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.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Pakistan seeks solace in the Kremlin

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari will make an unexpected three-day trip to Russia next week. The timing underscores that Moscow recognizes the central role that Islamabad plays in the Afghan situation - both share the view that any peace process should be "Afghan-led". While it is too early to say the "fizz" has gone out of the United States-Russia reset, Zardari will be keen to see how this affects Pakistan. Read my article in the Asia Times…

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'Oh, where were you, the Wahhabi grand mufti?'

The war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which began over Bahrain and the 'Arab spring', has crossed over from the temporal world to the spiritual. The newly-appointed Saudi Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdulaziz Al Shaikh began the spat when he made a patently racist comment in an interview with the Jeddah-based Okaz paper some three weeks ago. "A little thing is known about the Safavids and their doctrine. They are known for their black history laden with hatred to Islam and Sunnis. We must be wary of the Iranians’ intrigues and be careful of their deceit and not fall for their claims about Islam, which are all hypocrisy and deception", the Wahhabi religious head reportedly said.
The highly tendentious reference to the Savafids who established the Twelver school of Shi'ite Islam as the official religion in Iran opens up the hugely controversial Wahhabi insistence that the Iranians are not Muslims and that the 1979 revolution was not 'Islamic' but was an Iranian revolution. The Safavid dynasty (1501-1722) had its origin in the Safaviyya Sufi order, which was established in the city of Ardabil in the Azerbaijan region. From their base in Ardabil, the Safavids established control over all of Greater Iran and reasserted the Iranian identity of the region, thus becoming the first native dynasty since the Sassanid Empire to establish a unified Iranian state. Despite the relative brevity of the Saffavid dynasty, the legacy that it left behind was the revival of Persia as an economic stronghold between East and West, the establishment of an efficient state and bureaucracy based upon “checks and balances”, their architectural innovations and their patronage for fine arts. The Safavids have also left their mark down to the present era by spreading Shi'a Islam in major parts of the Caucasus and West Asia.
Quite obviously, the Saudi grand mufti calculatedly intended to insult Iran and to provoke the Iranian establishment, which has been savvy enough so far not to fall into the US-Saudi trap to polarise the Sunni Muslim Middle East - especially the Persian Gulf countries - on the basis of an alleged rise of resurgent Shi'ism. The Saudi grand mufti most probably spoke at the instance of the ruling family. At any rate, the Saudis finally succeeded in compelling the Iranian religious establishment to respond.
The response has come from the highly respected Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi who is based in the holy city of Qom. He shot off a letter to the Saudi grand mufti where he accused the latter of serving the interests of the United States and Israel by dividing the 'ummah' at this historic juncture.
Shirazi raises a very pertinent question: “You, the Wahhabi grand mufti, have forgotten that if it had not been for Shia Muslims in Iran and Lebanon, Israel and the United States would have gained domination over the entire Middle East. And it is not clear where your muftis were and what they were doing at the time. When Israel was massacring Muslims in Gaza, most of whom were Sunni, Shias in Iran and other places supported them (the Gazan Muslims), and if it had not been for their support, Israel would have continued (committing) atrocities." The reference is to the doublespeak of the Saudis, especially their underhand dealings with the US-Israel axis and their lack of commitment to the Palestine problem.
The passing away of the old Saudi grand mufti in February seems to have enabled the Saudi regime to put in place a more pliable character as the new grand mufti. Interestingly, the Saudi grand mufti's tirade against Shi'ism hasn't had many takers in the Middle East. There seems to be all-round embarrassment that the Saudi regime is desperately stoking the fires of sectarianism in its existential struggle to survive the current upheaval in the Middle East. Interestingly, the Egyptian grand mufti in Cairo is on record that Shi'ite jurisprudence is acceptable to the 'ummah'.
The controversy arises at a sensitive time when Egypt is careering away from Saudi Arabia in its regional policies; there is tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian regime; Bahrain is in turmoil; Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite eastern provinces (oil-rich) are restive; Yemen is descending into anarchy and tribal/clan struggle; and, most important, Iran and Egypt have joined hands as the torchbearers of the Palestinian cause.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bin Laden and the Afghan endgame

