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Stepping up on Afghanistan

India must use its good offices to ensure that the U.S. and Afghanistan sign a bilateral security agreement.

If the world was in need of a preview of things to come in a post-2014 Afghanistan, it got one on Friday.  A Taliban attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul claimed 21 lives. Those killed included the International Monetary Fund’s chief for Afghanistan, a senior political official at the UN and a British candidate in the upcoming elections for the European parliament.

The insurgency in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of many of its citizens as well as those of NATO’s security forces.  But as the New York Times notes, attacks against foreign soft targets have been relatively less frequent.  The Kabul Hotel Inter-Continental was attacked in 2011; U.S. and Indian embassies have been hit in Kabul and in other parts of Afghanistan.  The more recent attacks have involved operations with the use of suicide bombers to breach perimeter security followed by commando-style assaults with the use of RPGs and assault rifles.

The Taliban have historically relied on suicide attacks against Western military targets, but the use of commando-style assaults in and around Kabul may point to a collaboration with Pakistan-sponsored groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, loosely referred to as the “Kabul Attack Network.”

The goal, ultimately, is to weaken the will of the West to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.  The U.S. and NATO winding down operations in Afghanistan will undoubtedly create a perilous security situation in that country.  Afghan president Hamid Karzai has refused to enter into a status of forces agreement with the U.S., even as the Afghan National Army remains ill-equipped to deal with a raging insurgency coupled with terrorist assaults on the capital.

Mr. Karzai is throwing caution to the wind by tying the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to the U.S. facilitating “peace talks” with the Taliban.  He may get neither.  The U.S.’s ability to facilitate a negotiation with the Taliban remains in question, particularly when the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan have been working towards the goal of ensuring a total exit of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan all along.  Mr. Karzai, whose presidency ends in April 2014, may have little to lose, but the burdens of his action or inaction will be borne by Afghanistan’s future governments.

Meanwhile, anyone in New Delhi still under the delusion that events in Afghanistan have no bearing on the security of India would do well to reach for their history books.  It is precisely the sort of Pakistan-supported, Taliban-operated environment that could prevail in a post-2014 Afghanistan that allowed for India’s surrender of Maulana Masood Azhar (who was languishing in an Indian jail) in Kandahar in exchange for passengers hijacked onboard IC-814 in 1999.

As a result of our capitulation, Azhar returned to Pakistan to regroup members of the terrorist group Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and formed the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) in 2000.  A year later, JeM attacked the Indian parliament, killing 12 civilians.  Our members of parliament, rather miraculously, escaped unharmed.

A similar situation may present itself when the U.S. departs Afghanistan.  Although many of us have called for India to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, or at least play a more active role in training and supplying weapons to Afghan security forces, New Delhi has chosen to only limit its involvement to economy and institution-building.  Laudable endeavors undoubtedly, but insufficient to ensure the security of India and her interests in that country.

India has already rebuffed Mr. Karzai’s request for weaponry during his December 2013 visit.  But if India is disinclined to deploy hard power in Afghanistan, it must, at the very least, ensure that a U.S. security presence remains in the country to prevent it from being engulfed in yet another civil war that could render twelve years of development and progress to naught.

Indeed, India is most uniquely positioned — as a friend to both the U.S. and Afghanistan — to use its good offices to ensure that a version of the BSA agreeable to both Afghanistan and the U.S. is signed.  Almost every other country is viewed with suspicion by either DC or Kabul.  Last week, U.S. Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan visited India to discuss the furture of Afghanistan.  U.S. intelligence officials also met an Indian delegation led by Joint Intelligence Chief Ajit Lal to urge India’s influence with Mr. Karzai to conclude the BSA.

There is no doubt that India is in the midst of domestic political upheaval.  The economy is sagging and political stewardship is found wanting in almost every aspect of governance.  However, facilitating a status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S. must become a national security priority for India.

