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Manmohan's US trip

India must aggressively pursue to protect interests and stake in Afghanistan’s future

Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US coincides with Thanksgiving week and the first anniversary of 26/11.  During the Prime Minister’s visit, the debilitating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be on the agenda.  It is on this issue that some incredibly silly, wantonly naive advice is being shoved the US President’s way.

Two broad themes on India’s place in the regional security discourse seem to periodically appear, which can be summarized thus.  Firstly,  Pakistan feels threatened by the presence of a larger adversary at its eastern border. The main thorn in Indo-Pak relations is Kashmir. Therefore, solve Kashmir and receive a grateful Pakistan’s full commitment on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Second, Pakistan feels “strategically encircled” by India’s presence in Afghanistan.  An increase in Indian involvement would inflame Pakistan’s apprehensions vis-a-vis India. Therefore, in the interest of Pakistan’s sensitivities, an expansion of Indian involvement in Afghanistan must not be encouraged (or must at least be brushed aside).

Both these themes do an excellent job in confusing symptom (the “Kashmir” issue, and “strategic depth”) with root cause (Pakistan’s pathological neuralgia with India).  It is another issue of course that those advocating the “resolve Kashmir” approach haven’t ever come close to articulating how this feat is to be accomplished by Washington.

It is no secret that there is disconnect between the UPA and the Obama administration on the way forward in Afghanistan.  There are two aspects to this disconnect — one, th UPA administration has been blind to US’s plans in the region (and consequences to India’s interests), and two, the Obama Administration has been unable to present a coherent, consistent vision for Afghanistan, mired as it is with internal squabbling.

But Obama, who ran on a canvas promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is under pressure to act, if only to placate his fellow Democrats and voters.  The Obama administration sees greater regional involvement as a solution that would allow for a phased US withdrawal.   Hence Richard Holbrooke’s  recent diplomatic sojourns to China and Russia.

The role that India will play in this “regional approach” will perhaps become more apparent after the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington. Rightly, as the preeminent power in the region, India’s involvement is not only “beneficial”, but imperative.

But the status of “regional power” is not achieved through birth-right.  It must be  earned, and if India believes itself to be the preeminent regional power, it must start acting like one. Unquestionably, this involves taking tough decisions not only on what India would “prefer to do” in Afghanistan, but what it must do to safeguard its interests.

Thus far, India has stayed away from overt involvement in shaping the politics in Afghanistan, choosing instead engage in the (noble) pursuits of building schools and roads and training the Afghan police force.  “Soft power”, Shashi Tharoor calls it.  But soft power is credible only as long as someone else is willing and able to do the dirty yard work.

What if that “someone else” leaves? Who will step in?

A power vacuum in Afghanistan with a weak, de-legitimized government in Kabul constantly being undermined by a reinforced and invigorated Taliban and affiliated networks presents a scenario for India where its overall influence in the country will diminish, relative to that of China and Pakistan.

Economic investments in Afghanistan (totaling over $1 billion), development of ties with the country’s civilian polity and strategic importance of Afghanistan to an energy-starved nation, make such a scenario unacceptable to India.

There is simply too much at stake for India not to be meaningfully involved in a regional approach to the Afghanistan problem.  Indeed, India’s contribution to such a regional solution must span across all realms, including security/law enforcement, political reconciliation and delivery of social services.  In this regard, offering a larger Indian contingent to train Afghanistan’s security forces, can be a small, but important first step.

US administrations will always have India doubters, just as they will their  share of Indophiles.  India’s goal within the construct of the “regional approach”  must be to aggressively defend its interests in the country, while playing a meaningful role in addressing the current crisis and defining the future of Afghanistan.

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Where do we go from here?

The people of India have spoken.  A clear mandate for the UPA government has been given.  While this blogger doesn’t consider the verdict to be optimal (considering UPA’s unforgivable lapses in security and foreign affairs), the decisiveness of the victory is pleasing because it allows a less fractious Central government to go about its business.  The mandate against the BJP is very clear — the people don’t want any part of their divisive politics.  A campaign that was overshadowed by the venom spewing bigotry of Varun Gandhi was only bound for failure.  Uttar Pradesh has told Mayawati what it thinks of her self glorifying statues in Lucknow.   And Prakash Karat stands amidst the shattered pieces of his non-ideology.

Where does India go from here?  The Filter Coffee has repeatedly drawn attention to the dilapidated state of our local law enforcement forces, and national and border defense mechanisms.  They need addressing immediately.  When Chidambaram took over as Home Minister, he instituted a few changes, come cosmetic, some concrete.

The Congress must stop pretending that it is tied at the hip to the Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Act and work with the Opposition to construct a meaningful anti-terror law for the nation.  Our local law enforcement agencies need money, equipment and training.  Our national forces face severe shortages in equipment, which can only be addressed by correcting India’s defense procurement mechanism.  The shackles need to be loosened from our intelligence agencies.

India faces two immediate threats with regard to terrorism, from the Maoists and Jihadi groups.  With regard to external Jihadi threats, there are some elements that India can control and some that it can’t.  However, the Maoist menace is well within India’s realm and decisive action is needed to eliminate this plague that has consumed a third of India.