Javed Burki Saheb’s syndicated column on the meaning of Osama bin Laden’s death stuck me as an important contribution. Burki Saheb has impeccable credentials as an intellectual and public figure and to be well-informed about the “powers that be” in Pakistan, especially from his present vantage point in Lahore. He not only refuses to rule out Pakistani involvement in the Abbottabad operation but suggests that OBL’s death actually suits Islamabad and could have been stage-managed as a well-conceived game plan in order to break the nexus between al-Qaeda and Haqqani network (Pakistan’s favourite proxy in Afghanistan) which in turn can pave the way for a "settlement" in Kabul to the mutual satisfaction of Washington and Islamabad. I’d recommend the article for careful reading.

Killing Osama was the easy part

Prof. Sandy Gordon of Australian National University makes some thoughtful comments on the likely future trajectory of the United States - Pakistan alliance. Arguably, US may suspend its aid programme if it emerges that elements within the Pakistani establishment "knew" of the presence of Osama bin Laden. The issue is as to what degree US wants to or is in a position to queer the pitch or turn on the heat on Pakistan. Gordon sees the US compulsions in terms of the North Waziristan problem and the transit route that Pakistan provides for the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Gordon argues that this US dependence on Pakistan may last for another two years or so and thereafter the relationship is fated to get atrophied.
Gordon makes three other points, namely, that US drawdown in Afghanistan is inexorable in the post-Osama scenario and will be hastened by US' need to prioritise its economy over foreign policy, cut down on military budget and refocus on China. Two, China is not seeking to replace the US as Afghanistan's patron. Three, the emergent AfPak security paradigm hurts Indian interests.
What Gordon fails to factor in are the following elements. Isn't it presumptuous that US will overlook the danger of repeating what it did in 1989 which was to scoot once the Afghan jihad was over and the Soviet Union was done with, and allow the residual forces of militancy to incubate in a near future and regroup under ISI's stewardship through the early 1990s and then come back and hit at the US interests by the second half of that decade? In short, continued US involvement with Pakistan becomes almost unavoidable in the medium term and that would translate as continued US aid to Pakistan so as to leverage Washington's influence on Islamabad. There seems no easy way out of this syndrome.
Second, Gordon overlooks that even assuming that US is resetting its sights on China in its regional policies - and, especially if it is indeed so - Afghanistan and Central Asia can only become even more crucial strategic arena for the "great game". Some Russian comments have actually begun anticipating that US is about to shift gear into an activist mode in Central Asia in the coming months and likely work on effecting "regime change" in the region. Interestingly, last week Barack Obama phoned up Kazakh President Nurusultan Nazarabayev and spoke of the need for democratic reforms in Central Asia.
Over and above, all evidence is that there is no let-up in the US' search for a status of forces agreement with Kabul that formalises long-term US (and NATO) military presence in Afghanistan. In sum, it is premature to estimate that post-Osama, US is getting ready to cut and run from the Central Asian region.
Third, US cannot pursue an effective containment policy toward Iran without a firm foothold in Central Asia. It is logical that the US regional calculus will continue to envisage the "Greater Middle East" as one continuous strategic entity that stretches from the Persian Gulf to Kazakhstan and is supervised under the Central Command. There is hardly any scope to abdicate from Central Asia and still hope to be optimal in "containing" Iran.
Finally, Gordon simply leaves out the upheaval in the Middle East and the huge challenge to the US regional strategies. From the US-Israeli perspective, Egypt is already becoming a "problem child" of the Arab revolution. The challenge assumes criticality if the Arab Spring begins to envelop the Persian Gulf's "pro-West" autocratic regimes. This is where a great need may arise for the US to rope in Pakistan, which is uniquely placed with a big standing army and much surplus manpower and is a major Sunni country. The US is keen to polarise the Persian Gulf along the Sunni-Shi'ite schism while Iran is doing all it can to frustrate that ploy. In short, the cat-and-mouse games of the US-Iran standoff are edging toward a defining moment and Pakistan's role is of great significance for both Washington and Tehran. Besides, the danger of a military conflict involving Iran always exists - and more so with the US public opinion in a jingoistic mood and US desperately coping with the growing isolation of Israel in the Middle East.
Gordon hits the bull's eye insofar as China will keep its head under the parapet and would have no inclination to waste its resources to stabilise Afghanistan. China would rather see US continue to "do the heavy liftng" instead of becoming strategically involved and to concentrate on the lucrative economic spin-off. This is also consistent with the Chinese philosophy of not getting involved in other countries' internal affairs.
Alas, India is placed between the rock and a hard place. Any US appeasement of Pakistan in an Afghanistan settlement can only be at the cost of India's influence in Kabul. Any abrupt US departure from the region leaving matters in such a mess can only pose security challenges of immense proportions for India. India would like to tap into US's capacity to influence on Pakistan, but any big US military aid to Pakistan also hurts Indian interests. All India can hope for is that the nascent dialogue with Pakistan gains traction but then, that's easier said than done.

