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Modi, Reagan and the Partition

The most significant foreign-policy document to emerge out of US President Barack Obama’s visit to India – “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” – makes interesting reading. It is about Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean – and not the ‘Indo-Pacific’. Does that make a difference?

The statement bodily lifts previous articulations of what by now has become a mantra for South Block concerning maritime security and freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, “especially in the South China Sea”. The sting is in the tail, of course. It’s supposed to irritate — and, hopefully, unnerve — China. Whether it succeeds or not, we do not know. According to a Xinhua commentary with Beijing dateline, however, the Chinese comfort level remains high. It puts Obama’s visit to India in perspective —  he is beleaguered at home politically and badly needs this visit to burnish his image, whereas for the Indians, they hope to gain leverage in their “multi-faceted diplomacy” and maybe derive some commercial spin-off, while the differences between the US and India, which are far too serious, cannot be wished away.

Indeed, the ‘joint strategic vision’ statement on the region has a glaring lapse. There is not a word in it regarding Pakistan. Yet, for the right-wing Hindu nationalist government headed by Prime Minister Modi, Pakistan is the number one obsession in foreign policy. According to the Hindu ideologues, Pakistan is a temporary aberration ensuing from the Partition in 1947, which will be dissipate once it rejoins Bharat that is India. Doesn’t Obama, who is an erudite man, know it?

Apparently, he does. And that would explain why the ‘joint strategic vision’ statement ended up as neither joint nor strategic (or visionary) on the core foreign-policy issue for the Narendra Modi government – Pakistan. The Xinhua took note of the US-Indian differences over issues such as climate change, agricultural disputes and nuclear energy cooperation. But it is Pakistan that sticks out like a sore thumb in the US-Indian relationship, and all the silk from Varanasi cannot hide it.

Simply put, the US and India cannot have a convergence on Pakistan, which means they cannot see eye to eye on regional security. The incisive op-ed authored by Daniel Markey, professor at Johns Hopkins and adjunct senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations explains why this is so. Markey has nailed the key issue – namely, Modi government aspires to compel Pakistan to crawl on its knees and capitulate on India’s terms as it begins to feel the rising heat of an all-round containment strategy, of the sort that Ronald Reagan adopted vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union. Markey rightly estimates that this is a dangerous Hindu nationalist phobia, which will pose a threat to global peace and international security and which cannot be in American interests. If Markey knows this much about what is shaping up in the womb of time, can Obama be oblivious of it?

To my mind, there won’t be any takers in the international community if India were to press ahead with a containment strategy toward Pakistan. The US and Chinese interests over Pakistan are fast converging, and Russia is building bridges toward Pakistan so as to be in the Afghan and Central Asian game. China has taken seriously its ‘proactive’ role in the search for an Afghan settlement, which also meets with Obama’s priorities. As a Chinese pundit wrote in Global Times last week, “Afghan regime and the Taliban possess an almost equal voice in the reconstruction of state power…. Undoubtedly, China is the optimal mediator in the mess of this war-stricken nation. China did not get involved in the war in Afghanistan. It is committed to supporting related parties in addressing both the historical and present contradictions… and leading the country to a peaceful reconciliation… Therefore, Beijing will try its best to provide a platform for the parties concerned to discuss issues”.

How could  Obama be unaware that on the very day he arrived in Delhi, Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif was in Beijing to discuss terrorism and to pledge Pakistan’s “willingness to cooperate with China to eradicate all kinds of terrorism and maintain peace, stability and prosperity’? In all probability, Sharif’s mission to Beijing relates to issues of Afghan reconciliation.

No, Markey’s optimism that Obama might dissuade the Modi government from pursuing a ‘containment strategy’ against Pakistan is unwarranted. Obama will not succeed on this one foreign-policy issue, which is central to the ideology of the Modi government. Put differently, Obama cannot hope to get the Modi government on board over the US strategy to stabilize Afghanistan.

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.

