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...