Osama's end suits Pakistan's ends

The death of Osama bin Laden and the scattering of the al- Qaeda remnants from the region would create a favourable atmosphere for the Afghan peace process to advance. The US and Pakistan can be expected to seek a modus vivendi that accommodates the interests of both sides. The 10-year-old Afghan war is most definitely drawing to a close. Looking beyond, the US would probe how this difficult ally, Pakistan, can be harnessed for the "new great game" beginning in West Asia. Read my article in Mail Today.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

US, Pakistan to remain allies

The first detailed White House comments by Press Secretary Jay Carney on the future trajectory of US-Pakistan ties in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's killing underline Washington's interest to pick up the treads of counterinsurgency cooperation and move on. Carney's remarks will be well-received in Islamabad. Carney made out the following points:
A. US-Pakistan relationship is a complicated one but it is also an important one.
B. On the whole, Pakistanis have been "very helpful in many ways" in the fight against al-Qaeda.
C. Pakistan assisted and helped in the "gathering of intelligence and information" that enabled US to assemble the "mountain of information" that went into the Abbottabad operation.
D. Pakistan remains a "key partner" in the unfinished fight against al-Qaeda.
E. US regards Pakistan as "extremely helpful" and "looks forward to cooperating into the future."
F."Complicated differences" have arisen at times on how the two countries "approach and view things" but at the end of the day there has also been "a great deal of important cooperation" and that shouldn't be lost sight of in arriving at a "complete picture of that relationship".
G. Without doubt, Pakistan has been a "frontline" state in the fight against al-Qaeda and has "suffered in large numbers."
H. Pakistan is a big country with a "big government" and "there are many people in Pakistan and there are many people in the Pakistani government" - implying it isn't a monolithic structure and there are many power centres. Naturally, it isn't a question of "trust" at state-to-state level, but more a "question of the interests we share and the cooperation we've forged".
I. There are indeed differences with certain sections in Pakistan but "you have to be careful about tarring everyone either in the country or the government."
J. US intends to probe how bin Laden could have taken shelter in Pakistan and enjoyed a "support network" or "who, if any" within the Pakistani establishment was aware of the Abbottabad safe house, but it will approach the issue without preconceived notions.
K. US-Pakistan relationship has run into testing times in the past and US has "worked hard" on the relationship since it is an "important and complicated" relationship. US is "confident" that cooperation will continue.
L. Pakistan remains an "essential partner" much as "very divergent opinions" may arise int e relationship.
Most significantly, Carney completely sidestepped the issue of US aid-cut off, as some Congressmen have belligerently demanded. He implied that no such move is in the consideration zone of the US government. The briefing is a signal to Islamabad that once the dust settles down over Osama's killing, there is important business to transact and Washington will approach in a cooperative spirit rather than adversarial. Quite obviously, given the endgame in Afghanistan and the impending draw down of US troops in July, as well as the uncertainties that are arising in the Persian Gulf security (especially with regard to Saudi Arabia), the imperatives of US-Pakistan cooperation remain stronger than ever. It is important to factor in that an estimated 30000 Pakistani personnel provide security for Bahrain, where the US' Fifth Fleet, which is the anchor sheet of US regional strategies in the region, is based. US would factor in the unique status of Pakistan as the Praetorian guards of the Saudi regime if a major crisis arises in the Persian Gulf region.