On the foreign affairs side, the Subcontinent is on fire.  Sri Lanka has found itself an effective counterweight to India in China, and its dismissal of India’s pleas was the most telling aspect of this relationship as war against the LTTE drew to a close.  Similarly, India lost the plot in Nepal during the UPA administration and as tensions continue to rise between the army and the Chinese backed Maoist government, India has a great opportunity to play the honest broker and demonstrate to that nation that India wants peace and stability in Nepal.

The United States is blowing a sigh of relief that the month long elections in India are at an end.  Obama’s immediate concern is to get India to focus on the Af-Pak issue.  The repeated calls for India to reduce troop levels along the western border are as absurd as they are misplaced and the UPA would do well not to wilt under American pressure as they have so often done in the past.

With Pakistan, India must continue to use every tool at its disposal to pressure that country to dismantle not just “terror” infrastructure, but specifically the Punjabi-terror outfits that target India.  The Pakistanis must be pressed to ensure that those responsible for 26/11 are brought to justice.  Pakistan’s “investigation”, as farcical as it was, is now a casualty of all the attention to the existential threat that country faces today.  Above all, the UPA must impress upon Islamabad that for India to show any interest in rekindling the “peace process”, there needs to be very credible action from Pakistan on both dismantling terror infrastructure armed at India, and bringing to justice those that were responsible for 26/11.

The mandate for the Congress is conclusive.  Manmohan Singh can either show the country that he can act convincingly to address the challenges that face us, as he did in 1991, or he can falter and stumble from one embarrassing embroilment to another as he has done over the past five years.  The ball is in his court.  What’s it going to be, Mr. Prime Minister?

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US – UAE Nuclear Deal

Very quietly, the United States and the United Arab Emirates have signed a deal that will allow the UAE to develop nuclear reactors and obtain nuclear fuel from the US, under the 123 Agreement framework. Under the agreement, the UAE, which is already a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), will be subjected to nuclear safeguards inspection from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and will forgo the right to enrich/reprocess spent Uranium fuel. The whole nuclear program of the UAE will apparently be under US management, pending IAEA approval.

Since its birth in December 1971, the UAE has experienced massive economic growth on account of its petroleum reserves. This initial economic growth gave rise to two main economic power centers in this federation of seven emirates — Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and largest emirate by area, whose revenues are driven by oil, and Dubai, the most populous emirate, whose revenues are driven by trade and financial services.

Economic growth lead to investments in infrastructure and construction, resulting in the arrival of hoards of blue – and white collar workers, primarily from the Indian subcontinent, to fill the employment vacuum. This sustained population growth, particularly in Dubai, has forced the UAE to consider alternative sources of energy. By some estimates, UAE’s demand for electricity is likely to rise to 40,000 megawatts (MW) by 2020. However, UAE’s energy sector is projected to be capable of meeting only about 50% of this demand.

The 123 Agreement is yet to be ratified by Congress, and will still need to be approved by the President of a new US administration. Barack Obama has not publicly stated his views on the issue. The deal has already met with vociferous disapproval from members of Congress. Rep. Brad Sherman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade subcommittee, said:

“Any (nuclear cooperation) agreement between the United States and the UAE should not be submitted to Congress until, at a minimum, the UAE has addressed the critical issue of transshipments and diversion of sensitive technologies to Iran.”

If that’s the Congressman’s line of thought, then this is yet another classic example of the kind of cluelessness that has come to typify the thinking of successive US administrations on matters concerning the Middle East. Indeed, Iran is the one country that can be counted on to get irked by the proposed deal.  Relations between “Shi’a” Iran and “Sunni-Arab” UAE have always been icy.

A major bone of contention between the UAE and Iran is with regard to the Abu Musa and Lesser Tunb islands, unilaterally occupied by Iran, but claimed by the UAE. The Abu Musa archipelago lies within the strategic Straits of Hormuz corridor, an area vital to the petroleum driven economies of the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, as Anthony Cordesman points out, there are two specific areas of concern for Abu Dhabi — (a) the presence of a significant Iranian immigrant (potential “fifth column”) population in the UAE, and (b) the strategic proximity of Dubai and Sharjah to the old Iranian port-town of Bandar Abbas. The vulnerability of the northern emirates’ shipping channels to Iran’s airbase in Bandar Abbas is a source of worry for UAE’s rulers.

For its part, Iran can’t be too pleased with the cosiness exhibited smaller Arabian Peninsular countries like the UAE and Qatar towards the United States. US military bases in the UAE, like those in Jebel Ali and Al Dhafra, and UAE’s ambivalence towards the US invasion of Iraq can’t have helped matters much either.

This nuclear deal is a bad idea — not because of an alleged UAE-Iran nexus, but because the UAE will be susceptible to an Iranian military assault either if Iran-UAE relations deteriorate, or if Iran has its back to the wall in any future US-Iran military confrontation. The UAE can ill afford be in a military conflict with Iran — the repercussions will be felt far beyond the region, given that expatriates make up about 80% of the total population of the UAE.

Allowing the accumulation of nuclear material in a politically and militarily weak country situated in the most unstable region on earth, and in the proximity and cross-hairs of Iran, is foolish. To think that this will impress upon Iran the virtues of towing Washington’s line with regard to nuclear technology is an exercise in naiveté. Far from making the UAE politically and strategically more secure, the deal will prove to be an albatross around Abu Dhabi’s neck.

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