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Obama insists he’s on course in Yemen

In the course of a media interaction in Delhi on Sunday, President Barack Obama rebuffed the right-wing criticism in Washington that his policy of ‘appeasement’ of Iran has muddled the United States’ Middle East policies and brought about the latest crisis in Yemen (where the Shi’ite Houthi militia have staked claim for power-sharing in Sana’a), taking the country closer to civil war conditions.

Obama’s most detailed comments so far on Yemen show that he is taking a nuanced approach vis-à-vis the latest developments, while his one-dimensional American critics like John Bolton are inclined to see them in purely black and white terms. Most important, Obama refrained from making any criticism of the Houthis. He put the blame instead on “forces inside of Yemen that are constantly threatening to break apart between North-South, between Houthi and Sunni inside of Yemen.”

Clearly, the reference is to al-Qaeda that has adopted a tactic similar to the islamic State in Iraq, namely, tapping into the alienation of the Sunni tribes in the south and pitting them against the Shi’ite Houthis of the north, thereby creating a north-south divide that works well for the al-Qaeda groups and provides a sanctuary for them to operate.

Obama’s assessment is also at variance with the stance of Saudi Arabia and some other GCC states, which allege that with Iran’s backing, the Houthis are making a bid for power and overthrowing the legitimate government in Sana’a. Interestingly, Obama didn’t give much credibility to the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi — or, for that matter, Yemen’s claim to be a democracy. There was a sense of deja vu in the way Obama spoke — as if nothing else could be expected to happen in Yemen other than what took place this past week.

As for the US’ counterterrorism strategy in Yemen, Obama insisted that the operations are continuing and will continue and his approach will also remain the same – no deployment of US troops and focused operations against al-Qaeda networks  and high-value targets “by partnering and intelligence-sharing” with the local government.

He just stopped short of saying, perhaps, that the US will not risk the counterterrorist operations and, if the crunch time comes, it will deal with the Houthis towards ensuring that the operations are not compromised.  Conceivably, Obama seems to be veering round to accommodating the Houthi aspirations for power-sharing. He saw a solution through a “constitutional process”. It stands to reason that the US intelligence on the ground would have established a line to the Houthis by now.

Most significant, Obama is sticking to the earlier US assessment discounting an Iranian role as such in the crisis in Yemen. He didn’t mention Iran at all. One would like to be a fly on the wall when Obama sits down with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in Riyadh where he’s heading after his 3-day state visit to India.

Posted in Politics, Religion, Terrorism.

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Chasing China’s slackening growth

Do I detect a certain schadenfreude among the Indians at Beijing’s announcement that China is growing at its slowest pace in 24 years? The world as a whole is catching breath on the negative impact of a possible recession in China — or a ‘crash landing’ of its economy — on the prospects of the global economy. At the end of the day, China’s economy is the driver of growth for many countries as far apart as Brazil and Australia.

Alongside, the Indians are also being swept away by a tidal wave of euphoria stirred up by the prognosis of the International Monetary Fund in Washington that their country’s growth will be faster than China’s by next year. The two tidings somehow get intertwined to create “a magnitude of possibilities” in the delusionary Indian mind – to borrow from an incisive editorial comment by a leading Delhi newspaper. A reality check is in order.

To take the second thing first, namely, India ‘beating’ China in growth, there are “practical challenges”, as the above editorial argues persuasively with facts and figures – an argumentative democracy and a relatively unfavorable international economic environment (relative to the eighties and nineties when China rose) to lift some 700 million people out of poverty) are two negative factors and India has to learn to live with them. More fundamentally, India also lags behind China significantly in social indices and the fact is there is a strong link between education and health on the one hand and productivity on the other. Again, sustaining consistently high growth rate also needs to be through a shrewd prioritization of foreign policy objectives, taking the cue from Deng Xiaoping –  “keeping a low profile and actively achieving something” in the critically formative period that lies ahead for India.

At the end of the day, if India’s GDP is to reach China’s current GDP above $10 trillion, then it has to sustain a pace of growth at 9.65 percent on an average annually for the next quarter century – a feat no country can possibly achieve. Period. Yet, Prime Minister Modi is not entirely unjustified in dreaming of growing India’s GDP from $2 trillion to $20 trillion. After all, dreams are the biggest vehicle of change, as they may make us ambitious.

