the beginning." China is not even cautiously optimistic about a candidate from the emerging economies making it to the top job in IMF at this juncture. China is obviously playing for the long haul and, meanwhile, thrilled that BRICS finally put its hat in the ring on a major international issue.

Is it that China is waiting for India to take the lead? Contrast this with the Indian Indian optimism. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in New Delhi on Thursday, "I am in touch with some of the finance ministers of developing countries and emerging economies… We are trying to consolidate our position where we can take a view."

But then, India is also speaking in many voices. India’s executive director in the IMF Arvind Virmani said on Wednesday: “Unless the voting shares which various countries hold in the IMF are changed to reflect new economic realities, it is going to be extremely difficult for any non-European candidate to win the election." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems to concur with Virmani's note of resignation. Singh told the India-Africa summit in Addis Ababa that developing countries must stand united in pushing reforms at the World Bank and the IMF to change the power structure in Bretton Woods institutions. However he admitted, "Those who wield power do not wish to yield ground very easily,” and bringing about change in these two institutions was a long drawn process.

Manmohan Singh and Virmani seem to agree with the hard-nosed Chinese assessment. So, is Mukherjee grandstanding? It is all becoming a bit confusing. The confusion is further compounded by the report that India’s commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma met Christine Lagarde, French finance minister, in Paris on Thursday and during the meeting she raised the issue of her candidature for the post of IMF chief. Sharma apparently made it clear that “India looks at it as part of the larger process of reforms at IMF. The selection process has to be transparent, consultative and participative”, an Indian official travelling with him has been quoted as saying.

Some may deduce from what Sharma said that India probably has a candidate in mind. After all, Mukherjee is a veteran diplomat who never says anything out of place. Is it that Delhi doesn't consider Lagarde's candidature as a done thing yet? Indeed, there is some justification to hold back endorsement of the European candidate. There are lots of dissonant voices even in the western opinion calling into question Lagarde's candidature. Some very pertinent questions have been raised about the implications of Lagarde heading the IMF.

Lagarde hopes to visit Delhi as soon as she gets a date. The intriguing part is that Sarkozy himself refused to bring up Lagarde's candidature at the G-8 summit that he hosted on May 26-27. Sarkozy not only parried but spoke somewhat impatiently. Rather uncharacteristic of the up-front personality who simply grabs anything he sets his sights on, isn't it?

Confusion galore! Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claimed subsequently that the G-8 summit at Deauville indeed reached a "consensus" on the IMF election. He didn't divulge details. More important, was Russia part of that "consensus"? If so, where does it leave BRICS, whose most ardent advocate is of course Russia? Maybe, the Chinese who are a wise people could foresee all this happening. Maybe, the Indians, too. Both are ancient peoples. But I still think the last word hasn't yet been said. Mukherjee seldom goes wrong.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Middle East rift mars US-Russia 'reset'

Russian moves to reassure an embattled Syrian leadership and enthusiasm for the Hamas-Fatah pact are further damaging a United States-Russia "reset" already deadlocked on missile defense. Moscow has watched aghast as the Western desire for regime change that it effectively sanctioned unfolds in Libya, and it cannot allow a similar fate to fall upon Damascus. The rift over the Arab Spring underpins the retreat of the "reset" that is already visible. Read my article on the prospects of the US-Russia presidential diplomacy at the G-8 at Deauville om Thursday.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How can Osama bin Laden ever die?

In all the annals of the savage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this hasn't happened before -- a former United States Congresswoman reporting right from the Inferno on the war crimes by the western powers against the hapless peoples of the Muslim Middle East. Cynthia McKinney happened to be in Tripoli when the NATO aircraft carried out their heaviest bombing on the Libyan capital in the 2-month long war.

At least 19 people were killed in the attack on Tuesday. Libyan news agency Jana said targets hit by NATO included a Tripoli mosque called Nuri Bani. A NATO official described the Tuesday's early strike as "the most concentrated to date". Unsurprisingly, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that the NATO bombing campaign was making progress and should achieve its objectives within months. France had said earlier that it would deploy attack helicopters along with Britain to ensure more precise attacks.

But this is how McKinney saw the "most concentrated attack" by NATO:

"A civilian metropolitan area of around 2 million people, Tripoli sustained 22 to 25 bombings last night, rattling and breaking windows and glass and shaking the foundation of my hotel.

"I left my room at the Rexis Al Nasr Hotel and walked outside the hotel and I could smell the exploded bombs. There were local people everywhere milling with foreign journalists from around the world. As we stood there more bombs struck around the city. The sky flashed red with explosions and more rockets from NATO jets cut through low cloud before exploding.

"I could taste the thick dust stirred up by the exploded bombs. I immediately thought about the depleted uranium munitions reportedly being used here--along with white phosphorus. If depleted uranium weapons were being used what affect on the local civilians?

"Women carrying young children ran out of the hotel. Others ran to wash the dust from their eyes. With sirens blaring, emergency vehicles made their way to the scene of the attack. Car alarms, set off by the repeated blasts, could be heard underneath the defiant chants of the people.