All great Neptune's ocean can't wash Osama's blood

"This is a sorry sight", said Macbeth in William Shakespeare's play, looking at his bloody hands moments after he murdered King Duncan. His wife thought that's a foolish thing to say, and when she noticed he had brought the bloody daggers from King Duncan's bedchamber, she thought him even more foolish. She told him he must take the daggers back, place them with the King's sleeping grooms, and smear the grooms with blood. Macbeth, however, was so shaken that all he could do was stand and stare at his bloody hands, so Lady Macbeth took the daggers from him. When she went to do the job she thought he should do, Macbeth still stood and stared.
He then asked himself if all the water in the world can wash away the blood: "Will all great Neptune's blood wash this blood / Clean from my hand?" And he answers his own question: "No this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red."
The gruesome scene passed through my mind when I read the Telegraph this morning that the White House is backtracking on how Osama bin Laden died. The latest account - not the final account, most certainly - admits that the initial account was riddled with errors. So, the initial claims that the al-Qaeda leader had died while firing an automatic weapon at commandos have been withdrawn, with President Barack Obama’s spokesman admitting “he [Osama] was unarmed”. A dramatic description of bin Laden using his wife as a “human shield” and forcing her to sacrifice her life also proved to be false. The woman was still alive and was taken into custody with several of the terrorist’s children.
In an embarrassing climb-down, Barack Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, admitted that the previous version of events — which came mostly from the chief US counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan — had been put out “with great haste”. The Telegraph says, "The about-turn left the US open to accusations of a cover-up."
To be sure, contradictory versions have begun appearing from Islamabad. The Pakistani authorities now say they had co-operated with the US and had kept the building under surveillance since 2009, which completely rubbishes Obama’s account of a four-year CIA operation to identify bin Laden’s hiding place. The Pakistanis also suggested that their soldiers had raided the building in 2003 — two years before the building was even built, according to the US — looking for another senior al-Qaeda operative.
So, what about the earlier report that Obama and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state and other senior officials had watched the assault on a live feed provided by a camera mounted on the commando's helmets? The White House is yet to figure out a cogent explanation. Maybe, let us hear the final, authoritative version from Obama himself, duly certified in a sworn affidavit by Clinton who was first witness of the carnage in Abbottabad? The issue isn't as simple as it seems. Navi Pillai, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has already posed the uncomfortable question whether the US operation in Abbottabad was consistent with international law.
Things are indeed becoming murkier and murkier. Osama's blood cannot be easily washed away from the fixtures in the Oval Office. So much calumny has gone into the making of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Lest we forget, Taliban was prepared to compromise with George W. Bush and hand over Osama for standing trial on 9/11. But, no, Sir, the Texan president wanted a full-fledged invasion of a decrepit country and the massacre of its desperately poor people as a mark of bloody retribution. Obama knows that the national mood still continues to be the same, as the obscene scene of American women and men celebrating in front of White House baying "USA", "USA" amply testified.
However, history is for posterity. The investigative journalist and author Gareth Porter once again reminds us that this entire slice of history since 2001 was completely unnecessary. The chilling facts are: i) Taliban offered to hand over bin Laden in October 2001; ii) Taliban dropped the pre-condition that Americans must come up with evidence of bin Laden's complicity in 9/11; iii) Taliban was desperately seeking a face-saving formula to avoid confrontation with the US, but "Cheney and Rumsfeld were determined not to allow a focus on bin Laden to interfere with their plan for a U.S. invasion of Iraq to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime."
Like Macbeth's predicament, will all the clout over the information order that is at its command, the White House is fumbling, unable to cope with regimentation of the flow of current history. So rapid is its flow and the streams out of Abbottabad are mixing with the rivers of blood flowing out of the Hindu Kush, Mesopotamia and the Libyan deserts. It seems there were 23 children and 9 women in the compound in Abbottabad at the time of the assault. They were apparently "handed over" to the Pakistani authorities. By whom? When? Where? Maybe, we won't know as the dead don't tell tales. But then, the living witnesses can speak, can't they, some day?