As regards China’s growth slowing down, the picture is more complex. The bottom line is that the nature of Chinese growth is changing. The transition is not unexpected given the restructuring under way – less emphasis on government-led investment on economic growth, openness to private sector, application of new technologies, switch from many traditional industries to e-commerce etc., shift from large projects to dynamic small-scale enterprises and so on.

No doubt, it is hugely challenging to execute such an incredibly difficult switch from an economy powered by investment to one driven by consumption, with a high risk that even as investment begins to fall, consumption (which currently represents only 36 percent of China’s GDP) takes time to catch up. The transition may last a few years and, clearly, double-digit, breakneck growth is no longer the yardstick to assess performance. So far at least, the resilience of the economy is not in doubt. Even with growth slackening, China created more than ten million urban jobs in 2014, while real income also increased and the income gap between the rich and the poor narrowed. On the other hand, the challenge is not just economic, either. A non-polemical commentary by International Business Times is here.

Posted in Uncategorized.


Modi’s Pakistan policy riddle

The reported remarks by the Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju on Monday regarding India’s handling of its ‘Pakistan problem’ were truly extraordinary, coming at a time when the ties between the two countries are nearing freezing point. That is not only because the “voice of North East India” (as he is popularly known) was commenting on the north-west India or because he is the “best young” lawmaker in the Indian parliament, but also due to the office Rijiju holds.

Of course, it is an open secret that Rijiju must be the eyes and ears of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on national security – metaphorically and politically. So, what did Rijiju say? Succinctly put, he debunked the obsession that north Indians generally have when it comes to the country’s relations with Pakistan. Rijiju derided their machismo, pointing out that firmness in safeguarding national security is an imperative need but it can be done without sounding ‘macho’. Now, who could it be that Rijiju had in mind? (No second guesses, please.) He probably didn’t have to look far.

Rijiju added a few other good things, too. He showed the audacity to defend India as “a natural soft power” and advised that it is to the disadvantage of the country’s international image to project policies as muscular. “We don’t need to be hawkish,” he said. Another thing he advised is not to fall for the media frenzy over Pakistan. He was spot on lamenting that India’s so-called “TV debates” regarding Pakistan are really stupid and mislead public opinion.

How is it that such good sense sits so lightly on Rijiju’s 43-year old young shoulders, which some of his seniors abysmally lack? The big question is whether he speaks for the Modi government. Hmm. He does.  If what he said is the real stuff of Modi’s Pakistan policies, we are indeed watching a pantomime playing out.

Now, the really intriguing part, however, lies somewhere else — in Rijiju’s timing. He spoke just a day after Modi had a private conversation with the US secretary of state John Kerry who was en route to Pakistan (in which India-Pakistan tensions figured). In fact, Rijiju spoke even as Kerry began his talks with the Pakistani leadership. (See my blog Kerry’s Pakistan visit a turning point?)

Posted in Diplomacy.

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Asking Obama what he can do for India

The US President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address on Tuesday was heavily focused on domestic issues. Jobs, economy, taxes, opportunity, immigration, a recalcitrant Congress – the burning domestic issues on top of Obama’s agenda could have been anticipated.

On foreign policy issues, Obama spoke very little and his remarks were notable on the Middle East, talks with Iran on the nuclear issue and relations with Russia. He said the US intends to fight the Islamic State without “getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East.” So, that settles it – no ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq. With regard to Syria, interestingly, he touched on the US’ continued support of “a moderate opposition” that could help him in the fight against terrorism. But he made no reference to ‘regime change’ in Syria.

Unsurprisingly, Obama was polemical about “Russian aggression” and Ukraine’s “democracy”. He insisted that sanctions against Russia are working. The punch line was a direct barb at “Mr. Putin’s aggression” – only foreign statesman that Obama finger-pointed – and was triumphalist that Russian economy is “in tatters”. Curiously, however, he dodged Russian-American relationship as such, leaving the field open, perhaps, for secretary of state John Kerry.