"Sporadic gunfire broke out and it seemed everywhere around me. Euronews showed video of nurses and doctors chanting even at the hospitals as they treated those injured from NATO's latest installation of shock and awe. Suddenly, the streets around my hotel became full of chanting people, car horns blowing, I could not tell how many were walking, how many were driving. Inside the hotel, one Libyan woman carrying a baby came to me and asked me why are they doing this to us?

"Whatever the military objectives of the attack (and I and many others question the military value of these attacks) the fact remains the air attack was launched a major city packed with hundreds of thousands of civilians.

"I did wonder too if the any of the politicians who had authorized this air attack had themselves ever been on the receiving end of laser guided depleted uranium munitions. Had they ever seen the awful damage that these weapons do a city and its population? Perhaps if they actually been in the city of air attack and felt the concussion from these bombs and saw the mayhem caused they just might not be so inclined to authorize an attack on a civilian population.

"I am confident that NATO would not have been so reckless with human life if they had called on to attack a major western city. Indeed, I am confident that would not be called upon ever to attack a western city. NATO only attacks (as does the US and its allies) the poor and underprivileged of the 3rd world...

"I was horrified to learn that NATO allies (the Rebels) in Libya have reportedly lynched, butchered and then their darker-skinned compatriots after U.S. press reports labeled Black Libyans as "Black mercenaries." Now, tell me this, pray tell. How are you going to take Blacks out of Africa? Press reports have suggested that Americans were "surprised" to see dark-skinned people in Africa. Now, what does that tell us about them?"

Is this happening under Barack Obama's watch? Can't believe he ever penned a sad memoir titled "Dreams from My Father". Did he really grow up in Indonesia? Can't believe he is the son of an extraordinary woman. Most certainly, he can't be half-African himself? And, indeed, how can he ever kill Osama bin Laden? Barack Obama was lying: Bin Laden will never die. Bin Laden resurrected himself in Tripoli last night. Amen. Read McKinney's Dispatch from Tripoli.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Beware of the crocodiles in Africa

All Indian eyes are on Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh –- as if he fills the whole of Africa with his towering presence. But Africa is a huge continent and no one can be the monarch of all he surveys. The distance between Addis Ababa in the heart of Africa and Abidjan on the west coast alone makes about 7000 kilometers, which is twice the travel route from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram. Africa could contain quite a few colonial powers at the same time in the 19th and 20th centuries – Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Holland.

But Dr. Singh has no pretensions. To borrow an expression from an Indian official accompanying Dr. Singh, there is “enough space” for many outside powers to simultaneously pursue their agenda in Africa. While Dr. Singh’s prime ministerial aircraft was descending on Addis, another distinguished visitor was taking off from Abidjan – French president Nikolas Sarkozy. Their missions present a study in contrast and give a timely warning to the Indian policymaker. Sarkozy went as a conquering hero who deployed French forces to effect a transfer of power in Cote d’Ivoire. What an irony -- military power to enforce the outcome of a democratic election! Dr. Singh, on the contrary, arrived in Addis showering petals of goodwill in a continent where Gandhiji understood the magical powers of non-violence.

To go back to the Indian official, what he said is absolutely true – “The West is setting up Africa as a zone of contention. They want to pit India against China. They want us to be at each other’s throat. But this is not the 1885 Congress of Berlin where European powers decided to scramble for African resources.” From the tenor of his intellect, one can identify the Indian diplomat as someone with a scholarly sense of modern history. The point is, history never quite ended in Africa with the national liberation struggles of the 1950s. The flow of history merely got punctuated and the struggle for outside domination merely took new forms as Cold War picked up. The rivalries somewhat eased when the bipolar world gave way. A respite followed but in retrospect it hardly lasted for a couple of decades.

Today, the big power rivalries are picking up. China’s rise and its growing profile in Africa has given a new dimension to the continent’s politics. For the first time in modern history, western world is facing a real “challenger”. Conversely put, the dreaded moment is fast arriving for the West when the African countries may insist on negotiating for optimal deals and equitable partnerships. China increasingly presents a “strategic option” for the countries of Africa to diversify their partnerships that the West hitherto arrogated as its monopoly. This is the quintessence of the big power struggle building up in Africa.

The remarks by the Indian official suggest that Delhi grasps the geopolitical realities in good measure – and, more important, India is crafting its “non-aligned” path. He noted that the large Chinese presence in Africa was mostly focused on infrastructure, raw materials and extractive industries and was concentrated in major projects and ventures. Whereas, India’s main strength lies in another domain. “We feel there is enough space for India and what it is good at, especially capacity-building, skills development and training”. He punctured the western attempts at “divide-and-rule” by underscoring that the West and its Indian pundits (who are either infected with the “anti-China" virus or smitten by the “pro-American" bug) are barking up the wrong tree by caricaturing that China is “outsmarting” India in Africa. On the other hand, the reality, he said, is that China and India are adopting different approaches in their engagement with Africa. “Africa has tremendous economic potential. It’s a continent on the move. For us, it’s an opportunity, and for the rest of the world also it is an opportunity.”