Fisk's tribute to bin Laden

The first time Robert Fisk, the iconic British journalist and author (and Arabist), met Osama bin Laden was back in the misty pages of history in 1993. In his magnum opus The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (shame on you if you haven't yet got hold of that classic), this is how Fisk recalled the setting: "Our journey north from Khartoum lay through a landscape of white desert and ancient, unexplored pyramids, dark, squat Pharaonic tombs smaller than those of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus at Giza. Though it was December, a sharp, superheated breeze moved across the desert, and when Kashoggi tired of the air conditioning and opened his window, it snapped at his Arab headdress." Fisk was handpicked by bin Laden for his first-ever interview with a western journalist. Then they met twice again - in Afghanistan.
Fisk's tribute to bin Laden in today's Independent has the poignancy of a passionate chronicler who angrily, incisively and vividly delved into the heart of darkness of radical Islam. He begins by stressing that bin Laden had become more or less a 'spent force': "A middle-aged nonentity, a political failure outstripped by history – by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East – died in Pakistan yesterday."
And, that takes Fisk to the million dollar question: "Betrayed? Of course he was. By the Pakistan military or the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence? Quite possibly both." In sum, the Pakistani military leadership decided to turn in bin Laden, as the law of diminishing returns is at work any whichever way you look at it.
By the way, do read the edited extract from Fisk's classic which I mentioned above, narrating his second meeting with bin Laden.

Monday, May 2, 2011

China-US diplomatic minuet over Iran

The latest WikiLeaks cables exclusively with Reuters open a window on the complex diplomatic minuet being played out between China and US over Iran sanctions. What comes to relief is the extent to which Washington is going to get China to roll back its energy tie-ups with Iran and the seamless pragmatism on the part of China to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
It all began in 2009 with the US goading Saudi Arabia to step up its oil exports to China so that China becomes less dependent on imports from Iran. The Saudis were willing to play ball since Riyadh was in any case keen to diversify its exports to the Asian market and China is a famously huge guzzler. The convergence of interests has propelled Saudi Arabia today to emerge as China's number one oil supplier. SA today exports more oil to China than to the US.
But did that discourage China from importing from Iran? No way. It seems China cultivated both Saudi Arabia and Iran as big time suppliers of oil. Make hay while the sun shines, isn't it? The American intention was to somehow goad China into falling in line with the US' push to impose tougher sanctions against the Iranian regime. Did the Americans succeed? Partly, yes. China did become more cooperative than before on the diplomatic front. But behind the curtain, Chinese state oil conglomerates moved into Iran in a big way - ironically, to occupy the areas vacated by the western majors due to the sanctions regime! Wasn't that smart thinking? Earn American goodwill while at the same time expand the business opportunities in Iran! But that is not the end of the story. Instead of reconciling as a passive player, China became a player on its own by taking matters into its own hands and it began performing as a a go-between for Washington with Iran. At one point, Chinese FM Yang Jiechi even assured the US diplomats that rhetoric aside, Iran "deep down" appreciated Barack Obama's willingness to work together.
Meanwhile, Chinese oil companies took care to dodge any punitive American measures by claiming that their projects in Iran were in the nature of service or engineering contracts rather than involving equity stakes or capital investments.
But Washington soon caught on. It mulled over things and came up with a two-pronged strategy - offering sticks and carrots at the same time. The US Congress adopted more stringent laws that could bring within their ambit Chinese energy conglomerates and other foreign firms operating in Iran's energy sector. But simultaneously, US also signalled that as quid pro quo for cooperation, it would allow Chinese energy firms to gain access to the American energy market. Beijing weighed the relative factors of advantage and apparently bit the carrot and asked its big energy firms to go slow in Iran. What induced the Chinese rethink? Well, according to Reuters, "China this year has concluded several major joint ventures to develop shale gas fields in North America as it seeks drilling technology to develop its own reserves of shale gas, the world's largest."

Egypt shakes up Middle Eastern order

The stunning geopolitical reality of the ''new Middle East'' is that Egypt brokered the surprise Palestinian reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas without consulting the United States and Israel - or Saudi Arabia. That Cairo coordinated efforts with Tehran suggests Egypt-Iran rapprochement has gained traction, and Israel's worst fears about the Egyptian revolution seem to be coming true. Read my article on the dramatic news of Palestinian reconciliation in today's Asia Times.