On Iran, Obama walked a fine line by claiming progress in the talks and making a tangible gain by way of reducing Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material, sounding cautiously optimistic about “a comprehensive agreement” but all the same hedging his bets. But Obama seized the moment to do some plain-speaking with the Republican-dominated Congress (and the Israeli Lobby behind it), underscoring that he shall not be deterred on his chosen path of diplomacy and they are out of sync with the times.

***

From an Indian viewpoint, Obama’s speech becomes a curtain-raiser to his forthcoming visit to Delhi on Sunday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be engaging an American president who is very focused on the US’ economic recovery and social issues (childcare, middle class, gender equality, opportunity, tax code, immigration and so on).

Plainly put, Obama will want to know how useful Modi government can be for boosting American exports and for creating jobs and helping the US’ economic recovery. Climate change is undoubtedly one area where huge possibilities exist for boosting US exports of technology. Nuclear commerce is another; exports of weapons yet another.

We as Indians can only wish that we too could have a leader as thoughtful, hopeful, inspiring, brave, erudite and intelligent as Obama. Is Modi too equally focused on what his priorities are? Obama’s visit will offer a study in comparison. There isn’t going to be any Madison Square Garden moment for Obama in Delhi. But he is a dogged man and very purposive and ambitious leader and will already have decided what he’d get out of this tour of India. To my mind, he’ll succeed.

But what about Modi’s Make in India? The Indian analysts are by and large focusing on the ‘feel-good’ part of the US-India relationship — how we could help America export nuclear reactors or patented drugs to India — or, they’re simply meandering in platitudes. No hard questions are being asked. No ambitious ‘wish list’ is being projected to stimulate Modi’s thinking. Is it that in the Orient, we shouldn’t make demands on a guest? But then, the guest himself is notoriously devoid of shyness.

Obama hailed the US intervention in Afghanistan as ‘Mission accomplished’. This must dampen the spirits of the Indian ‘hawks’ who want to vanquish the Taliban from the face of the earth. The Indian pundits who have been clamoring for India to dump its non-aligned outlook (as if it is a basket of rotting oranges) and join the US in an alliance will be aghast that China is not even in the US’ crosshairs.

Obama’s second term began with his then secretary of state Hillary Clinton unveiling the US’ ‘pivot’ strategy in Asia-Pacific, but the state of the union speech on Tuesday all but made it history. Obama never once mentioned China directly in his speech nor did he revisit the ‘pivot’ to Asia. He instead hailed the “historic” accord between the US and China on climate change. It’s economy, stupid!

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.

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India-Iran ties need reset

A record jump in oil purchases from Iran; a two-million tonne integrated steel plant to be set up in Iran; an export order for supply of one lakh tonne of rails to Iran; an $800 million chemical fertilizer plant to be set up in Iran – to be sure, the atrophied India-Iran economic ties are showing dynamism. This is brilliant news. The BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is losing no time to mend business ties with Iran, which suffered grievously during the UPA era.

This cannot but be based on a sound understanding of Iran’s vast untapped potential to be a game changer in Modi’s development agenda. The US-Iran normalization is gathering momentum and Iran’s integration with the West has already begun. The Western media reports speak of Tehran hotels being chock-a-block with European businessmen. The optimism riding high that the ‘nuclear negotiations’ are heading toward a deal, finally, is apparent in today’s editorial in the influential Iran Daily newspaper.

The resultant transformation under way in regional politics is nothing short of historic proportions. Iran and the US are fast bridging even the seemingly hopeless differences that stood between them over Syria — despite the efforts by Saudi Arabia to scuttle the process. A New York Times report today underscores what I wrote in an earlier blog (Importance of being Syria’s Assad) , namely, that the Obama administration is signaling a shift in the US’ Syria policies that may lead to an end of the conflict.