Well said. The heart of the matter is that the prosperity of the western world has crucially depended through the entire period since the industrial revolution in Europe on the transfer of wealth from the colonies and this paradigm has merely taken new forms today. Cheap raw materials and captive markets in Africa are integral to the sustenance of prosperity of the stagnant western economies. Delhi will do well to sense that it may even have shared interests with China insofar as India is bound to come up against the very same western pressure tactic that China is facing today when its upward progression on the ladder of economic growth continues at the present rate. Make no mistake about it that there is no question of the western world graciously making way for India all because it is a functioning democracy. History is replete with the carcasses and bleached bones of imperial ambitions.

A telling example is just unfolding right in front of us with Europe feverishly insisting that there is no way it will hand over the top executive position in the IMF to some upstart from India or China. The tacit understanding in the euro-Atlantic discourse through the past few decades has been that World Bank would be headed by an American and IMF by a European. Period. The brusqueness with which Europe is now asserting its claim testifies to the reality that when it comes to holding the main levers of economic power – be it in the Middle East or in Africa – the West will never willingly share in a spirit of partnership.

What should really worry India is that if the push comes to a shove, the West may use military power to assert its prerogatives. Libya is an unfolding scenario. The African swamp is full of crocodiles, indeed. Sarkozy was fairly explicit that the West will not hesitate to interfere in Africa’s internal affairs if its interests are in jeopardy. Sarkozy’s vision is diametrically opposite India’s. A pattern is emerging. In the Middle East and Africa, through the Cold War era, the West gave an ideological veneer to its agenda of dominance by pitting communism as the antithesis. Today, what is unfolding is the banner of “democracy” – and in the name of advancing freedom and human rights, the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” is being dusted up. Sarkozy is a no-nonsense type statesman and he bluntly said, “This is the new Africa policy that we shall adopt, and it’s an international policy”. Was he speaking on behalf of Dr. Singh as well? I doubt it.

Decoding Obama's Bahrain puzzle

Put the puzzle of Barack Obama's selective contemplation of the Arab Spring together and Iran comes into sharp relief. The mild rebuke for the crown prince of Bahrain is part of a bigger picture that, with other pieces, suggests the United States president believes democratic Shi'ite empowerment in Bahrain and Iraq could create a "fusion" to overthrow an Islamic regime in Tehran that even now is circling its wagons. Read my article in Asia Times on the geopolitics of Shi'ite empowerment in Baghdad.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Catching American spies makes good politics

The announcement in Tehran Saturday that the "skillful and faithful forces of the Intelligence Ministry have arrested 30 American spies in a strong confrontation with the CIA agents" has an ominous ring about it.

The statement said: "Due to the massive intelligence and counter-intelligence work by Iranian intelligence agents, a complex espionage and sabotage network linked to America's spy organization was uncovered and dismantled. Elite agents of the intelligence ministry in their confrontation with the CIA elements were able to arrest 30 America-linked spies through numerous intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. The network used a wide range of data bases and U.S. embassies and consulates in several countries, specially in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Turkey, to collect information on Iran's scientific, research and academic institutions in the fields of nuclear energy, air and defense industries and biotechnology." Fars news agency subsequently quoted 'sources' that the detainees included government officials and top executives of state-owned companies.

Spy trials in Iran often get intertwined with the Byzantine politics in the corridors of power in Tehran and Qom. Influential politicians from the Majlis (parliament) have rushed to congratulate the Intelligence Ministry.

The Majlis is fast emerging as a counterpoint to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's authority. What lends piquancy is also that the Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi, a senior cleric, is himself the focal point of what appears to be a grim power struggle within the regime. Ahmadinejad sacked him last month as part of government infighting, but the minister was immediately reinstated by supreme leader Ali Khamenei. A cat-and-mouse game ensued with Ahmadinejad boycotting Cabinet sessions and Khamenei’s loyalists warning Ahmadinejad he was skating on thin ice by challenging the ruling system dominated by the religious establishment. Moslehi used to be Khamenei's representative to the Basij, Iran's 13-million strong volunteer army.

And catching the American spies brings Moslehi into limelight as a faithful guardian of the regime. The political implication is at once obvious. The conservatives and hardliners of the regime have turned against Ahmadinejad and in a series of moves, the religious establishment has launched pinpoint strikes at the president with the intent of weakening him before next year’s parliamentary elections and the vote for his successor in 2013.

This has been a rough Saturday for Ahmedinejad. His trusted vice-president Hamid Baqaei was removed from office by the constitutional court. Another of his closest aides was arrested. The Guardian Council ruled on Saturday that Ahmadnejad was not empowered to hold charge of the oil ministry, which is a treasure house of perks and patronage (and a vast cesspool of corruption and sleaze). Evidently, the clerics want to regain control of the oil ministry from where the president systematically ousted them during the past 4-5 year period.

At least 25 people loyal to Ahmadinejad, including his close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (who is also the president's chief of staff), have been arrested in recent weeks and half a dozen websites allied to them have been blocked. Mashaei and Baqaei have been summoned for questioning twice in recent days by Iran’s intelligence services to respond to questions on financial and security matters. Hardliners and conservative clergy have been campaigning in recent months that Ahmadinejad has a master plan to weaken the the ruling Islamic system - Velayat-e Faqih - and shape politics on secular lines. Earlier this week, an ultraconservative publication urged Mashaei’s arrest.