A U.S.-Afghanistan BSA cannot prevent attacks such as the one this past Friday, but it may stave off a total collapse of the state to the Taliban.  Ultimately, it is simply not in India’s interests to see Afghanistan relapse into the laboratory of terrorism that it once was under Pakistan’s influence. (And on a separate note, New Delhi’s assistance in facilitating a BSA could also demonstrate that both India and the U.S. are committed to putting the very unseemly squabble over Devyani Khobragade behind them).

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Winning the small nuclear battles

Dr. Singh and Mr. Obama must move forward on nuclear trade when they meet this week.

Some newspapers and political parties would have us believe that the PM is in New York with the express intention of selling India’s soul to America.

They contend that India’s Nuclear Liability Act (NLA), which allows for costs to be imposed on the supplier in the event of a nuclear disaster in India, is about to be sold down the river by the PM in order to remove impediments to the participation of U.S. firms in civil nuclear trade with India.  There was furor when it emerged that the Attorney General had issued an opinion indicating that the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL) had the right to waive the liability provision, if provided for in a contract.

Outraged opposition parties and left-leaning media outlets argued that India was bypassing its own law to please the U.S.  A few observations on the subject:

The language in the NLA appears to be fairly clear on the applicability of supplier liability.  Clause 17 reads:

The operator of the nuclear installation, after paying the compensation for nuclear
damage in accordance with section 6, shall have a right of recourse where-

(a)    such right is expressly provided for in a contract in writing;
(b)    the nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his
employee, which includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects
or sub-standard services;
(c)    the nuclear incident has resulted from the act of commission or omission of
an individual done with the intent to cause nuclear damage.  [THE CIVIL LIABILITY FOR NUCLEAR DAMAGE ACT, 2010]

We’ll leave matters relating to the legal interpretation of the language in the Act to the experts on the subject, but if our admittedly untrained legal interpretation is correct, clause 17(a) does allow for supplier-side liability if “expressly provided for” in a contract between the operator (in most cases, GoI) and the supplier.

If this is indeed true, then the question of “bypassing” Indian law simply doesn’t arise.  The law itself does not make supplier-side liability mandatory.  Further, it the begs question of what the opposition — which was out screaming blue murder this past month — was doing when the bill was being debated in 2010.  Even assuming their very busy schedule of staging walkouts in Parliament got in the way of them expressing an opinion when the bill was being debated, what have they been doing the past two years since its enactment?

The NLA in its current state is simply incompatible with the IAEA Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC), which India undertook a commitment to accede to.  Contingent on these incompatibilities, India has signed the CSC but not ratified it, as ratification would require a change in our liability laws.  It is strange then that we appear so eager to be brought into the mainstream of the global framework for civil nuclear commerce and yet not want to be bound by its rules.

The issues pertaining to supplier-side liability are not U.S.-specific.  The truth is that no one is willing to do business with India given the costs imposed by the NLA on suppliers.  The Russians have refused to bring Kudankulam 3 and 4 under the ambit of the NLA.  The French company Areva has also made it clear that it will not be able to move forward, given the language in the NLA. The Canadians have expressed reservations.  Potential Indian suppliers themselves appear to be uneasy with supplier-side liability with FICCI warning that the NLA “threatens to completely undo the government’s efforts to accelerate nuclear power generation…”

The AG’s interpretation that the operator had the ability to contractually invoke or exclude supplier-side liability actually dates back to October 2012, when his legal opinion was provided during negotiations on Kudamkulam with the Russians.  There was not so much as a whimper in the left-leaning media then, but apparently now this interpretation causes a “dilution” in our liability laws to allow the prime minister to carry as a “gift” to the U.S.

The Cold War ended two decades ago, folks.  There is no benefit in India pretending to be more soviet than the Soviet Union in 2013.

Many in India are yet to appreciate the impact the NLA has had on the general mood towards India in DC.  This was about more than just nuclear commerce.  Presidents of the U.S. do not make phone calls to their Chinese counterparts asking them to drop their opposition to a third country’s bid for an NSG waiver merely at the prospect of being able to sell few nuclear reactors.  India would have most likely remained a nuclear paraih were it not for the efforts of the Bush administration.