If the talks over a settlement in Syria gain traction, the prospects of the struggle against terrorism would dramatically improve (besides doing a world of good to Russian-American relations and the climate of international security as a whole.) Clearly, the US and Iran are both stakeholders today in the stabilization of Afghanistan and, conceivably, neither would have the urge anymore to see each other’s role and influence in the Hindu Kush in zero sum terms. (See my blog Iran-Afghan ties warming up, again.)

Suffice it to say, these shifts in regional politics are in harmony with India’s core interests , since they could create a favorable external environment for the pursuit of the development agenda. Simply put, Iran is the last frontier in energy politics and India holds many trump cards. Therefore, the urgency of engaging Iran cannot be overstated. Delhi should revive the flavor of the strategic partnership that existed under the previous BJP government led by A. B. Vajpayee (who had a keen sense of the importance of Iran to India’s strategic calculus.) A visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Tehran is overdue. Equally, the national security advisors of the two countries have a lot to discuss on regional security issues. Hopefully, these exchanges could pave the way for scheduling the visit by Prime Minister Modi to Iran for which an invitation from President Hassan Rouhani is pending.

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Iran-Afghan ties warming up, again

India and Iran have been two of Afghanistan’s major neighbors whom President Ashraf Ghani subjected to ‘benign neglect’ after coming to power last September. He visited Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates so far. But Ghani’s ‘cooling-off period’ with Iran may be getting over and he may be heading for Tehran very soon.

Most certainly, Ghani’s visit to Tehran will be on the agenda of Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s talks in Kabul later today. Zarif told reporters that he proposed to discuss “issues of mutual interest” with the Afghan leadership and that his visit to Kabul would “reaffirm Iran’s support for security and stability in Afghanistan.”

Zarif will pick up the threads of the consultations that the Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar had in Tehran just two weeks ago. Atmar’s visit had focused on security cooperation between the two countries and on finalizing an Afghan-Iranian security pact that has been holding fire (predating the Ghani presidency.) Atmar’s counterpart Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, underscored the need for adopting “joint security strategies… to confront new security threats.”

He called for “extensive and strategic cooperation” between Iran and Afghanistan. Interestingly, Shamkhani called for “consensus among the regional countries.”  These remarks could be seen in the context of a spate of more recent reports attributed to Afghan officials, here, and the US commander General David Campbell, here, affirming that the Islamic State is active in Afghanistan.

By “consensus among the regional countries”, Shamkhani could have been referring to the need for cooperation between Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan to meet the IS threat. He could also have had Pakistan and China in mind. (The Iraqi Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli was in Tehran over the weekend. The security officials from Iraq and Pakistan were taken to Zahedan last week to study how Tehran has been coping with cross-border terrorism on the ground in the Sistan-Baluchistan province.)

At their meeting in Tehran two weeks ago, Zarif also stressed to Atmar that Tehran is keen on an expansion of bilateral cooperation with a view to  “consolidate” Afghanistan’s security stability. In sum, Teheran has been signaling that it is supportive of the political transition in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Tehran is going the extra mile to court Ghani. It is overlooking that the Hazara Shi’ite leadership is not represented in the present power structure to the extent it used to be under former president Hamid Karzai. But then, Iran has vital stakes in Afghanistan that go far beyond the historical and cultural affinities, and it is conceivable that Tehran would want to be a player rather than remain a bystander on the sidelines at a juncture when a crucial period of security transition has commenced and new security threats are looming large while there is pervasive skepticism in the region regarding the capability of the Afghan armed forces.

Can Iran repeat the role of a security provider as it has been preforming in Iraq? That is out of the question. However, the bottom line is that the Afghan security establishment would view Iran as a natural ally in the struggle against terrorism. Of course, Iran is just the sort of ‘balancer’ that Kabul will need while coping with the pressures and demands of the upcoming reconciliation process with the Taliban where it has to depend heavily on Pakistani cooperation — a role that the US or China will be incapable of.

Posted in Politics, Terrorism.