Now, it is against a turbulent backdrop of political infighting that the spy trial will take place. The night of the long knives may be beginning all over again. At the root of it all lies the paradox that Ahmadinejad is Iran's first non-cleric as president. But the roots of the schism run deep and can be traced to the early days of the revolution in 1979.

Ahmadinejad is a follower of Ali Shariati, the brilliant non-cleric Iranian revolutionary and sociologist who propagated “red Shi’ism” in the tumultuous years leading to the revolution in 1979 – a curious amalgam of Marxism, Third Worldism and Islamic puritanism – which opposed the unrevolutionary “black Shi’ism” or Savafid Shi’ism of the Iranian religious establishment. Shariati who was trained in Sorbonne and was a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, was murdered in 1975 under mysterious circumstances, most likely by the Shah's intelligence, when he was undergoing medical treatment in UK. Indeed, Shariati was the true ideologue of the Iranian revolution who fired up the Iranian youth (like Ahmadinejad) with his emphasis on social justice and egalitarianism and his progressive analysis of the problems of Muslim societies with the tools of modern sociology and philosophy. It was his name that the multitude of Iranian students pouring out into the heaving streets of Tehran chanted in unison in those chaotic weeks leading to the revolution. But in the event, with his early death (at the age of 42), the Iranian clerics in league with the bazaar hijacked the revolution from its leftist moorings.

Without doubt, the power struggle in Tehran will have profound significance for both Iranian and regional politics. Ahmadinejad instinctively warmed up to the revolution in Egypt. The conservatives and hardliners, on the other hand, would feel more comfortable with the Saudi regime. But at the end of the day, ideology becomes secondary to the lure of power and privileges and the Shi'ite clergy is notorious for intriguing. Don't be surprised if tomorrow we wake up hearing that the spy ring that Moslehi unraveled has since exposed that the government headed by Ahmadinejad secretly worked for the Americans and "Zionists".

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Obama tries to harness Arab revolution

If one were to describe United States President Barack Obama’s long-awaited policy speech on the upheaval in the Middle East, it is best done in the hackneyed phrase – ‘old wine in new bottle’. The US hopes to harness the Arab Spring to perpetuate its geopolitical dominance in the Middle East. Obama’s speech betrays that the US’ interests invariably trump its professed ‘values'. The Arabs will see through the high-flown rhetoric and comprehend that the US is desperately trying to wrest control of their revolution. Read my article published by the Strategic Culture Foundation, Moscow think tank.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Incremental progess in India-Sri Lanka ties

The mission by the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris to Delhi this week had the primary objective of seeking India’s support for Colombo’s rejection of the controversial UN experts’ report on war crimes. India, however, seems inclined to take a holistic view of the Sri Lankan situation and is counselling an expeditious approach toward national reconciliation on the basis of a genuine give-and-take and a long-term vision that leads to a just settlement of the Tamil problem. Colombo seems receptive. Peiris drew satisfaction that India showed ‘empathy’ and ‘understanding’. Read my article on India-Sri Lanka relations in today’s Deccan Herald newspaper.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Syria's future hangs by thin thread

At his press conference in Moscow Wednesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev put up a ring of "constructive ambiguity" on what Moscow would actually do faced with a western-sponsored resolution in the UN Security Council on Syria similar to Resolution in 1973 on Libya, which the Kremlin today says has been unilaterally misinterpreted by the West for intervening in the North African country. According to the Russian press, Medvedev said: "I will not back this resolution even if my friends are going to beg me to. It is sad that these resolutions can be manipulated."

What is pertinent is that Medvedev parried the fundamental question: Will Russia go the extent of vetoing a resolution on Syria (which is being mooted by Britain, France and Germany and with US support) or will it repeat its previous show of abstention on R-1973? This is going to be a litmus test of the state of play in Moscow's policies towards the West - and indeed of the lay of the land in world politics. Russia today says it was caught unaware by R-1973's scope for "manipulation". But will that rich experience of hindsight about western perfidy guide the Kremlin to point blank say 'nyet' to a vote on Syria? Or, will it again choose to be pragmatic - and simply moralise? Other non-western UNSC members such as India and Brazil too will be taking stock of Russia's example.

Medvedev is meeting Barack Obama at the G-20 later this month. The US will certainly propose some trade-offs for accommodating Moscow's grievances regarding deployment of ABM systems in Europe. Will Syria be a big-ticket item in the basket of trade-offs? For Russia, selling Syria down the drain of a western-sponsored "regime-change" route will be a bitter pill to take. Russian interests go quite deep in Syria. The entire Middle East will be watching since Syria is also a traditional ally of Russia. Most important, China will be watching. Beijing may oppose a western move on Syria only to the extent Moscow is willing to go in the Security Council. That is to say, the so-called Sino-Russian "joint cooperation" over the Middle East and North Africa, too, is in the western crosshairs.