Since obtaining an NSG waiver, the UPA has bungled like only it can.  Debates on nuclear liability were emotive rather than pragmatic, drawing wrong lessons from the Bhopal tragedy.  While the NLA automatically precluded the possibility of the participation of U.S. companies in civil nuclear commerce with India, companies in Russia and France, which were initially underwritten by their governments, were able to enter into exploratory discussions with India.  With Russia and France no longer willing to abide by the NLA, the prime minister arrives in the U.S. attempting to salvage a relationship and an economy.

Realistically, neither the U.S. nor India have each other on their list of top priorities at the moment. The Obama administration is faced with a precarious situation in Syria and is battling opposition on healthcare reform and budget disputes.  Meanwhile, with India heading to polls in May 2014, the UPA is effectively in a holding pattern with very little political capital at its disposal for brave new ideas.

Under the circumstances, if a pre-early works agreement can indeed be concluded between NPCIL and Westinghouse, it might help arrest the doom and gloom and allow both sides to reevaluate positions sometime next year.  This is about as much as we can hope for when Dr. Singh and Mr. Obama meet on Friday.

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Syriasly?

Despite the Syrian ambassador’s claims, India does not have a horse in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

The Syrian ambassador to India ruffled a few feathers when he commented during an interview with The Indian Express that Indian jihadis were involved in battling al-Assad’s regime in Syria.  Excerpts from the interview follow:

“Indian fighters are waging Islamic jihad, along with fighters from Chechnya, Afghanistan and other countries,” the ambassador, who was handpicked by Assad for the India job two years ago, said.

Asked who these Indian fighters were, Abbas said, “They are Islamic people, not Hindus, because Hindus don’t wage Islamic jihad… Why are you surprised?

“There are people in India who support Muslim brotherhood’s ideology… They are very dangerous,” Abbas said.

According to Abbas, the fighters traveled to Turkey from India before entering Syria. “Some of them have been killed, some have been caught alive,” he said, adding, “One of them has been shown on Syrian TV, caught with an Indian passport.” [Indian Express]

The ambassador’s claims appear incredulous considering that there has simply been no historical precedent to suggest that Indian citizens sympathize with pan-Islamist causes to the extent that they would move to foreign countries to participate in conflict. The ambassdor’s statements appear even more incredulous considering that the ongoing civil war in Syria has significantly limited his ability to communicate regularly with the embattled al-Assad regime.  Given this, how exactly did the ambassador ascertain that some combatants involved in the conflict held Indian passports?

Dr. Abbas’ comments have surprised Indian officials who have said that Syria has failed to provide details of these Indian “jihadis” battling the regime in that country.  One “senior official” is reported to have told the Hindustan Times:

Abbas’ statement is most irresponsible and mischievous as we have checked our records and found no Indian national involved in jihad in Syria. We are cross-checking facts before we formally take up the matter with Syrian ambassador… [Hindustan Times]

Once the Syrian ambassador’s statements hit mainstream media, he attempted damage control by claiming that he had been approached by families of persons of “Indian origin” in repatriating citizens and that some of these persons held UK passports.  He then very conveniently chose to blame media propaganda for wrongly characterizing his statements.

Based on publicly-available information, we can deduce that two very separate efforts are underway to seek Indian support for either of the two belligerents in the ongoing  civil war (i.e., the Syrian regime or their rebel antagonists).  The British prime minister, David Cameron, in seeking support for military operations in Syria claimed in his address to the parliament that India was among those countries that pointed the “finger of blame” for the situation in Syria to al-Assad’s regime.  India, rightly, pointed out to the UK that it articulated no such position to the prime minister.