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Importance of being Syria’s Assad

It might seem odd that just when Moscow hopes to host a peace conference on Syria on January 26 and even as the UN peace envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura is working on a landmark ceasefire agreement to be wrapped up next week in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Pentagon has chosen to announce that upto one thousand American troops and other personnel are being despatched on a mission to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to train Syrian rebels.

On the other hand, the latest reports from Saudi Arabia show Crown Prince huddled with a delegation of American senators led by John McCain to discuss the Pentagon plan to arm and train the Syrian rebels. It seems for a moment that the ‘regime change’ agenda in Syria is back on the front burner of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies.

However, that will be overlooking the remarks by US secretary of state John Kerry on Wednesday voicing support for the Russian efforts to kick start negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition figures in Moscow as well as de Mistura’s efforts for an Aleppo ceasefire.

Indeed, President Barack Obama is doing a masterly trapeze act on Syria. By now it is clear he is determined not to militarize the US role in Syria. Obama doesn’t want another trillion-dollar war like in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of late, he is also cautious that weakening the Syrian government would only work to the advantage of the Islamic State, which of course is his top priority — as it should be. (See the insightful analysis by Aaron David Miller in Wall Street Journal entitled Why the US Prefers Assad to ISIS in Syria.)

On the other hand, Obama also needs to mollify Saudi Arabia, which probably explains Senator McCain’s mission to Riyadh and the ‘tokenism’ implied in Pentagon’s announcement. Meanwhile, all this has another regional backdrop as well – namely, the shift in the stance of some Arab states regarding Syria. While Kuwait and Tunisia have resumed diplomatic ties with Syria, Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has adopted a cautious stance on Syria calling for a political solution. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has every reason to feel embittered, as apparent in the vitriolic attack on Obama in the opinion piece by the establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat under the byline of the newspaper’s managing editor Eyad Abu Shakra.

Having said that, the Moscow conference is not going to be a roaring success, either. Many more rounds of peace talks can be expected. But the striking thing is that notwithstanding the standoff over the Ukraine crisis, Moscow and Washington are increasingly finding themselves on the same page on Syria’s short-term future, namely, President Bashar al-Assad whom the US regarded all through to be “ a huge part of the problem, may also now be part of the solution” – to borrow Miller’s words.

Posted in Politics.

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Ukraine: Coercive diplomacy surges

The reported capture of the Donetsk city airport by separatists in eastern Ukraine could prove a ‘game changer’ in the conflict in that country. The airport as such is not strategically important but its loss testifies to the separatist side having the upper hand militarily and that cannot but sap the morale of the Ukrainian forces and erode the credibility of the pro-western government in Kiev.

Different meanings will be read into the development. However, at the core of it all remains the extent of any Russian involvement – and, if so, what could be Russia’s intentions? The European Union [EU] foreign ministers are due to meet on Monday to discuss relations with Russia.

The EU is a house divided on how to deal with Russia, and there is a point of view that the latest offensive in eastern Ukraine could be a pressure tactic by Moscow to compel the EU – Germany, in particular – to roll back the sanctions. The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said while addressing the European parliament on Thursday that the EU must discuss how “we could think of restoring, partially, options and instruments for cooperation on [the] rule of law and the judiciary with Russia.”

In diplomatic and political terms, the developments in eastern Ukraine would mean that the ball is in the EU court now. To be sure, Kiev lacks the military clout to regain the lost territory in eastern Ukraine, and the government forces may even find it difficult to hold on to the current frontline against an all-out rebel offensive (should that happen.) On the other hand, the rebel forces have augmented their military capabilities, thanks to the relative lull on the battlefield in the most recent months.

If the rebels press ahead with the offensive (which seems unlikely as of now), it might deal a mortal blow to the prestige of the government in Kiev and would even destabilize Ukraine. Clearly, the EU finds itself between the rock and a hard place. One option will be to ease sanctions on Russia and get Moscow to prevail upon the rebels to come to the negotiating table. But then, Germany (and the United States) will have to take a call.

The alternative course open will be to slap more sanctions against Russia and to shift to a confrontational path, but that is fraught with grave dangers of an outbreak of war in Europe, since Moscow has shown unambiguously that sanctions cannot and will not force it to reset its compass, as vital national interests are at stake.