Meanwhile, France claims it is close to winning the baseline support of 9 UN SC member countries for the resolution on Syria, which means it will sail through unless Russia or China casts a veto.

99.9% purity in Sino-Russian strategic ties

In terms of diplomatic idiom and style, the remarks by the Chinese ambassador to Russia Li Hui during a meeting with Russian parliamentarians in Moscow on Tuesday are noteworthy. Chinese diplomats are highly professional and the margin of error in articulation and conduct is virtually 'nil'. According to Interfax news agency, Li told the Russian MPs that China "sees Russia as its main strategic partner,"; that "the extent our cooperation has reached an unprecedentedly high mark,"; and, that "our contacts continue to become stronger and expand in many directions."

Li said 2011 is a special year as it marks the 10th anniversary of a treaty on strategic partnership between the two countries. He added: "This document holds a unique place in the foreign policy of our two countries. In other words, it is gold of the highest purity, 99.9%." He said, "In international affairs we stand shoulder to shoulder, as the saying goes, and we hold similar positions on many key issues, whether it is the situation in North Africa, in the Middle East or in some other countries. By achieving definitive and complete solutions to border disputes, our countries eliminated the latent danger for the further positive development of their cooperation."

These remarks cannot but be seen against the backdrop of the US-Russia reset coming under duress lately and the Chinese rhetoric about the US taking a sharp turn after last week's strategic dialogue in Washington. The Russian and Chinese foreign ministers met twice during the past fortnight - at Moscow and in Almaty during the SCO FM conference.

Beijing is closely watching the US-Russia talks on missile defence and the unilateral US deployments of ABM systems in Poland and Romania disregarding Moscow's protests. President Dmitry Medvedev at his press conference today in Moscow - first of its kind in his presidency - kept up the Russian warning that Moscow will respond to the US deployments in NATO territories. He said Russia will boost its nuclear strike capabilities if NATO refuses to cooperate with Moscow in the European missile defense project. "I hope that they [NATO] would respond to the questions put forward by President Barack Obama and me, and we will be able to forge a missile defense cooperation model. If we don't, then we will have to take retaliatory measures... then we will have to force the development of our strike nuclear potential. It would be a very bad scenario, this scenario will take us back to the Cold War era," Medvedev added.

Medvedev not only didn't soften the tone of Moscow rhetoric on ABM, he used the expression "retaliatory" and invoked Cold-War era confrontation. People's Daily has featured two commentaries within a week attacking the Barack Obama administration. The first one visualised that the departure of two "China hands" in the administration -- James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, and Jeffrey A. Bader, senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council - who are both considered "China-friendly", would lead to a "more forceful" and "more aggressive" policy toward China, which is advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary.

Today, PD carried another unusual commentary singling out Clinton for attack. It took umbrage at Clinton's remark to Atlantic magazine that Beijing is worried about a Middle-East type upheaval erupting in China - "They're worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand." PD hit back saying her "undignified comments" were lacking in "diplomatic etiquette" and that "US is always finding fault with China, considering the core of its global strategies is to prevent other powers from elevating to a level enough to challenge its otherwise overwhelming superiority. Now that China has grown up to be the world's No. 2 economy, the U.S. would naturally keep a vigilant eye on it, fearing China would one day overtake and replace it."

Without doubt, there is a momentum building toward Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Russia in mid-June.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Moscow steps up rhetoric over ABM in Romania

Moscow has escalated its rhetoric by several notches over the United States' strategic build-up in Romania and in the Black Sea region. Moscow warned that Washington is putting at risk the US-Russia reset in relations. Speaking at the Duma [Parliament] on Tuesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov underlined that if Washington continues to develop the European ABM system by disregarding Russia's concerns, START accord will be in jeopardy.

"The establishment of the ABM system in Europe, which threatens Russia’s security, may be recognized as an exceptional circumstance for Russia’s withdrawal from the strategic arms reduction treaty. We think it is necessary to sign a juridically binding agreement between Russia and the US which set the principles and the limits of interaction on the European ABM system and makes it possible to organize efficient monitoring of missile threats," Ryabkov said.

From present indications, Washington has no intentions of acceding to Moscow's demand to conclude a "juridically binding agreement". Secretary of Defence Robert Gates pointed out recently that the US Congress won’t ratify such an agreement. Gates instead suggested “political guarantees” to Russia. But then, Moscow knows from experience that such "political guarantees" are worthless. The most celebrated case was the West's assurance to Mikhail Gorbachev that once the Warsaw Pact was disbanded, NATO wouldn't move eastward "an inch".

Equally, it is highly unlikely Moscow will pull out of START, since the accords allow Russia to retain "strategic balance" with the US. Washington knows it, too. If so, why is Moscow escalating the rhetoric? One explanation could be that Moscow is grandstanding with the hope of extracting some measurable progress at the expert-level talks regarding cooperation between Russia and US and NATO over missile defence. Moscow no doubt feels frustrated that the talks are stalling and the US and NATO are quietly going ahead with the ABM deployments in the meanwhile. The ABM will figure during the meeting between Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama at the G8 summit later this month in Deauville.