The anonymous “senior official” of the government of India made absolute sense in pointing out that India was investigating the Syrian ambassador’s claims and that it would formally take up the issue with him.  If India’s investigation finds that Dr. Abbas’ statements are without merit, it should publicly disavow his claims.

Let’s be clear: India’s interests in Syria are limited.  We have already abandoned the oil fields in that country that we once had a stake in.  Short of seeing an end to the ongoing conflict in Syria purely on humanitarian grounds, we have no horse in this race.  India should be prepared to work with whoever ultimately emerges as being in charge of affairs in Syria.  We will rebuild relationships if necessary, or forge new ones as warranted.  The U.S. appears to be inching towards some sort of military operation while many of its allies (primarily the UK) have voted against it.  It is not India’s place at this point in time to pick a side in the civil war.

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Bloodbath in Egypt

The House of Saud picks a side.

There is chaos in Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood and their leader Mohammed Morsi were ousted from power by the Egyptian military in a soft coup last month.  The Brotherhood hasn’t taken kindly to being deposed from power.  This week has seen violence of an unprecedented scale in recent history in Egypt.  Over 750 civilians have been killed since Wednesday.  Without the active intervention of the U.S. and regional powers, that number will rapidly increase and the possibility that Egypt will descend into a long, protracted civil war isn’t far-fetched.

What we’re seeing is a battle between the Old Guard and resurgent Islamist groups in Egypt.  The military-security apparatus’s decades-long dominance is being challenged and neither the Islamists nor the Old Guard are ready to back down.  The victims of the ensuing confrontation are, unfortunately, the ordinary Egyptians.

In the midst of turmoil, Saudi Arabia appears to have picked a horse:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called on Arabs to stand together against “attempts to destabilise” Egypt.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people and government stood and stands by today with its brothers in Egypt against terrorism,” he said in a statement read on state TV on Friday, backing Egypt’s military leadership.

“I call on the honest men of Egypt and the Arab and Muslim nations … to stand as one man and with one heart in the face of attempts to destabilise a country that is at the forefront of Arab and Muslim history,” he added.

Saudi Arabia “has stood and stands with its Egyptian brothers against terrorism, deviance and sedition, and against those who try to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs… and its legitimate rights in deterring those tampering with and misleading” its people, he said. [al-Jazeera]

The House of Saud’s endorsement of the Egyptian military may appear odd given Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood’s commitment to conservative strains of Islam.  However, it is important to distinguish between Wahhabism as a religious and philosophical movement that the Saudis promote (for example in Afghanistan or Pakistan) and the political movements that draw inspiration from Wahhabism.

The Saudis are happy to promote Wahhabism, but have always been very cautious about political Wahhabism.  It should not surprise us then that they are very uneasy with the Brotherhood because they see the movement as a threat to monarchy in the Gulf.  Other Gulf monarchies also endorse the distinction.  The UAE, for example, arrested 30 Egyptians and Emiratis in June on suspicion of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This also explains why Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t gained the kind of foothold in the Gulf that it has in Egypt and the Islamic maghreb.  The absence of the Brotherhood’s mass participation in the politics of the Gulf is not by accident, it is by design.  None of the Gulf monarchies are eager to see the Brotherhood operate in their neighborhood.

Further, where Egypt is concerned, the Saudis have always been among the military-security establishment’s most important supporters.  Gen. Nasser and Mubarak drew strength from Saudi Arabia’s backing.  In fact, it should be surprising that Saudi Arabia’s endorsement of the military-security establishment wasn’t made apparent sooner.

In India’s neighborhood, similar parallels can be drawn with regard to Pakistan, though for different reasons.  The Saudis are likely to always back the Pakistani army over political parties such as the JUI (that draw inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood).  This is unlikely to change as long as the Saudis see nuclear Pakistan as a bulwark against Iran.  Of course, the Saudis will continue to support the proselytizing of puritanical Wahhabism by religious jamaats in Pakistan, but not to the extent that they begin to pose a challenge to the Pakistani army’s primacy in dictating policy in that country.

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