In the final analysis, Russia finds the current politico-military stalemate unacceptable — whereby, it underwrites the economy of the separatist-controlled enclave of Donbas (which has been discarded by Kiev and is of no particular strategic value to Moscow), while the West is incrementally promoting Ukraine’s westward drift and is showing no definite signs of an easing of the sanctions against Russia in a near future, and at the same time, the US is using the alibi of “an increasingly assertive Russian leadership” to make military deployments in eastern Europe and the Baltic states, closer to the Russian borders than at any time in the post-cold war era.

In sum, what is unfolding is an incredibly complex spectacle of coercive diplomacy. A ‘frozen conflict’ in Ukraine does not suit Russia, and Moscow demands an overall settlement to end the crisis. That is the bottom line. Meanwhile, Moscow would expect that the saner voices within the EU would assert to ease the sanctions and bring all sides to the negotiating table. If the West wouldn’t dismantle without preconditions the punitive sanctions, Russia would be left with no choice but to take recourse to ‘politics by other means’.

Quite obviously, Moscow anticipated the developments in eastern Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin took a meeting of the high-powered Security Council in Moscow on Friday with the main focus on the latest developments in eastern Ukraine, hinting, again, that a ‘Normandy format meeting’ is highly desirable. Moscow would hope that now that the separatist side has shown again that they have the upper hand on the battlefield, the West will be more inclined to negotiate.

Posted in Diplomacy, Military, Politics.

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Afghan Ghani reminds Obama, ‘Never say ‘Never’

As the season for predictions for 2015 draws to a close, one that stands out impacting South Asian security will be the prediction by Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and foreign policy at the Brookings that President Barack Obama will decide to keep the US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016.

The telltale signs are there already. The candid remarks by the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in his interview with CBS News 60 Minutes program last Sunday that the Obama administration may need to “re-examine” its December 2016 deadline for total withdrawal from Afghanistan would anticipate the shape of things to come.

Obama has invited Ghani to visit the White House and the topic of continued US troop presence is sure to figure at the talks. Ghani told CBS, “Deadlines concentrate the mind. But deadlines should not be dogmas.” He also introduced a seductive argument, namely, that if in the run-up to the 2016 deadline, there is progress on the stabilization of Afghanistan, then there is need to ponder – “If both parties, or, in this case, multiple partners, have done their best to achieve the objectives and progress… then there should be willingness to re-examine a deadline.” (here).

Asked if Obama knows this, Ghani replied: “Obama knows me. We don’t need to tell each other.” Meanwhile, the confirmation by the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Campbell that there are signs of the Islamic State trying to recruit Afghans becomes yet another persuasive argument why the western military presence in Afghanistan should not end anytime soon. Indeed, a repetition of what happened in Iraq cannot and should not happen in Afghanistan and that in turn would demand continued US military presence beyond 2016.

Of course, there is also the question of US’ regional interests beyond the Afghan issue. To quote O’Hanlon, “Leaving Afghanistan entirely in 2016 would be a big mistake. Beyond leaving in jeopardy the U.S. effort to stabilize and bring democracy to Afghanistan, this policy would deprive the United States of bases that it uses to fly drones and launch commando raids in the region  — in eastern Afghanistan or western Pakistan… It is not just a matter of nation-building in Afghanistan”.

Are we watching a pantomime playing out as per a plot scripted earlier? Suffice it so say, with Hamid Karzai going into retirement, the US got a leadership in Kabul that is quite amenable to an open-ended NATO and American military presence in Afghanistan and the doomsday predictions in regional capitals that the US is leaving Afghanistan for good would seem unwarranted.

In fact, an altogether new struggle seems to be beginning over the politics of energy (here), arms sales (here and here) and so on, as the big powers get engaged with the countries of the region surrounding Afghanistan in search of maximizing their influence and strategic options. No doubt, Pakistan and Iran become two crucial theatres in the geopolitics of the region.

Posted in Military, Politics.

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