What remains to be seen is the extent of any US-Russian trade-offs at Deauville. Washington is in need of cooperative attitude from Moscow on certain key foreign policy issues -- Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, etc. Washington knows Russians are usually pragmatic in closed-door talks. Medvedev, in particular, is a staunch votary of the reset in US-Russia relations. He also needs to display the success of the reset. It suits the Obama administration to resort to a policy of masterly inactivity and let reset drift a while and then throw in some trade-offs. Medvedev's scheduled press conference in Moscow on Wednesday will throw some light on how far the Kremlin is prepared to go to press its case.

US flexes muscle in the Black Sea

The United States agreement to deploy missile interceptors in Romania in return for two military transit bases on the Black Sea region has the Russian strategic community up in arms as US anti-missile defenses would break the regional power balance. There is historical poignancy that the Black Sea ceases to be a Russian “lake” – since the Biblical times, in fact. The geopolitics of a wide arc leading all the way from the Balkans to Central Asia will never be the same. In the "chronicles of the new great game", it's no coincidence Moscow is also reviving the Soviet-style "mutually beneficial partnership" with Iraq.Read my article in the Asia Times.

Monday, May 16, 2011

An SCO canopy for South Asia

The regional security paradigm taking shape with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization move to admit Afghanistan as observer and grant full membership to India and Pakistan shakes up the geopolitics of the region. The backdrop is the Afghan endgame and the robust US attempt to establish long-term military presence which the regional powers staunchly oppose. With such wider reach, Russian-Chinese coordination on strategic issues is graduating to a qualitatively new level. Read my article in today’s Asia Times...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Manmohan Singh resets Afghan policy

The year was 1992. Chaotic days in April, as one Sunday morning Benon Sevan, United Nations Secretary-General's special envoy, came to the High Commission in Islamabad straight from a conference with the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, seeking political asylum for Afghan President Najibullah in India as part of a deal for the orderly transition of power in Kabul to the mujahideen who had surrounded the Afghan capital...
Read my article in The Hindu on the profound implications of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Kabul last week.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Quetta Shura looks beyond Osama bin Laden

The Taliban took full six days to comment on the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The statement throws light on their thinking.

Nowhere in the statement is there any reference to the killing having taken place in Abbottabad on Pakistani soil. The killing has been described as “martyrdom” following “a sudden attack by the aggressive American forces” and comes as a “great disaster to the entire Islamic Ummah, and to the martyr’s family, followers and all the Mujahideen.” The statement recalls OBL’s “loyalty and bravery” and “great sacrifices” in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet intervention; “he was from the greatest Mujahideen” in the resistance to “Zionist-Crusader aggression” against the Muslim world.

However, OBL’s death will not weaken the Afghan resistance and instead only strengthens the resolve of the Afghan resistance; this will manifest in the coming period. Because, the resistance is indigenous “born from within the Afghan people”.

Obviously, this is a carefully considered, well-drafted Taliban articulation of position in a structured tone, deliberated within the Quetta Shura and most probably carries the personal stamp of Mullah Omar. Pakistan could well have been consulted in its drafting. The striking point is that Pakistan doesn’t figure in it at all – positively, negatively or even in a neutral, factual way. Taliban are hard-pressed to take a stance on how OBL could have been killed on Pakistani soil. So, the statement simply fails to mention where the “martyrdom” took place.

Again, what stands out is that the identification with OBL is at a personal level and not about the ideology he represents or with the al-Qaeda.

Most significantly, Taliban have insisted on their “Afghanness” against the backdrop of OBL’s killing. The statement does bear out that the relationship between Taliban and OBL was very much a personal one between Mullah Omar and OBL rather than organisational. The statement contains no affirmation of solidarity with the al-Qaeda ideology – not even remotely. In short, Taliban duly pay their tribute, but life moves on. There is no threat of any revenge attacks, either.

Arguably, OBL’s death makes it easier for the Americans to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, although given the worsening security situation, talking and fighting will proceed alongside for some more time. This also appears to be the general drift of thinking in Washington.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Gilani expects US overture to Pakistan

Pakistan PM Yousuf Gilani's exclusive interview with Time magazine carries an important message for the Barack Obama administration. Gilani compared Pakistan to a jilted lover. The overall tenor of the interview is that Pakistan's relationship with US is under great strain and the intelligence-level cooperation has broken down and this will have fallouts on the US' Afghan strategy - unless the Obama administration moved quickly to kiss and make up.

Gilani took pains to underline that even after Abbottabad, Pakistan's rapprochement with Hamid Karzai is intact, as they are based on pragmatic interests, implying that Pakistan can always play the "Karzai card" against the US.

Gilani was surprisingly mild on Abbottabad. His grievance was that "we should have done it [operation[ jointly." He looked beyond Abbottabad and hinted Pakistan expects a major US gesture of reconciliation. He listed transfer of drone technology and a nuclear deal (such as US has with India) as part of Pakistani 'wish list'.

The interview is timed with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Kabul. But there is no tendentious remark by Gilani about India's activities in Afghanistan. Main points of the interview:

1. Continuing to work with the United States could imperil his government, unless Washington takes drastic steps to restore trust.

2. Complained repeatedly about the widening "trust deficit"."When there's a trust deficit,there will be problems in intelligence sharing." [As for reason for trust deficit], "It's not from our side. Ask them."

3. Cooperation between the CIA and ISI has broken down.

4. Washington and Islamabad differed on how to fight terror and forge an exit strategy in Afghanistan.

5. [On Abbottabad raid], "Naturally, we wondered why they went unilaterally. If we're fighting a war together, we have to work together. Even if there was credible and actionable information, then we should have done it jointly." He was first alerted to the raid through a 2 a.m. call from Pakistan's Army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Gilani then called his foreign secretary and asked him to demand an explanation from U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter. "I have not met or spoken to [U.S. officials] since. Whatever information we are receiving is from the media. Today, we have said that we want them to talk to us directly."

7."We (elected government, military and ISI) are all on the same page."

8.Emphasized strengthening links with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But that doesn't necessarily translate into support for the U.S. strategy there. "In our discussions with Karzai, we came to an agreement that terrorists are our common enemy. We both have suffered; we both have made sacrifices. So we have decided to unite to fight against them."

9.Acknowledges his abiding "difference of opinion" with Washington on how best to fight militancy. "Military solutions cannot be permanent solutions. There has to be a political solution, some kind of exit strategy."

10.Favors a political solution to the conflict, led by Afghans. "It should be owned by them and be on their own initiative.” Saw Pakistan's role as that of a "facilitator".

11.Rejects any suggestion that Pakistan will compensate for any cooling of U.S. support by drawing closer to China. "We already have a stronger relationship with China. It's time-tested."

12. At the same time, didn't believe Washington was really going to cut aid. If it did, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

13. Despite his constant references to the trust-deficit, hoped to see a restoration of closer ties with Washington, but put the onus on Washington. "They should do something for the public which will persuade them [Pakistani people] that the U.S. is supportive of Pakistan." As an example, cited the 2008 U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. "It's our public that's dying, but the deal is happening there. You claim there's a strategic partnership?"

Do you get a sense of deja vu? Evidently, Gilani read up history before giving the interview to Time magazine. Remember the burning down of the US embassy in Islamabad in 1979? That was in the month of November over the rumours regarding the burning of a copy of Koran somewhere. Then, on December 24, detachments of the 40th Army of the Soviet Union crossed into Afghanistan. The then US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski later recounted: "We [Jimmy Carter administration] immediately launched a twofold process when we heard that the Soviets had entered Afghanistan. The first involved direct reactions and sanctions focused on the Soviet Union, and both the State Department and the National Security Council prepared long lists of sanctions to be adopted, of steps to be taken to increase the international costs to the Soviet Union of their actions. And the second course of action led to my going to Pakistan a month or so after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for the purpose of coordinating with the Pakistanis a joint response, the purpose of which would be to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Russia redrawing Europe energy map

Russia and gas giant Gazprom are on a winning streak in the great Caspian energy game, with the company's export revenues soaring, prospects for the South Stream and North Stream pipelines brightening, and the outlook for the rival US-backed Nabucco pipeline to Europe fading fast.Read my article on the politics of Russia-Europe energy ties in Asia Times....

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

US-Russia reset hits the skids

The United States President Barack Obama will be visiting Poland later this month and will confirm the stationing of F16 combat aircraft on Polish soil during meetings with Bronislaw Komorowski, his Polish counterpart. The London Telegraph reported that 16 US jets will move from their current home at the Aviano air force base in Italy to Lask in central Poland, and will be stationed on a rotational basis from 2013. The US-Polish talks will also cover the stationing SM-3 interceptor missiles in Poland as part of Washington's plans for a missile defence shield. The United States already has a Patriot missile battery in Poland.
The development will raise eyebrows in Moscow. The US-Russia reset is already shaken by serious differences over Libya. The deployment of US ABM in Romania have been finalised recently. The Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square on Monday was no doubt a show of strength with Russia displaying its most advanced air defence systems - S-400 Triumph air defense missiles and the Iskander-M anti-craft missiles and the Topol-M ballistic missiles.
The F-16 jets in Poland as such do not threaten Russia. The point is why Obama is doing this. Russia will be annoyed by the prospect of NATO military infrastructure in Poland. Moscow had threatened to direct missiles at Polish targets if George W- Bush administration proceeded with the deployment of ABM components in Poland. Obama apparently scrapped the Bush-era plan on ABM and Russia welcomed the decision, and viewed it evidence of Obama's intent to push the reset with Russia. Now comes the revelation that Obama had merely postponed matters.
Russia had warned last year when reports of F-16 deployment in Poland first appeared that it would "take into account the American-Polish plans and carry out [its] own armed forces development projects". Again, the issue is the placement of American military hardware on Polish soil and not the fighting capacity of the F-16. Warsaw has been hoping to "lock in" the US in its overall defence over and above the NATO cover. And Obama is now obliging. Poland has long wanted a permanent presence of U.S. military on its territory as a cover from Russia despite Moscow's overtures to cultivate Warsaw. His renewed effort to permanently place U.S. military infrastructure in Poland would be a stabilizing factor, arguably, for Poland but Russia is likely to resist. Moscow is yet to react.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Russia, China challenge NATO

Growing unease that North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervention in Libya aims to perpetuate the West's historic dominance in the Middle East fueled the weekend announcement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Moscow and Beijing would act in concert. Both share concern that the United Nations hierarchy may acquiesce to a ground invasion in Libya without a Security Council mandate. Read my article in Asia Times on the weekend's Sino-Russian consultations in Moscow and their significance for international security.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pakistan reaches out to Persian Gulf region

Three Pakistani high-level delegations are touring the Persian Gulf region. Two of them are most certainly substantive - President Asif Zardari's visit to Kuwait and Interior Minister Rahman Malik's to Riyadh - while the visit by Farooq Naek, the chairman of the Pakistani senate [upper house of parliament] to Iran seems more of a goodwill visit. Not that generating 'goodwill' with Iran at this juncture of great volatility in the Saudi-Iranian relationship or US-Iran standoff is any less than a suggestive balancing act by Pakistan.
From all appearance, Malik's arrival in Riyadh out of the blue Saturday on an unscheduled visit catches the eye. Malik is no ordinary cabinet minister. He is a hatchet man of much importance and his responsibilities cover the range of security issues affecting/surrounding/engulfing/threatening Pakistan today. Second, the consultations took place after bin Laden's killing. That Malik left home turf at all when the temperature is running so high within Pakistan underlines that there was something of extreme urgency and sensitivity to be discussed with the Saudi leadership at the highest level. He was deputed as special envoy so that he could talk straight with the Saudi king.
There have been persistent reports that Riyadh and Ankara were lately prevailing upon the Pakistani leadership to let the Americans have bin Laden. Whether or not Pakistan heeded the Saudi advice has become a moot point. The Abbottabad operation has damaged the operational level working relationship between the US and Pakistani intelligence agencies and militaries, which needs some immediate therapy as time is of the essence of the matter in Afghanistan. Finally, the Saudis are all ears as to what happens now to al-Qaeda, whose original mission, let us not forget, was to effect "regime change" in the Arabian Peninsula and banish the Saudi royal family - although it is myopic to overlook the convoluted and covert Saudi dealings with the al-Qaeda organism all along.
No doubt, Malik briefed the Saudi leadership on what has been gleaned from bin Laden's family members who are in Pakistani custody. Some of them at least would long to go home in Saudi Arabia. Evidently, Malik was on a visit of extreme sensitivity for the Saudis, too. This was evident from the fact that just about all the people who matter in the Saudi security and foreign policy establishment were present when King Abdullah received Malik. From the list of Saudi officials present, it seems matters of intelligence sharing, scale of any Pakistani help in the event of instability in the GCC region, and Afghanistan and US-Pakistan relations would have figured in the talks. To be sure, the Saudis will be wondering how the Taliban leadership would take all these happenings - Bin Laden killing and the tensions in US-Pakistan relations. Besides, what happens now to the Saudi efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table? It seems highly unlikely, though, that the Saudis approve the unilateralist US operation in Abbottabad, which now leaves a lot of debris all around. Recent reports suggest that King Abdullah takes a dim view of the US regional policies under Barack Obama.
Zardari's Kuwait visit is also not lacking in substance, although of a patently lower grade than Malik's mission to Saudi Arabia in sensitivity. Zardari's accent was on the generous financial help that Kuwait extended to Pakistan over the years. Interestingly, Kuwaiti PM Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah told Zardari that his country always valued Pakistan's support for Kuwait "in every difficult hour, particularly after the Iraqi invasion in 1991." A highly relevant and topical invocation of time past, isn't it?
Equally, Naek was well-received in Tehran. The top leadership met him - Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Ali Laijani and Alae'ddin Broujerdi. The APP dispatch makes out that the talks went beyond protocol needs and was not exactly lacking in political content. At any rate, Naek reportedly told Ahmedinejad that "Peace in Afghanistan was linked with Pakistan and it had no military solution. It could only be resolved through dialogue among the major regional players, including Iran." Larijani stressed that Iran and Pakistan are on the same in the fight against terrorism.
Again, Naek assured Iranian FM Ali Akbar Salehi (who is travelling to Islamabad shortly) about curbing the activities of the Baluchi terrorist group Jundullah (which is alleged to have links with the US intelligence operatives in AfPak). Most important, he told Salehi that Pakistan believed in the "policy of non-interference and non-intervention" and that the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of every state ought to be protected for establishment of permanent peace in the region". The big question is, what exactly did Naek have in mind? There is so much foreign interference and intervention taking place in the region - GCC intervention in Bahrain, US operations in Abbottabad, US drone attacks on Pakistan, US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, US threats to Iran, etc. Conceivably, Naek sought to set an orientation for Salehi's agenda during the latter's forthcoming talks in Islamabad. Pakistan is in acute need of Iran's friendship and understanding at this point of great insecurities and vulnerability.